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Vantage Point

In this post, I want to make some observations about religion. Some of it is critical, but not all.

I hope no one is offended unless they deserve it.

————

Last month, my son Britt and his family invited me to attend Easter services with them. They belong to a non-denominational mega-church in a toney North Atlanta suburb about 50 miles from my fair city, Jefferson.

Britt and his wife and kids love the mega-church experience, thrive on it. The concept works for them.

Me, I’m not in tune with that vibe at all. I’m a product of small churches where you knew practically everyone — churches with no need for a traffic cop or parking monitor, much less a battalion of them.

When you arrive at Britt’s church, the parking lot operation is like a Disney theme park or a Boeing factory. The church has a congregation of many thousands.

God only knows how many.

Inside the main cathedral, the services feature professional-level theatrics — a Christian rock band (drums, several guitars, several vocalists), smoke machines, a TV camera swooping overhead.

Replaying the live feed for the faithful are dozens of giant video monitors and a vast array of criminally loud speakers.

Not my cup of tea at all. But it was Easter, and it was a chance to see everyone, so of course I accepted the invitation.

The shock-and-awe theatrics were as professional and overwhelming as I remembered from my last visit. The music blasted my eardrums as brutally as before.

To my surprise, however, the sermon was calm and traditional. In fact, the debonair young pastor came across as very genuine.

Clever boy.

————

My religious background is fairly untraditional. I was raised Methodist, but I grew up as a military dependent, so I have attended services at on-base and off-base churches around the world.

Sometimes, we Smiths went to the generic Protestant services offered on the military base. Sometimes, we went to a Methodist church in a nearby town. Either way, we attended regularly.

As I perceived it in my youth, the message being taught by those churches was simple enough: Be nice, don’t be evil.

Young Rocky totally agreed with that. And it was the right message — sensible, rational, positive, ethical, compassionate — for keeping the church-goers as happy, peaceable, and secure as reality allows.

And, in the world of religion, reality is a multi-faceted thing. In fact, it is a multi-dimensional coin with numerous sides.

God only knows how many.

————

My dad earned a BBA degree from the University of Florida. His major was Banking, and his minor was Religion. Years later, I asked him why he chose Religion.

He told me it was a scholarly matter. The study of religion appealed to him as a combination of many disciplines — history, philosophy, literature, and more. He said he found the courses rousing, entertaining, and thoughtful.

Dad also introduced a concept about religion that had not occurred to me. He pointed out how dramatically your beliefs about religion are influenced by your vantage point.

Your reaction to a hypothetical religious “event” will vary greatly depending on whether you are a cleric or a member of the congregation. Or a Catholic priest from the next town. Or a business traveler from Cairo.

Whatever your experience with religion, whatever your interaction, your vantage point colors your viewpoint. Fascinating.

————

By the time I went off to college, I felt I had learned thoroughly the lessons of my years of attending church. I understood the message. I believed I had taken it to heart.

That being true, there seemed no reason to keep relearning the lessons. I was on my own by then, so I stopped attending church.

Actually, another factor made the decision easier: I had steadily developed some displeasure with “organized religion.”

Gandhi reportedly said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

He had a point. Churches are run by mortals, and it often shows.

————

As a kid, I was distressed by the fact that most churches I saw had amassed, and merrily continued to amass, unnecessary wealth. Random small churches might be struggling, but the hierarchy above them certainly wasn’t.

Yet, at the same time, I saw pressing needs everywhere that went unmet, even unaddressed. The world was full of the poor, hungry, homeless, sick, desperate, and dying.

At about age 10, I concluded that, in fairness, individual churches should be allowed to keep enough money to do their work and remain solvent, but not a cent more. Surplus income should go to helping the people and the community.

Who would make and enforce the precise rules, I didn’t care.

Under my plan, if the church had excess cash in its coffers while genuine needs went unmet in the area they served, well, the case was exposed as one of ordinary greed, and the axe would fall.

Who would wield the axe, I didn’t care.

————

Years ago, when my kids were growing up in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, the doorbell rang one Saturday afternoon. I answered the door.

It was the “youth pastor” from one of the larger Baptist churches in town. He wanted to speak to Dustin, who was 13 or 14 at the time.

Standing beside the pastor were three leggy, giggly, pretty girls of Dustin’s age.

I told him I was Dustin’s father, and we were Methodists, and Dustin was content at the Methodist church.

