Why I’m joining the Evil Empire (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 38)

On fandom, futility and hitch-hiking a ride on a bandwagon

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

I uttered my first non-ironic, not-joking, utterly-serious “Roll Tide” a couple weeks back. 

Friends, I am here to tell you: it felt damn good. 

I was standing outside a pizza joint in LaGrange, Georgia — generally Auburn or Georgia territory, but the Tide rolls where the Tide wants — and I saw an older gentleman wearing one of those classic ‘80s half-mesh trucker caps with the Alabama logo on the front. He had the wisdom of years about him, and also the serene confidence that comes from knowing your football team is capable of conquering at least half the countries on earth.

This was it. My opportunity to formally leap onto the Alabama bandwagon. I breathed deep and, casual as I could manage, offered a neighborly “Roll Tide!” 

He looked at me like I’d just told him the sky was blue. “Roll Tide,” he nodded in reply, in a tone of voice that said Of course the Tide rolls, son, the Tide always rolls.

My friends, I am formally announcing my Alabama fandom. I have become a Tide fan for the most purely mercenary of reasons: because I’m now paying tuition money to the University of Alabama, and I would like a victory-laden return on my investment. (...oh, and an education for my kid. Right. That too.) 

I know this is like declaring that I’m now pulling for Darth Vader, or asking you to consider if maybe Thanos had a point. I’m fully aware that I’m jumping on board a bandwagon that’s already rolling at escape-velocity speed. A band-locomotive. Band-rocket. Whatever. I don’t care. I’ve spent decades getting yelled at on the internet; you think @ghostofbear69 or @godisabamafan1831 calling me a fake fan is going to bother me? Hell no. 

[Yes, I realize a public declaration of fandom also puts me at risk of being accused of bias in my official work capacity. First, welcome to 2021; every journalist born after 1980 now wears their fandom proudly on their sleeve (or podcast). Second, the last thing I ever want to do is cover for my teams’ mistakes. I’ve ripped my childhood favorites before, in great detail, over and over and over and over again. Hell, last year I even compiled all the worst losses for your ghoulish rubbernecking. So trust me, bias ain’t going to be an issue here.]

Longstanding sports protocol demands that you pick a team — or, more to the point, get one grafted onto your DNA thanks to wherever you first popped into this world — and stick with it for the rest of your natural life. This is the kind of sports monogamy generally decreed by fans from places like Boston and Pittsburgh and New York, places with a long legacy of titles. As with most decrees by fans of Boston and Pittsburgh and New York teams, you can safely and easily ignore this one completely. Let me show you how. 

Me, I’ve spent most of my life rooting for Atlanta sports teams. As you can imagine, that hasn’t worked out very well. One championship (two if you count the technicality of an Atlanta United title) over the course of hundreds of seasons. One. My brother who lives in Tampa won more than that in the space of four months earlier this year. 

You can sum up the entire futility of Atlanta’s sports history with two numbers: 28 and 3. That’s it right there, the score that the Falcons led the Patriots by in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI before utterly collapsing. The Braves’ run of 15 division titles with one ring, the Hawks’ perpetual this-is-the-year!, the moving trucks of the Flames and Thrashers, even the also-rans of Georgia Bulldogs football and Georgia Tech basketball … it’s all a part of 28-3. Hope is fruitless, because the worst possible outcome isn’t a possibility, it’s a certainty. 

It’s kind of liberating, really. When I was a younger, more invested Atlanta fan, I did all kinds of stupid things — punching the brick wall of a bar in Charlottesville when the Braves lost the 1992 series, shattering a desk when Mark Wohlers gave up a crucial home run to Jim Leyritz in the 1996 World Series. (It was an Ikea desk. I ain’t the Hulk.) 

But as I got older, and as the trend line became clear, I found a more healthy outlet for my rage. After the Braves made the last out of the season — and it was always the Braves making the last out — I would take my dog on a walk for as long as it took to calm down. Back in the ‘90s, those walks would take a couple hours. By the last couple years, I was good with a trip to the mailbox. Perspective. 

