Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category

Sometimes, you just have to relax and enjoy the humor in things.

A couple of months ago, I bought a jet ski trailer. Not the jet ski, just the trailer. I purchased it to haul my kayak.

This is the trailer when I brought it home.


This is the trailer modified to carry the kayak. Piece of cake.


All well and good. But, as you can see, the trailer is a tiny thing. When I was on the road, I couldn’t see it in the rear-view mirror. Nor could I see it while backing up. It was a problem that demanded a solution.

No worries. I bought a fiberglass pole with a safety flag and mounted it on the back corner of the trailer. The pole sticks up about three feet so you can see what’s back there.

But still, there was a problem. The orange flag was dreadfully tacky, and it was noisy in the wind. I simply couldn’t abide it. I decided to ditch the flag and replace it with an antenna topper.

Hmmm, what kind of antenna topper should I get? Smiley face? Grinning skull? Flaming eyeball? Daffy Duck?

In the end, I settled on a Styrofoam eight ball, like this one:

Eight ball

I found it on Amazon.com. The price was about $3.00 plus a couple of bucks for shipping. Fair enough.

A week or so later, an oversized envelope arrived in the mail from the 温 馨 公 司
company (not their real name) in Hong Kong. The packaging didn’t seem appropriate for a Styrofoam eight ball, but I wasn’t expecting anything else at the time. I opened the envelope.

What it contained was a 3’x5′ nylon replica of the Confederate battle flag.

The paperwork in the envelope stated that it was an eight ball antenna topper, but I’m here to tell ya, it wasn’t.

My first inclination was to return it. In truth, the flag is worth a good bit more than a Styrofoam antenna topper, but I have no use for a flag.

(Where I live, flying it would be perfectly acceptable, but it’s too big for the little fiberglass pole on the trailer.)

Anyway, I figured it was silly to return a five-dollar order, and antenna toppers are easy to find. I decided to keep the flag and chalk it up to experience.

A few days later, back on Amazon.com, I ordered another antenna topper — this one:


I bought it from a company in, of all places, Hong Kong. This time, the order was fulfilled satisfactorily.

I find it quite amusing to make eye contact in the rearview mirror with the incomparable Larry Fine.

When I told my kids about the saga of the eight ball and the flag, my son Dustin pointed out the obvious.

Somewhere, there is a dude who ordered a Confederate battle flag and is trying to decide what to do with an eight ball antenna topper.

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A couple of months ago, I contracted a case of new-car fever. The circumstances were classic.

Since 2007, I’ve been driving a Subaru Forester, a solid, reliable vehicle that has served me well. I always liked it, enjoyed driving it, took care of it. The Roo easily has another five years in her, maybe more.

But the body style is dated, and it has none of the bells and whistles found in newer cars — display screens, backup camera, Bluetooth, and whatnot. And honestly, the Forester has reached the age when big-ticket repairs may well be in my future.

So, secure in the knowledge that I was doing the right thing (which is the key to rationalizing a car purchase), I set out to find new wheels.

I began by looking at small SUVs of every stripe — Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevy, Kia, Mazda, Nissan, Hyundai. I hit every dealership in the area. I discovered that all small SUVs these days, regardless of brand, look like a Ford Escape.

But there are differences in quality and features, and in the end, after entirely too much deliberation, I bought a Honda CR-V. I found a low-mileage 2014 model at Carmax that will suit me just fine.

Which brings me to the subject of this missive: the complex, fascinating sales behemoth that is Carmax.

Ah, Carmax. What an enlightening, entertaining experience it was.

Carmax has 140 facilities in 37 states, including six stores in metro Atlanta. Their nearest operation (Norcross) isn’t too far from where I live, so I drove down to look at some CR-Vs.

Frankly, I hadn’t thought much about the place — had no need to think about it — since the late 1990s, when they sold me a Toyota Corolla.

Back then, the Carmax operation consisted of one giant building, aswarm with sales people and customers, surrounded by a mammoth paved lot packed with cars. There were thousands of them, lined up like sardines in a can.

Nothing much has changed in the ensuing the years. The place has more and bigger buildings now, and, of course, the company has gone digital in a major way.

But it’s the same beehive of activity, with sales associates zipping around the property in golf carts, rooms full of underlings grinding out the voluminous paperwork, and legions of mechanics and technicians tending to the vehicles.

Order out of chaos is the phrase that came to mind.

When I walked in the front door, a cadre of sales associates turned their earnest smiles in my direction. One of them approached and asked how he could be of service. Show me some CR-Vs, I said.

He referred to his clipboard, announced the name of a salesperson, and went to fetch her. She would be my official sales contact thereafter.

A word about large organizations: all of them, whether business, government, military, or otherwise, function in essentially the same way. Having evolved to achieve certain ends, they pursue those ends with as much determination and efficiency as they can wring out of their employees.

Carmax is structured to warehouse thousands of vehicles and to make every vehicle available on demand. If you want to see a particular car, the Carmax associate will feed its VIN number into the computer, and the system will identify its location, and you will go there in a golf cart.

Now, my intention isn’t Carmax-bashing. I like Carmax. The people were friendly and pleasant. The process was simple and relatively painless, and I got a nice vehicle.

But Carmax, like all organizations, is operated by people. Which means that perfection simply isn’t in the cards. There will be errors, mistakes, blunders.

