Friday, October 05, 2007


I have to explain a bit about my family. My father was married four times between WWII and the Johnson Administration, and had three children in both the first and last marriages. (I'm #4 - my mother's oldest). So I have a 60-something sister and a 40-something nephew, and was a great-aunt at 18. A handful of marriages, divorces, and comings-out makes charting family relationships rather complicated. So it's unusual that we all get together.

But on Tuesday, my father will be 80 years old. And a few years ago Dad hit his midlife crisis and became a NASCAR fan. This Depression baby picked up a used RV as an impulse buy, bought a Jeff-Gordon themed sports car, and started hitting the race circuit - usually in the company of my half-sister, Cyndy. (Cyndy, by the way, could provide enough material for a blog all by herself. Even without knitting. I'll try to stick with the highlights.) So Cyndy decided to organize a surprise birthday celebration, and get the whole family together at the NASCAR race at Talladega. She suggested. She cajoled. She cheered. And somehow, she convinced all six kids, my mother, and a handful of more-or-less related people to pack up and spend the weekend camping in an amenity-free field in the middle of Alabama.

My younger sister flew in to Indianapolis from Montana, and I snuck down there on Thursday night - once Mom & Dad had left - to meet up with her and my brother so we could drive down to the racetrack on Friday. I turned out to be the experienced camper in the bunch, so it's good that Aaron, the saint that he is, helped with all the arrangements, even though he stayed home to grade papers and watch VeryBadDogs. His help gave me more time to decide which knitting I should bring.

"A lot" turned out to be the answer, since my brother drove the whole way. I'm always happy to get in more knitting time! Alabama is a very different place, and they want you to know it. This is what you see outside the rest stop. They take their history seriously here.

They're pretty wild about the future, too. This is what you see as you approach the Welcome Center on I-65. For the record, that's a Saturn 1B rocket, and a Monkey sock.

And NASCAR fans are wild about their drivers. We could tell who was 'dega-bound, either by the decorated cars or by the coolers of beer. NASCAR fans are sort of like Deadheads, but with more beer and less grilled cheese. The whole driver thing is something of a problem in our family, since my father is a big Jeff Gordon fan, but Cyndy has what can only be termed a massive crush on Dale Earnhardt, and now roots for Junior. (OK, I can't resist a diversion here. When I say a "massive crush," I mean massive. Cyndy's answering machine says "Earnhardt Residence." She does the number-3 gesture for every picture. She only drives black cars. And I should mention that she's gay. She's clearly blessed with a very understanding partner. When Dale died, I sent Cyndy a sympathy card. She drove out to try to get into the funeral. And almost succeeded.)

Have you ever landed in a foreign country, gone to a grocery store in search of food, and been overwhelmed by a shiver of displacement, seizing on bananas or a loaf of bread for a desperate link to something familiar? That's how I felt at the Pell City Wal-Mart, even though all the products were the same. But the parking lot Christmas-full, and there were racing souvenir or sponsor trailers everywhere. The parking lot was festooned with Budweiser flags.

And there was a race car in the produce department. A car. Bananas... lettuce... stock cars. So much for the familiar. Did I mention that NASCAR fans seem to be pretty serious about this whole thing?

Well, "serious" is a word I'd have to use pretty loosely. Kerry tells me that Talladega is a "Redneck Mardi Gras." So we prepared - loaded up the car with birthday cake and beer, and headed to the campground just as the ARCA race ended and dark set in. And Dad was surprised. He'd already had the shock of "running into" some Canadian friends, Lisa and Marty, at the Nashville Wal-Mart. ("Where are you going?" he asked. "Talladega." "Oh, wow, where are you camping?" "With you. Happy Birthday!") Then my older brother, John, turned up with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law (Greg The Bug Man) around noon, after having spent months deflecting my father's suggestions that he come down to Talladega sometime. So once we turned up, he was pretty overwhelmed. And Cyndy was beside herself with joy.

And Kerry was right - it really is the Redneck Mardi Gras. This is the "Bead Wagon," a Talladega tradition carried out by a family from Louisiana. They're nine brothers, but one of them is a girl, and every year the brothers do a bigger and better float (last year's theme was "FEMA Jailbirds"). This year, my father was the first non-family member ever to ride the Bead Wagon, and he was thrilled. There's nothing like spending your birthday weekend with hundreds of friends, and hundreds of thousands of cans of cheap beer.



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