- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You can transport yourself into a wondrous world of romance and golden age luxury by purchasing a ticket on the Orient Express. For fares ranging from $950 to $10,000, you can sip champagne, dress for formal dinners and pretend you are titled royalty, an A-list movie star or a secret agent while you journey to some of Europe's most famous cities aboard a train whose very name has inspired novels, films and countless fantasies of travel.
Or you can tailgate in Bill and Laura Rentz's Cockaboose.
First off, they decorated the interior of the old train caboose -- at an estimated cost of $75,000 to $100,000 ("And that's 1990 dollars," Laura specified) -- to resemble a dark, wood-paneled and richly upholstered Orient Express railcar. And while you can't travel to Paris, Rome or Vienna, you won't want to. That's because the Cockaboose already is permanently fixed in a location even more exotic, intriguing and enjoyable than Venice or Istanbul: a mere down-and-out pass outside Williams-Brice Stadium, the football home of the South Carolina Gamecocks.
The only murder on this Orient Express is if they accidentally kill you with hospitality.
"We have just had a ball here," Bill Rentz said, showing me a brass-hinged, mahogany pull-down bed. "We could sleep here, but we don't do it much -- only one time for a Florida game. We just love to party here at the University of South Carolina.
"We have had more fun here in the Cockabooses than the law allows."
Just about anything capable of holding an ice chest and a grill is sufficient for great tailgating, but some vehicles are more equal than others. And at the top of the tailgate food chain are South Carolina's 22 original Cockabooses (and neighboring imitators), which are so outrageously over the top you'll need to tighten your chin strap to keep your jaw from dropping to the floor. Compared to these lavish vehicles, tailgating with a mere Cadillac Escalade seems like a pass through an Old Country Buffet line at closing time.
"One time my father was here," Sally Davis recalled with a laugh inside Cockaboose No. 10, "and he said, 'Can you believe it? There are people out in the parking lot eating out of their trunks!'"
Getting to the game in style
Here are five other notable vehicular tailgate traditions:
Washington: Washington is famous for stern-gating, where fans moor outside Husky Stadium in everything from canoes to yachts while dining on such northwest fare as salmon and fine Riesling. But, heck, Tennessee can do the boat thing, too (see No. 2). To really take it to the next level, a few Husky fans fly in on seaplanes, then float up to the dock. The only way to top that is if you landed in the Goodyear blimp, holding a six-pack and a bratwurst.
Tennessee: For much of the 19th century, Britain's Royal Navy ruled the seas, with the island nation assuring its world power through the "two power standard" that preserved a strength of ships greater than the next two most powerful navies combined. The apex of this period was the launching of HMS Dreadnaught, a big-gun battleship that made all others resemble mere tugboats. The greatest armada in history, however, is the 200-vessel-strong Vol Navy on the Tennessee River that shows up outside Neyland Stadium for each home game ... because the Vol Navy comes fully armed with barbecue.
Alabama: Motor homes are a prerequisite for every college tailgate, but 'Bama is famous (notorious?) for its rolling tide of RVs so thick and crimson that challenged SEC highways resemble John Daly's arteries. Bama's army inspired Warren St. John to enlist for a season, which he recounts in "Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer." In the book he visits the couple who are so dedicated to the Tide they drive to each game in their $300,000 Crimson Express, even at the expense of missing their daughter's wedding because it conflicted with the Tennessee-Alabama game. "You know we made the reception," the owner pointed out. "Drove to it straight from the ballgame."
Louisville: The Cardinals followed the success of the Cockabooses with their own line of 15 cabooses outside Cardinal Stadium. Sigh. If only Amtrak would be so inspired.
Nebraska: OK, what a fan really needs after a successful tailgate of cholesterol-loaded meat and cheese and booze is an ambulance. And that's what the fans who own the Big Red Meat Wagon tailgate in at Nebraska (defibrillator not included).
The Cockabooses started in 1990 when Ed Robison and Carl Howard moved 22 gutted train cabooses to just outside the east end of the stadium and put them on sale for $45,000 apiece. They sold out quickly and now sell for much more; I heard estimates from $175,000 to $350,000. Though like most every piece of real estate, the prices aren't what they were a couple of years ago.
The opening of plush condominiums directly behind the Cockabooses dampened demand, and I'm told at least one caboose has been on the market for two years. Kevin Warren said he paid about $300,000 for his Cockaboose but the cost of one now "would be less than I paid, I guarantee you."
