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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of one dollar each.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.

Dinkelacker

At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.

Normality

 

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ABC Package is a large and well-stocked liquor store in Athens, Georgia. From its convenient location on Atlanta Highway, it has served the alcohol needs of the University of Georgia student body for 25 years.

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ABC Package opened in the early 1990s, coinciding with the years my sons Britt and Dustin were students at UGA.

Both boys, it turned out, conducted business with surprising regularity at ABC Package. I learned this when I would balance their bank accounts (this being the old days, before debit cards and such, when writing checks was still a thing), and I would see checks payable to ABC Package.

Oddly enough, they both had the same explanation for this — five years apart, mind you — which they expressed to me with sober, stone-faced sincerity.

The conversations went something like this…

————

Rocky: Britt, I balanced your checkbook yesterday and made a deposit. I see you wrote four checks to ABC Package. Seriously?

Britt: Oh, that. Well, the thing is, ABC Package is the only place in Athens that will take a check for cash. I go there to get spending money.

Rocky: You don’t go there for beer or liquor or anything.

Britt: Nope.

Rocky: I see.

————

Rocky: Hey, Dustin, tell me about these checks to ABC Package. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?

Dustin: Dad, it isn’t what you think. ABC Package is the only place in town that will take a check for cash. That’s why I write checks there.

Rocky: So… you write checks to a liquor store, but not for alcohol.

Dustin: Correct.

Rocky: I see.

————

All of which reminds me of the classic question, “You expect me to believe that? What do you take me for?”

The correct response being, “Everything I can get.”

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I was there. I threw some of the snowballs. I know what happened.

Hold that thought for a moment.

As I’ve documented here a few times, I grew up a military brat, the son of an Air Force officer. From birth to college, I was uprooted every couple of years to move somewhere else.

So it was that, just before I entered 10th grade, Dad was assigned as the Air Force Liaison Officer to 7th Army headquarters, and we moved to Stuttgart, Germany.

It was there, on a wintry Saturday night, that I threw the aforementioned snowballs. Specifically, at a passing car.

Winters at Patch Barracks, the Army post where we lived, were harsh. Lots of snow, lots of plowing, lots of ammunition for snowball fights. It was a commonplace activity among us kids.

Early on, we learned to assess each snowfall by the type of snow it produced. We understood that wet snow is better than dry snow because the snowballs pack more easily and are heavier.

I mention this because, on the Saturday in question, the snow on the ground was a dry snow. The snowballs we made that day were so lightweight and ineffective that your opponents hardly bothered to duck.

Why a friend and I were still outside after dark throwing snowballs at cars, I don’t remember. We had spent most of Saturday at play around the post, and, for whatever reason, the fun continued into the evening.

The two of us crouched behind a row of hedges near the entrance to the family housing for officers. When a car drove by, we let fly with a few snowballs. They would skip off the roof, or plow into a side or rear window, always exploding harmlessly into powder.

I should mention that we never snowballed a car unless it had American license plates. This was the late 1950s, only a decade after the end of World War II. In those days, it would have been imprudent to assail a passing German.

Sometimes, the driver would tap the brakes or the horn, but no one stopped. Clearly, it was just harmless fun by some silly kids.

We, meanwhile, had ducked back behind the hedges to have a good laugh and make more snowballs.

But, eventually, as fate would have it, our luck ran out.

This time, when we pelted the passing sedan with a volley of snowballs, the driver braked suddenly and stopped. The door flew open. A man emerged in a huff.

“Hey, you kids!” he yelled angrily, “You broke my window!”

He stood behind the vehicle, pointing to the rear window. “Look what you did! I heard it crack!”

My friend and I looked at each other. Those snowballs weren’t capable of breaking glass.

Moreover, as the car had passed from left to right, the snowballs struck the side of the car, not the rear. That, I knew with certainty.

This guy was lying. He was trying to dupe a couple of kids into paying for a window that was broken under other circumstances.

And the scheme was working. We were nailed and defenseless, and we knew it.

Meekly, my friend and I came out from behind the hedge. We stood there under the streetlight as the man, a Sergeant First Class of about 40, fumed dramatically about the situation. Then he instructed us to fetch a parent.

I went back to our apartment and found Dad. On the way back to the scene of the alleged crime, I managed to lay out the true facts. Dad told me to keep quiet and let him handle things.

Dad listened in silence to the sergeant’s account of the incident. He didn’t defend us or offer an apology. He presented his contact information and told the man to send him the bill.