[Reader interaction alert! Tell me how you deal with your favorite sports team’s brutal losses. Every answer gets an extra helping of condolences from me.] 

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My college fandom hasn’t produced any greater rewards. William & Mary, my undergraduate institution, has never even been to the NCAA tournament, one of only five schools in the country never to do so. Three times in recent years they’ve faced basically a one-game playoff to get in, and all three times … nope. (Thankfully they didn’t make the field of the NCAA tournament last year, just prior to when the tournament was cancelled, but that would’ve been on brand.) 

My grad school, the University of Memphis, never quite got its act together while I was there despite having three eventual NBA starters on its roster. A few years later, Memphis lost to Kansas in the national championship when the Tigers could not hit even a single free throw that would’ve put the game out of reach in the final seconds. (The fact that then-Tiger Derrick Rose’s cavalier approach to entrance exams would eventually result in the entire season getting invalidated is just the glint on the candle on top of the icing on the cake.) 

So yes, you can see why I might be a little jaded when it comes to the idea of perpetual fandom for a losing cause. You can only hear so much of that “it’s about the journey, not the destination” shit before you start thinking that you’ve been on this damn journey long enough and you’d like to see what the destination is like once in a while. 

Look, I love the heartstring-yanking longform stories of long-suffering Cubs fans finally seeing their team reach the mountaintop as much as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend my life being one of those fans, you know? I admire the fans who devote space in their obituaries to throwing one last middle finger in their team’s direction, but life’s a heavy enough burden to carry without adding the misery of allowing an incompetent/underachieving franchise to lay claim to your soul. 

If you lock yourself into just one hereditary fandom, you limit your options. So I strongly recommend you open your mind and your heart to a wider array of teams. Pick teams in different sports, pick teams in different conferences, I don’t care. The point is, give a bit of yourself to a few more (hopefully) deserving recipients. Your old favorites will always be there, waiting to grind your soul into hamburger that they’ll then burn on a too-hot grill and serve with American cheese. Gross. 

Follow my lead. Thanks to various friends, travels and Netflix binges, I now count myself as a new yet loyal fan of:

  • The Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Paris-St. Germain soccer (football, whatever)

  • Wisconsin Badgers football 

  • AFC Richmond

  • The band Phish 

  • The Seattle Kraken, an undefeated hockey team (yes, they’re expansion and haven’t played a game, shut up)

  • Valtteri Bottas, the DGAF F1 driver

Not all of them will win. Some, in fact, have already suffered humiliating defeats -- PSG, for instance, somehow managed to burp its way out of a highly promising Champions League run in the brief window between me buying a ticket and going to my first match. But all of them at least offer new ways of losing … and, sometimes, even more than that. 

Alabama has won its first two games since I’ve been a fan by a combined score of 92 to 27. You may call that unfair. You may call that ridiculous overkill. Me, I call it a good start. Run up that score, Saban! No mercy! We demand blood, right, fellow Tide fans?

The risk here, really, is not that I’ll be branded a bandwagoner. The risk is that I will act as an anchor on the entire Alabama franchise, bringing the whole Saban locomotive to a sudden, grinding halt. We’re about to test which is stronger: the universe-cracking might of Alabama football, or the gravitational pull of my sports futility. 

Roll Tide. Please. 

—Jay

This has been issue #38 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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Talking books, Athens and Stephen King with Will Leitch, 'How Lucky' author (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 37)

Let's talk some new Southern literature today.

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

Way back in 2006, I was toiling away as an information services provider in the environmental mitigation industry. That’s the LinkedIn version; the truth is, I was writing about landfills for a three-person consulting company. But I was also freelancing sports stories on the side, and one evening, while in the Turner Field press box, I caught sight of an established writer scrolling through a relatively new sports site called “Deadspin.” I hopped over to the site, a melange of indie sportswriting that ran the gamut from provocative to compelling to ridiculous, and, well, I didn’t watch much of the ballgame after that.

