How NOT to Arrive

I've never been to Arkansas. One time I tried but didn't make it. Another time I nearly wound up there by accident. Some day I'm sure I will go there on purpose, but it won't be for Saturday's game between top-ranked Alabama and No. 10 Arkansas. Bad things happened, to me and to the Crimson Tide, last time I tried to go there for a football game.

Two of my close college friends, one a then-new pilot wanting to get more flying hours under his belt, and the other a Tuscaloosa-native Auburn fan who was just along for the fun of the trip, came to me with the idea of flying to Fayetteville in a puddle-jumping, single-engine prop plane to watch the Tide and the Razorbacks in 2004. I agreed without asking too many questions or thinking about it too much. We drove to a tiny air field in my hometown for departure.

I knew I might die that day as soon as we arrived at the "terminal" that was more like a one-room hut. To my memory, the guy manning the shack spoke the phrase "That'll getcha killed right there!" to our fearless pilot no less than three times before takeoff, maybe more. That phrase rings in my head to this day. My friend, the pilot asked me if I "was sure" I'd given him my accurate weight as he calculated whether we'd be too heavy to lift off the ground. Because if not, well, that'll getcha killed right there!

The plane itself resembled something I rode as a kid at the county fair once, or one that my mom stuck a quarter in outside the Kroger grocery store to let me ride. The cab had padded bench seats in the front and back. I nervously piled in the front passenger side while my Auburn friend got in the back with the bags. As we lifted off I was advised to scoot over as close to the middle of the plane as possible because, being the heaviest passenger, the weight imbalance was making the plane rock back and forth like a canoe on the High Seas.

I gripped the underside of the seat like I was hanging on for dear life over the edge of a cliff, but eventually we were airborne and steady and I began to relax a little. That is, until I noticed the pilot flipping switches back and forth like mad with, eventually, a very puzzled look on his face. Then he reached for a group of laminated sheets that were bound together wedged in the plane's sun visor. I glanced closer, noticing the header on the sheets read "In Case of Emergency". I thought, that'll getcha killed right there.

After about 15 minutes of switch-flipping and sheet-reading, my friend the pilot turned to me and said something you never want the pilot of your plane to say: "Dude, wtf?" (abbreviated for decency). Yes, he actually said that.

The complexity of the communications system on the airplane had baffled our pilot. He had radio connection as we took off but somewhere along the way he flipped a switch that lost it and couldn't figure out the right combination to get it turned back on. I was outwardly calm. I listened and tried my best to facilitate good decision-making. There wasn't much more I could do. Eventually, he decided to turn around and go back to get it figured out. Privately, I decided that if I could just get out of that plane in one piece I would never get back in it.

As we turned around to go back, the pilot informed me that he'd be flying a little lower than standard so that we'd be less likely to be met by any oncoming traffic. But just in case, he said, "Hey Dobber, be looking out and let me know if you see anything coming."

As you already know, this story has a happy ending. We landed safely, I got my butt out of there and my two friends proceeded ahead. They made the round trip to Fayetteville and back all in one piece. My friend is flying much bigger jets now and is doing it quite successfully.

And just to show that everyone has their navigational mistakes, I was driving solo with no one else to blame on my inadvertent near-trip to Arkansas. This was in 2007, where I had the bright idea of a side trip to Tunica, Miss. for a little gaming entertainment before covering the Alabama-Ole Miss game.

Mississippi is not the most well-signed state in the Union. I drove, and drove, and drove trying to follow my map as best I could. At one point I saw a sign that made me think I was just minutes away from crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas. I didn't quite go that far, but by the time I arrived at my destination I was hours late, road weary, and low on luck.

My aborted trip to Arkansas in 2004 turned out to be fortuitous. That was the first game after Brodie Croyle's season-ending knee injury; the beginning of the end of the 2004 season. Phenomenal Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones ran 50 yards on a keeper on third-and-four in the fourth quarter to set up the touchdown. And with Marc Guillon at quarterback, that drive practically ended the Tide's hopes of winning. The final was 27-10.

This weekend's game will produce no such drama and disappointment, neither for me nor for Alabama. I'll be home on the couch, and I expect Alabama to win by more than the odds-makers think.

I do believe the next five weeks on the Tide's schedule will be incredibly challenging. The next three: Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina, will provide progressively tougher competition. By the fourth and fifth games of this stretch, the Tide could be the more fatigued team, with both Ole Miss and Tennessee getting a week off before playing Bama. If Alabama goes unbeaten in the next five games it will be an impressive accomplishment for Nick Saban.

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