On the way back to the apartment, Dad told me he knew the sergeant by reputation. He said the scam the guy pulled was not surprising.

The subject of throwing snowballs at cars did not come up.

Some weeks later, I asked Dad if he had received a repair bill from the sergeant. He had, indeed, and the bill was paid.

“But,” he added with a sly smile, “I got even with him.”

At that, I came out of my chair. This was huge. I was desperate to hear the details.

But, in spite of my best pleading and whining, Dad would not explain.

“Son,” he said, “I’d rather not say. We’ll just let it be my secret.”

Once or twice in later years, I mentioned the incident and tried to get Dad, finally, to come clean.

He never did.

snowball

 

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College memories are a hoot.

The subject of this story is an incident that occurred early in my freshman year of college. I don’t remember it in elaborate detail, but the main characters and pertinent facts are etched into my memory banks.

Let me set the scene…

When I went off to the University of Georgia in the fall of 1960, I didn’t know a single soul on the UGA campus. We Smiths had just returned to Georgia after living in Europe for four years. I had applied for college admission by mail and was accepted by mail. I’d never set foot in Athens.

Campus life was, therefore, a bit unsettling at first. Most new students already had at least a few friends there. They knew people from their hometowns, either fellow freshmen or kids who had gone off to UGA a year or two ahead of them.

Even the foreign exchange students (mostly well-off kids from Southeast Asia whose parents packed them off to the U.S. to keep them out of the Vietnam War) usually came to Athens in groups.

So, the first friends I made in college were the guys on my floor in Reed Hall, the dormitory for male freshmen (all of them, no exceptions).

Of course, my circle of acquaintances soon widened. I met people in my classes, in ROTC, and elsewhere. The initial feeling of being an odd duck didn’t last long.

The incident of which I speak happened with a group of my Reed Hall buddies, undoubtedly on a Friday or Saturday night. I’m sure of that, because we were on a quest for alcohol, and I never did such things on school nights.

In those days, the legal drinking age in Georgia was 21. I was a mere 17 years old then — wouldn’t turn 18 until January 1961. Most of my friends were 18, some 19, so the odds of scoring a beer or two were not good.

However, we lived on hope — hope that an upperclassman might show us pity. Hope that a kindly bartender would look the other way. Hope that someone in the group had managed to get his hands on a coveted fake I.D. card.

On the night in question, our little group walked across campus from Reed Hall to downtown Athens, a distance of about half a mile. Our destination was the legendary Old South Tavern on West Broad Street.

The Old South Tavern is long gone. The place was shuttered and bulldozed decades ago to make way for a row of commercial buildings.

Even in my day, the Old South was ancient and on the decline. Frankly, it was fast becoming a seedy old dump. But it was a genuine Athens institution and wildly popular.

Today, the Old South Tavern lives in the hearts of generations of male students who spent countless evenings there, trod the creaking floors, jostled their way through the boisterous crowds, and waded through the inevitable inch of standing water on the men’s room floor.

That night, we were a party of four, all freshmen: my roommate Paul, his longtime best pal Warren, a third fellow from the dorm whose name I don’t recall, and me.

Ah, Warren. What a memorable character. Warren was shortish and stocky, ebullient and brash. As is the case with some people, he was of indeterminate age.

He simply looked older than his years. And you knew he would look precisely the same at age 29, 39, and 49. If you need a mental picture: the actor Jack Black.

Warren was a small-town rich kid and very popular in Reed Hall. That’s because his father was a moonshiner, a wealthy and successful man who was influential in Middle Georgia politics.

Thus, Warren had access to a modest, but never-ending supply of premium quality, professionally-crafted, illegal corn liquor. It was truly sublime stuff. Everyone wanted to be Warren’s friend.

Warren accepted me because I roomed with his buddy Paul. And that school year, I was privileged to sample Warren’s father’s white lightnin’ many times. It was incredibly pleasant and smooth. Gentle and kind to palate and throat.

Commercial whiskey, served neat, tests the fortitude of a normal person; Warren’s father’s moonshine was as potent as a shot of Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, but no more harsh than a sip of apricot nectar.

We learned, of course, not to ask Warren to share his nectar. He took offense at that. Instead, we just waited until he made the offer. When his supply was adequate, he was a generous guy. When his supply was low, we were out of luck.