The rise and fall of Deadspin is its own Greek tragedy, but the important part of the story for our purposes today is that the site was founded by the wonderfully talented Will Leitch. He left the site not all that long after I first spotted it, but much like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the shambling ghost of Deadspin will follow Will around forever.

Or will it? Will has just published a novel, HOW LUCKY (on sale today at Amazon and indie bookstores everywhere), a worthy pinnacle among his work at outlets such as New York, MLB.com and his own must-read weekly newsletter.

HOW LUCKY is the tale of a wheelchair-bound young man who spots what he thinks is a crime in progress … but did he? It’s set in Athens, Georgia, and it’s such a faithful depiction of the town that if you’ve been in Athens in the last five years, you’re probably a character in this book. It’s tense, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once, and it’s a perfect book to help you find your way through the late stages of the pandemic. Seriously, go get it.

Will was gracious enough to spend some time with me kicking around the book, the South, Stephen King and much more. Please, enjoy what I’ve inventively titled …

FLASHLIGHT & A BISCUIT Q&A: WILL LEITCH 

First off: bless you. The world needs more novels, and especially GOOD novels like this one. But WHY a novel in 2021? You've got a long history with internet journalism, you know that a single viral tweet will get more eyeballs than everyone who's ever willingly read Shakespeare. What inspired you to write in this form? 

The thing about a single viral Tweet is, well, it doesn’t mean anything. I’ll confess to always being baffled by so many people’s thirst—people I respect!—for those likes and retweets. I mean, I get the endorphin rush, I guess, but it doesn’t mean anything when it happens and it means even less in 24 hours when everyone has forgotten about it. I’m not trying to be dismissive of it, and I do think social media has considerable utility in its ability to amplify voices that have long been shut out of the conversation, but I have never understood why anyone would even WANT that. Every time I’ve ever Tweeted something that got around a bunch, it has made me feel antsy, uneasy, and uncomfortable. I mean, it just doesn’t mean anything. Maybe if we got a nickel for every retweet or something? Maybe? But we don’t. I have never understood it, and I suppose I never will. I’m sure it’s my issue rather than the world. 

it has been more than a decade since I wrote a book—children, right?—and I was trying to figure out what I wanted the next one to be. Then, through workshopping and research, I figured out Daniel, the lead character of HOW LUCKY. Once I figured him out, it was just a matter of finding the right place for him. I just wanted to get his story right. I do not know if it was the right career move or not, but I was just happy and fortunate to get to write it. 

What was the moment where this story went from idle speculation to, hey, this could be a novel? Where did it click into place for you? 

All told? It wasn’t until I sold it. I wrote this whole thing with not only any assurance it would be published, but without my agent even knowing I was working on it at all. I met him for dinner one night in NYC and just handed him a printed-out copy of the thing. It was performatively dramatic and totally unnecessary, but I’ll confess liked the theater of it: here is this thing that I made because I felt as if I had to. If you think this is publishable, I’d love to have someone publish it. But I really just needed to write it. I didn’t know if it worked as a novel at all. There was a non-zero possibility that he could have read it and said, “Uh, this is horrible. Perhaps there’s you can maybe ghost-write an Adam Wainwright autobiography someday?” But he was excited about it, and after a lot of tweaking, Noah Eaker, my editor at Harper, bought it. That was the first time it ever felt real.

Stephen King likes your book!

Holy shit! King once told me to eff off from onstage at a rock concert, but this is so much cooler! Tell me about the moment you saw that tweet, what it felt like, what it meant to you. 

The thing about Stephen King is that he’s not just the most famous living author. It’s that to most normal people—and this includes just about all the friends and family I grew up with in Central Illinois—he is in fact the only thing they think of when they think of books at all. He’s the only author they know, or would think to know. So when he is as kind with this book as he has been—and it feels weird to talk about him like that, considering I’ve never met him and don’t actually have any personal connection to him at all—it draws all sorts of new attention. His endorsement is the sort of thing that leads your seventh grade English teacher to send you a message on Facebook saying “this has now vindicated my career.” That sort of thing. It’s incredibly flattering, and even more overwhelming. It also says a ton about him, not that he liked it, but that a guy as busy and legendary as him would even pick up a book by a new author he’d never heard of, let alone feel compelled to Tweet (twice!) about it. That’s the sign of a guy who truly, profoundly loves books.