Oh, he replied, this is just a social call. We just want to tell him about some of the good things we’re doing.

The contempt I felt at that moment was almost overwhelming. But this adult representative of the Baptist church came to see Dustin, so I went and got him.

Dustin came downstairs. When he saw the four of them at the door, the anger in his eyes was as palpable as my contempt.

My memory of the episode ends there.

————

Today, ironically, Dustin is Baptist. He and his wife and kids go to a Baptist church here in Jefferson.

I attend services with them on special occasions. The church is a pleasant, conservative, close-knit, small-town place that runs a crucial local food bank and takes the operation very seriously.

Theatrics-wise, these folks are happy with hymns, piano, and organ. You will hear contemporary Christian music now and then, but only in small doses.

They have a speaker system, but no smoke machine. That would be uncouth.

I spoke to Dustin once about what the church means, now that he has a family. He said the church environment is the best place in town to raise kids. You know personally the families and children with whom you come in contact, and they are good people.

He, Leslie, and the girls all have friends in the congregation. They appreciate the church for its community and social aspects.

But primarily, Dustin and Leslie see the church as a safe haven for their children.

————

I remember well the day, just a few years ago, when Dustin was baptized. The ceremony, the dunking, the cheering. It was a joyous event, made unique because Dustin was an adult.

Deanna and I did not baptize the boys when they were children, as our parents had done with us. We decided to let them chose their own time.

Had we baptized Dustin at, say, age 9, it would have meant little to him; this way, the memory matters.

I never doubted the decision not to baptize.

————

After the Easter services at Britt’s church, the five of us filed out of the cathedral shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling with the other church-goers. It was a happy crowd.

During the services earlier, I had watched the reactions of the individuals in the aisles in front of me. A few had remained passive, but most were animated to some degree during the singing.

For the record, I saw no displays of actual rhythm in the bones.

A few of the children in the audience looked miserable, but whenever I looked over at Britt and Terri and the girls, they seemed to have the spirit. They appeared happy and exuberant.

For them, the experience was fun. They seem to have found their niche.

We had attended a late afternoon service, and suppertime had arrived. We drove to a nice Italian place where Britt had reservations waiting. The evening was splendid.

Mega-church

 

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“Take On Me,” released in 1984 by the Norwegian new wave band A-ha, is the tune that made me a fan of alternative music. It’s still one of my favorite songs, still pleasing and contemporary after 30 years. It could have been written yesterday.

Merits aside, the song owes much of its success to the innovative music video created by A-ha’s producer, Warner Bros.

As was the case with many music videos, the storyline had little to do with the song lyrics. Which is fine, because I gave up long ago trying to figure out what this song means.

It’s a love song, and for whatever reason, the singer announces he is leaving, with the apparent intention of later returning. But “Take on me. Take me on.” What?

Maybe the three Norwegian dudes who wrote the song bumbled the English. Maybe there is hidden meaning I have yet to discover. Maybe there is no meaning. After all, song lyrics occupy a parallel universe where making sense is optional.

But it’s a great tune, and I’m forever amazed at how Morten Harket can hit those crazy high notes.

4 T

Take On Me

By A-ha, 1984
Written by Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen, and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy

Talking away.
I don’t know what I’m to say.
I’ll say it anyway.
Today’s another day to find you
Shying away.
I’ll be coming for your love, okay?

Take on me (take on me).
Take me on (take on me).
I’ll be gone
In a day or two.

So needless to say,
I’m odds and ends,
But I’m me stumbling away,
Slowly learning that life is okay.
Say after me:
“It’s no better to be safe than sorry.”

Take on me (take on me).
Take me on (take on me).
I’ll be gone
In a day or two.

Oh, things that you say, yeah,
Is it life or just to play my worries away?
You’re all the things I’ve got to remember.
You’re shying away.
I’ll be coming for you anyway.

Take on me (take on me).
Take me on (take on me).
I’ll be gone
In a day.

Take on me (take on me).
Take me on (take on me).
I’ll be gone
In a day.

Take on me (take on me).
Take me on (take on me).

 

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More random photos I’ve taken over the years that still make me smile.

Snowman

Gator in a bar

Paco tongue

Vultures

No photos

Payphone

 

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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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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.

Knucklehead-1

Knucklehead-2

Knucklehead-3

Knucklehead-4

Knucklehead-5

Knucklehead-6

Knucklehead-7

Knucklehead-8

Knucklehead-9

Knucklehead-10

Knucklehead-11

 

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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.