That night when we assembled to head downtown, Warren did not make the offer. But clearly, he had sampled some of the merchandise before he left his room, and he was feeling no pain.

As we all knew, Warren was a fun guy when inebriated. He was a friendly, happy drunk. But, even though he was joyous and jovial when he got sauced, his inhibitions evaporated in proportion to his alcohol consumption. When Warren got plastered, he became unpredictable.

Unpredictable, as when he decided, one dark night, to totter down the yellow line in the center of Lexington Highway as drivers sped past him in both directions, swerving and cursing and blowing their horns. How he escaped death, only God knows.

The evening was mild and pleasant when we arrived at the Old South. The bar was teeming with activity. And Warren was too tipsy for his own good.

But something that night was different. Milling around on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance was a large scrum of male students. Why, I wondered, is everyone standing outside? Why aren’t they filing into the bar?

Then I saw the two stone-faced bouncers in the doorway, checking IDs.

The four of us stood at the rear of the scrum and communicated with looks. Awww, man! Can you believe this? When did THIS start? No FAIR!

Actually, only three of us had that silent conversation. While we were lamenting the sobering turn of events, Warren had melted into the crowd and was making his way toward the entrance.

Now, you should know one additional detail about the situation. Although both bouncers were appropriately beefy and menacing, one of them was a woman.

Unexpected, yes. I have no explanation for it. I doubt if even the Athens PD had female officers at the time. But there she was.

And at the moment, she was watching with interest as Warren approached her with a raised forefinger and an amiable grin.

By the time we reached the entrance, Warren was standing a few feet from her — looking up at her, actually — chattering and chuckling in as suave a manner as he could muster.

She glared back at him without expression.

A few steps away, the male bouncer glanced at the two of them, concluded that she had things under control, and returned to whatever he was doing.

During those brief seconds, Warren’s banter was largely unintelligible, delivered away from us and in quiet tones. But his next words reached us with crystal clarity.

He leaned forward, placed one hand on the lady’s forearm, and said in the seductive manner of a Hollywood screen Romeo, “You and me, baby… Me and you…”

One second later, Warren’s arm was pinned behind his back, and the lady was hustling him around the corner and out of sight.

——————

I never learned what consequences Warren paid, if any, because of the episode. He always brushed off the matter with a chuckle and declined to elaborate.

Today, he and Paul probably are still out there, running their respective family businesses back home.

And someone, somewhere has photos of the late, great Old South Tavern. I wish I did, but I don’t.

The best I could do: this photo of West Broad Street in the 1960s, looking uphill toward downtown. I highlighted the Old South’s neon sign in red.

Old South-1

The photo below shows the same block of West Broad Street in 2013:

Old South-2

College memories are indeed a hoot.

 

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On September 22, 1962, in the opening week of the SEC football season, the Alabama Crimson Tide spanked the fannies of the Georgia Bulldogs, 35-0. It was Alabama’s 12th straight win.

The game marked the debut of Alabama’s sophomore quarterback Joe Namath, who threw three touchdown passes. The Tide defense, led by All-American Lee Roy Jordan, held Georgia to a mere 116 yards on offense.

But the game was destined to have even greater consequences. Big trouble was brewing.

In early 1963, the Saturday Evening Post ran a sensational story claiming that, prior to the game, Georgia Athletic Director Wally Butts gave crucial information about Georgia’s plays and formations to Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

The magazine gave as its source an Atlanta insurance agent, George Burnett, who claimed that on September 13,1962, when he placed a routine long distance phone call, his line was accidentally connected to a conversation between Butts and Bryant.

Burnett said he listened, spellbound, and quickly understood that Butts was divulging crucial information that would give the Alabama team a major advantage over Georgia. He said he took notes as the 15-minute conversation unfolded.

Burnett claimed that he only told a few friends about the incident. But after the big Alabama victory, he went to several officials at UGA with his story. Inquiries began.

Abruptly, Burnett then sold his story to the Saturday Evening Post for $5,000. And, according to later reports, the Post rushed the article into print to avoid being scooped by other news outlets.

The result, no surprise, was a firestorm. Both coaches vehemently denied the accusation. Outraged football fans in Georgia and Alabama rose to defend the two coaches. Butts filed a $10 million libel suit. Bryant, who already had a lawsuit in progress against the magazine (for alleging that Bryant was a brutal coach), did the same.

When the Butts libel trial reached court, evidence showed that Butts and Bryant indeed had spoken by telephone at the time Burnett claimed. Southern Bell admitted it was possible for a third party to be connected accidentally to another call.

