Alabama RV convoy stakes claim near MU

Saturday, October 13, 2012 | 5:43 p.m. CDT; updated 10:52 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 15, 2012
Alabama fans traveled in RVs to Columbia for Saturday's game against Missouri.

Editor's note: Alabama's traveling fans are a hallmark of the school's football culture. This story is the second in a weekend series about the legion of Crimson Tide supporters converging in Columbia in RVs for Saturday's game. In the first part of the series, early arriving fans set up camp at Cottonwood RV Park.

COLUMBIA — The drivers are impatient. Parking attendants said 6 p.m. It’s a quarter after.

Fans in crimson jackets congregate between the RVs, yelling over the chugging diesel engines. For the Alabamans, this MU parking lot is Talladega, and a desired parking spot is the victory lane.

“Do you know what the hell’s going on?” someone asks Dale Castleberry outside his 42-footer.

“I didn’t come all this way just to sit here waiting,” Doyle Darby says with no hint of irony.

Finally, there is movement near the front.

“Let’s ride!” Chris Bice says. He takes the wheel of Castleberry’s black 2008 Phaeton. With a precise, wide-right turn that would make a metro bus driver envious, Bice maneuvers the hulking RV around the orange cones and neon-green parking attendants, hits at least 20 mph on a 100-yard straightaway and pulls in behind Darby.

Soon all the RVs stake their claim. The chugging engines ease into humming generators. Awnings extend. Satellite dishes receive. Lawn chairs emerge and beer flows. The restless can finally rest.

The parking lot transforms into a village. Colors designate citizens: black-and-gold and crimson-and-white.

Castleberry hoists a houndstooth-patterned flag atop his RV. The flag pays homage to former Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and his trademark houndstooth checkered hat.

Castleberry's group hails from cities across the south — Olive Branch, Miss., Collierville, Tenn. and Tuscaloosa, Ala. They're among the devoted who suspend their day-to-day lives to join a community linked by a shared allegiance to a college football team.

A handful of weekends every year, car salesmen, insurance agents, air traffic controllers, public school teachers and pool repairmen leave their suburban streets for the rows of RVs nestled in parking lots near college stadiums.

"It's what I do," John DuBose, a Crimson Tide fan from Knightsville, Fla., said. "We (he and his wife Shelby) work like the devil for eight months a year so we only have to work three days a week during football season."

"I don't fish, I don't hunt, I don't golf," Gerald Waldrop, a Tide follower since 1946, said. "This is my social season — it's what I spend my money on."

By 9 p.m., 83 motor homes are hunkered down in Lot R-RV southwest of Memorial Stadium. Parking staff member James Shields said two-thirds of the motor homes belonged to Alabama fans. He expects 50 more RVs by game time Saturday.

"It's the busiest night of the season," Shields said. "There were barely half as many RVs for Georgia."

Shields said the lot, which can hold roughly 125 RVs, normally has 20 to 50 RVs on an average game day weekend. This weekend's spots were sold out by Oct. 1.

Outside Castleberry's RV, Bice and his wife Paula Bice pass out "Bama Bombs," cherries marinated in pure grain alcohol. The Bices maintain a celebrity status among the RV crowd. They were heavily featured in the 2004 book "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania" by Warren St. John, a journalist who writes for the New York Times.

The couple said they've traveled to road games in RVs since the 1980s.

Annell Bentley, 68, can top that. She went to her first Alabama game in 1963 and started tailgating in a 22-foot wooden-frame Winnebago in 1980.

RV technology has matured since Bentley first rambled down the highway. With the push of a button, Castleberry can expand the width of his RV to an open room. Four slide-out walls extend the living room and the dining room, doubling the space.

Modern RVs have the amenities of home — double-wide freezers, double-wide refrigerators, washers and dryers, propane stoves, convection ovens, at least one bathroom and a king- or queen-sized bed in the back bedroom.

Nearly all of the Alabama fans drive RVs made by Tiffin Motorhomes, manufactured in Red Bay, Ala. Tiffin has deep connections to Alabama football. Founder Bob Tiffin's son Van Tiffin was a placekicker for the Tide in the 1980s. He won the 1985 Iron Bowl with a 52-yard field goal that put Alabama on top of Auburn 25-23 as time expired.

Van's son Leigh Tiffin was an All-American placekicker for the Crimson Tide during their 2009 national championship season.

Motor home luxury comes at a hefty price, though. A baseline 2013 40-foot Tiffin Phaeton costs $265,720, according to Tiffin's brochure. A top-of-the-line 2013, 45-foot Tiffin Zephyr retails at $560,539.

This weekend marks John and Shelby DuBose's 177th consecutive game, John DuBose said. By his count, the last Alabama game the couple didn't attend was in October 1998.

Beside DuBose's RV sits a souped-up red 1998 Jeep with Alabama decals. DuBose said he parades the "Ra-Ra" machine around on game day to rev up the tailgate crowd.

Not all of the RV-ers are seasoned veterans. This is Claire and Ed Lessard's first time driving their RV to an away game. Ed Lessard said there are a few special food items he brought on the 15-hour journey from near Mobile, Ala.

"I brought shrimp from Billy's Seafood," Ed Lessard said. "The seafood capital of South Alabama. It's been on ice since Tuesday."

Lessard said there's something special about the shrimp in Bon Secour, Ala., a shoreline town on Mobile Bay. His son Chris Lessard boils potatoes, mushrooms, corn and shrimp seasoned with spicy Zatarain's crab boil outside the RV.

"That's real food, brother," Ed Lessard's friend Andy Wilson said. "It gets hot — nuclear."

Ed Lessard and Wilson were "born and raised" Alabama fans. They bought the RV in June in hopes of visiting Chris Lessard and his wife Allison in Columbia for the Alabama game. Chris Lessard, a graduate of the University of Alabama, is stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base 90 miles west of Columbia.

Chris Lessard, a captain in the Air Force, leaves for Afghanistan on Monday — his third tour overseas.

"We had to come up here this weekend and give him a big send-off," Ed Lessard says. "We surprised him with game tickets earlier today."

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