You live in Athens. The book is set in Athens, right down to the names of football coaches and cross streets. The town is, as a college professor would say, very much a character in HOW LUCKY. What is it about Athens that's so compelling to you, particularly as a guy from the Midwest who lived in New York? 

I love that Athens has a little bit of everything. You’ve got your Normaltown crowd, which is basically what it felt like to live in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. (The good and the bad.) You have your good old boys. You have the college scene. You have the music scene. You have little pockets of different people everywhere, all right next to each other. I could write stories the rest of my career about Athens and not get close to getting to half of them.

How do you reconcile what Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing,” taking pride in the beauty and promise of the region without ignoring the evil that happened—and continues to happen—right here?

When I moved to Athens from New York in 2013, so many of my NYC friends said things like, “wow, I’d have such a hard time with the racism down there.” This from people who went to lily-white private schools in Connecticut and think the world begins and ends in a place that brought us stop-and-frisk, which elected Rudy Giuliani mayor TWICE and didn’t do much internal reckoning after Eric Garner. I love New York, and I love Athens, and there has been evil both places, and continues to be. Everybody, everywhere, has a ton of work to do and a long way to go.

What's the best place to grab a meal in Athens, and what do you order there? 

I am a National guy. And you can’t go wrong with anything.

Finally: I've got a running F&AB playlist of music, new and old, that's hit me in just the right way over the last year. What's a song that just makes you FEEL, every time you hear it?  

We spent forever trying to come up with a title for the book, but when I heard John Prine’s “How Lucky,” I knew that had to be it. Prine is the default background music of my life. 

Added. Check out “How Lucky” and the rest of the F&AB playlist right here:

Make sure to go buy HOW LUCKY (Amazon here, indie booksellers here) this week for a damn fine beach read this summer. Stay safe, my friends, and we’ll catch you right back here next week.

—Jay


This has been issue #37 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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What do you want, a medal? : Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 36

A little something for the effort, you know?

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

So I just got back from a day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and a stop at the Democratic People’s Republic of Buc-ee’s. (Actual motto: “Where the beaver never sleeps.”) That’s as Southern (and Texan) as it gets. When I arrived home, I found in my mailbox a little totem that’ll remind me of this era long after masks become retro chic: another running medal.

This time a year ago, I was getting ready to run in a half-marathon in Nashville. Half-marathons — 13.1 miles — are the perfect distance for aged marathoners like me: short enough that you don’t have to dedicate one entire day a week for four months to distance training, long enough that finishing it feels like an actual achievement.

Well, you know what happened next. That 2020 Nashville Half-Marathon was pushed to November, then to April 2021 (surely we’ll be done with the pandemic by then, we laughed), and now to an undetermined date in fall 2021 dependent on the Tennessee Titans’ schedule. (The race starts and ends at the Titans’ stadium, and we have to run more than 200 yards, unlike Derrick Henry, that slacker.)

Anyway, during the pandemic I’ve gotten more into running (and, on occasion, knee-saving walking) as a way to get rid of, you know, the ol’ covid 19-around-the-waist. But since I am not a military-disciplined fitness-bot, I need something to keep me going besides just “it staves off death.” That something: medals.

Back in the olden days, when we’d have to sidestep dinosaur crap on our long runs, you only got medals if you finished a full 26-mile marathon (I did that a few times) or finished in the top three of most races (I, uh, did not do that).

Somewhere along the line, though, race organizers twigged to the fact that there are a whole lot more people like me than the fitness-is-its-own-reward automatons. So medals started showing up for all distances and all kinds of races. I’ve gathered a nice collection of medals through the years, some of which are large enough to hurt someone, and a couple of which — at races sponsored by beer companies — double as excellent bottle openers.

