People in Auburn hurled toilet paper over the branches of the majestic live oaks at the corner of College and Magnolia because they don't know how much longer they'll be able to toss TP at the trees. The next time the Tigers notch a major football win, the century-old trees might be dead.
Last week, a lab at Mississippi State confirmed that someone poisoned the soil around the trees months ago using an herbicide called Spike 80DF. There is a suspect, but we'll get to Al from Dadeville later.
First, it needs to be established that this is a serious crime. A lot of people got their kicks Wednesday poking fun at Alabamans and their college football obsession, but the actions of one wackadoo shouldn't taint an entire state. Besides, this isn't a laughing matter. A sick person committed a sick crime.
If the trees die -- and the horticultural experts on Auburn's campus seem to think it will take a miracle to save them -- then the crime was a murder in the sense that living things perished. But only the greenest among us would go that far. In reality, the culprit committed robbery.
By killing the trees, he stole all the memories that would have been made under their branches. Though the exact date isn't known, the tradition of rolling Toomer's Corner after a big Auburn win dates back to either 1962 or 1963. For almost 50 years, Auburn students have run, toilet paper in hand, to commemorate what they probably will later consider some of the greatest times in their lives. A student who rolled Toomer's in the 1960s might have sent a child to Auburn in the 1980s. That child may have sent a child of his own to Auburn a few years ago. For three generations, rolling Toomer's meant something in a state where college football victories mean everything.
The next generation won't have that connection to the past. Even if the school brought in new trees, it wouldn't be the same. A tradition, like an oak, has to grow from the earth. It needs years to take root.
This shameful act should enrage anyone who loves college football. It shouldn't matter what you think of Auburn. This has nothing to do with Cam Newton or any of the suspicion surrounding Auburn's 2010 national title run. This has everything to do with a deranged person stealing joy from people who are guilty of nothing but loving their school.
It's telling that some of the angriest people are Alabama fans. Judging by the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, most of the people who favor Denny Chimes to Toomer's Corner are sick about this. Verbal barbs are expected and cherished in this rivalry. The occasional fistfight? Well, sometimes things happen. But to poison sacred ground? The vast majority of Alabama's fan base considers that beyond disgusting.
Unfortunately, the prime suspect is a man who signed off with "Roll Damn Tide" at the end of a Jan. 27 call to the Birmingham-based Paul Finebaum show. For the uninitiated, Finebaum -- the word can be used to describe the show or the slim former newspaper columnist who hosts it -- is The Howard Stern Show for college football fans. Thanks to the Web and a recent contract with SiriusXM, the show has expanded far outside Alabama's borders, but its most loyal listeners and its signature callers dwell in the Yellowhammer State. Stern has Mary Ann from Brooklyn and her squawk. Finebaum has Tammy, an easily enraged Auburn fan who last year took home Caller of the Year honors. Stern once got a call from a suicidal man threatening to jump. Last week, Finebaum got a call from a man in a Birmingham-area emergency room who thought he was having a heart attack.
Wednesday, Finebaum played a recording of the January call from someone calling himself Al from Dadeville. "The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Ala., because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees," the caller said. "I put Spike 80Df in them."
Later, Finebaum asked the caller if the trees had died. "They're not dead yet," he said, "but they definitely will die."
Thursday morning, WTVM-TV in Columbus, Ga., reported that police had arrested a 62-year-old Dadeville, Ala., man named Harvey Almorn Updyke in connection with the poisoning. Updyke has been charged with criminal mischief, and he is being held on $50,000 bail.
On Wednesday, Finebaum had Auburn agronomy professor Scott McElroy on the line. "It's evil," McElroy said. "It's malicious. I don't know what else to say other than that."
McElroy is correct. Only someone with a dark, dark heart would throw poison on something that has brought so much joy to so many.
You don't have to be an Auburn grad to have a Toomer's story. I have one.
I first learned of the tradition from my mom. She graduated from Alabama, but unlike some of her more fervent classmates, she only disliked Auburn one day a year. Like any good Southern woman, she loved college football. But she loved the traditions even more. She was the one who first explained to me that when Auburn scored an important victory, Tigers fans would run to Toomer's and toss TP while shouting "War Damn Eagle!" Growing up in a house where every fall Saturday was treated like a holy day, I made sure to put "See Toomer's get rolled" on my own personal bucket list.
I got my chance in 2006 when I covered Auburn's win over eventual national champion Florida for The Tampa Tribune. By the time I filed my story and drove past the corner, toiled paper dripped from the trees. I had to look hard to find even a speck of leaf under the tissue.
But that isn't what I remember most about that trip.
That Thursday, my wife and I attended my grandfather's funeral in Abbeville, S.C. Back in Florida, my mom struggled through the final months of her battle with lung cancer. There was no hope of recovery. Pleasant days were few and far between that fall.
That Friday dawned cool, sunny and glorious. My wife and I parked on College Street and walked to Toomer's Drugs, the old soda fountain that gives the corner its name. We bought two fresh-squeezed lemonades. Then we walked around Auburn's campus. For an hour, we smiled and laughed and talked about anything but death. We wound our way back to the campus side of Toomer's Corner, where I explained the tradition to my wife just as my mom had explained it to me. Scraps of TP still clung to the trees from the last celebration. If I'd had a roll of Quilted Northern, I would have tossed it as a thank-you for a moment of sunshine in a year of darkness.
I always think about that day when I think of Toomer's Corner. I thought of that day when I called up the Toomer's Corner Webcam on Wednesday night.
As I watched for longer than I probably should have, I kept telling myself that they're only trees. Still, I found myself trying in vain to swallow a lump in my throat. As I watched the TP wave in the evening breeze, I wondered how many of those magical days the trees have left.