“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” can mean “Do what you want, if you have the means.”
In the South, the phrase can have a different meaning, referencing instead the tradition of the winner of what was once the most heated football rivalry game in these parts, The University of Tennessee Volunteers versus the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, smoking a victory cigar on “The Third Saturday of October.”
I say “what was once” because the game had almost lost its relevance, with the Crimson Tide winning 15 straight games under the reign of the one who everyone in the world who is not an Alabama fan considers The Dark Lord Saban.
But last night when the Tennessee kicker sent that football, wobbling and wounded like a duck riddled with buckshot, through the uprights and crash landing into the end zone as time expired, a cloud of cigar smoke rose over a frenzied Neyland Stadium so dense it could be detected by orbiting weather satellites, maybe even from the moon.
The Vols were back, and with their statement win they were the last ones standing in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that will take its rightful place in the pantheon of “Instant Classics.”
Around 2005, I finally gave in after years of ambivalence and pledged my college football allegiance to the Crimson Tide, the gridiron ambassadors of the flagship school of my adopted home state.
In recent years, though, I’ve attempted to distance myself somewhat from the fray and focus on more important affairs, such as tending my own interior garden and planting good seeds in my choked-out soul.
I have grown more uneasy with the gladiatorial violence dished out by young men, egged on by older men and institutions draining them dry, who are willing to risk their bones and brains for a Hail Mary shot at riches and glory.
Last night’s no call on a helmet-to-helmet shot to Bryce Young’s head near the end of the 1st half gave me no cause to believe that serious reform was in the offing.
Still, I confess I have yet to break free from college football’s strong spell. Invariably, I don my crimson most Saturdays and find myself spinning down, down, down, into the vortex of regional tribalism and camp revival fervor.
To get most Southerners to turn away from the pageantry of colors, sounds, and sizzling smells of Game Day would be like trying to retrain them to say, “Youse guys” instead of “Y’all.”
In the days leading up to this year’s game, I faced a tough decision.
I rarely smoke cigars; I’ve had maybe 3 total in my life.
But I had one in my dresser drawer that I had been eyeing for some time which had been given to me by Number 3 son. He had brought enough for his brothers and me to share on a family beach vacation in September. We all had a wonderful time, but we never got around to smoking them.
I considered my dilemma: Should I go ahead and smoke it on Friday night in case we should lose, a reasonable fear given UT’s resurgence, Bryce Young’s injury and uncertainty of playing, and the cadence-killing cacophony of a throbbing, 100,000-strong, orange-infused amoeba.
Or, should I hold on to it and only smoke it on Saturday if Alabama won?
The first option was rooted in fear and didn’t feel right. I try never to give that bastard the upper hand and let it rule my decisions.
The second meant the cigar would stay in the drawer if Alabama lost.
That didn’t feel right either. The truth is I really wanted to turn on the fire pit, mix a little bourbon and water, and light it up on Saturday night because who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Then, like any good Episcopalian, I found a “middle way”: I would smoke it on Saturday, win or lose.
To hell with hidebound tradition. It was time for “fresh wineskins”—or in this case, a new binder and wrapper.
There were good reasons for my departure from established rubric; specifically, the dozens of dear Volunteer friends and family who would rejoice in victory and rub their eyes in disbelief, like prisoners emerging into bright sunlight from a dark, 15-year sentence of solitary isolation.
I would smoke it for my nephew Ethan.
He graduated from the University of Alabama with a double major but was always an undercover Vol, his veins coursing with orange blood even as he stood as a freshman pledge sweating through his blazer and tie under a blazing September sun in the south end of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Ethan was imprisoned in a wheelchair at the age of 22 by complications of von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome. Some call it “VHL” for short—I call it “that goddamned disease.”
He fights and claws against the side of his cell, scratching out every shred of meaning and hope he can. I pictured Ethan wearing his signature sunglasses and lopsided grin, giving two thumbs up as time expired and the goal posts came down–and I smiled.
There is no way I would ever begrudge that young man a single moment of joy.
I would smoke it for Melanie, Ethan’s mother, and my sister.
She also loved the Vols and always donned her orange on Game Day and hoped for a better tomorrow even through thick and thin. She died from the same disease this past summer, only 50 years old.
In her obituary, I wrote of my hope that Melanie “basks in light perpetual, which for her, is probably like resting in swirls of Tennessee Orange, azure blue, and seafoam green.”
Unlike some preachers I’ve heard parse scripture with a fine-tooth comb, I would never profess to know with absolute certainty what happens “the moment someone dies.”
But I will tell you this: when I caught a glimpse of CBS’s cutaway shot over Neyland of the western horizon burning hot orange in the late 4th quarter, I smiled.
Then I laughed. I couldn’t help but picture Melanie somewhere beyond the veil lobbying hard and pulling some strings.
In that moment, I felt in my heart Tennessee was going to find a way to win.
So afterward, I sat around the fire pit, sipped my drink, and smoked that stogie all the way down to its orange band—which, in retrospect, should have been another warning shot of what was to come.
If God grants me the time, next year I will smoke a cigar again—win or lose—and for all the same reasons.
I have the means, and I will do what I want.