Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category


I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.


The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.



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Maybe a math major could help me understand this transaction.

Back in January, because my RV had been sitting idle for too long, I decided to take a road trip. Nothing elaborate, just a loop into the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains for a few days. It turned out to be a leisurely, interesting, and pleasant trip.

Usually, I stay at state park campgrounds, which are reliably clean, quiet, and inexpensive. But sometimes you have no choice. The first night, due to the timing, I was obliged to stay at a private RV park in North Carolina. A place called Whispering Pines or something like that.

Whispering Pines was a bad decision. After checking in, I discovered that the bathhouse had been “winterized” and closed for the season. In other words, the pipes had been drained to prevent freezing, and the place was padlocked. It would reopen in the spring.

Sorry, Mr. Camper. Use the shower in your RV.

Which would be fine, except that my RV, like virtually every other RV this side of Tampa, also has been winterized for the season. My shower is closed until spring, too.

I was not a happy camper.

Fortunately, by the second night, I was back in Northeast Georgia, and with great relief, I checked into the campground at Tallulah Gorge State Park. The facilities there, thank you very much, remain operational all year long.

At this point, the aforementioned transaction comes in.

The campground host was a patient, almost serene woman trying to deal with an infant, a toddler, and me at the same time. She said campsites with full hookups were $32 per night, with discounts to senior citizens and veterans.

“Are you a senior or a veteran?”


“Okay, that will be $24 for the night. Also, we’re having a special right now: you can stay a second night for half price. That’s $24 for tonight and $12 for tomorrow night.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“That’s basically a free night,” I said. “How can I turn that down?”

The only problem was minor. The office was closed, and the nice lady had no cash with her.

I gave her $25, and we agreed I could settle up when the office opened the next morning.

Later that evening, when I retired to the RV and watched the news, I learned that heavy rain was moving toward us from the north. It would arrive by mid-morning and hang around for the next 48 hours.

Bummer. Up to that point, the weather had been sunny and mild. In an instant, the idea of being on the road lost its appeal. It was time to head home. After a luxurious morning shower in the bathhouse, of course.

The next day, up early and ready to depart, I saw no reason to wait for the park office to open. I owed $24 for one night and had paid $25. Close enough.

A few hours later, just as the storm caught up with me, I was home.

Three weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived from Tallulah Gorge State Park. Inside was this:


In case you can’t tell, enclosed was $7.10.

First and foremost, refunding the money — taking the trouble to refund it — was a generous, high-minded thing to do. It speaks well of the person responsible and of the park itself.

But, as I understood the situation, I overpaid THEM. Where the idea of $7.10 in my favor came from, I haven’t a clue.

I even sat down with pencil and paper, trying to use dead reckoning to figure it out. This is as far as I got:

– $32
– $24
– $12

– $25

– $7.10


Math was never my thing.


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One of my favorite hiking spots these days is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. The SBG, a 300-acre preserve, is pleasant, clean, safe, and close to home. About five miles of well-maintained hiking trails wind through it. It’s a terrific place.

The SBG was created in 1986 by the University of Georgia as a “living laboratory for the study and enjoyment of  plants and nature.” It includes a large tropical conservatory and a variety of formal gardens.


The gardens — native flora, annuals and perennials, azaleas, rhododendrons, groundcover, shade plants, etc. — change with the seasons. They and the conservatory are well worth a visit.



As for the trails, they’re especially notable because a few years ago, a geology professor and her students uploaded the complete trail system to Google Maps. Thus, the trails appear on your phone as if they were streets, and your location is shown as you progress. Very neat, very handy.

The trails are remote and quiet, but the central part of SBG is plenty active. The formal gardens require constant attention and maintenance. At the same time, various departments of UGA are conducting research and teaching field classes.

Between the maintenance, teaching, research, classes for the public, events for kids, etc., it’s a busy place. People are everywhere, focused on some task or other.

One morning not long ago, I drove over to SBG, parked at a convenient spot, grabbed my water bottle, and set out to walk the outer loop of trails. The day was sunny, the temp mid-70s. Perfect.

Not far from the conservatory, I arrived at the edge of a large field. According to a sign, the field is being restored to open prairie for the benefit of certain plants and wildlife.

As I stood there reading the sign, movement about 20 yards to the left caught my attention. I turned and saw a small brown bird entangled in a net, periodically struggling to escape.

The net resembled a badminton or volleyball net, but had a very fine mesh. It had been erected a few feet in front of a low patch of wild foliage and was almost invisible from a distance. Its purpose, I didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I have no idea how to extricate a trapped bird, but I couldn’t just ignore it. Maybe I could go back to the main office and get help. I walked closer to get a better look.