Butts 2-1

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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The Dragon Lady

When I retired, I made two solemn vows: I would never again set an alarm clock or wear a wristwatch. I have kept those promises with zero exceptions.

When my dad retired years earlier, I’m not aware that he made any symbolic vows. He simply planned to embark on every retiree’s dream, a life of calculated indolence. But there was a small bump in the road.

When Dad retired, my mom, a homemaker for 50 years, announced that she was retiring, too — from the task of cooking the daily meals.

Literally and figuratively, Mom hung up her apron. Fair is fair.

Having no say in the matter and no meaningful recourse, Dad accepted the situation with a calm dignity.

Soon, the two of them worked out new mealtime procedures — a combination of dining out, doggy bags, frozen dinners, pizza delivery, Chinese takeout, sandwiches, soup and salad, pre-cooked microwavable entrées, and what-not.

From that point forward, when the family got together for holidays and birthdays, it fell to us kids to bring the food; Mom was retired.

Dad did not, of course, step forward to cook. Being helpless in the kitchen was an integral part of his self-image. A man must draw the line somewhere.

After the dual retirements, Mom managed the household as before. She made her regular excursions to the library, the grocery store, and Blockbuster Video. Dad exercised at the Y, did the yard work, and handled the finances. Life went on.

To understand my parents at that stage of their lives, you need to know that, over the decades, the dynamic between them evolved significantly. The change was slow, but inevitable. And it was a fitting, beautiful, wholly positive thing.

In the early years, Dad was the undisputed boss of the family. Such was the way of things in that era. Mom was like an adjutant, reporting to Dad and commanding the household and the children.

That command structure endured for a long time. But as the years passed, we kids could see it bending, buckling, morphing.

In the partnership, Mom slowly ascended, until she and Dad essentially stood as equals.

Then, for reasons never clear to me, Dad seemed consciously to acquiesce even further. It was subtle and unspoken, but Mom assumed the role of family boss.

In her later years, Mom relished the assertiveness and confidence she had awakened in herself. She was deeply proud of the transformation.

One day, spontaneously, with great panache, Mom referred to herself as “the Dragon Lady.”

That term, in case you don’t know, is a stereotype of a powerful, strong-willed Asian woman. In the old comic strip Terry and the Pirates, the Dragon Lady was a recurring character and a formidable villain.

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Lai Choi San, the beautiful pirate queen and arch-nemesis of American adventurer Terry Lee.

For Mom, that moment was a wonderful epiphany. The term was so delightful, so perfectly descriptive, that she promptly adopted it.

Over the years, when Mom wrote to Dad’s family, she signed the letters with her middle name, “Myrtle.” (Mom had chosen to embrace, rather than lament, that unfortunate choice.)

But that changed, and Mom began to sign as “The Dragon Lady,” or sometimes as “D.L.”

Dad also embraced the name. He used it freely, always in the rakish manner intended.

Mom was an amazing lady. Everyone who knew her thought so. She was — and I say this as an objective observer, not as her kid — incredibly intelligent. Scary smart, a voracious reader, insatiably curious.

To Mom, the greatest disappointment of her life was that she never knew her father, Bill Horne. Bill walked out on his wife and daughter when Mom was just a toddler. She had no relationship with him, no memory of him. And she lived with that regret all of her life.

I had a different take on things. To me, it verged on the tragic that Mom’s path in life did not allow her to nurture her intellect properly. Like many other women of her generation, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and homemaker. She didn’t attend college, had no career outside the home.

By any measure, she was a wonderful person. She had a good and comfortable life, and she was beloved by her family. But she had the potential to achieve much, much more.

I thank God that Mom blossomed into the Dragon Lady.

I thank God that her greatest disappointment was not remaining an unassertive and subordinate housewife.

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Mom with my sister Betty.

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With Dad.

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The original movie Star Wars — the first Star Wars, before the sequels, the prequels, and all the tinkering and revisions by George Lucas — opened in theaters in May 1977. I was among the throngs of hopeful science fiction fans scrambling for tickets.

I say hopeful because up until then, Hollywood had done a poor job of making science fiction movies. To the industry, sci-fi meant “Mars Needs Women” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

But in the highly-touted Star Wars from young George Lucas, we fans had detected, if you’ll forgive me, a new hope.

We knew good sci-fi was possible. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick made “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which treated sci-fi as a genre for adults. In 1971, Lucas directed “THX 1138,” also a serious sci-fi movie. Maybe, just maybe, Star Wars would be the film we were looking for.

