In fifth grade, my family moved for the first time. It wasn’t your classic kind of move, mostly because a big truck came along and pulled our first house off the foundation, put it in our back yard, then moved our bigger house back in. Ah yes, the classic trailer switch. For some reason, our family decided to make the switch in the middle of the winter, but because of the complicated nature of assembling the two pieces of a doublewide, we had to live out of the singlewide for a week. Most children would be concerned about not being directly hooked up to water or heat, but for me, the only issue that existed for me was–we were going to miss the premiere of Survivor: Australian Outback.
I was obsessed with Survivor, mostly because I would sit in class and contemplate how I could vote all of my classmates out but somehow manage to make them all still like me afterward. The year before, I watched Kelly Wigglesworth be completely undermined by the nakedness/baldness of Richard Hatch. It was both disgusting and enthralling to watch–but this season was going to be different: I could feel it. I demanded that we were fully moved into the new house before the premiere happened–there’s not a lot of things that I demanded as a 5th grader, other than a full size recreation of Zordon from the Power Rangers and the premiere of Survivor. In reality, only one of those things were possible, and I didn’t know at the time how important it would be for my development as a young man.
Once we got the all clear, we began to move furniture in–logically, I suppose we should have started with the couch or the bed, but we went straight for the television. Just by the skin of our teeth, we made the move just in time for premiere night. At the beginning of every reality show season, my dad and I pick favorites to win. The battle goes back to classic battles such as Clay and Reuben, as well as Carrie Underwood and Anthony Federov (which wasn’t really classic at all, as much as it was just a really terrible decision on my part). But as the didgeridoo sounded from our old television speakers, I immediately knew who my pick would be. As the faces flicked across the screen, I saw her. No, she wasn’t an Alecia, nor was she a Kel (obviously, because she would never be accused of stealing beef jerky. Hello), but I knew in my hear that she would win the game. Her name? Tina Wesson. She was from Knoxville, my hometown, and to me, if she came from Rocky Top, she was surely going to win. My dad told me that I was crazy right after he chose Colby. I wouldn’t be moved though–I didn’t care what happened because I knew that Tina was going to win.
***Looking back, as a fifth grader I was entirely too invested in the lives of people I didn’t know. I would huddle the family around the television every Thursday night, hushing any company that might be over for dinner or to pick up a gun/bow/dead animal from dad. I was amazed by what I saw because as much as I love Tina, she wasn’t that great at winning things. But still, at every tribal council, no one cared. Everyone just kept voting for other people and Tina lived on week to week all the way to the final three. I think maybe that’s why Tina resonated with me so much–I wasn’t good at winning things either, but people liked having me around. I imagined that if 2001 Tina and fifth grade Justin played Survivor together, we would probably make it to the final three as well.
Finale night came–I was a nervous wreck for a number of reasons. I was leaving for my first major trip ever the next day: a four day trip Washington D.C. I had never been away from home that long, and on top of my completely irrational anxiety over Tina’s potential winning moment, I was on 24 hour nervous vomit alert. Colby won the final immunity and my dad immediately when into celebration mode. Colby was surely going to win against Kei… no. He took Tina. At the final tribal, Tina smoothly talked her way into the prize with a million-dollar-brand of Southern charm. I cried that night–still not exactly sure if that was because of Tina’s win or the pending trip, but either way, it was a lot of emotions. I boarded the coach bus the next morning with my special edition Survivor Entertainment Weekly, and I channeled that Tina Wesson power to make it through the trip. Mind you, I didn’t eat and lost seven pounds in four days because of it, but I liked believing that was part of the whole “Survivor” mentality.
Throughout that summer, I begged my friends to play Survivor with me, which probably explains why I had such a tough transition into middle school the next year. You see, when you invite your friends over to play games that you’ve designed and made the rules for, then win every challenge, then vote each of them out of the game, sometimes you end up alone. Didn’t matter to me though–I wanted to keep up that Knoxville Legacy. Eventually, my friend Lindsay told me that Tina was coming to speak at her church and that she would get me an autograph. With very few friends left and fewer and fewer people interested in playing Survivor with me, I decided that I needed to let this “Tina-hero-glory” go. I put the autograph on the back of a blue church flyer in my scrapbook and tried to let Tina go. My love for her was alienating. Everyone else’s hero reports were on their grandpas or presidents or movie stars. Mine were about the 42 year old woman who once played Survivor. It was time to move on.
Skip forward four years: Tina was going to to be on Survivor: All Stars. She was voted out first. I choose to not recognize that it ever happened.