As I approached the flailing bird, a female voice rang out in the distance. “Sir! Get away! Leave the bird alone!”

I looked up with a start. Striding across the field toward me was a small, youngish woman in all khaki. She was waving insistently and continued to shout instructions.

“Sir, do not touch the bird! Stay away!”

Puzzled, I stood there quietly and waited. When she reached me, I got in the first words: “What are you yelling about? What’s going on?”

“I am an ornithologist,” she said in a grave and decidedly snooty tone. “I am authorized by the State of Georgia, the University, and the Botanical Garden to handle birds.”

“Yeah, but what –”

“I am a member of (she reeled off a few names that may have been professional organizations). I am pursuing my doctorate.”

She reached over and began to examine the bird, cupping it in her hand through the net.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re an ornithologist. Good for you. Why are you fussing me out? What is this all about?”

“You don’t have the skills to handle this bird,” she snapped. “I have the training. I understand how the bones and joints function.”

“Lady, I’m just a hiker. I saw a bird stuck in a net. I walked over for a closer look. Why are you down my throat?”

“I can remove the netting without harming the bird. You can’t.”

“I didn’t touch the damn bird.”

“You would have.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s too tangled in the net. I would’ve gone for help.”

“It’s not very tangled.”

“Lady, I haven’t done a damn thing except show compassion for this poor bird. Your attitude stinks.”

She ignored me and addressed the bird. “Oh, poor little guy,” she cooed. “You’re just a thrasher, not the bird I wanted. I’ll just have to let you go.”

I finally deduced what the drama was all about. “This is your net,” I said as the bird flew away. “It’s here to catch birds.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. All you did was yell and give me your credentials. How could I possibly know what you’re doing out here?”

“This is a [word indecipherable] net. I am involved in a research project. Do you understand now?”

“Well, put up a sign so people will know! Are you afraid the birds will read it and stay away?”

“Sir, no birds will come around as long as we’re standing here. We need to leave. I hope you have a good hike.” She turned and walked away. Briskly, of course.

I didn’t reply, and what I muttered to myself wasn’t nice.

Even on my way home after the hike, I was still steamed. That evening, I Googled the subject of using nets to trap birds. The nets, I learned, are “mist nets.” This is from Wikipedia:

Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net.

When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. Mist nets have shelves created by horizontally strung lines that create a loose, baggy pocket. When a bird or bat hits the net, it falls into this pocket, where it becomes tangled. The purchase and use of mist nets requires permits, which vary according to a country or state’s wildlife regulations.

Mist net handling requires skill to optimally place the nets, avoid entangling nets in vegetation, and properly store nets. Bird and bat handling requires extensive training to avoid injury to the captured animals.

Okay, fine. Clear and concise. Now I know what I didn’t know when Miss Charm blindsided me.

Do us all a favor, lady. Put up a sign.




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On July 20, 2009, this article appeared in The Times, the daily newspaper of Gainesville, Georgia.


Visitor Arrested for Eating Chicken With Fork

Ginny Dietrick fought the law Monday. But this time, she won.

The Louisiana resident was celebrating her 91st birthday by enjoying a lunch of Longstreet Cafe’s finest fried chicken Monday when Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper told Dietrick to put down her fork and listen up — she was under arrest.

Hooper informed Dietrick that it’s against a city ordinance to eat fried chicken, “a culinary delicacy sacred to this municipality, this county, this state, the Southland and this republic,” with anything other than your fingers. The 1961 ordinance was put on city books as a sort of public relations stunt to promote Gainesville as the poultry capital of the world, Hooper said.

Dietrick had Gainesville resident and friend A.C. Marshall to thank for the practical joke. Dietrick can also thank Marshall for setting up her pardon.

Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras was on hand at Longstreet Cafe to dismiss the charges of improper poultry consumption against Dietrick.

And Abit Massey, president-emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation, ordained Dietrick an Honorary Georgia Poultry Princess.


It’s true. Eating fried chicken with a utensil is against the law in Gainesville, which is 20 miles from where I live, and which calls itself the “Poultry Capital of the World” and “Queen City of the Mountains.”

Technically, Gainesville isn’t in the mountains. It’s in the foothills, although on a clear day, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon. The “Queen City” thing, therefore, is a bit of a stretch.

The “Poultry Capital” claim, on the other hand, isn’t.

Gainesville is an interesting and in some ways curious place. It is most notable for:

1) the looming presence of Lake Lanier, which was created in its backyard when the Chattahoochee River was dammed in the 1950s, and

2) a robust, billion-dollar poultry processing industry.

Lake Lanier surrounds Gainesville on three sides. Countless coves and inlets intrude deep into the rolling hills. As a result, Gainesville (population 35,000) and Hall County (190,000) are home to some eye-poppingly spectacular and expensive lakefront residential neighborhoods.