From today’s vantage point, we can look back on some good science fiction movies. But in early 1977, most of the good stuff — “Blade Runner,” “Close Encounters,” and the “Alien,” “Terminator,” and “Matrix” films — hadn’t happened yet.

In 1977, I lived in Fort Lauderdale. I was 34, married with two kids, working in an office, wearing a tie. I wasn’t typical of all the young sci-fi nerds awaiting the movie’s debut.

But I was as excited as the nerdiest of them. I dutifully stood in line (Fandango was still decades away) to get a ticket to see this new Star Wars thing.

The film didn’t disappoint. Lucas did well, pushed all the right buttons. He appealed to the kids and the inner kids. The special effects were revolutionary and awesome. The heroes were virtuous, the villains were unambiguously evil. Star Wars was an instant classic.

That first time, I saw the film alone. No one else in the family showed any interest.  But coming out of the theater, I knew with certainty that my two boys would be utterly captivated by it. The Force would lock onto them in their seats and pull them in like a tractor beam.

Britt was then a few months shy of 12. Dustin had just turned six. Both should have been clamoring to go see the thrilling adventures of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, et al. But they weren’t.

Maybe they were turned off because I had raved about it so much and for so long. Why would I like some stupid movie Dad likes? He can’t tell me what I like.

But I knew I was right. And I didn’t want them to miss out because of misdirected stubbornness.

So, I bought three tickets to a Saturday showing of the film — one for me, one for Britt, one for Dustin.

When I made the announcement, it wasn’t pretty.

Britt was indignant. Not being one to blow up or lash out, he went into sulk mode and coldly retreated to his room.

Dustin, being more given to dramatics, wailed like a lost soul and fled to his room in tears.

To my credit or discredit — decide which for yourself — I stood my ground. I insisted that, by God, I was taking them to see the blasted movie.

The worst that could happen, I pointed out, was they would hate it. Then they could say, What a stinker of a movie! Old Dad got it wrong! Boy, was he wrong!

On the other hand, maybe I was right. Maybe Star Wars would be great. Maybe they would enjoy it.

Either way, I said, lighten up. It’s just a movie. And we’re going to see it. End of story.

You can imagine how events transpired. From the first scene, they were entranced. Enthralled. Enchanted. Enraptured.

The subject of their fit of youthful intransigence never came up again. Today, both are loyal Star Wars fans who have seen the movie more times than they can recall.

A few weeks ago, Britt treated his parents, wife, and kids to a 3D showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After the movie, as we walked out of the theater, I casually mentioned his resistance drama from the old days.

This was news to his two daughters, who are 15. They thought it was hilarious.

A week or so later, I asked Dustin if he and his bunch had seen the new Star Wars movie.

“Leslie and I went to see it,” he told me. “We liked it. Maddie and Sarah didn’t go. They just weren’t interested.”

Maddie is 12, and Sarah is nine, so the irony is obvious. Where it falls on the line between the comic and the tragic, that eludes me.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Queuing up to see Star Wars in 1977.

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The College Bowls

This is one of those “why, back in my day” posts, in which I put on my curmudgeon hat and bemoan something that was better in the old days.

But I aim to make a legitimate point, by cracky, so bear with me.

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For an old guy with plenty of football seasons behind me, I have attended only one college bowl game. It was the 1966 Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Georgia beat SMU 24-9.

Back then, there were nine post-season bowl games:

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, established in 1902
The Orange Bowl in Miami, 1935
The Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, 1935
The Sun Bowl in El Paso, 1935
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 1937
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, 1945
The Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, 1946
The Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, 1959
The Liberty Bowl in Memphis, 1959

Today, all nine are still around, and the Rose Bowl is still the Rose Bowl. But the other eight, one by one, sold their naming rights to corporations.

Ah, free enterprise. It’s as American as apple pie.

The Orange Bowl is now the Capitol One Orange Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl is the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
The Sun Bowl is the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl is the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
The Gator Bowl is the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The Tangerine Bowl is the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
The Bluebonnet Bowl is the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.
The Liberty Bowl is the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

In case you didn’t know, TaxSlayer is a do-it-yourself online tax software company.

AdvoCare (they are advocates who care) sells nutritional supplements. V100 is a “tropical chew” — $35 for a pouch of 60. They must work wonders.

