Tina, Tina, Tina

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.

By the time I was a junior in college, Tina was a fond memory of my childhood–I had found other heroes, but like an old teddy bear, she had this place in my heart even if I didn’t force my friends to play Survivor with me anymore.  Down the road from our college, the local Chili’s would host a special night a couple times a year that part of the proceeds would go toward St. Jude’s Hospital research. We would always try to make it down to grab dinner, and like usual, I had ordered a margarita and some kind of entree.
My friends and I sat around the table trading stories from the day when it happened: out of no where, Tina Wesson walked in the door. I suppose the entire thing should have been simple. It had been ten years since the show premiered, and no one else seemed to make a big deal out of her being there, but I was frozen. Imagine if Superman walked in the door while you’re casually sipping on margaritas… then you spit up that margarita on yourself and then go into a state of catatonic shock.
My friends had heard about my previous love of Tina Wesson at one point or another, most of the time after I had drank a number of margaritas and went back to those tender memories of elementary school. They kept telling me to go over, but I couldn’t get up. It all seemed too crazy to be true. No matter who it ends up being, your childhood hero is kind of invincible. But the idea that mine was sitting about twenty feet away presumably weighing the benefits of fajitas over steak with her husband just seemed unreal to me. Eventually I asked the waitress to do a little investigation for me–she had confirmed it: Tina Wesson was in the restaurant.
I finished my margarita and mustered up as much courage as I could. After getting up from the table, I wasn’t exactly sure how I wanted to approach the situation. It’s not every day that you meet your hero. Somehow, I decided on some kind of walk that resembled a mix between a serious limp and a grapevine dance step. I spent so much time deciding on how I should walk that by the time I actually got to the table, I had nothing to say. Tina and her husband looked up at me and waited for me to say something. I couldn’t look her in the eyes, and then all of that nervousness from that pre-Washington D.C. night/Australia finale came flooding back. All I could think was, “Please don’t cry or throw up on Tina Wesson’s table at Chili’s.” Eventually, words just came flooding out in this weird whisper-grumble, “Hello Tina Wesson. My name is Justin Kirkland. I saw you sitting over here, and I wanted to say thank you because you’re my hero and I watched you when I was younger and I thought you did great.”
She looked nervous, and I probably would have been too, honestly. I don’t like being interrupted when I eat, and though it’s never happened, I’m assuming my unsteady, borderline creepy vibe didn’t really help my case. Of all the responses I thought she was going to say, she said, “How old were you when that came on?!” I told her about fifth grade, strategically leaving out the details about voting out my friends and the haphazard hero reports I did based on less than reliable information from Survivor fansites. I don’t remember much more from the conversation because I think I started to faint or something.
Tina finished fourth last night in her third season of Survivor. I was still an embarrassing fan girl sitting on the couch screaming at the television, unable to eat my pizza because that fifth grade Survivor anxiety was back all over again. Every couple of seasons, I apply to be on Survivor hoping to be the next Knoxville rockstar on the island. People have asked me why Tina–there’s been more impressive winners or sneakier players, or hell… people like presidents and celebrities to write hero reports on. But for me, it wasn’t about Tina changing the world… it was more about Tina changing my world. She wasn’t just a woman on a television show to me, as much as she is proof that you can do whatever you want, even if you’re from down in South Knoxville. As long as you’re not walking over to meet her at Chili’s, that is.

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