To judge the success of an organization — to reveal its true mettle — look at how successfully it accommodates the gaffes and miscalculations of its people.

In that respect, Carmax was tested with the very first vehicle I asked to see.

“Shirley,” I said to my designated Carmax representative (not her real name, but she seemed like a Shirley), “I found several CR-Vs online that are close to what I’m looking for.” I handed her my list.

She turned to her computer, located the first vehicle, and jotted down some numbers. “The Hondas, Kias, and Toyotas are all in the same area of the lot,” she said, gesturing vaguely into the distance. “Let’s get started before it gets any hotter.”

So Shirley and I zipped by golf cart to the southeast corner of the massive Carmax lot. When we arrived at row number something-or-other, she slowed down.

“Okay,” she said, “What we want is a 2014 CR-V LE, twilight blue metallic,” We cruised slowly down the row, passing car after car, brand after brand, model after model.

Although I’m an amateur at such things, Shirley was quite practiced and eagle-eyed. Nevertheless, the quarry eluded us.

We moved to the next row, then the row after that. Finally, she stopped the golf cart.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “Something’s not right. Maybe I wrote down the location wrong. Why don’t you wait here, look at cars, compare features and all. I’ll go back to the office and figure this out.”

I agreed and climbed out of the golf cart. Shirley apologized for the inconvenience and departed.

I used my time kicking the tires of CR-Vs and noting the similarities and differences from one model year to the next. I also observed that after years of banishment, green is again an acceptable exterior color.

About 10 minutes later, the golf cart returned.

“Good news,” said Shirley. “I got a lead on the blue LE. It was set aside to be sold last week, but the buyer backed out. On paper, it was returned to stock, but for some reason, it wasn’t returned physically.”

“So, you found it?” I asked.

“No, not yet. I’ve got people looking.”

She told me to hop in, and we returned to the main building. When we stopped at the back entrance, her phone rang.

“This is Shirley. Yes. Right. Okay. Thanks.” She hung up, looking a bit flustered.

“Well, they found it,” she said. “It’s still in the ‘on hold’ section. But the office can’t find the keys. Very odd.”

The June sun was getting higher. Shirley took out a handkerchief and mopped her brow. “Why don’t you wait here in the shade. I’ll go see what’s going on.”

She smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith. Most of the time, it isn’t this difficult.”

To me, the situation was more amusing than annoying. I told her I would be fine waiting there in the shade. She apologized again and departed.

Five minutes later, she was back. “I found the LE. Hop in,” she said.

The elusive vehicle was, indeed, parked in the “on hold” area behind the main building. As Shirley explained on the way, there was a good reason why it was still there, and why nobody could find the keys.

“It seems that the keys got locked in the car.”

“You don’t have an extra set of keys?” I asked. She shrugged.

We arrived at the vehicle and simultaneously peered inside. There were the keys, dangling from the ignition.

“Well, at least you get to see the vehicle from the outside,” she said brightly.

I stated the obvious. “This can’t be the first time keys got locked in a car,” I said. “Can’t you get a locksmith to open the door?”

“Oh, sure. There’s a Norcross locksmith who’s here every day — hardly ever leaves the premises. He’s around somewhere. They put a call in to him.”

For the next few minutes, I circled the car, peeking through the glass and checking it out the best I could. Not being able to open a door or sit behind the wheel was a bit of a hindrance.

Shirley, meanwhile, was on her phone, trying to reach the locksmith. He didn’t answer, so she called someone else.

“I know he’s backed up. He’s always backed up,” she said to the someone. “But I’ve got a customer waiting to see this car. I need a locksmith over here now.”

Evidently, the someone was unmoved. Shirley hung up with a scowl.

“The locksmith is gonna call me,” she said.

At that point, Shirley and I mutually agreed to quit while we were behind. We returned to her office and looked up the other CR-Vs on my list.

To our great relief, all were located where the computer said they would be.

I assume the locksmith eventually showed up and got the keys out of the blue CR-V. I meant to ask, but it slipped my mind.

Except for the first 40 minutes, my visit to Carmax that day went swell. I got my questions answered, puzzled out the necessary tradeoffs between features and cost, and homed in on what I wanted.

Specifically, I settled on a vehicle we found online at Carmax in Birmingham. Carmax transferred it to Norcross for free, without obligation, so I could see it firsthand before committing. It arrived a week later, and I liked it and signed the deal.

Now that it’s done, I’m happy, Carmax is happy, and my bank is happy.

Anyway, I learned from this experience that somewhere at Carmax headquarters, a team of underlings is dedicated to the task of constantly transferring vehicles around the country.

A system like that must be most impressive — easily as elaborate as any national freight hauler, and certainly more complex than, say, Amtrak.

Order out of chaos.

The Carmax facility in Norcross.

The Carmax facility in Norcross.

My CR-V, a handsome Alabaster Silver Metallic, on the lot in Birmingham.

My CR-V, a handsome Alabaster Silver Metallic, on the lot in Birmingham.

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Happy Independence Day. I have a story suitable for the occasion.

In 2013, I wrote a series of posts about “Local Heroes” in my adopted home, Jefferson and Jackson County, Georgia. Every place has its celebrities, and ours measure up very well.

After I wrote those posts, I learned about another local fellow who deserves mention: Rev. John Harrison, a longtime Presbyterian minister here who was born on the day America declared its independence, July 4, 1776.

Pretty cool, right?