Which leads to my next point. Have you counted the number of bowl games out there lately? The college bowl industry now operates an astonishing 41 games around the country.

In addition to the nine bowls listed previously, we also have:

— The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl in Atlanta
— The AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando
— The BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, Glendale (BattleFrog stages local obstacle races)
— The Belk Bowl, Charlotte
— The Birmingham Bowl (Formerly the Papa John’s Bowl, now owned by ESPN)
— The Camping World Independence Bowl, Shreveport
— The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta
— The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise
— The Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara
— The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville
— The Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (For Gildan t-shirts)
— The GoDaddy Bowl, Mobile
— The Hawai’i Bowl, Honolulu
— The Holiday Bowl, San Diego (Previous sponsor National University pulled out)
— The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth
— The Marmot Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton
— The Miami Beach Bowl, Miami Beach (Owned by the Marlins)
— The Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis
— The Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, Tempe
— The New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York City (For New Era baseball caps)
— The Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, Tucson
— The Outback Bowl, Tampa
— The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, Nassau
— The Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (For the Quick Lane auto repair chain)
— The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans
— The Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery
— The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (Royal Purple makes synthetic oil)
— The Russell Athletic Bowl, Orlando
— The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, San Diego
— The St. Petersburg Bowl, St. Petersburg (Bitcoin pulled out as sponsor)
— The Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio
— The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas

Mind-boggling.

I realize the selling of bowl names is a minor matter compared to, say, gun deaths or global warming, but this particular commercialization strikes me as especially tacky and offensive.

Yes, a bowl needs a name. But renaming it to hype a product? That’s beyond unsavory; it’s vulgar and sleazy.

It’s like a car dealership drawing attention to itself with an inflatable gorilla.

It’s like the NASCAR tradition of cars and drivers festooned with as many logos as will fit the space.

I understand and respect the role and the power of advertising. My college degree is in Advertising. I spent most of my working life in the business.

And when a marketing practice triggers my internal “tacky and offensive” detector, it tells me the practice is over the line.

Too bad those companies couldn’t simply buy some ad space, or run some TV spots, or sponsor the PBS News Hour, and leave the bowls alone.

Bowl games, when you think about it, have limited appeal. Except in the case of the very top bowls where the national title is determined, most people don’t care all that much. Only the fans at the two competing colleges, plus some people in the bowl’s host city, are paying attention. Not much of an audience, really.

I also should point out that the corporate sponsors are not the only villains here. The bowls themselves are more than willing to sell out. Clearly, all parties have a healthy mercenary spirit, wholly unburdened by shame.

Ah, free enterprise. It’s as American as apple pie.

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In order to end this on an upbeat note, let me add some recollections about that Cotton Bowl game I attended in Dallas in 1966.

I was in the Air Force at the time, and I had just spent the Christmas holidays with my family in Georgia. The trip back to my duty station in New Mexico had me passing through Dallas at just the right time, so Dad surprised me with a Cotton Bowl ticket.

The Bulldogs had a terrific season in 1966. Vince Dooley was in his third year as coach. That year, Georgia lost only one game (by one point) and shared the SEC title with Alabama. The Cotton Bowl win was gravy.

That was a long time ago, but I still remember a marvelous series of downs in the 4th quarter, when Dooley sent a star defensive lineman into the game as quarterback. Yes, quarterback.

The player was two-time All-American tackle George “The General” Patton, the team captain, playing in the last game of his college career.

Patton, 6’3″ and 210 pounds, had been an All-State quarterback at his high school in Alabama. He came to UGA as a quarterback in his freshman year.

But after watching Patton during practice, Dooley asked if he would consider trying out as a defensive tackle.

“I told him it didn’t matter to me,” Patton said. “I just wanted a job.”

On the first play of his defensive career, Patton sacked Alabama’s Joe Namath for an eight-yard loss. For the next two seasons, Patton was the terror of the SEC.

So, at the Cotton Bowl in 1966, with Georgia comfortably leading SMU, Dooley sent Patton into the game for one series of downs in his old position of quarterback.

Patton handed off the ball twice, ran the ball himself for a 14-yard gain, and heaved one mighty pass downfield. It fell 20 yards beyond the nearest receiver.

For me, the highlight of the game was seeing Patton let the ball fly and watching the tremendous arc of that pass.

What a supremely satisfying moment it must have been for Patton.

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Dooley and the Dogs celebrate in Dallas, December 1966.

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George “The General” Patton.

 

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