But three UGA players testified that Alabama did not seem to have any special inside information. And three Alabama players testified that their game preparation was normal.

Namath and Jordan both said they would have known if their team possessed the kind of sensitive information described in the story.

Butts and Bryant, close friends for many years, insisted they simply had shared “coach talk,” and Bryant received no information that would help him in the game.

In his summation, Butts’ high-powered attorney William Schroder, Jr. intoned, “Someday, Wallace Butts will pass on to where neither the Post nor anyone else can then bother him. Unless I miss my guess, they will put him in a red coffin with a black lid with a football in his hands, and his epitaph will read, ‘Glory, glory to old Georgia.'”

Mrs. Butts and her three daughters, sitting in the front row, sobbed.

The jury ruled that the magazine indeed had rushed to judgment and was liable. The publisher was ordered to pay Butts $3.06 million in damages — the largest amount ever awarded in a libel suit.

When the verdict was read, Butts wept. Attorney Schroder leaned over and said, “Let it come, Wally. Let it come, boy.”

“I couldn’t help it,” Butts said later. “It was six months rolling out of me.”

“It’s not the money. It’s the vindication,” he said.

Later, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court previously had ruled that news organizations are protected from liability when they make allegations about public officials. But in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, the Court said news outlets can be held liable if they print information about public figures that is “recklessly gathered and unchecked.”

Eventually, the $3.06 million awarded to Butts was reduced on appeal to $460,000. Bryant settled out of court for $300,000. The Saturday Evening Post, already in financial trouble, closed its doors in 1969.

In 1963, the Georgia Bulldogs had a 4-5-1 season, which sealed the fate of Johnny Griffith. He was fired and replaced by Vince Dooley.

That same year, his reputation further battered by the Post story, Wally Butts stepped down as Athletic Director. He moved to Atlanta and opened the Wallace Butts Insurance Agency. The business soon became successful, and he moved it back to Athens, where he was still a beloved figure.

Butts died of a heart attack in Athens in 1973, age 68.

——————

When I arrived at UGA as a freshman in 1960, Wally Butts was the head coach. In my sophomore and junior years, Johnny Griffith had the job. When I was a senior, Vince Dooley began his reign.

The irony doesn’t escape me that the Bulldogs were SEC champs the year before I arrived, and they resumed their winning ways the year after I graduated.

As the 1960 football season unfolded, the Bulldogs having just lost consecutive games to Florida and Auburn, rumors circulated on campus that Coach Butts was surely doomed, on his way out.

I didn’t know, of course, that a group of prominent Georgia alumni already had met with Butts and invited him to resign. (Please, Wally, don’t force us to go public with details about your girlfriend and all that.)

All I knew was that the very idea of firing the legendary Wally Butts was unfair and underhanded. After all, the man was a Georgia institution.

But I was a tender, innocent freshman, just back in the U.S. after living for three years in Europe. I was just getting used to campus life, just learning my way around Athens. What did I know?

So, one sunny Saturday afternoon in December, as Fall Quarter was winding down, when my friend Al came to my dorm room and asked me to go with him to a “Save Wally” demonstration at the Arch on North Campus, naturally I said yes.

The demonstration wasn’t much. About 50-75 students showed up. We milled around for 30 minutes or so, chanting things like “Wah-LEE! Wah-LEE!” and “Save Our Butts! Save Our Butts!”

The group declined, however, to chant one of the most obvious slogans before their eyes, which Al and I had hand-lettered with black Magic Marker on white t-shirts and proudly wore to the event: I LIKE BUTTS

What can I say. I was young and stupid.

The University officially replaced Butts with Griffith the first week of January 1961, as Winter Quarter was starting. It’s worthy of note that on the same day, a federal judge ordered UGA to quit stalling and admit its first black students.

That, of course, led to other demonstrations — bone-headed, embarrassing, dangerous demonstrations — from which I stayed as far away as possible.

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Room with a view… I took this photo of Sanford Stadium from the window of my dorm room in November 1960.

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Wally during the glory years.

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The iconic Arch between the UGA campus and downtown Athens originally was a gate to keep out livestock. It has became a traditional spot for demonstrations, such as this “Occupy Athens” rally in 2011.

 

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My alma mater, the University of Georgia, dumped its head football coach after last season and hired a new one.