John Harrison (1776-1847) was part of a proud Scottish family where ordination in the Presbyterian Church was a long tradition.

John’s grandfather, Henry Patillo, was a Presbyterian minister who emigrated from Scotland to North Carolina in the early 1770s. Henry’s daughter Ann married a Virginia fellow, and John was born in Virginia at some location lost to history.

Harrison continued the family’s association with the Presbyterian Church. As a young man, he was educated in the classics and trained in the teaching profession by a Presbyterian elder in Laurens, South Carolina.

In 1812, John began the study of theology, and in 1815, he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church. His long career of preaching and teaching began.

Soon after being ordained, Harrison married Margaret Stuart of Spartanburg (whose brother was a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi). In 1818, John and Margaret moved to Jackson County and settled along Curry Creek, just north of the village of Jefferson.

The Harrisons undoubtedly chose that spot for its location: next to Olney Presbyterian Church, where Harrison would serve as pastor for the next 30 years.

Olney Presbyterian had been founded in the 1790s by Scottish and Scotch-Irish veterans of the American Revolution who brought their families to North Georgia for free land.

Olney Church was so named because the members sang “Olney Hymns” that originated in the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. These were simple songs written for the common folk, rather than the more formal music heard in larger churches. “Amazing Grace” is the best known of the Olney Hymns.

From what I’ve read about those times, rural Presbyterian churches in the South carefully avoided any show of opulence or the trappings of prosperity. They chose to remain primitive and simple and were dedicated to the needs of the common folk, especially the poor and disadvantaged.

In 1828, Thyatira Presbyterian, a large church near Salisbury, North Carolina, recognized Olney Church for its years of community service. The recognition included financial assistance, and in 1830, Rev. Harrison and the Olney congregation were able to build a larger church a few miles from the old Curry Creek location.

In honor of its benefactor, Olney Presbyterian changed its name to Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church. In time, the community that grew up around the church became known as Thyatira.

Rev. Harrison served as pastor of the church until his death in 1847.

Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church today -- proudly primitive for two centuries.

Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church today — proudly primitive for two centuries.

Having been educated as a teacher, Harrison worked with a number of Presbyterian churches in the area to help establish schools.

In those days, long before the concept of a public education system, children were educated through the church, if at all. Adults who could afford it attended private schools or paid a tutor.

In that environment, John Harrison was much in demand. The first school he organized, and where he also taught classes, was Hebron Academy at Hebron Presbyterian Church near present-day Commerce. Like Harrison’s own church, Hebron had been established decades earlier by Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants.

Hebron Academy, started in 1819, was among the first church-affiliated schools in North Georgia. And more soon followed. Over the years, Harrison’s building plans, methods, and procedures were widely copied by other churches in the region.

But at Hebron, Harrison faced an obstacle. He wanted the school to be open not only to the children of church members, but also to the children of slaves. (With the slave-owners’ permission, of course.) The congregation said no.

This is where I became a fan of John Harrison. He replied that they didn’t understand the situation; the slave children would be included, or he would walk. You want a school, handle it yourselves.

In the end, they compromised. The slave children were allowed to attend the school, but were taught in separate classes.

A compromise, yes, but a great victory for Harrison. For any man at that time and place to stand as he did on the principle of educating slaves — it was gutsy and admirable.

Harrison’s “sabbath schools” taught the children to read and instructed them in the principles of the Presbyterian Church. He used the Shorter Catechism, a simplified version of church teachings designed for children and less-educated adults.

Harrison’s schools continued in operation long after his death, and they continued to educate the children of slaves. But, as the Civil War approached and outside pressure grew to eliminate slavery, the state legislature finally reacted. A law was passed that made it illegal to teach slaves to read. Harrison’s schools were finally closed to them.

John Harrison is buried near where he and Margaret resided along Curry Creek, on a small hill a few yards from the road. His grave is at the foot of a large tree, about a mile from my house. The grave stands alone. There is no evidence nearby of other burial sites, the Harrison homestead, or Olney Church.

And surprisingly, he is buried in a simple above-ground vault with a cap of stone.



Above-ground burials are seldom seen today. But they were popular in Europe in the 1700s, and many early American colonists maintained the tradition. Most are rectangular enclosures with capstones that may be flat, peaked, or arched. The fancier the treatment, the more important the deceased.

As the decades passed, later generations of Americans lost touch with European traditions, and above-ground vaults went out of style.

Sometimes, graves such as Harrison’s are decorative and not functional; the deceased is buried below ground, and the above-ground vault is added as an embellishment.

Whether John Harrison’s coffin is inside the above-ground vault or buried in the ground below it, I have no idea.

William Harrison, the son of John and Margaret, also became a Presbyterian minister. He served as pastor in the village of Eucheeanna in the Florida Panhandle, which was the first Scottish settlement in the Florida territory.

Margaret Harrison was 13 years younger than her husband, and she outlived him by 35 years. She died in 1883, age 94, and is buried in the church cemetery at Thyatira Presbyterian.

Today, Thyatira Presbyterian is 220 years old. Hebron Presbyterian is 219. The Hebron church, school, and cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Both churches are still active and still conduct services.

Happy birthday, Rev. Harrison. And thank you for your service.

Hebron Presbyterian Church, 2015. The present building, constructed in the 1880s, features separate entrance doors for men and women, a tradition I assume the church no  longer honors.