The owners also must pay $2,500 in annual association fees, plus a similar amount for taxes. But the big costs can be remodeling the interiors. While the exteriors of the 45-by-10-foot cabooses are identical -- they're all painted South Carolina garnet -- the owners elaborately remodel the interior to reflect their taste and personality.
Those tastes lean heavily on rich, wood paneling (cherry and mahogany are popular) and wet bars, while themes range from old-world elegance to art deco to an architectural design that can be best described as neoclassical Gamecock. The remodels are not cheap -- $100,000 is not unheard of -- and several of the owners have remodeled multiple times. If your spouse busted the budget on your home's kitchen remodel, just be thankful you don't own a Cockaboose.
Davis and her husband, Bob, own Cockaboose No. 10 with Hank and Michelle Jolly. When Bob bought the No. 10 caboose in 1991, Sally approved of the purchase but told him to never, ever, under any circumstances consider it an investment.
"As a business venture, I can never explain this," Bob said. "But as someone who used to sell hot dogs in this stadium, it makes perfect sense to me."
Bob said he sold hot dogs as a kid in the early 1960s, hawking wieners in the first half, then watching the game in the second half.
"There is a hierarchy to stadium vendors that makes India's caste system seem insignificant," said Bob, who is president of the Cockaboose association. "The people selling programs are at the top of the hierarchy. Then come the soft drink and Coke vendors. Then the peanut vendors. And then way down at the bottom are the hot dog vendors."
"But I learned a lot about life selling hot dogs," he said. "I saw kindness. I saw politeness. I saw rudeness. I saw vulgarness. And I learned how to earn a dollar and how to appreciate it."
Now, if you consider spending several hundred thousand dollars in this day and age on an old caboose so you can party inside a half-dozen times a year a decadent, ostentatious way to appreciate a dollar earned, well, then you must not be an SEC football fan.
You're not allowed to use the Cockabooses as a residence (technically, you're not even supposed to spend a night there), which is a shame because each 450-square-foot caboose would be perfect for about 20 or 30 college students. ("Which one of you 25 @#$% drank my milk!?!?") The cabooses all have kitchens, bathrooms, closed-circuit TV screens and all-important air-conditioning, while several also include showers and fold-out beds. "I've brought dates here, I'm not going to lie," Nat Hardwick said.
"Would you like to see my Cockaboose?"
"No! And you can just take me home if you insist on being so vulgar!"
The Cockabooses are so popular they have inspired imitators. Just across the road are two renovated Pullman cars. Car No. 1 is owned by six South Carolina fans, one of whom estimates the group has sunk $300,000 into turning it into a replica of a 1920s era Pullman bar car.
The original Cockaboose owners look down on the upstarts. "Those are the fake ones," Hardwick said. "Plus, they're not here." But the Pullmans have the benefit of being twice the size, allowing for much larger parties. The one I visited had barbecued an entire hog before a game, and there were so many people going in and out there was an armed guard to maintain security, though that didn't seem to be a problem (read: no Clemson fans).
Among the people who have dropped by the Pullman car at past games, the owners said, are 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and some of the Blowfish (but no Hootie). Phelps, they assured me, was NOT caught here with a bong in the infamous 2009 photo, but somewhere else in town when he visited Columbia that weekend. (I believe because there is enough alcohol available before a football game that marijuana not only is unnecessary, it would be piling on.)
"We go through 600 pounds of ice for a game," Frank Mims told me inside Cockaboose No. 19. He opened a cupboard and pointed to nine half-gallon bottles of vodka. "We'll go through that at the Georgia game. Bloody Mary's in the morning."
Charles Henri Petiet, a 17-year-old French exchange student who arrived in Columbia in late August, stood happily on the rooftop patio of Cockaboose No. 21, gazing out at a scene that would be as difficult to adequately translate to his family back home as the very term Cockaboose. While aromatic smoke from barbecue grills swirled around him, the South Carolina marching band played below him, fans hollered, the football team walked proudly into the stadium and blonde cheerleaders jumped up and down, enthusiastically waving pompoms and shaking their own cabooses.
Welcome to America, Charlie. How 'bout some barbecue?
"It's a great atmosphere," Petiet said. "We have rugby and soccer in France, but we don't have people showing up a couple hours early to have a party like this."
Well, who does? These are the Cockabooses, where gold medalist swimmers and platinum-record musicians toast the garnet and black, where a kid selling hot dogs inside the stadium can grow up to own a piece of heaven across from it and where the only foreign phrase you must master during a visit is, "Go 'Cocks."
By the way, the Rentz's Cockaboose is for sale. I'm not sure how much they want, but you might want to start selling hot dogs now.
Jim Caple, aka The Road Warrior, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jimcaple.