Mon October 4, 2004
Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer
In Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, it first it looks as if Warren St. John is immersing himself, studying the motor home fans, the enthusiasts who move from Alabama game to Alabama game, Saturday after Saturday.
By Don Noble
In the world of creative nonfiction, ?immersion journalism? refers to a reporter say, hanging out with Mafia gangsters, in the way that Gay Talese did for his research for Honor Thy Father. In ?participatory journalism,? one joins in and actually becomes a part of the scene being described. George Plimpton did this in Paper Lion, when he actually took the field and played a few downs of NFL football.
In Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, it first it looks as if Warren St. John is immersing himself, studying the motor home fans, the enthusiasts who move from Alabama game to Alabama game, Saturday after Saturday, setting up camp here in Tuscaloosa or near the stadiums in Knoxville or Oxford, sometimes as early as Wednesday. (These are not tailgaters; these are squatters. They sleep, eat, and drink?most of them, a lot?at the weekly site.)
St. John was a fan of the Tide from childhood. He grew up in Birmingham and once, as a boy, actually met Coach Paul ?Bear? Bryant. He did not attend the University of Alabama, however. He went to Columbia, in New York City, where he still lives and works as a reporter for the New York Times.
In the fall of ?99, he took a leave of absence and did what many in the past must have thought of doing. He joined the motor home world and traveled from city to city with those mad nomads. He observed them and became, in fact, one of them, mostly. He morphed from immersion to participation. St. John was asked to leave the Alabama press box because he couldn?t remain quiet whenever Alabama scored. He cheered. Other reporters reported.
So, what did he observe over his five-month odyssey? Well, it?s pretty much what you think, only more so. He met the Reeses, who chose to attend an Alabama game rather than their own daughter?s wedding. They did make the reception that night. He learned the story of Tony Brandino, who attended 500 consecutive Alabama football games.
He learned through reading ?research? that 95 percent of the RVers never attended the university at all. But then neither had St. John, and he was in just as deep emotionally as the rest.
He also learned that 26 percent of Alabamians polled attribute to the late Coach Bryant ?godlike qualities.? I merely pass this on. There isn?t much anyone, except maybe Paul Finebaum, would dare say about it. Paul Finebaum has said that he often feels that his physical safety, perhaps even his life, is in some danger. He is probably right.
On the other hand, it is perfectly all right to make negative remarks about Coach Mike Dubose, who, during the year of this book, was struggling with his secretary scandal. Coach Dubose would survive this season, even take the SEC crown, but the handwriting was on the wall. He had had sex in the FOOTBALL offices, the sanctum sanctorum, and lied about it. His days were numbered. Finebaum may have been wrong about the team?s record that season, but he was not wrong about the coach?s ultimate fate.
St. John begins the season as a guest in other people?s motor homes but then buys his own. His, an ancient wreck, costs only $5,500 and gets 4 1/2 miles to the gallon. The king of them all costs one million two hundred thousand and has a sunken marble bathtub.
St. John tells us that student fans? GPA?s are actually higher than nonfans, that fans aren?t more prone to beat their spouses, that fans are not any more depressed and unfulfilled than anybody else, that they actually have higher self-esteem than nonfans (even if they shouldn?t), but it is my own prediction that the readers of this book, now selling briskly all over America, will not leave it with a higher opinion of Alabama?s citizens than they had when they began it.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.