Hebron Presbyterian Church, 2015. The present building, constructed in the 1880s, features separate entrance doors for men and women, a tradition I assume the church no longer honors.

Classes were held in the main church building until 1909, when this schoolhouse was constructed next door. It was a primary community school until the 1930s.

Classes were held in the main church building until 1909, when this schoolhouse was constructed next door. It was a primary community school until the 1930s.

Hebron Cemetery was established in 1802 and features 15-20 above-ground burial vaults from the early days. 20 veterans of the American Revolution are buried at Hebron.

Hebron Cemetery was established in 1802 and features 15-20 above-ground burial vaults from the early days. 20 veterans of the American Revolution are buried at Hebron.

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One of the advantages of living not far from Athens, Georgia, is being able to pop over to the University of Georgia campus and do stuff.

There’s plenty to do and see. There is the Georgia Museum of Art, the State Botanical Garden, the Horticultural Trial Gardens. There is Founder’s Memorial Garden, the elegantly-manicured home of America’s first garden club.

There are excellent campus walking tours. Hiking and biking trails at UGA’s Oconee Forest Park. A sizable sports museum. And that’s just at the University, not Athens itself.

As of a week ago, I’ve added another excellent destination to my list: the UGA Special Collections Libraries.

That’s libraries, plural, because there are three of them, all housed in the imposing new Richard B. Russell Building.


One is the political library, a massive store of printed and recorded political material from 1900 to the present. Among them are the papers of Georgia Senator Richard B. “Slippery Dick” Russell (from the same era as Richard M. “Tricky Dick” Nixon).

The second is the manuscript library, which contains rare books, documents, maps, photographs, and other printed records, some dating from the 15th century.

The third is the media archive, which preserves audio-visual material — a vast collection of films, videos, audiotapes, raw news footage, and home movies going back to the 1920s.


Much of the material in the libraries is Georgia-related, of course, but the University wisely snatches up anything worth preserving. For example, UGA owns a complete 20-volume set of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis, the landmark work documenting the native American tribes and cultures of the old west.

The three libraries are there for preservation and research. Everything is fully digitized and easily searchable online. Plus, if you can show the need, you can request material from the vaults to examine firsthand.

Ah, yes, the vaults. Beneath the Russell Building is a massive, climate-controlled storage chamber that houses the physical collections. The space is a honeycomb of rows and shelves and is equipped with robotic “order pickers.”


Naturally, casual visitors like Rocky Smith don’t get to see all that. Civilians go there to see the public exhibits — rotating displays that highlight some of the material stored underground.

On display right now:

– A collection of vintage microphones, speakers, and radios, 1913 to 1933.
– Paintings by Winston Churchill, with notes about each from the man himself.
– The story of the long battle to establish the national school lunch program.
– An extensive exhibit of photographs from the Edward Curtis collection.

"Mosa -- Mohave" by Edward Curtis, 1903, one of the most mesmerizing photos in the Curtis collection. This is said to be the image that melted the heart of tycoon J. P. Morgan and persuaded him to fund the project when Curtis was almost broke.

“Mosa — Mohave” by Edward Curtis, 1903, one of the most mesmerizing photos in the Curtis collection. This is said to be the image that melted the heart of tycoon J. P. Morgan and persuaded him to fund the project when Curtis was broke.

Being a journalism major, a writer, and a former political speechwriter, I was enthralled.

A couple of hours later, aglow from the experience, I left the Russell Building and was walking back toward the parking deck. It was mid-week. The campus was aswarm with students.

On the lawn in front of the Russell Building, I paused to admire the beautiful, delicate blossoms on a small tree. I stepped closer to get a better look. I stood there, peering at the blossoms, enjoying the warm sun on my back.

“They’re cherry blossoms,” said a female voice behind me.

I turned around. It was Susie Coed, decked out in obligatory coed attire for a warm spring day: running shorts, running shoes, sunglasses, earbuds.

She had a blonde ponytail and an overstuffed backpack. Her smile was magnificent.

“I know my cherry blossoms,” she said. “I live in Virginia, close to D.C., where all the cherry trees are. They were a gift from Japan, a hundred years ago.”

It seemed surreal that this kid would strike up a conversation about flowers with some old dude on the street, but there it was.

“I lived in Falls Church back in grade school,” I told her. “I remember the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin. They were spectacular.”

She gestured toward the row of young trees along the walkway. “They planted these last year. They’re doing great!”

“They sure are. I was debating whether to take a photo.”

“Absolutely!” she said, hefting her backpack and turning to continue on her way. After a few steps, she looked back over her shoulder.

“Always get the photo!” she said. “Always!”

Sound advice, indeed.


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In Athens recently, I stopped for lunch at Inoko Express, a small Japanese place where your meal is prepared hibachi-style on a grill. (In the kitchen, not at your table like Benihana.)

Inoko Express

The deal is, you place your order at the counter and go find a table. A server delivers your meal when it’s ready. Good place, good food.

So, there I was. I ordered my lunch, took a seat, and got out my phone to catch up on the news while I waited.

At that moment, the peace was interrupted when two grey-haired couples came through the door. They were nicely dressed and looked to be in their 60s.

They walked single file down the aisle leading to the counter. A tall woman in the lead was speaking a little too loudly over her shoulder to her companions in a measured, somber tone.