The quarantine only kicked the medal craze into orbit. Race promoters, unable to hold live events, pivoted to virtual ones, with rewards available for weekly and monthly distances. Disney’s got a bunch, and so does the “Rock N’ Roll” virtual running club, which put on some of the best live races in the country back when that was possible. Right now, I’m working my way through races created by The Conqueror running club, which offers up medals like these:

Damn, son! Look at those creations! That’s a long way from the stamped-tin-and-Christmas-ribbon crap I used to get. Tied to specific geographical routes, they range from the English Channel (21 miles, the one I just completed) all the way up to the Pacific Coast Trail (2,485 miles, or three miles a day for more than two years).

What is it about these little trinkets that gets so many people so hyped? In many cases, you’re not even tracked for your mileage; you’re on your own to do the distance, so you’re basically buying a medal for 30 bucks. (Of course, if you decide to cheat your way through a virtual challenge with literally no stakes and nobody else watching, that’s a conversation you might want to have with your deity of choice.)

The value of the medal isn’t tied to cost, of course, any more than the value of an Olympic medal is the $500 or so worth of gold in an Olympic gold medal (or the $5 worth of slag in a bronze) or the couple hundred bucks’ worth of cloth in a green jacket. It’s representative of an achievement, a tangible item you can hold in your hand and say, I did this. It kicked my ass and I am sore and want to sit on the couch and eat Krispy Kremes for awhile, but I did this.

Yes, they’re basically participation trophies, and I know that’s one of the hot-button fire-up-the-base grenades in the ongoing culture wars. But like most of those grenades, gripes about participation trophies are all pointless, distracting flash. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with participation trophies — “participation” being the key word, it means you got off your ass and at least did something — as long as there are bigger and better trophies for the people who win. Nothing wrong at all with offering up, as the prophet Carl Spackler once put it, a little something for the effort.

“Effort” is the hinge point. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t quite get “King Lear” written during quarantine. I’ve gotten a little better at guitar, I’ve read dozens of good books, I’ve caught up on most of my Netflix queue. But mostly, I’ve rededicated myself to the basic discipline of effort. One foot in front of the other. One day just a wee bit better than the one before. One moment of appreciation after another.

Do I deserve a medal for that? Hell no. But I’ll take one anyway. And you should too.

Be good, stay safe and we’ll catch you back here next week.

—Jay


This has been issue #36 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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The glory of a good sandwich: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 35

The right combo of meat, bread and cheese will take you a long way in this life.

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

I measure out my life in sandwiches

One of my first moves any time I arrive in a new locale — back when, you know, that was a possibility — is to locate the best sandwich joint in town and see if they deliver on their promise. I’ll start with the tourist-level joints — Portillo’s in Chicago*, Primanti’s in Pittsburgh, Biscuit Love in Nashville — and then try to ferret out the local secrets. (See if you can make it through three photos of this list of the 99 best sandwiches in America without drooling all over your phone.) 

*-shoutout to my man Kevin Kaduk of Midway Minute for introducing me to this one.

I could (and probably should) start an entire newsletter just on sandwiches, but to start, here’s a non-exhaustive list of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had:

-The Friday-of-Thanksgiving leftover sandwich: toasted white bread, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and a thin scrim of cranberry sauce. Best sandwich of the year, every year. It’s the perfect kickoff to the holiday season. 

-The first pimento cheese sandwich of the first full week in April at Augusta National Golf Club. Self-explanatory. It’s the perfect kickoff to the spring.

-The first hot dog off the grill on the Fourth of July. Yes, a hot dog is a sandwich. I will fight you on this.

-The Hot Express, No Lettuce — ham, pepperoni, salami, melted provolone and red pepper — that I used to have at a place in Williamsburg, Virginia whose name I can’t even remember. The building has been demolished and remodeled twice now, so the Hot Express exists only in memory. It was a good sandwich. (Lettuce, my mortal enemy, still persists. It’s a war crime to put it on a sandwich and I will also fight you on this.) 

