I came around the corner into the cat food aisle at Walmart to find The Brunette (just this once, I honor the local newspaper tradition of referring to wives by hair color) staring into space and mumbling something about tigers and elephants.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She nodded toward the young man unloading a pallet of food and said, “He said … he said …”

I looked at him with one eyebrow raised. He said, “I said ‘Roll Tide.’”

I put my arm across The Brunette’s shoulder and said, “Just say it back to him, dear. We can sort it out later.”

This was last year, not too long after we had moved from Atlanta to Anniston. It’s tough when you move into an area with strong college football allegiances. Living in downtown Atlanta, we were flexible. I used to wear UGA gear that had accumulated for no particular reason, but we often walked in or near the Georgia Tech campus, and I noticed that vehicles tended to not yield to pedestrians wearing red and black. I put away that gear and bought some blue and gold, and never felt threatened again. But away from campus, college war cries did not ring out as they tend to do everywhere in Alabama.

Early on, new acquaintances in Anniston would ask us, “Have you picked a team yet?” The implication is clear: You can’t straddle the fence.

It’s not easy to pick a side, even if it is in your blood. I was born in Birmingham, but we moved out of state when I was young. My dad had gone to Auburn but did not graduate; his sister went there, too. But I have strong memories of being in the back of my grandparents’ narrow TV room in Bessemer. We kids would play in the back of the room and only look at the TV if it or Grandpa made a loud noise. My clearest memories of my grandfather are of seeing the back of his head (dark hair slicked down in the 1960s and 1970s) and his cigarette held off to the side, elbow on the arm of the chair. The face I see is not my grandfather’s — it’s Bear Bryant stalking the sidelines, hunting another championship. I enjoy football on a clear screen nowadays, but wouldn’t mind seeing a game from floor level, obscured by the exhaust from a pack of smokes, if I could be back in that room, back in that time.

Growing up out of state dulled my allegiance to either school, but at least I learned automatic recognition of the mascots and the battle cries.

Not so for The Brunette. We used to walk around Atlanta before the Kickoff Classic, which often featured Alabama. If she wore the smallest bit of red or even burgundy, she was assaulted with cries of “Roll Tide!” by the out-of-towners on their way to the Georgia Dome. She would smile back at them but later ask me, “Now which team is the Roll Tides?”

Flash forward to now, a year and a half after moving to Anniston. Eager to fit in, The Brunette has come a long way. She can recite the battle cries and the mascots of the two major schools, though in a slow and halting fashion. “Roll Tide … that’s Alabama … they have the elephant. Auburn is an eagle … I mean a tiger … War Eagle? Yeah, War Eagle!” It’s not her fault none of her family went to either school, and her grandpa didn’t plant himself in a sunroom with glass after glass of sweet tea and packs of smokes and the Saturday newspaper. It’s not automatic for her, but she’s getting better, and I’m proud of her.

We still haven’t picked a team, but it’s no longer a two-school proposition. There’s a Cocky team just a few miles up the road.

Chris Jones