“… in our struggle against the forces of evil. The apostle Paul knew he had to guard against being unworthy. Paul said we need to help each other fight temptation as we strive toward our eternal home.”

The restaurant, which had been busy with conversation moments before, fell silent. The only sound came from two overhead TV sets tuned to a basketball game. All eyes in the place, I’m sure, were on the foursome.

When they reached the cash register, the young girl on duty braced herself and smiled nervously. “Dine in or take out?”

“Dine in,” replied the tall woman, looming over the counter. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

The cashier looked panicky. “Well, I…”

“The apostle Paul said, ‘Let the word of Christ swell within you.’ We must sing to the Lord Jesus with grace in our hearts.”

“Well, I…”

“Paul told the Corinthians we should admonish one another to be faithful. The world is filled with lusts and temptations. Our duty is to protect the souls of our brothers and sisters.”

“Yes, ma’am. Uhh… can I take y’all’s orders?”

One of the men behind the tall woman spoke up. “Helen, the grilled shrimp is very good. It comes with grilled vegetables and fried rice and your choice of sauces.”

Helen turned her attention to the menu on the wall, studied it for a second, and placed her order. She stepped aside and stood quietly while her companions did the same.

Then they picked out a table and got seated. They were directly behind me, my back toward them.

The room remained silent except for the drone of the basketball game. After a few moments, Helen resumed where she had left off.

“Paul told us to instruct our children in the ways of Jesus. If our children are trained instead in the ways of the world, they will be lost. The forces of Satan are experts at deceit.”

She continued until the cashier apprehensively delivered their meals. Everyone dug in.

At that point, the conversation drifted away from Paul’s admonition that we need to admonish one other. I finished my lunch, dropped off my tray at the designated spot, and turned toward the door.

As I opened it, Helen returned to her topic.

“Paul told us to remember the lessons of the Old Testament,” she intoned. “The mistakes of the children of Israel should be examples to us, or we will fall prey to –”

I missed the rest because the door closed behind me, but I got the picture.

St. Paul the Apostle in prison, writing an epistle to admonish the Ephesians.

St. Paul the Apostle in prison, writing an epistle to admonish the Ephesians.


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Ah, where to begin?

Athens, Georgia, like many cities, has a central business district, which is surrounded by a mixed commercial and residential zone, which is ringed by a perimeter highway, which is encircled by suburbs.

Highways come into Athens from all directions, like spokes on a wheel, leading toward the downtown area. One of those spokes on the north side is Prince Avenue.

Prince Avenue is about two miles long, stretching from the perimeter highway to downtown. It’s very eclectic, lined with everything from restaurants and stores to professional offices and stately old mansions. It is a heavily-traveled thoroughfare with numerous cross streets and a boatload of traffic signals.

You would expect Prince to be painfully slow to navigate, but it isn’t. Backups are not common. Somehow, despite heavy traffic, all those traffic lights, and a speed limit of 35, the traffic flows surprisingly well.

Prince Avenue is, in fact, a bit of a racetrack. Way too many people drive way too fast.

The closer you get to downtown, the worse the problem becomes. In the last few blocks, the lanes narrow. More pedestrians are out and about. Yet, cars are zipping along at 40 mph when the conditions call for 20.

Bear with me on this. I need to set the stage properly.

For years, the city fathers have anguished about the situation and conducted traffic studies. No real solutions have emerged.

A while back, after much lobbying by merchants and residents, the city built two mid-block crosswalks on Prince where pedestrian traffic is especially high.

One crosswalk is in front of Daily Groceries Co-Op, a popular organic grocery store. The other is two blocks away in front of The Grit, a vegetarian restaurant. Both are very busy places.

But the crosswalks were a bust. Most drivers, accustomed to stopping for red lights and nothing else, were oblivious to a few more yellow signs and some white stripes in the road.

Bikers and pedestrians entering the crosswalks had to guess whether or not the approaching drivers would see them and stop, as the law requires.



But Athens was persistent. The city added flashing lights at the two crosswalks. When you push a button, it triggers a frenetic light show, aimed squarely at oncoming traffic. Surely, that would get the attention of even the most oblivious drivers.

The flashing lights helped, but only to a limited degree. The core problem, speeding drivers and close calls, remained.

As 2015 began, the city fathers decided to try again. On January 7, Athens began a six-month pilot program at the crosswalks that they hope will do the trick.

Under the program, the city placed a supply of orange flags at the crosswalks. Pedestrians are supposed to take a flag and wave it vigorously while in the crosswalk.


The instructions from the city:

— Activate the flashing beacons by pushing the crosswalk button.
— Remove one flag from the holder — only one flag per group is necessary.
— Hold the flag to make the flag visible to drivers on your left.
— When traffic on your left has stopped, proceed with caution in the crosswalk.
— As you approach the center of the road, make the flag visible to drivers on your right.
— Make sure all lanes of traffic have stopped before completing the crossing of Prince
— Return the flag to the holder for others to use.

A proper bureaucratic reaction.

The first day of the flag program was both inauspicious and ironic, as reported online by an employee at Daily Groceries:

“We at Daily watched this morning as the County employee, wearing a bright yellow safety vest and holding several flags, walked through the crosswalk to place flags on the other side of the street.

“As he crossed, the traffic (as usual) nearly ran him down — one car drove through the crosswalk directly in front of him while he was in it (which again, is typical). “


To appreciate this tale fully, you need to know that directly across Prince Avenue from The Grit is the office of Flagpole Magazine.