-The roast beef-horseradish-Swiss-and-everything-bagel sandwich I had at some unknown Manhattan bodega after finishing the New York Marathon. I’ve never been more exhausted and drained in my life, and I inhaled this thing in three bites, standing on the sidewalk, still wearing my medal and wrapped in the aluminum foil that they put on your shoulders at the finish line to keep your body temperature from plummeting. Saying I saw God in a sandwich would be understating it. 

(Interlude: Please leave a comment and name your best sandwiches below. Sandwich shop recommendations always welcome.) 

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These days, I get a sandwich a week from the local Publix grocery store. If you don’t know the legacy and reputation of Publix in the South, I get why this would raise an eyebrow, the same way people wonder how it is that some of the best barbecue, donuts and Mexican food in the South are sold out of gas stations. But roll with me on this.

My hometown of Atlanta is the site of a Forever War between Publix and Kroger. In Biblical terms, Publix is the responsible older son, and Kroger is the wayward prodigal one. Publix is bright and pleasant, but man, Kroger’s the one with character

Hell, in Atlanta alone, there are multiple Krogers with their own named personality, including Murder Kroger (site of at least two fatal shootings and one corpse found in a dumpster), Disco Kroger (once the site of the old Limelight nightclub, a story for another time), Soviet Kroger (because the shelves are frequently bare), Cougar Kroger (the hunting grounds of a certain class of upscale Atlanta women), and Stinky Kroger (due to its location near a sewage treatment plant), to start. The groceries you get at Kroger might be expired, but they’ll come with a story. 

Publix, on the other hand, is the dutiful child that makes its bed, the loyal friend that remembers your birthday, the warm and fuzzy blanket that’s always there waiting for you. (Publix has stories of its own, though; for instance, it’s the place where Jameis Winston “obtained” some crab legs back in 2014.) And its made-to-order sandwiches absolutely smoke Kroger’s. This is not an ad for Publix, though if I were a NASCAR driver, I’d happily wear a Publix firesuit.

The reliability of the Publix sandwiches is a damn delight. And every so often, they just get weird, like their annual Atlanta Falcons sub with chicken tenders, bacon, sriracha mayo and peach preserves. (Yes, this sandwich may induce choking. Yes, you get through three quarters of it and collapse. It’s still a solid sandwich.) 

During NFL season, I’ll roll up to Publix about noon (pro tip: ALWAYS order ahead), grab a sandwich and some sides, and be back in time to fire up Red Zone. It’s a ritual as sacred and spiritual as church, and if I’ve learned nothing else in this last year, it’s that rituals are essential for keeping sane in a world that’s increasingly less so. 

Anyway, like a good sandwich, this week’s column is going to end messily and abruptly. Be good, stay safe, and we’ll catch you back here next week. It’s time for a post-sandwich nap. 

-Jay


This has been issue #35 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. (RIP Knucksie.) Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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The legend of Tate's Hell swamp: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 34

If you're going to get something named for you, go big or stay home

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

Many years ago, I decided to take a drive around the entire coastline of Florida with my dog. This is a thing you do when you have one dog, zero kids, very little money and a whole lot of free time. I was living in Memphis, so that meant my route would take me straight down through Mississippi until I hit the Gulf of Mexico and turned left. 

We tented it on the dirty sand of a campground in Biloxi (remember: dog + very little money) and then drove along the Gulf Coast. We stopped at a state park somewhere near Mobile, Alabama and went walking for a stretch. 

This was August, so the heat was like pressing a warm cast-iron skillet to your skin. The humidity felt like you’d rolled in pine straw and then swaddled in a wet blanket. And somehow the wind off the Gulf was even hotter than the standing air. 

We walked through the Alabama pines, along the scrubby sand paths, over creeks and swampy waterways. My dog, a beagle named Jake, had no idea what to make of this new array of sights and scents, and the leash was taut damn near the whole walk. 

