AUBURN, Ala. – The out-of-towner sat relaxed, patiently awaiting a friend’s arrival for dinner on the porch adjacent to a couple of oak trees.
The pair of students, leaving class on a Tuesday afternoon, walked past a couple of iconic symbols of loyalty, history and victory.
All in the eye of the beholder.
The famed corner occupied by Toomer’s Oaks for decades is awash in the sun’s rays on a perfect spring day – a nearby bank clock reads 87 degrees, and it is a comfortable 87 at that.
One jogger zips down Magnolia Avenue, a large “13.1” printed on her lime green shirt. The number represents a half-marathon, and runners everywhere are still numb from yesterday’s shock. It’s Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours after bombs exploded along the finish line at the Boston Marathon killing a few, crippling hundreds and terrifying millions.
The cruel reminder of what we all hold most dear doesn’t ease the local pain of what’s to come.
Another jogger, on the opposite side of the street, ceases her pace for a few split seconds. She pulls out her iPhone, plugged into her headphones as musical accompaniment, and aims it at the Oaks, capturing a cherished image while she can before resuming her journey.
Four days remain before the annual spring scrimmage, and four days before thousands descend upon this spot for “One Last Roll.” The sidewalk banners displayed implore fans, students, alumni and observers to join in the night of April 20 to say goodbye, when streams of toilet paper shall fill the night sky the way they did to celebrate a championship in January 2011 and so much more often.
It’s Tuesday afternoon. This time next week, Auburn will no longer have her Oaks. The heart of campus will be cut down, distributed as artifacts and replaced with a small outdoor gallery telling its tale.
They say tradition never dies. These Oaks tried their hardest not to, appearing to sprout a few desperate leaves a few years after their vitriolic poisoning, like a fourth-quarter touchdown facing a 40-point deficit.
The pair of marble statues flank the Oaks, a pair of eagles situated atop columns watching over the trees. If there’s any ritual that compares to the rolling of Toomer’s Oaks, it’s the majestic bird’s flight that can’t be contaminated. When tragedy strikes a family, they tend to rally around what’s left behind, which means those cries of ‘War Eagle’ might be louder than ever before this fall.
The out-of-town observer can learn, can listen, can respect the meaning of Toomer’s Corner. But he’ll never truly understand it like true Auburn men and women do.
The two girls with backpacks glance at the area. One says to her companion, “yeah, I don’t know what they’ll do with it.”
The other: “I don’t know what they should do.”
It’s Tuesday afternoon. With less than a week left, it still doesn’t seem real.
Aaron Brenner, firstname.lastname@example.org