As for the poultry industry, it has dominated the local economy for the last 75 years.

Gainesville was founded 200 years ago as Mule Camp Springs, at a spot not far from the Chattahoochee River where two old Indian trails crossed. Before long, the town was renamed Gainesville in honor of General Edmund P. Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812.

Frankly, I like the choice. In those days, President Andrew Jackson was engaged in forcibly removing the native tribes from the Southeast (as many individuals as they could catch, at any rate) and shipping them to the Oklahoma Territory, thus freeing up their land for European settlers.

General Gaines was a veteran of several Indian wars, but to his credit, he publicly opposed the removal policy on moral grounds. His opposition did nothing to stop the removal, of course, and it ended his military career.

Maybe Gaines would be a good choice to replace the villainous Jackson on the $20 bill.

Edmund P. Gaines

Edmund P. Gaines

But I digress.

The poultry industry rose in Gainesville thanks to Jesse Dickson Jewell (1902-1975), a savvy businessman who perfected the process of raising, slaughtering, and marketing the birds.

Jesse Jewell

Jesse Jewell

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Jewell made the chicken-processing industry efficient and profitable. During the post-World War II boom, J. D. Jewell, Inc. became a leading regional employer.

The Jewell processing plant also was among the first local factories to hire black workers.

The Rooster Statue

After Jewell died, the city fathers and business leaders determined to honor both Jewell and the chicken, the source of so much of Gainesville’s fame and prosperity.

The primary north-south avenue through downtown Gainesville was renamed Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Then in 1977, Gainesville opened Georgia Poultry Park, fittingly located on Jesse Jewell Parkway, not far from the center of town.

The centerpiece of the quiet little park is a 25-foot marble obelisk topped by a handsome three-foot-tall bronze rooster.

Poultry Park-1

Poultry Park-2

Jesse Jewell would be proud.

The Rabbit Statue

Although most Gainesvillians are proud of their poultry-related heritage, resentment simmered in the northeast corner of the city, in a tiny neighborhood where chickens were less revered.

Around 1900, well before poultry’s rise to prominence in Gainesville, local farmer David Highsmith began raising and selling rabbits to the citizenry. Most people were poor, and rabbits were a cheap and plentiful food item. Highsmith’s business prospered, and soon, he dubbed his little community Rabbittown.

Highsmith remained in the rabbit business through the 1920s. When he died, the business died with him. Rabbittown was absorbed into Gainesville and largely was forgotten…

… except in the hearts of Rabbittown’s residents. In 1993, a few local businessmen, probably irritated by the presence of the bronze rooster in Poultry Park, erected their own monument: a 20-foot-tall rabbit, perched on its haunches, one paw raised in greeting to passersby.

Rabbit statue-1

Whereas the rooster statue is a dramatized, but realistic depiction, the rabbit statue is… more like a gray version of a chocolate Easter bunny.

The statue is made of Styrofoam, covered with a layer of fiberglass mesh and coated with synthetic stucco for preservation. It stands in the parking lot of the Rabbittown Cafe, a local favorite for home cookin’.

David Highsmith would be proud.

The Tiger Statue

Tiger? Yes, Gainesville also has a tiger statue, said to be the largest in the world.

The bronze tiger, installed in 2013 on the campus of Brenau University, is 7′ 6″ tall and 14′ long. It rests on a granite base and weighs 2,200 pounds.

Tiger statue

If you sense an interesting story here, your instinct is correct.

Brenau is a prestigious private university founded in Gainesville in 1878. Today, in addition to the Gainesville campus, Brenau has six other locations around Georgia and one Jacksonville. Enrollment is about 3,500 students.

The statue represents Brenau’s Golden Tiger mascot. It was a gift from Irwin “Ike” Belk, former head of the Belk Department Store chain. Apparently, Ike’s hobby after retirement was to donate “world’s largest” statues to colleges and universities.

Over the years, he placed 40 such statues at various institutions, including a giant flying falcon at the Air Force Academy.

Brenau students voted to name the bronze tiger “Lucille” after the wife of a former university president.

I close with one last interesting fact, a connection between Brenau and the Jewell family.

Jesse Jewell’s mother, Mary Dickson, worked as an art teacher at Brenau (which was a women’s college until the 1960s) before she married Edgar Jewell. Consequently, the Jewell family always maintained close ties to Brenau.

Mary died in 1953. In the early 1960s, when Jesse sold the company and retired, he used a large portion of his fortune to establish a scholarship fund at Brenau. Over the years, the fund has enabled many local women to attend Brenau.

Mary Jewell would be proud.

Rabbit statue-2

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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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