By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
An early Christmas celebration planned for a Baldwin County car enthusiast with terminal cancer turned into a memorial celebration on Saturday, July 21, when the scheduled guest of honor — Ewing Darrell “Bubba” Ardis of Lottie — died peacefully in his sleep just hours before the event was scheduled to start.
Ardis didn’t get to see the rat-rod infused car show that was held, in his honor, just outside the home in which he breathed his last. Friends and family members shared some quiet time together, and a few tears were shed, but the group was of one mind in its feeling that the show must go on.
“He’d want us to carry on, I know he would,” said Jerrimie R. Bryars of Little River, a close friend of Bubba Ardis and his family. “He’d like us to hop in these hot rods and make them drive like they’re supposed to.”
Jerrimie Bryars was one of the first among dozens who donned red t-shirts bearing the slogan, “Have a Bubba Merry Christmas” as the morning progressed. Santa Claus wears an eyepatch on the shirt, just as Bubba Ardis had for the last several months, due to the effects of chemotherapy.
Buddy Strehl said the continuation of the planned event was “just what he’d want,” and called Bubba a “good friend and a great guy.” Jason Bryars — one of many who mentioned Bubba’s love of cars, especially rebuilding, repairing and driving them — agreed.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” the family friend said. “Even when he was sick (with MEN1, a cancer that primarily attacks the lymph nodes), when he could hardly even get out of his stroller, he was always smiling, whether he was working or playing. Whether it was one car or 100, he enjoyed it just the same. He used to laugh and say that cars were ‘cooler than the flip side of a pillow.’ He will definitely be missed.”
The homebuilt or home-modified vehicles that were pushed, pulled, hauled or driven into a field adjacent to the Ardis home were the stars of the show, even though the chassis and paint job of a shiny classic stood out here and there.
The mechanized mourners at Bubba Ardis’s “wake” signed the guest book with loud roars from their tail and manifold pipes. Bearing names like “Lugnut,” “Dirty Money” and “White Trash Millionaire,” most of them carried a healthy helping of rust.
But each was crafted by its owner from parts found on numerous and varied vehicles and made to fit together in a unique way. That’s what Bubba Ardis and the majority of those in attendance liked.
“He had a lot of friends from the rat-rod shows and just people he met,” said Thomas Ardis, who owns several tricked-out trucks and cars. Ardis pointed out that friends and fellow rat-rodders from Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and throughout Lower Alabama came on Saturday to pay their last respects.
One vehicle, a slightly rusted 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, sat alone in the home’s driveway, several yards away from the other car show participants. It was not tricked-out like most of the others, and there was a reason for that.
“He’d had that car for over 20 years,” Thomas Ardis said of his brother and friend. “He was always saying that he was going to fix it up and drive it, but he just never got around to it. So me and some of the guys around here went and got it about three weeks ago when he was in the hospital, and worked until we got it running. We were going to take him in it for probably what would have been his last ride, but he didn’t get the chance to go.”
A silent auction was also conducted to help offset medical expenses, with prizes donated by several local and area businesses and individuals. The auction items and the lure of the unusual or rare vehicles diverted the attention of most attendees, and few even noticed when an ambulance crew arrived and quietly transferred Bubba’s body into the waiting transport.
The event’s original plan called for a parade — led by Thomas and Bubba Ardis in the revamped Chevy — that would take them through Perdido and down Interstate 65 to Creek Travel Plaza, then down Jack Springs Road and into Atmore.
By the time the caravan arrived at the travel plaza, it had more than doubled in size. About 100 vehicles, including more than three dozen rat-rods as well as dozens of classic cars, family sedans, SUVs, new and old pickups, motorcycles, ATVs and other conveyances — had joined the procession as news of Bubba’s death spread throughout the morning.
With Thomas Ardis driving his brother’s car, the procession proceeded southward off Church Street and onto Main Street. It traveled to the highway’s intersection with U.S. 31, at which point the drivers made a right and quietly headed back to Lottie.
Thomas Ardis had said prior to their leaving that parade participants would return to the Ardis home for a meal, then those who wanted to enjoy the event’s anticipated climax would get their chance.
“We’ll come back here to eat, then if anybody wants to play …,” he said, looking to a vacant field across the road, where the group had received permission to turn their respective cars loose.
“We don’t have a burnout pit, so I guess you’d call it freestyle burnout, what they’re going to do today,” smiled Joanie Ardis, Bubba’s sister-in-law.
Barbara Cumbie agreed that probably all who attended the car show and parade found fun in the day’s activities. But, she added, each probably felt tinges of sadness as he or she remembered that the guest of honor was at the event only in spirit.
“Bubba was looking forward to this so much,” Cumbie said. “I think everybody is having some good moments and some bad moments, remembering. The main thing is, most of the people out here are doing just what they would have been doing if he had been here, having fun and enjoying themselves.”