Flagpole is the Village Voice/Rolling Stone/Mother Jones of Athens, providing coverage of the local social/political/college/music scene.

A proudly liberal publication, Flagpole describes itself as for “movers and shakers and the moved and shaken.”

Flagpole is, of course, at the forefront in reporting news about the crosswalks and the ongoing perils of Prince Avenue. And it has gleefully mocked the orange flags.

The editor of Flagpole wrote, “Wave a white flag and surrender to the cars. Wave a checkered flag and let the drivers know to start their engines. Wave a Confederate flag if you want Boulevard to secede from Athens. (Actually, that last one’s not so cool. Don’t do that.)”

(Note: “Boulevard” refers to the Boulevard Historic District, a nearby neighborhood that is fighting to hold back feverish development and maintain its identity. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.)

The editor also wrote, “Athens-Clarke County installed the orange flags at two Prince Avenue crosswalks Wednesday morning, and by Thursday afternoon — I’m surprised it took this long — people were already replacing them with their own, more creative banners.”


What happened next was inevitable. Flagpole announced a “Prince Avenue fly-your-own-flag contest,” inviting readers to submit photos lampooning the use of the orange flags.

The winner could come to the office and pick up a $25 gift certificate to The Grit, although “Flagpole assumes no liability for you being run over getting there.”

When I learned about the contest, it seemed like a no-brainer. The perfect entry would be a photo based on the cover of the 1969 Beatles album “Abbey Road.”


But I have an indolent streak. I was too lazy to stage a shot. Or Photoshop one.

No worries. Someone else was up to the task. Athens photographer Matt Hardy staged the photo with the help of ladies from the Secret City burlesque troupe.


Note that the ladies are wearing orange flags.

But that shot wasn’t the winner of the contest. The winning entry, also from Matt and the ladies, was this one.


As Flagpole reported, the photo shoot that day literally stopped traffic.

Athens, I love ya.


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The Bird Girl statue is, in my humble judgment, an elegant and tasteful work of art.

If you were a knockoff artist looking to cash in on the statue’s popularity by manufacturing and selling cheap replicas and trinkets, surely you would make some effort to retain its better qualities. Surely.

Alas, no. Most of the unauthorized merchandise has been gaudy and cheap. Of the many replica statues that surfaced, you could count those described as elegant and tasteful on a closed fist.

You have to sympathize with the family of Sylvia Shaw Judson, the sculptor who created the Bird Girl back in 1936. Along with the statue’s copyright, Judson’s daughter and granddaughter inherited the task of fending off a steady stream of unauthorized junk.

After the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” became popular, both the internet and the shops of Savannah were flooded with low-quality, hastily marketed Bird Girl stuff. Some examples:






You get the picture.

For years, the family fought back against wholesale copyright infringement, but it was a game of whack-a-mole. Stopping the tide of opportunistic merchandise was nearly impossible.

The family’s only real success came in 1998, when they authorized the manufacture of faithful reproductions of Sylvia Judson’s original sculpture. They contracted with Potina, a North Carolina art company, to produce high quality versions of the Bird Girl in miniature. The result was very handsome.


The Potina statues are made of fiberglass, marble dust, and resin. Versions are available from 15 inches to three feet tall, ranging in price from $100 to $400. Also available is a very nice Bird Girl fountain, if you have major bucks.

To appreciate fully the quality and craftsmanship of the authorized pieces, you have to compare them to some of the unauthorized knockoffs.

Brace yourself.











By the way, the last photo in that cringe-inducing rogue’s gallery was taken two weeks ago in front of a store a few miles from my house.

You may recall that in 1997, Clint Eastwood directed a movie version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Alice Judson Hayes, the sculptor’s daughter, later recalled that Warner Brothers asked for a copy of the statue to use in the film.

Hayes said she sent the production company a fiberglass replica and asked that it be returned after filming.

When the statue came back, Hayes reported, the arms had been broken off at some point and glued back on. Backwards.

She said she could tell because the Bird Girl’s thumbs faced the wrong way.

The production company offered no explanation. You stay classy, Warner Brothers.

A few years ago, I purchased one of the 15-inch versions of the Potina replicas, and she is a beauty. I proudly display her at home, like a fine museum piece, on a handsome walnut corner table.

I checked, and her arms and thumbs are on straight.

An old tourism bureau decal. Maybe authorized, maybe not.

An old tourism bureau decal. Maybe authorized, maybe not.


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Thanks to the success of the 1994 best-seller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the Bird Girl statue at Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery gained national fame. And fame, as you know, can be both a blessing and a curse.


The “Bird Girl” was created in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson, a sculptor in Lake Forest, Illinois. A Massachusetts family had commissioned the piece for use as a garden sculpture.

Judson used an eight-year-old girl as the model. The four-foot bronze statue depicts a demure female figure in a simple dress, head tilted, elbows at her side. She holds two bowls that serve nicely as bird feeders.

Four statues were cast. One went to the Massachusetts family. Two others went to buyers in Washington, D.C. and Lake Forest.

The fourth was purchased by the Trosdal family of Savannah for use at the family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery. They called the statue “Little Wendy.”

In a cemetery filled with ornate Victorian statuary, Little Wendy was simple and modern, and she raised eyebrows among some traditionalists.