Gone is Mark Richt, who held the job for 15 years. Richt had a respectable record of 145 wins, 51 losses. He was replaced by Kirby Smart, an Alabama assistant coach.

Why did Richt get the boot? Because for all his winning, he delivered the coveted SEC championship only twice, way back in 2002 and 2005. That fact was stuck in the craw of too many influential UGA alumni, so Richt was invited out the door.

The same thing happened to the previous Georgia coach, Vince Dooley. Dooley coached at UGA for 24 years, from 1964 until 1988. He, too, had a strong record (201-77-10), but a mere five SEC titles. He was replaced as head coach and put out to pasture as Athletic Director.

Dooley and Richt are still highly regarded in these parts, because they are honorable men, models of civility and decorum, respected as coaches, leaders, and role models. Unfortunately for them, the UGA power elite wanted meat-eaters.

Inevitably, this latest Athens coaching kerfuffle leads my thoughts back to when I attended UGA in the 1960s.

During my four years there, Georgia had three different head coaches. And the terms “decorum” and “role model” do not come to mind.

Therein, my friends, lies a marvelous tale.

———————

James Wallace “Wally” Butts, Jr., often called “the little round man,” was an unlikely college athlete. He was 5′ 6″ and 155 pounds. But he attended Mercer University on scholarships in football, basketball, and baseball and was team captain in all three sports.

After a decade of coaching football at prep schools around the South, Butts came to the University of Georgia in 1938 as an assistant coach. In 1939, when the UGA head coach departed (following a 5-4-1 season), Butts was picked for the job.

At practice sessions and on game days, Butts was a feisty, fiery-tempered presence. He paced the sidelines, strutting and fuming and barking orders.

In an era when power runners fueled the offense in most of college football, Butts was a proponent of the passing game. Success came to the Bulldogs almost immediately.

UGA quickly won three SEC titles (1942, 1946, 1948) and two national championships (1942 and 1946). Butts recruited the two Georgia football legends who helped deliver the national titles: Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich in 1942 and Charley Trippi in 1946.

But success in sports is a transitory thing. By the 1950s, the Bulldogs had become mediocre, languishing in the SEC cellar. The team suffered through five losing seasons.

Butts rebounded briefly in 1959 under ace quarterback Fran Tarkington, and UGA again won the SEC title. But in 1960, with Tarkington gone, the Bulldogs went 6-4.

The powers-that-be stepped in. Butts was replaced as head coach, but allowed to stay on as Athletic Director. His record over 21 years was 140-86-9.

The performance of the football team, however, was not the only factor in his firing.

Butts was married with three children and was, of course, an Athens institution. The telephones in his house were red and black. His home phone number was listed in the telephone book. He owned The Huddle, a popular downtown diner.

But his personal life had become increasingly, and sometimes openly, scandalous. The allegations were eyebrow-raising.

According to reports, Butts frequented bars, drank excessively, and had a young girlfriend in Atlanta with whom he went nightclubbing.

Sometimes, she traveled with him to out-of-state football games; he charged her expenses, including airline tickets, to the University.

The school also said it found over 300 long distance phone calls between Butts and his lady friend that were charged to UGA.

There’s more. Allegedly, Butts was pals with a Chicago beer distributor known for gambling on college football games. At various times, the man helped Butts with business investments, and he once arranged for the coach to get a sizable loan.

Meanwhile, the IRS was after Butts for $36,000 in unpaid income taxes.

Slowly, the stories became public knowledge around Athens and Atlanta. Team morale and recruiting almost certainly were affected. As Butts’ reputation declined, so did the team’s performance.

Butts accepted the Athletic Director position, but he resented being pushed out as head coach. It didn’t help that Georgia’s new head coach, Johnny Griffith, took the Bulldogs to a record of 3-7 in 1961 and 3-4-3 in 1962. Butts began to criticize Griffith’s coaching abilities publicly and often.

Then, the saga took a turn for the surreal. Sensational accusations were made of high-level cheating and collusion. A monumental legal fight ensued.

More about which in my next post.

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Wally Butts during practice at Sanford Stadium.

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Coach Butts on game day.

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Posing in 1959 with Tarkington (10) and other star players.

griffith, johnny.jpg (ntphoto/sports/uga football/2003)

Johnny Griffith

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Vince Dooley

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Mark Richt

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Kirby Smart

 

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“You do it for the stories,” said my friend Jackie, an author who has published eight books. Jackie was just back from a road trip to Savannah, researching book nine.