After a good 45 sweaty minutes or so, we found our way back to the car, parked on a bed of cracked seashells. A park ranger spotted us, took a good look at Jake, and said, “You took him back there, huh?” 

I nodded. “He enjoyed it. Whole new world.” 

“Lucky dog,” the ranger said, and it took me a moment to realize what he meant.

He nodded at a sign I hadn’t noticed before, warning against bringing small animals on the trail because of the extraordinarily high risk that little Fluffy — or Jake — would become a free-range alligator snack. I gulped, put Jake in the car and double-seat-belted him in, just in case a gator tried to dog-jack me on the way out of the park. 

My clueless wandering in a Gulf Coast wetland came to mind many years — and two kids — later, when I was driving down US 98 a few miles over the Florida state line and spotted a sign for a state forest by the name of TATE’S HELL. Now that’s a name that gets your attention, and you combine it with the whole area’s description — the “Forgotten Coast” — and you’ve got yourself an evocative slice of genuine Floridiana. 

Here’s the story behind it: in the years after the Civil War, a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate (or maybe “Caleb,” accounts vary) lived in the area. The son of a Civil War veteran father and a Cherokee mother, Cebe spent a fair portion of his adulthood getting mighty pissed at a panther that kept killing his livestock. So Cebe did what any self-respecting Florida Man would do: he loaded his shotgun, rounded up his dogs and charged off in search of some retribution. 

As you can guess from the name of the swamp … it didn’t go well. 

Ol’ Cebe was lost for anywhere from four days to a week in the swamp, but let’s be honest: the amount of time you want to spend “lost in a Florida swamp” should be measured in seconds, not days. Somewhere along the way, a snake bit his ass — not literally his ass, though then again there’s no exact record — and Tate decided that drinking swamp water was a good idea. Combined, those brought on a raving case of the screaming crazies.

(Another version of Cebe’s tale holds that he wasn’t in the swamp chasing a panther, but rather hunting for beef to satisfy his angry German Jewish immigrant mail-order bride. There’s a whole lot of problematic implication bound up in that version that’s probably best left alone.) 

At some point, Cebe staggered out into a clearing near the little town of Carabelle — future home of the World’s Smallest Police Station, a story for another day — and our boy Tate looked like Death chewed him up and puked him right back out. 

Now, these were different days in 1875, but even back then you didn’t usually have swamps burping up half-mad poisoned farmers. To the stunned onlookers who gathered around him, Tate croaked, “My name is Cebe Tate and I just came from Hell.” And then he died. As last words go, it’s a pretty strong outro. 

The swamp now named for Tate is bracketed by waterways with magnificently Florida names like the Apalachicola River, Whiskey George Creek, the Ochlockonee River and Cash Creek. Deep within Tate’s Hell is a strange geologic formation called the Dwarf Cypress Dome, where 300-year-old trees only stand six to 15 feet tall because of the clay underneath. Three hundred years! I feel certain that Cebe Tate was not nearly as fascinated by that fact as we are. 

There’s a lot of ways to live on in history, and as memorials go, getting a badass swamp named after you isn’t the worst legacy to leave. (Thomas Crapper, inventor of elements that became the flush toilet, surely would have some thoughts along these lines.) Cebe Tate never lived to see the Tate’s Hell Starbucks built, but chances are we probably will. 

As for my dog Jake? He’s been gone for almost two decades now; the gators never did get him. But I still love visiting the Forgotten Coast — the story of nearby Apalachicola’s oysters is another good one I’ll tell down the line — and I love hiking through the remote swamps and forests down there. 

I’ll be back in that area as soon as I’m able, and should I get lost in the swamp this time, y’all better give it a cool name. “Busbee’s Inferno” or “Perdition, By Jay” or “Jay Busbee Presents: The Swamp Of Eternal Doom,” something like that. Hook me up with some of that Tate’s Hell immortality. 

Be good, stay safe and we’ll see you back here very soon. 

-Jay 


This has been issue #34 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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