But she was undeniably striking, elegant, and appropriate for the serene setting at Bonaventure. She soon took her place as one of the many sculptures at the cemetery that residents admired and proudly showed off to visitors.

For five decades, the statue remained a familiar fixture at the cemetery. When I was growing up, the Bird Girl was a must-see when we went to Bonaventure. To me, she was no less a Savannah landmark than the beach, the downtown squares, and the seafood restaurants.

Then “The Book” was published.

In 1993, Savannah photographer Jack Leigh was hired to create the cover art for Berendt’s novel. Berendt suggested that Leigh look for a suitable subject at Bonaventure.

Late on his second day of searching, near dusk, Leigh came upon the Bird Girl at the Trosdal family plot. He took a photograph in the fading light.

Back at his studio, he set about editing the photo. He manipulated the contrast to suggest a moonlit night and accentuated the halo of light around the statue’s head. This is the result.


The inscription on the footstone, a verse often used at graveside, is from Second Corinthians: We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the lord.

Midnight-mania had an immediate impact on Bonaventure, Tourism surged. Visitors came in great numbers, individually and in tours, to see the Bird Girl.

At first, the Trosdal family was flattered by the attention. But excess soon reared its ugly head. As the crowds grew, heavy foot traffic began to damage the ground and the vegetation.

At the request of a worried Trosdal family, the cemetery management removed the location of the plot from the public registry. Tourists found it anyway.

Finally, after several lowlifes chipped off pieces of the Bird Girl’s base for souvenirs, the Trosdal family removed the statue from Bonaventure.

Today, the Bird Girl resides on the third floor landing at the Telfair Museum of Art in downtown Savannah. She is under the protection of a guard seated nearby whose job is to prevent anyone from touching the statue or taking pictures.

It’s a sad ending to those of us who remember the Bird Girl when she was still at Bonaventure, at home among the oaks and moss and azaleas and gravestones.

The view down Bonaventure Way toward the Wilmington River.

The view down Bonaventure Way toward the Wilmington River.

Bonaventure Cemetery is an enchanting place. It occupies the site of Bonaventure Plantation, a 600-acre estate founded in 1762. During the Revolutionary War, the plantation was confiscated from its owner, a British loyalist, and sold off in pieces.

In 1869, the plantation’s old family burial site was expanded under the name Evergreen Cemetery. The City of Savannah purchased it in 1907, made it public, and restored the name Bonaventure.

In 1867, naturalist John Muir camped at the cemetery for six nights while waiting on money from home. He proclaimed Bonaventure “one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures” he’d ever seen.

“I gazed awe-struck as one new-arrived from another world,” he wrote. “The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, the undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.”

My very thoughts.

The Bird Girl was whisked away from Bonaventure for her own protection, but plenty of exquisite statues are still there. Here are some of them.


The “broken angel” at the Taliaferro family plot.

The pensive angel contemplating a dove.

The pensive angel contemplating a dove.

The weeping angel.

The weeping angel.

The child angel holding a shell. My personal favorite.

The “shell girl,” a beautiful marble angel at the Baldwin family plot. My personal favorite.

Gracie Watson died of pneumonia in 1889 at age six. The statue's nose was chipped in the 1940s when a little boy hit it with a rock.

Gracie Watson died of pneumonia in 1889 at age six. The statue’s nose was chipped in the 1940s when a little boy hit it with a rock.

This is the grave of Corinne Lawton, who died in 1877 at age 31. According to legend, she was forbidden to marry her true love, who was beneath her station; then, on the eve of an arranged marriage, she threw herself into the Wilmington River. Not so. Documents proved that she died in bed at home after a long illness.

This is the grave of Corinne Lawton, who died in 1877 at age 31. According to legend, she was forbidden to marry her true love, who was beneath her station; then, on the eve of an arranged marriage, she threw herself into the Wilmington River. Not so. Documents proved that she died in bed at home after a long illness.

Sylvia Shaw Judson never saw her Bird Girl sculpture achieve fame. She died in 1978, and her daughter inherited the copyright to the statue.

The daughter spent years fighting copyright infringement, notably the marketing of cheap Bird Girl replicas. After the daughter’s death in 2006, the copyright passed to one of the granddaughters.

Some of the knockoffs are truly awful. More about that in my next post.

Springtime at Bonaventure.

Springtime at Bonaventure.

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You may be familiar with this book, published in 1994.


It’s a novel, loosely based on a 1981 incident in Savannah in which a prominent society gentleman shot and killed a male prostitute.

Eight years and four trials later, the society gentleman was acquitted of murder. The court decided it was a lover’s quarrel that, like, you know, ended badly.

“The Book,” as Savannahians called it, was a huge hit, and it captivated the city in a major way.

Berendt emphasized the eccentric, mysterious, Southern Gothic aspects of Savannah. He sprinkled in numerous colorful characters, some of them well-know locals playing themselves. He flavored the story with doses of hoodoo folk magic, spells, and potions.

The title of the novel refers to the hoodoo idea that midnight is the dividing line between the time of good magic and the time of evil magic. The garden in the title is a cemetery in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina.

Berendt’s novel was critically acclaimed, and umpteen million copies have been sold in a couple of dozen languages. Not only were the locals smitten, but Savannah tourism exploded.

Waves of well-heeled visitors came to see where it all happened. A Midnight-related cottage industry quickly sprang up, selling guided tours, t-shirts, mugs, postcards, and more.

In 1993, the year before Midnight was published, 5 million visitors spent an estimated $587 million in Savannah. Ten years later, in 2003, 12.5 million visitors spent $2.2 billion.

Remarkably, the Midnight phenomenon has not yet faded. The tourists still arrive, still take the trolley tours, still buy the merchandise. In a grateful Savannah, April 26 is now John Berendt Day.

Having a personal connection to Savannah, I know the details about all this. But the truth is, I haven’t read the novel. Nor have I seen the 1997 movie version directed by Clint Eastwood.

Frankly, the plot didn’t appeal to me. Savannah is the Smith family home and all that, but I simply wasn’t interested in the details about some rich guy dispatching his boyfriend.

Moreover, I was kind of offended by the infusion of hoodoo and witchery into the story. It seemed gratuitous. I know Savannah pretty well, and to label it a place of conjuring and folk magic is silly.

Hoodoo spirituality and practices surely exist in a city that size, but Savannah isn’t New Orleans. Forcing it to be for the sake of a book seemed… tacky and uncool.

Well, you ask, if I have such disdain for the story, why did I bring it up?

Because of the photograph on the cover of the book.

The photo was taken at a place close to my heart, Bonaventure Cemetery, where several generations of Smiths are spending eternity. The bronze sculpture in the photo is known as the “Bird Girl.”

The novel made her nationally famous, but she was already a Savannah landmark, a favorite of the locals for decades. When I was growing up, I knew her as just one of the many enchanting statues at Bonaventure.

In my next post, the story of the Bird Girl continues.

Tourists pose in front of the Mercer House, the scene of the infamous murder.

Tourists pose in front of the Mercer House, the scene of the infamous murder.

Savannah's annual Midnight Garden Ride is held in October.

Savannah’s annual Midnight Garden Ride is held in October.

To meet the demand, 25-30 companies offer "Midnight" tours in Savannah.

To meet the demand, 25-30 companies offer “Midnight” tours in Savannah.

Savannah Ghost Tour Hearse 1


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Talking Georgian

Last month, I posted a story about some of my favorite Southern expressions, many of which I heard growing up. These were genuine folksy sayings used by my friends and relatives, not the usual clichés aimed at ridiculing Southern accents.

Writing that story brought to mind a related matter: the often unique ways local people pronounce local place names.

Most place names are pronounced the same way everywhere. I live in the city of Jefferson, county of Jackson, state of Georgia. People across the country pronounce those three names pretty much the same.

But every state and region has a short list of towns, counties, streets, rivers, etc. that the natives pronounce in odd, often counter-intuitive ways. You have to wonder if they do it for sport, to trip up outsiders.

Being a Georgia boy, I’m most familiar with how place names are pronounced here at home. Here is a list of some good ones.


Adel — AY-dell
Albany — ALL-benny
Armuchee — Are-MURR-chee
Atlanta — At-LANN-uh
Berlin — BURR-lun
Boliver — BOWL-uh-ver
Bremen — BREE-mun
Buena Vista — Byoo-na VIS-ta
Cairo — KAY-ro


Cement — SEE-mint
Chamblee — SHAM-blee
Chatham — CHAT-um
Choestoe — Choy-stoy
Cordele — Cor-DEEL
Dacula — Da-CUE-luh
DeKalb — Duh-CAB
Demere — DEM-er-ee
Dubois — DEW-boys
Duluth — DEW-looth


Forsyth — FOUR-syth
Gardi — GUARD-eye
Gough — Guff
Hahira — Hey-HI-ruh
Hoschton — HUSH-ton (rhymes with push)
Houston — HOUSE-ton
Inaha — EYE-nuh-hah


LaFayette — La-FAY-it
Lenox — LEAN-ox
Machen — MATCH-en
Manor — MAY-ner or MAY-nuh
Martinez — Martin-EZ
McDonough — Mc-DONE-uh
Milan — MY-lun
Mobley — MOW-blee
Monroe — MUN-row
Monticello — Monta-SELL-uh
Moran — MORE-un
Mussella — Muze-ELL-uh
Ochlockonee — Oak-LOT-‘ny
Ocoee — Oh-COY
Palmetto — Pal-MET-uh


Pembroke — PEM-brook
Philema — F’LIM-me
Poulan — POE-lun
Redan — REE-dan
Schlatterville — SLAUGHTER-vul
Schley — Sly
Senoia — Suh-NO-ee
Seville — SEE-vul


Siloam — SIGH-lome
Soque — SO-kwee
Statham — STATE-um
Suches — SUCH-iss
Suwanee — SWAN-ee
Taliaferro — TAHL-i-ver (rhymes with Oliver)
Tennille — TEN-ul


Tugalo — TWO-ga-low
Tyrone — TIE-rone
Upatoi — EWE-pa-toy
Villa Rica — Villa-RICK-uh
Vienna — Vie-E-nuh
Warthen — WUR-then
Whitemarsh — WHIT-marsh
Winder — WINE-der
Withlacoochee — Willa-COO-chee


You may have noticed that in the majority of the above, the emphasis is on the first syllable. This is a common trait in Southern speech. It has to do with expending the effort up front, so you can relax and coast to the finish of the word. Thus, North Georgia natives say “DEW-looth” and not “Du-LOOTH.”

Undoubtedly, Georgia has plenty of other place names that belong on the list. I’ll keep an ear to the ground for more.


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