“When you stay home, everything is routine,” she declared. “You don’t get good stories that way. To get stories, you need to venture out, go places, do things.”

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Some of my favorite stories on this blog were written after I spent the day babysitting my grandkids.

For example, if you type “intervention” in my search box — there in the upper right corner of your screen — you can read a story I wrote a few months ago about the consequences of kids obsessing over the computer game Minecraft.

But still, Jackie has a valid point. Most memorable stuff happens out there in the world somewhere, away from home, away from the routine.

To wit, if you type “fiasco” in the search box, you can read about my spectacularly ill-fated trip to a remote part of Grand Canyon back in 2001. No trip to Toroweap, no fiasco, no story.

All of which leads me to a special story that is dear to my heart. It came about because in September 1998, I got away from the routine, ventured out, and went on a two-week raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

That 1998 trip wasn’t my first. It was, in fact, my third raft trip down the Colorado and my sixth visit to the Big Ditch. By then, I knew the routine, knew what gear to bring, knew the best rapids and dayhikes, and understood what was expected of the paying customers. Looking back, it was easily the most satisfying of my Grand Canyon raft trips.

Typically, on a non-motorized raft trip, there will be 20 or so paying passengers, four or five rafts, and four or five guides.

One of the guides is designated as Trip Leader — the captain, the head honcho, the boss of things. The TL runs the trip like the coach runs the team, or the boss runs the office, or the mom runs the household.

Keeping the passengers in line rarely is a problem; most, being out of their element, are cooperative. Easily led, like sheep or cows.

On the other hand, river guides can be an unruly, undisciplined bunch, especially out in the wilderness. Wrangling them requires a serious degree of tact and aplomb.

The TL on my 1998 trip was a smart, cheerful, likeable guy in his late 20s. He was tall, lean, tanned, and fit. He was a technically proficient oarsman and fully capable of keeping the passengers happy and the guides under control.

I won’t divulge the TL’s name, as you will understand later. For the purposes of my story, I’ll call him Clark. Clark Kent.

I’ll also mention that the guide in charge of the paddle boat (a smaller raft propelled by passengers and steered by a guide from the stern) was Clark’s girlfriend. Let’s call her Lois. Lois Lane.

After two weeks on the river, you find that you know your trip-mates pretty well. Happily, you have lots of new friends. And, at the end of the trip, someone always volunteers to gather contact information and shares it with the group.

That was how I came to have the address and phone number of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at their home in Flagstaff.

And that was why, on my next trip to Flagstaff in May 1999, I gave them a call, and we got together for lunch.

When I was in Flagstaff again in November 1999, the three of us met for breakfast.

When I was there again in April 2000, we went out to dinner.

for several more years, the pattern was the same: I always saw Clark and Lois when I passed through Flagstaff. They would bring me up to date on the latest river guide news, update me on local environmental concerns, and recommend new restaurants.

Sometimes, Clark would show me the latest photos he had taken on the river. He was an accomplished photographer, and he sold prints online. I own two of his enlargements.

The fact is, Clark and Lois and I lived in different worlds, and we had little in common. But I enjoyed those meetings immensely. And Clark and Lois always seemed genuinely glad to see me.

But things change. At some point, the two of them left Flagstaff, and we lost touch. Later, I read they had moved to Telluride.

Specifically, I learned about Telluride from a news story that identified my buddy Clark Kent as the scion of a fabulously rich American family, heir to a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

My guess is, Clark fell in love with the river, took a sabbatical, and got qualified and hired as a guide. He was able to sustain that life for quite a while. He met Lois on the river. Probably, the weight of obligations finally pulled him back into the family business.

No doubt his river guide friends knew who he was. Some probably went easier on him as a result. Some probably did the opposite.

But I had no idea who he really was. To me, he was just Clark Kent, my former TL and friend. Just a nice fellow I got to know on the river.

Thinking back, Clark probably scrutinized me very carefully before deciding to be my friend. Was I genuinely clueless about his identity, or was I some gold-digger, angling for an advantage? His fate surely is to worry about such things constantly. I’m pleased and flattered that he decided to trust me.

Like Jackie said, you do it for the stories.

I have great photos of Clark and Lois from that 1998 river trip, but I won’t show them. Instead, here’s a happy photo of some of the passengers and guides on an earlier trip. That’s me on the left.

River trip 5-94

 

 

 

 

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