When the Ravens start their season at home against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10, John Aldave will be sitting in handicapped seating in the visitors end zone.
But long before game time, the 51-year-old Catonsville resident and season ticket holder will be hobbling around in Parking Lot H outside the stadium, tailgating with dozens of friends and strangers near a purple ambulance and a purple bus.
"We try to have at least a good three hours of tailgating," Aldave said.
Aldave, his brother, Roberto, and eight friends paid $1,200 in 2001 to buy a 1985 former school bus on eBay with more than 100,000 miles on it.
"It was green when we got it, and pretty much gutted," Aldave said.
They spent another $1,500 to paint the bus, repair it, and installed cushioned seats that they tore out of an old bus in a junkyard. They also put in several box seats from the old Memorial Stadium.
And, they added a makeshift bathroom with a 5-gallon bucket underneath.
The 1989 ambulance, once Medic 11 out of Baltimore City, was purchased in 2007, also on eBay.
Aldave, who has trouble walking and other medical problems after a 2009 spinal cord surgery, said he and his wife, Jody, bought the ambulance for $3,000 because they needed it as a support vehicle for games, but they didn't want to saddle the rest of the group with the cost.
The tailgaters store equipment in the "ambo," including a grill that sits on the old gurney, which pulls out from the back. They cook everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to shrimp and venison —courtesy of hunters in the group. The ambulance also has a sound system that pumps out rock, rap, pop and country music.
The tailgate parties in recent years have numbered 60-70 people, including lot attendants, security officers and curious passersby, who are asked to throw $10 donations in a plastic bucket to pay for vehicle maintenance, food and a keg of beer per game. It used to be two kegs, but that drew too much of a crowd, Aldave said.
Even fans of Ravens opponents stop by — and get a good-natured ribbing, he said.
So many strangers wander in that the tailgating group calls them T-gulls.
But the core group is largely intact. People come whenever they can, even original member Bill Crochunis, 63, a former longtime Violetville resident who lives in Middle River and spends much of his time in the Orlando, Fla., area. He only makes it to about four games now, and admits he's getting a little old to party as hard as he used to.
"I can't keep up with those young bucks," he said. "But believe me, my four games a year, I'm right there with them."
Aldave, clinical services manager for Mid-Atlantic Imaging Services in Columbia, has been a season ticket holder since 1996. He has seats 13-16 in Section 508, Row 1. Sometimes, Jody sits with him, or one of their five children, ranging in age from 8 to 27. Sometimes, he gives a ticket to a tailgating friend — "anyone who can push me" into the stadium, he said.
Once a loyal Baltimore Colts fan, he still holds a grudge against owner Robert Irsay for moving the team to Indianapolis. Irsay's face now graces the front door of the bathroom and the backrest of the toilet seat.
When he was healthier, his game day duties ranged from driving the bus to emptying the bathroom bucket. But his life changed on Nov. 13, 2009, when surgery to correct the compression of several vertebrae left him virtually paralyzed.
"I was pretty much a quadriplegic at that point," he said.
In the hospital, he had to watch the Ravens on TV. His friends brought him tailgate food.
Now classified as an incomplete tetraplegic, with deformities in all four limbs, he still goes through physical therapy, including aqua therapy, and walks with the help of wireless electronic stimulation devices attached to his right leg and heel. A blinking remote control around his neck allows him to adjust the intensity of the signal.
Friends wheel him into the stadium in a wheelchair that sits by the front door of his house on Rolling Road.
The ambulance, when not in use, is parked in his back yard, next to the bus, with his wife's blessing.
"How many wives allow two tailgate vehicles to become a permanent feature of a backyard landscape?" he asked.
His friends are supportive, too.
"I think it's incredible the way he's come back from this," said Cochunis, whose sons, Nate and Mike, still tailgate with Aldave.
Aldave can still drive the bus and ambulance with a portable left-handed pedal assembly, and his own car is specially equipped so he can drive it, too. But he can't do the heavy lifting he used to do.
One upside, he said grinning, is that he no longer is responsible for emptying the bathroom bucket.
But he's frustrated.
"I have to say, it's getting harder to gear up," he said, showing a walking cane with a Ravens head handle that a friend carved for him. "I like going to the games. I don't like how I have to get there. I always need someone's assistance. I don't like my diminished role."
But he gets excited when he looks at the bus, painted purple, black and gold, with the Ravens logo on the front, his friends' signatures on the ceiling and bobbleheads of Joe Flacco, Homer Simpson and a hula dancer in the windshield.
And he proudly shows off the ambulance, now called "a Tailgate Response Vehicle," dedicated to those who served on Medic 11 and those who died in 9/11.
Most of all, he's excited about the Ravens.
"I thought they were Super Bowl-worthy last year," he said. "Barring any injuries, we'll be right there."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun