Editor’s note: The title of this article is also the title of a Blues Busters song. My dad thought they were fantastic. Look them up.
Every year, I play in a surprisingly well-organized, Ryder Cup-style tournament with several friends from high school. We call it the Spackler Cup because we all know “Caddy Shack” is an American classic.
My Spackler Cup weekend this year was decidedly American. That’s mostly a good thing.
A few highlights in chronological order:
I’ve stopped at nearly every barbecue restaurant on Interstate 75 between Forsyth, Ga., and Ocala, Fla., and I crossed another off the list Thursday night. I saw the roadside sign for Country Boys Cookin’ BBQ a few miles before I reached Exit 121, and the restaurant’s posted hours worked in my schedule — this is a rarity.
Opie Gallett has been cooking barbecue in Unadilla, Ga., for some time. He’s a regular competitor at The Pig Jig, a barbecue festival in Middle Georgia held in the fall that thousands of barbecue fans go to watch the best of their trade cook pork but not serve it.
To be fair, Gallett’s pork, ribs and brisket belong at this competition. The sauce is peppery, basil-fueled and not special by itself, but it works well with the meat. Without doing any further research, I am calling this the best barbecue in Unadilla. Opie Gallett is the new “Thrilla from Unadilla.” Sorry, David Ragan.
I ate that evening at the lone family table with a long haul trucker named Jim and a long haul trucker-in-training who went by Tiny. Tiny weighed at least 250 pounds, but he didn’t finish his chicken. Jim polished off his ribs as we traded mile markers for good barbecue in Georgia and Florida.
Someone remind me to check out a place off Exit 11 in Valdosta.
I met some of the competition Friday evening for drinks in Ocala. Actually, by the time I met these gentlemen, I was on my third bar and had already quit drinking.
Ocala is a buzzkill, which is why I play for Team Tampa in the Spackler Cup. I’ve never lived in Tampa, but I grew up in Ocala. I think it’s actually gotten worse there.
Friday night, every bar we walked into had a DJ in the corner blasting out some version of the “Harlem Shake.” I knew this fad was over in February, but news travels slow in North Central Florida. I ran into a few friends — eh, acquaintances — that also grew up in Ocala and never left. Not much was new with them.
I don’t think the new rivals who played for Team Ocala that I met Friday lived in Ocala either. They decided the best strategy to cope with this town was to start downing shots of bourbon and Patron.
Their strategy worked.
Saturday will be its own blog post one day, but not today. The blues still linger.
Team Ocala had all but wrapped up the Spackler Cup by noon on Sunday, which was about the time I got to know a man named Brent a little more. Brent was the guy at the bar Friday who kept ordering shots for anyone within earshot. He owns a pool service company in Tampa, but he carried Ocala to the Spackler Cup over the weekend.
He’s the closest thing to a scratch golfer in our tournament, and this was after hitting for the cycle on the top shelf in the bar. He and Fred Couples share the same salt and pepper hair — although his is longer. If his hair was shorter, Brent could be a stunt double for NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin.
Brent is the most interesting person I’ve met in a long time. Working on three hours a sleep, he started his round by laying down under a tall oak. By the third hole, he was arguing with his girlfriend on the phone.
By the 11th, he had come to the realization that he was gay.
By the 14th, all was well in Brent’s household again.
The night before, I watched him try to send a text from his phone. “I can’t spell ‘excellent’ so I’m going to use ‘fantastic,’” he said.
A few minutes later, he settled for “good,” although there was some concern that he may have accidentally spelled “God.”
I told Brent several times Sunday that God loves him. God certainly blessed him with a lot of golf talent.
I remember a few shots that I hit on the course, but those will fade. I won’t forget about the people I played with. Maybe that’s why I enjoy Spackler Cup weekend so much.
The thrill of victory would be nice, too.
I wrote this column for the Athens Banner-Herald shortly after playing a round at Augusta National Golf Club on Monday after the 2011 Masters Tournament.
I came home about 7 p.m. Monday and headed straight for my closet. I opened up an old shoe box, unfolded a piece of paper, simply marked “Bucket List,” and made a check right by the first of 10 goals.
Seven hours earlier, I stood on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club, staring at the leaderboard on No. 18. I had walked this course while covering the Masters Tournament for the past six days, but this was the first time I looked down a fairway without ropes on either side.
It’s a wonder that I was able to hit a ball at all – I crushed one down the left side into the rough.
I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Heck, it’s been a week now, and I still can’t believe I played the National.
When Dennis Stouse at Jacksonville University made his senior class fill out a list of things we’d like to do in life, I put “Play a round at Augusta National” at the top of my list, thinking it could never happen.
Bucket lists are great, by the way. They turn dreams into goals – goals are essentially dreams with deadlines anyway – and cause you to make certain life choices to achieve them.
I took my previous job because I knew I would get to cover the Daytona 500 (No. 4 on the list, by the way). When I saw that the Banner-Herald was hiring two years ago, I applied for the gig because I knew the paper sent reporters to the Masters (No. 3 on the list).
But there I walked onto the first green at the National, realizing my wildest dream at 27. I’m fairly certain 22-year-old Joe VanHoose didn’t think he’d be doing this five years later. I couldn’t stop thanking the good Lord for the blessing.
If you’re a golf fan and know the course, the experience is everything you think it would be.
My day started with a drive down Magnolia Lane and a quick trip upstairs in the clubhouse to the Champions Locker Room.
I put my shoes and keys in three-time Master champ Gary Player’s locker, snapped a few pictures and walked out to go beat some balls around the practice range.
There, I met my caddie, a 50-something former club pro named Hank. Hank, by the way, is only the second player in history to make a two at the par-5 15th hole – he did it with a 4-iron.
A few highlights:
► The greens really are as fast and as unpredictable as they look on TV. I blew my first 8-foot putt 10 feet past the hole. My putt on No. 16 broke the length of two Chevy Suburbans. Without Hank showing me the lines, I would’ve been lost.
► My glory moment came on hole No. 10. I made a 30-foot putt to save my par and sent it in the hole with both arms raised.
► Amen Corner got its name for a good reason.
On the three holes, I knocked a ball in a pond, another in Rae’s Creek and lost any chance of breaking 90. But as I stepped onto the 13th tee box, a place where only golfers are allowed to go, the reality of what I was doing really set in.
I wanted to break 100, and I shot 91. But as I walked up the 18th fairway, my hat off and a gentle breeze in my face, I realized the score was the least important detail.
I gave the 18th green a good rub, took in one more panoramic view and shook Hank’s hand.
My round lasted four and a half hours, but it went by so, so fast.
I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
I may never get to play the National again, but if there’s a golf course in heaven, it probably looks like the one I played Monday.
I just pray I can get a good tee time.
Baseball is back. The Braves are currently beating the Phillies, 3-0.
I think the Braves could be pretty good this year, but I thought the same thing last year. And the year before that.
And the year before that.
Nevertheless, I like the new lineup, and I find myself liking the game more and more as I get a little older. It shares a few characteristics with stock car racing that I enjoy.
- There is no clock.
- There is plenty of downtime.
- There are a lot of overlooked intricacies that make every moment unique.
Speaking of racing, NASCAR officials should get rid of the yellow “out of bounds” line at Daytona and Talladega. The series added the line and the rule that drivers could not race into the grass below it after Dale Earnhardt died. It was a reactionary rule that didn’t address any real problems and only added a little more gray to NASCAR’s palette.
Had the yellow line rule existed in 1979, Cale Yarbrough and Donnie Allison would’ve never had their crash and bash on the backstretch at the end of the Daytona 500. This may be a dumb argument, but this is a dumb column.
Conference pride is also dumb. Almost everyone I know who roots for an SEC team also roots for any SEC school when bowl season rolls around. Why?
I root for the Florida Gators. I tend to root against their big rivals — Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, etc. I shouldn’t have to root for any of those teams to win anything.
This is really a college football problem. I don’t know any Red Sox fans who root for the Yankees in the World Series because they’re a member of the AL East.
I’m going to The Masters. This will be my first time at Augusta National without a press pass, and I’m ecstatic. After playing the course in 2011, I thought I may never return.
Now I get to go as a patron. I get to wear a paper badge, pay for pimento cheese sandwiches and drink a few beers out of some plastic cups that will be added to my dinnerware.
Don’t worry — I’ll wash them first.
Hammer down, heaven bound I saw the light
On the old gray town Hammer down, heaven bound
Sometimes I forget that I’ve always been sick
And I don’t have the will to keep fighting - “Hammer Down” by Jason Molina
Sunday morning, I was killing some time before church and went through my weekly web searches.
“North Wilkesboro Speedway.” Nothing new. “SS United States.” Still docked in Philadelphia.
“Jason Molina.” No new stories.
Molina died on Saturday night, the world found out on Monday morning. By Monday evening, the story was on news and music sites big and small. According to reports, he died at his home in Indianapolis after a long bought with alcoholism.
If you don’t know who Jason Molina is, that’s OK. You had to dig to find him. Officially, he was a singer-songwriter who performed solo as well as with bands Songs: Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Co.
Unofficially, he was one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever heard.
As best as I can remember, one of his songs popped up on my Pandora station when few people knew about Pandora. It was 2008, and I was laboring away at the Ocala Star-Banner. The song was “The Dark Don’t Hide It.” It earned a “thumbs up,” which led to the discovery of “Leave the City” and a few other gems from Magnolia Electric Co.’s “What Comes After the Blues” album.
I finally bought that album about two years ago in Low Yo Yo Records in Athens. One album led to another, and now I own most of his collection.
Molina’s writing aches with truth, and his voice plays the part. Every song he sang sounded so personal, with every note drowned in a frailty that reminds me of a young Tom Waits. If you want your music to make you feel something down in your blood, Molina could do the trick. This may have been a cathartic exercise for him, but some of those demons never left through his pen.
Then again, all the darkness in Molina’s words could be beautiful, too. Songs that come from the heart usually are.
By the time I took a real notice in Molina, he had disappeared. He fell off the earth in late 2009 and communicated finally in 2011 that he was battling severe alcoholism. He was broke in every sense of the word.
But, just like in his music, there was a candlelight’s worth of hope that he could make it. In May 2012, he wrote a message on the Magnolia Electric Co. website:
… Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn’t want to. I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me. I do still need your support however that takes shape, good vibes are worth more than you might think. Finally, there are actually some musical projects on the distant radar screen, but for those who understand, I am taking this in much smaller steps than I’m used to. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning!
I just knew Molina would be OK. And I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long for him to come play a show in Athens — he did that a lot. A few weeks ago, I Tweeted to Gabe Vodicka, Athens Flagpole’s music editor, about Molina and told him that we need to get Magnolia Electric Co. down here for a show.
Maybe we can have a benefit concert instead.
Alcoholism is a mystery to me, just as most addictions are. I don’t know how a man with so many friends like Molina can just slip away and drown in alcohol. Now that I think about it, I may have a friend or two who are well on their way. I think I’ll give them a call this week.
For now, I could use a good sad song.
When its been my ghost and the empty road
I think the stars are just the neon lights
Shining through the dance floor
Shining through the dance floor
Of heaven on a Saturday night
And I saw the light
I saw the light
Hammer down, heaven bound
Hammer down, heaven bound.
Rest in peace.
On work days, the alarm on my Bose Wave Radio doesn’t ring until 7:24 a.m. Actually, it doesn’t ring at all. My room slowly fills with the sound of some Venice is Sinking song.
By the third track, I usually surrender to the ever-rising volume and roll out of bed. On Sunday, I beat the band by a half hour.
Nothing can get me out of bed like a stock car race. If you’ve been on a racing trip with me, you know this is accurate. I figure it’s the anticipation.
Racing has the widest-stretching schedule in all of sports. The Snowball Derby took the checkered flag in early December. Tomorrow, two strong fields of super late model drivers will answer the command to fire their engines in Speedfest down in Cordele, Ga.
Sometimes, that season isn’t long enough. Maybe it’s the over-saturation, but that 10-month season creates a longing for it in the seven weeks or so between activity. Hundreds watch pre-season testing, NASCAR’s answer to the NFL’s training camps. I’m not sure which is more boring.
Testing doesn’t do it for me. Neither did the press conferences, media tours or off-season personal stories. I don’t care that Danica Patrick is dating Ricky Stenhouse.
Then again, millions of people still really care about race car drivers. Thousands will stand in line to get Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s autograph. Hundreds of thousands follow Brad Keselowski on Twitter.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Keselowski, too. But Keselowski is as much — or as little — a hero as Tim Tebow. This isn’t a NASCAR problem; there just aren’t many heroes left in sports.
When I was about five years old, I told my aunt that Dale Earnhardt was my hero. She told me that Jesus was her hero.
She had it right. Compared to our savior, everyone else falls pretty short.
Dale Earnhardt died 12 years ago. I still enjoy watching YouTube videos of him doing awesome Dale Earnhardt things, but I wouldn’t stand in line for his autograph when I was a kid.
Nevertheless, I think Earnhardt was my guy because he seemed to want “it” more than everyone else. He always drove hungry. I can’t say that all the drivers at the top level drive the same way these days.
They do on the lower levels.
On Sunday, a lot of drivers who are trying to make it and a lot of drivers who won’t will chase each other like a pack of dogs for a few hundred laps. Crashes will happen when two drivers want the same position on the track a little too much. A fight could very well ensue.
How hungry are these drivers? Hungry enough to fight. Hungry enough to do uncommon things.
Like driving around in circles. Racing. I can’t wait.
Note: You can catch a recap of Sunday’s Speedfest races from Watermelon Capital Speedway at www.raceweekillustrated.com.
I opened up my email folder after lunch Tuesday and saw a message titled “Marshall Reddoch.” It was from Andre Gallant, the arts and entertainment writer at the Athens Banner-Herald — and a damn fine one at that. I wondered what was up.
Maybe Marshall had reached out to Andre about an upcoming art show. Maybe Marshall had invited him over for lunch. Either of these requests, I had come to find out during my time as the arts an entertainment writer, were standard fare for the features writer at the ABH. Marshall called me almost every week and made a habit of dropping in unannounced — typically as the day’s deadline was closing in.
Marshall had no concept of deadlines. Any meeting or call with him would swallow up a half hour or more.
Looking back now, those meetings were always special. Marshall always had an idea ready to bounce off of me, and he always had a rebuttal in reserve when I shot his idea down.
Some days, I wondered if Marshall had any concept of reality. His ideas were so grand, so extravagant, that they sounded as they were coming from a 12-year-old boy instead of a 60-year-old man. His dreams were wilder than anything I’ve ever come up with — and I often dream about reopening North Wilkesboro Speedway (look it up).
“I need to strive for excellence,” he told me once. “Mediocrity has never gotten anything done.”
Marshall believed he had a mountain to climb for God. On Saturday, he must have reached the summit.
The email I received today let me know that Marshall had passed away. He was 61. I don’t know the cause, but I suspect kidney failure — he was always going to dialysis appointments.
Last December, after I had known that I was already leaving the Banner-Herald, I ran into Marshall on Clayton Street. After a 30-minute conversation in the cold of the evening, he invited me to dinner later that week with his dialysis nurse and a Catholic priest who moonlighted as a magician.
Marshall had fine china, a classically-trained culinary background and an uncanny taste for wine. He could have been cast as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
He was a classically trained chef and artist. He also was the best gardener in Key West, Fla., the man stars like Tennessee Williams turned to for yard work and advice and dubbed “The Gardener of Eden.” Somehow, he earned honorary conch status in Key West, quite the feat for a non-native. He also had a stint as a diamond trader.
The same man who did all this lived in an old duplex on Athens’ east side. He didn’t own a car and had more art than money. He struggled with different addictions and ultimately lost a leg while living in Atlanta. Shortly before then, he prayed to God for direction, lest he kill himself.
Consider his run-in with Gangrene a turning point.
Broke and broken, he moved to Athens and started painting. Eventually, his work moved out of his house and onto the walls of exhibit halls around Northeast Georgia. One of his first shows was at the Athens Public Library, which is how I met him. He came into the Banner-Herald office one day looking for someone to tell his story, and (then) editor Melissa Hanna chose me. Thank God.
We talked for hours on the phone, but he convinced me to go to his house for lunch one day. This was a first for me — usually, I met sources for lunch at restaurants, never at homes, let alone duplexes in the tough part of town. I agreed, but I had several coworkers on standby to check in on me via a phone call to make sure all was well.
I arrived and walked into his modest home filled with treasures and knickknacks from around the world. While it wasn’t terribly clean, it was well decorated. Paintings covered most every wall except for the hallway, which was broken up by empty picture frames that looked polished and perfect. Marshall told me these frames were all discarded by others at some point for being broken.
He put them back together.
“It’s just like God did to me,” he said. “He took something broken that should’ve been thrown out and made me perfect, made me whole again.”
Marshall talked a lot about Gold over our three-hour lunch of snapper, scallops, oysters and quite a lot of wine. Of course, he also talked about his love for a woman’s touch, his thirst for alcohol and his unwavering views on politics. He always spoke with conviction.
From that lunch until the day I left the paper, Marshall and I talked almost every week. When I was struggling with Crohn’s Disease, he’d call my boss to make sure I was OK.
This wasn’t necessarily special treatment. He loved everyone at the paper. If he saw us out at night, he’d have a drink with us. If memory serves me right, he even showed up — rather unannounced — at our Christmas party.
I talked to Marshall once after I left the paper. I’m not very good at keeping a dialogue going when my scenery changes. When I called my old boss Tuesday evening to tell her Marshall had died, I realized it had been several months since we last spoke.
Shame on me.
I wish I would have kept in touch with Marshall during his final months. I wish I wouldn’t have taken so many of those conversations we had lightly. I wish I had taken more notes and convinced him to be the subject of my first book.
He told me over and over that he was a simple man. Renaissance man was more like it.
Marshall also told me this: ”You get older, and you think that those golden rings that were once in your grasp have disappeared. But I look into my horizon, and I see those golden rings again.”
He snagged every last one of them.
If 21-year-old Joe VanHoose was here right now, he’d hit me in the back with a folding chair. I think 16-year-old Joe VanHoose would, too. So would 28-year-old Joe VanHoose, for that matter.
But I’m 29 now, and I took a Buick for a test drive on Tuesday because I’m thinking about buying a Buick.
The car in question is a Buick Verano. Peyton Manning drives it in commercials. The car lets him audible, I’ve been told.
The Buick is my audible in a car search that is going on its sixth month. After whittling the field of contenders from 16 down to 8, I’ve entered the test drive stage.
The possible suitors?
- 2013 Ford Fusion
- 2012 Ford Focus
- 2012 Chevy Cruze
- 2012 Mazda 6
- 2013 Hyundai Elantra
- 2013 Nissan Sentra
- 2012 Buick Verano
- 2006 Mazda 3
I currently drive the 2006 Mazda 3 and have since, well, 2006. I love this car as much as a man could love a machine. For the last six years, we’ve been the perfect pair. It’s seen every state in the Southeast, hundreds of miles of Blue Ridge Parkway and a few hot laps at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
But like an old dog that starts wobbling a bit as it walks, my little Mazda — Little Dale, as I’ve referred to it on many occasions — is getting long in the tooth. It has more than 165,000 miles on it. All the rattles, shakes and hard shifts tell me it’s time to grab my shotgun and take my beloved car out to the “park” or “farm” — or the dealership.
But what will take its place? There are many contenders.
First up, the Buick:
I test-drove the Verano first because I wanted to get the worst car out of the way. Instead, the Verano has become the standard. This car feels very competent in the corners and under acceleration. The transmission pulls you forward on every gear change, even if the car isn’t making a lot of noise. Buick went the extra mile to deaden the sound inside the cabin of this car, and that extra attention shines.
The interior is lovely, with pieces that feel good to the touch everywhere. The touchscreen command center is easy to use, and the leatherish seats look and feel like the real things. Not bad for a car that can be had for a little more than $20,000. The styling could be better — the portholes on the hood make no sense — but the biggest issue to overcome is the perception.
Buick may be aiming its new efforts toward a guy like me, but a 90-year-old man drove off the Buick lot in Athens Tuesday in a new Verano.
I wish I didn’t know that.
This car has earned a lot of positive press over the past year. I have no idea why. It feels cheap and clunky, and the dual-clutch transmission sounds better in theory than in practice. This car was a favorite on the list before the test drive. Now, it’s off the list completely.
This thing looks like an Aston Martin and drives like a European cruiser. It’s the biggest car on my list, and it feels that way, but it also feels pretty refined, especially considering it’s in its first year of production. The interior makes a lot of sense, too, but the price tag — $25,000 or so — is keeping this car in dream territory.
Then again, sometimes dreams come true.
On the other hand, I think the Buick was a little better. That 90-year-old has fine taste for a man who probably can’t see. Be safe out there.
I don’t want to talk about the billboard that showed up in Gainesville proclaiming the home of the University of Florida had been annexed by Aggie Nation. I don’t care much about the billboards along Highway 6 between Houston and College Station, Texas, that told me I was in SEC country.
Those signs were both wrong. Texas A&M is Gator Country. We stormed the field after the game to prove it.
My verdict is still out on whether or not expanding the Southeastern Conference to include Texas A&M and Missouri — colleges in states that could hardly be considered Southern — is a good idea. My verdict is just as hazy as my understanding of how good or bad the Florida Fighting Football Gators are this year.
On Saturday, they were better than the Fighting Football Aggies of Texas A&M. That was good enough for me.
Not that I hate these Texans who root for their team dressed in a maroon that is a little too close to the Mississippi State home color. I want to, but they’re too nice.
It’s a kind of nice that is hard to pinpoint. South Carolina folk are nice to you because they have a nonsensical superiority complex. Midwestern natives are nice to you because they have an inferiority complex. We Floridians aren’t nice at all, but our stormy disposition is certainly affected by the Yankee undertones and the mean old men who move to my state to wait for death.
Texas A&M nice isn’t any of these. It’s as if they’re nice because their parents told them to be. It’s rather darling, actually.
I suspect they still follow their parents’ orders because they haven’t been punched out by a bunch of bullies yet. Give them a few years of thrashings from LSU, Alabama and Georgia, and we’ll see how nice they are.
Then again, maybe this is an Aggie thing that won’t fade away. The campus is an hour from nowhere and 2 hours from Houston. No one goes through College Station on accident, a fan told me. Kyle Field has the largest student section in the country, and the alumni side is actually filled with alumni.
That’s not the case at a lot of SEC schools, where college football teams represent a lot more than the college. Did I mention I didn’t go to Florida?
Maybe if the stadiums at Alabama or Florida or Tennessee were all filled with college-educated fans, the atmosphere within the SEC would be a little nicer.
But what fun would that be?
A few notes about Houston
- Brisket is overrated. Sure, it’s tasty, but it could hardly stand up to a well-cooked pork shoulder. Here’s all you need to know about barbecue: Southerners use the best part of the pig, while Texans use the worst part of the cow.
- If you make it to Houston, find Warren’s Inn and have Alli make you a drink. Warren’s is the oldest bar in Houston, and it’s a dive. But it’s perfect. The bartenders make drinks that haven’t been made in 50 years, and the music on the jukebox is just as ancient. What more could you ask for?
- I know two facts about the Astrodome: It’s still standing, and you can’t take a tour of it. The first American dome hasn’t hosted a game in a decade, but it stands decaying in the shadow of the NFL Houston Texans’ Reliant Stadium. What on earth is hiding in there?
- Light rail is fantastic.
- Vic and Anthony’s makes the best steak I’ve ever had, and it’s not close. Just have someone else pick up the bill.
- While the barbecue is overrated, the Tex-Mex is as good as advertised.
- Under no circumstances should you ever go to Dirt Bar. Dirt Bar falls under my rule concerning Meth — not even once.
I’ll be 29 in six weeks. This sentence scares my mother more than it scares me.
Don’t worry, mom. I’ll get a you a grandkid at some point.
There was no child to be made on Saturday. The only woman hanging out at the Carolina Motorsports Park was an employee. I think her name was Bambi.
Carolina Motorsports Park sits between rows and rows of pine trees in Kershaw, S.C. The closest actual town is Camden, about 15 miles away. A 2.3-mile road course for sports cars and stock cars is the main attraction. Apparently, NASCAR teams pay about $10,000 to rent the track for a day.
After a few years, track officials realized that there just aren’t enough road racing enthusiasts who can drop $10,000 on a track day, so they diversified their race track portfolio and built the finest high-speed, outdoor go kart track in South Carolina.
The 7/10-mile road course is the only high-speed, outdoor go kart track in South Carolina. Up until last Monday, I had no idea the track actually existed.
Then again, I wasn’t the one in my party who was searching for it. Two of my good friends in Jacksonville both have great jobs, nice condos and the inclination to trade all of this in to build a high-speed go kart track in town. I think they’re crazy, and I spent two years chasing a pipe dream that race fans know as North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Nevertheless, they want to research all the other tracks in the Southeast to get an idea of how someone actually manages a go kart track. The best way to do this, as far as I can tell, is to visit these tracks and race go karts all day. I have a feeling my friend will write off the $70 he spent Saturday at Carolina Motorsports Park on his taxes.
This money will ultimately go toward an insurance policy — should my friends actually build such a thing. I have no idea how much liability insurance on a go kart track would cost, but it has to be a pretty penny.
These 60 mph go karts are dangerous. Watch a few YouTube clips, and you’ll learn that they tend to spin, slam into things and even flip over. The chances of the worst-case scenario rise when they’re driven by novices like me.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by other novices. I climbed into an unpadded seat in my rental kart and adjusted my helmet and neck brace. These karts didn’t have seat belts — if they flip over, you want to fly away from them, I was told. Without much instruction, we were motioned out on the track.
Racing, I found out, is an unconscious experience. There is no time for thinking. If there is someone in front of you, you chase them like a dog running down a squirrel. If someone is behind you, you hold your position like a resilient kid keeps his lunch money from a bully.
The track went something like this:
Throttle down, faster, faster, faster, hard BRAKE. Turn left over the rumble strip and slam the gas pedal to the chassis floor. Right, left, power!
Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.
BRAKE! Hard left, pinch the apex, Go, go, go. Two soft rights and stomp the brake pedal like you’re trying to put out a small fire.
Adjust your visor and sunglasses. This is racing, and you have to look cool.
Keep the wheel as straight as possible. Brake again and turn the wheel right until your arms want to fall off. Then a steady left. Power. Tap the brake and make cut over the last left-side rumble strip. Don’t flip over. Hope!
That’s the first lap. Only nine to go.
In the first race, I finished fifth out of six entries — my friend was last. But then the faster competition was replaced by an older guy with a mustache, another older guy in a fishing shirt and some dude in a Ferrari shirt who showed up to the track in BMW M3. These guys were no match for me.
I won my last three races going away and posted the fastest amateur lap of the day, a fraction of a second off the pace of the fastest laps registered this month. I was also the only driver in my class not to spin, although I did go off course once and also rearranged a few of my ribs after a run-in with the fish shirt man.
I thought I had discovered what I wanted to do for the rest of my days. Then I woke up on Sunday morning and barely made it out of bed. Every quadrant of my body ached. I’ve either broken or torn something important or am going through the aftermath of the most thorough workout I’ve ever had.
Are racers athletes? They’re more athletic than I am.
A cloud of red clay brushes up over the outskirts of Woodstock, Ga., every Saturday night.
I can’t get this clay off of my car, but it doesn’t bother me too much at the moment. The Georgia clay is more telling than the Georgia license plate that I do, in fact, live in Georgia.
But Woodstock is a different kind of Georgia than I’m used to. And Dixie Speedway is a different kind of dirt track.
Woodstock is Steak ‘n Shake and Home Depot. Most restaurants in Woodstock have the same names as restaurants in other towns. This is decidedly an Atlanta suburb, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly interesting one.
But go through the canyon of chains and fresh pavement, make a right on some random road that doesn’t show up on a GPS and you’ll arrive at the destination for thousands of Woodstockers — this sounds better than Woodstockans — every Saturday. Before you reach Dixie Speedway, you’ll find a packed parking lot.
This, by the way, is a rarity on the Saturday night short track scene. A generation ago, there were thousands of race tracks in no-name towns where there was nothing better to do. Then 12-theater cinemas started popping up and crowding the nowhere. Then cable TV became available everywhere. Suddenly, there was a lot more to do than watch cars go around in circles.
Dixie Speedway is that track that your dad told you about.
Not my dad. He saw racing as a bunch of cars going around in circles. Not that I blame him. We had cable TV when I was a kid.
Racing on ESPN caught my eye when I was four. It was a gateway drug. By the time I was five, I wanted to see it in the flesh. To be fair, my dad took me often to the Ocala Speedway.
The live experience hooked me hard. My dad didn’t take the bait. He didn’t see the appeal in racing the same way I didn’t see the appeal in marijuana. Looking at it now, they’re not all that different. Then again, I’ve never known anyone to go broke smoking weed.
People go broke racing cars all the time. Fortunately, I know nothing about cars.
What was I talking about again?
At Dixie Speedway, about 3,000 like-minded people show up on Saturdays looking for their fix. They set up their own lawn chairs on old concrete bleachers. The bleachers are likely as old as the red and white walls that border the racing surface. This track was carved out of the Georgia clay — the same Georgia clay on my Georgia-registered car — in 1969.
For most of its lifetime, Dixie Speedway has been under the control of a man named Mickey, who also owns Rome Speedway an hour west. The continuity is surely one of the reasons why this track is doing so well. The other is that Mickey knows what he’s doing.
This place is old, but it is clean. There is no alcohol allowed and children are everywhere. For many families, the four hours they get at Dixie Speedway on Saturdays is the most family time they get every week.
Dixie Speedway starts its evening with an invocation like no other invocation at any race track I’ve ever been to. Last Saturday, the track chaplain squeezed in a mini-sermon on suicide and a very Baptist altar call before calling everyone to bow their heads. Drivers who won that evening thanked God before their sponsors.
Upon further review, racing at Dixie Speedway is nothing like drugs.
The Methodists run a TV commercial right now about how church can be a basketball court. Maybe it can be a race track, too.
It’s a shame this place is 90 minutes away from me. I want to be a member.
I know several people who think Jacksonville is a bad city. I don’t know why.
Sure, Jacksonville, Fla., is not a looker. Take away the St. John’s River and the nearby beaches, and Jacksonville is Birmingham, Ala. That may be a little generous, actually.
Birmingham has some pretty skyscrapers. Many of Jacksonville’s tall buildings downtown have board-covered windows.
Still, those who speak critically of Jacksonville are just looking in the wrong places — and there are plenty of them — to form their opinion. I look around, and I see home.
I’m not from Jacksonville, but the city of about 1 million people raised me during my college years. Jacksonville University wasn’t much of a looker, either, even if it did have real estate on the St. John’s.
I needed to see that this weekend. I needed to see all of the bright spots the First Coast offers. The temperature has peaked 100 degrees every day in Athens for the past two weeks. To cool off, I needed to drive south to North Florida.
As I sped south on Interstate 95 into southern Georgia, the thermometer in my car started clicking down. By the time I crossed the Florida line, the temperature started with an eight. Sweet relief.
I made it to most of the neighborhoods that make up the largest land-size city in America. Just south of downtown, Riverside provided a nice slice of Spanish meatloaf and a beer that I had never heard of. On the Intracoastal, Angie’s Subs delivered on its unique Peruvian special that my party enjoyed at a booth with benches that did not match.
A few miles away at Jacksonville Beach, the view of the rather calm Atlantic made the Bud Light on draft taste like the world class lager it’s supposed to be. The rolling waves sang harmony with the poolside guitar player whose baritone voice struggled to hit all of Paul McCartney’s notes on “Hey Jude.”
Then there’s the St. John’s River, which could serve as a metaphor for what Jacksonville is. In some points, the river stretches to more than 3 miles wide. Some spots look so polluted that an errant cigarette toss could turn the water into fire.
Most of it, however, is perfect for an afternoon cruise or float. Somehow, even the parts that I remembered looking rather gross during college seem to sparkle now.
My alma mater is sparkling, too. We docked my friends’ 20-foot deck boat on campus and enjoyed shade of the new marine research facility and boat house. In the distance, new dorms popped into the horizon above the signature oaks.
Even the grass, which the groundskeepers at the school could never figure out how to grow during my four years there — was greener. The tall, fresh St. Augustine suffocated our bocci balls and provided enough support to keep our Coors Lights upright. The five of us gave up the bocci game to sit under a few more oaks that border the new outdoor classroom. All we could tell were old stories.
These stories were great, however. They were likely greater than the actual events that made up the stories. None of us can believe we’ve been out of college for six years. None of us are really old enough to start reminiscing.
Maybe that’s the secret sauce that keeps Jacksonville so special in my mind. I have great friends everywhere I’ve ever lived, but the handful left in Jacksonville who knew me in college are some of the greatest. They all think I should move back.
Unless Jackson-Spalding opens a Jacksonville office — that’s a great idea — this move won’t happen in the foreseeable future. I’ve never been happier with my profession or my residence. And while I left some of my favorite people on Sunday afternoon, I know I’ll see some folks Monday in my office who I think just as much of.
I really am sitting in a garden these days.
But that grass looked awfully green.
The Smok’n Pig off Exit 22 on Georgia’s long stretch of Interstate 75 may claim to be one of the “10 best BBQ restaurants in the country,” but it doesn’t attribute that claim to a source.
Even if it did, you wouldn’t believe it. At first glance, the Smok’n Pig looks more like a tourist trap than a legitimate barbecue restaurant. It’s too big and looks more like a Pigeon Forge, Tenn., pancake house than a real log cabin. The parking lot is equally mammoth and, worse yet, paved.
Barbecue restaurants have character and gravel and a certain coziness. Smok’n Pig has tall ceilings, a glossy menu with steaks on it and a salad bar.
This place feels like the offspring of a Sonny’s and a T-shirt shop.
But the barbecue served up by girls in the T-shirts you can buy tastes much better. The pork is pulled, tender and complimented with smoke and a selection of sauces that could satisfy anyone in the Southeast — sans the crazies in Alabama who use white sauce on their meats. The sides are plentiful and thoughtful. The portions would satisfy any long haul trucker.
Most importantly, the food here tastes special, and that’s something rare for the side of the interstate. Sure, there are some good barbecue meals to be had — Pit Stop BBQ at Exit 63B and OB’s BBQ off Exit 218 come to mind — but many places are bland chains or senseless mom ‘n pops that couldn’t cut it in town.
Smok’n Pig may not necessarily be one of the 10 best barbecue restaurants in the world, but it may have cracked my top 10. It’s the best I’ve had on I-75 in Florida or Georgia.
And I travel that highway a lot.
My annual two-day bender with the Lady in Black is this weekend. NASCAR is on its way to Darlington Raceway for another Southern 500, and I’ll be flying down Interstate 20 toward my favorite race track on Friday morning.
I wrote this story two years ago about Darlington. Give it a read.
Before I head out on my date, I wanted to catch up a bit. I haven’t written much in a while, and it’s not because there hasn’t been anything to write about. Let’s give this a go:
- I’m sure I’ll listen to a few songs by The Band on my way to South Carolina on Friday. The loss of the great Levon Helm is still heavy on my mind. Losing Helm is a bit like losing Dale Earnhardt. I never met either one of them, but I feel connected to both of them. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Don’t Do It” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” wouldn’t be nearly as special if Levon wasn’t singing them.
Sure, Robbie Robertson may have been the chief songwriter for The Band. Robertson was the mastermind, but Helm was the soul. And souls live forever.
I had always wanted to go to one of Levon’s Midnight Rambles up in Woodstock and see the greatest drummer of them all play with all of his friends. I’ll still make that trip one day, but it won’t be the same.
- Team Tampa beat Team Ocala by a half point in the second annual Spackler Cup a few weeks ago. I was on the winning team. We put together a comeback Sunday afternoon that was akin to the 1999 Ryder Cup. For the record, I won both of my singles matches.
I play golf all the time, but it doesn’t get more enjoyable than playing in this tournament. There’s nothing better than beating up on a few high school friends, especially when you’re wearing matching shirts.
- It’s about time for a new car. My Mazda 3 has 153,000 miles on it, and we still have a great relationship. That being said, I can’t help but feel that my beloved “Little Dale” is getting a little tired. The shifts aren’t as crisp, the acceleration not as decisive. There are some troubling rattles that make the entire car shake as if it’s jacked up on Cheerwine.
Hopefully, my car and I will close out our 6-year relationship on good terms in December. Area dealerships, take notice.
I watched Bubba Watson win The Masters Tournament on Sunday by hitting that boomerang pitching wedge on the second playoff hole. I was on my neighbor’s couch.
A year earlier, I interviewed Watson behind the 18th green of Augusta National Golf Club after he finished up one of his practice rounds. If I remember correctly, he spent most the time talking about how golf course superintendents should not fortify their courses to combat new golf club technology. If the players can shoot 30 under par, let them shoot 30 under par, he said.
In 2010, I watched him wear a white shirt and white pants every day to celebrate his arrival to The Masters. I wore white a few days that week myself — it was my first Masters, too.
I had a trip to the Masters pretty high on the bucket list I filled out when I was 21. It was an unattainable dream until the Augusta Chronicle called me up two years ago and then decided to have me back.
At the top of that list, I listed, “Play a round at Augusta National.” What can I say? A lot of people have wives and children. Significantly fewer people get to play The National.
I crossed that off my bucket list at 27. I shot a 91. It was the best day of my life. Unless I have a really sweet wedding or a really good looking kid, I doubt it will get bumped off its current designation.
When I walked off the 18th green last year, I realized that my days as a journalist were numbered. There weren’t going to be any better days as a reporter than my Monday afternoon in Augusta. And I wasn’t going to end up like a character in a Dan Bern song:
And ever since he’s been depressed,
Because life is (crap) after that
Life is as good as it’s ever been now, and I didn’t even go to The Masters Tournament this year. I received a text message Sunday morning that a ticket was mine if I wanted it — and had $65 in my wallet.
I turned it down.
As much as I love The Masters, it was Easter Sunday. And there was no way I was missing an Easter Sunday church service. I’ve missed a lot of Masters, but never church on Easter Sunday.
There’s a passage in the Methodist Hymnal that talks about how the Lord is worthy of thanks and praise. It’s quite an understatement.
I don’t deserve half of what I get, but the Good Lord’s been good to me. If salvation, forgiveness and strength weren’t enough, he puts me in position to see my wildest dreams and goals come true. Did I mention I played The National?
Truth be told, I kind of liked watching The Masters on TV. Perhaps I didn’t miss The Masters in Augusta as much as I thought I would.
Then came Tuesday, when I got a call from the Augusta Chronicle. One of the editors asked if I’d consider coming back for a few days to work the 2013 Masters.
Next April can’t come soon enough.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C. Saturday night, I stayed in a hotel that offered up a view of the Winston Tower.
I have sat in many Winston Towers at NASCAR races. Who knew there was actually a building with the same name.
But Winston-Salem has a lot more than cigarettes. It’s filled with neat bars and shops, good independent restaurants and plenty of friendly people. It’s roughly twice the size of Athens, but it has a lot of the same indie neatness that Athens has. For instance, my tattooed waitress at an Irish pub moved to Winston-Salem “just because.” She grew up in South Florida and went to school at Florida Atlantic University, but she just decided to move up to North Carolina and buy a house.
She digs the culture W-S has to offer. For the record, I kind of dug her. She doesn’t smoke.
There are major differences, however, between her fair city and mine. I strolled around town Saturday night and didn’t see one panhandler. There was no trash on the streets. No smells of urine and rust filled the air.
Neither did cigarette smoke, but there’s no doubt that the tobacco business has treated Winston-Salem well. Earlier in the day, Paul Neighbors and I played golf at a huge city park that once belonged to the Reynolds family. Apparently, the family just gave the city the keys one day.
Good for them. Tobacco may be a bad business plagued by several bad decisions, but the industry is not necessarily filled with bad people.
Banking is the new big business in Winston-Salem. The same statements in the last paragraph hold true for this industry as well.
Still, they clean up nicely.
I held my nephew for the first time on Saturday. Jay Edward Johnson has a big head, and he’s already a snorer at 6 weeks old.
It runs in the family.
Even in step-families. My older step-sister Ashley and her husband Eric welcomed Jay to the world inside a Polk County hospital in January. Eric is at least 4 inches taller than my 6-foot-1 frame, so it figures that Jay will grow up to be taller than me as well.
He’ll have good parents to look after him. He’ll also have an uncle who will undoubtedly introduce him to stock car racing and obscure bands like the Drive-By Truckers.
Speaking of the Truckers, the band’s co-leader, Mike Cooley, wrote a heartfelt song to his kid that wraps up the rock-heavy “The Big To-Do” album. It is not a rocker, but more of a letter in a country vein had country music not been ruined by Nashville marketers.I see you watching me, your eyes just like glue Stuck like glue to every foolish thing I say and do. There’s a safer distance, still not out of touch If daddy’s quiet, it probably means He’s thinking way too much.
Cooley played “Eyes Like Glue” at a rare solo show at The Earl in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Some 300 people crammed into the room, a low-ceiling, no-chair club at the end of a narrow hallway that connects the concert venue with the burger joint.
Cooley played 21 songs, and I liked all of them. The band’s other leader, Patterson Hood, writes the bulk of the music the Drive-By Truckers play, but not all of his cuts make the grade for me. Cooley writes far fewer songs, but his quality control is outstanding.
Fans call Cooley, a dark-haired, molasses-voiced 40-something from Alabama, “Stroker Ace,” and I don’t think the nickname has anything to do with the movie.
He’s much cooler than Burt Reynolds. The way he plays a guitar is a style all his own. He never really looks like he’s trying.
He doesn’t talk a lot, but his jokes always connect when he does. His explanation for “Eyes Like Glue” earned a hearty chuckle.
“I decided that I was not going to be one of those ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ parents, he said. ”But if you have a penis, you will.”
Fatherhood is tricky, as my two dads would tell you. My step-father turned 60 on Saturday, and his party brought me back to Ocala. Since I was in town, I squeezed in a round of golf with the father from whom I came. I think both of them — and they couldn’t be more different — would certainly agree with Cooley’s sentiments.
So that’s what Eric has to look forward to. Like all of us when we were 5 weeks old, Jay’s possibilities are truly endless. Hope springs eternal, and the head of that spring is in the blue eyes of an infant. Of course, daddy already knows too much, as Cooley writes.You’ll want to do it all, And you’ll believe you can But when the best that you can do becomes all you can stand, You’ll know you’re just a man when you feel all the weight press down Next time you’re watching me, Remember that’s all I am now.
Fathers are good at keeping secrets.
Daytona 500 Day is a bit different this year.
It’s a week later than usual, but the date change is a small detail. Something bigger stands out, at least to me.
I’m not in Daytona.
For years, this was common. The Daytona 500 used to be an impossible ticket to get, but those were the days when Dale Earnhardt still roamed the earth. Even in the first few years after his death, the race was a true sell out.
My mom and I swore we’d make it to The Great American Race every year, a resolution that usually came up as the checkered flag waved on the one the year before. We finally made it to the 500 in 2003, which was a fairly unremarkable race that was shortened by rain.
As a side note, today’s Daytona 500 faces a similar threat of rain.
Starting in 2006, as I began to fancy myself a motorsports reporter, Daytona International Speedway became my home in February. Even when I moved to Athens a few years ago, I still sold the Athens Banner-Herald on the idea that I needed to cover the Daytona 500.
As Randy Quaid said in “Days of Thunder,” I’m a hell of a salesman.
When I traded in my journalist notebook for, well, whatever it is that PR people carry with them, I knew this week would be hard. Sure, I made it down to Daytona last week for the Bud Shootout, bought a ticket and drank plenty of beer with some great friends, but I’d quickly trade the Bud Light in for a few assignments.
I worked hard during Speedweeks as a journalist, but I always had fun. I miss seeing some fellow journalist friends, throwing away money in the pools and playing guitar with Monte Dutton.
Most of all, I miss the writing. I miss filing those daily columns and blogs. I miss having the platform to slap around the quality of racing — and there’s been plenty to gripe about this week.
Do I miss my old job? Nope.
But do I miss my seat in the press box this week? More than I let on.
Then again, I’m reminded of the late George Scales who made a good point to some Arkansas Razorback fans in Fayetteville one year when the Hogs were beating the Gators.
“You may win today, but I get to go home to Florida, and you have to stay here.”
Yeah, I’ll miss being a scribe to the happenings of the Daytona 500 today. But come Monday, I’ll head off to my new gig with a smile on my face, free of any post-Daytona hangover that always accompanied my return to the newsroom and the real world.
And all will be well.
I spent last Wednesday at a 30-year-old gypsy’s birthday party. As best I could tell, I was joined by a few people who make signs for a living and a guy who has seemingly made a profession out of taking pictures of naked people.
This table of six or so merged with my table of one, and the result made me wish I had started with a table of two.
For my predicament, I blame my friends. They all talk about how they want to go to more shows, but they never actually go when a good one comes along.
Such was the case Wednesday when several Athens singer-songwriters shared their latest tunes on the Melting Point stage. Betsy Franck was there. So was Lefty Hathaway and a few members of the Bearfoot Hookers.
As good as this show was, I could find no takers to join me. I decided to go it alone.
This was a questionable decision.
Unlike other singer-songwriter shows that have struggled to attract paying customers, this show was packed. When I arrived, I settled into the lone empty table I could find and ordered up a Pabst Blue Ribbon. A few minutes into the show, the party next to me swung into high gear.
These folks talked over the music, laughing and cackling. Their conversations were loud enough to drown out Franck singing in the background.
The Pabst Blue Ribbon wasn’t helping. I drifted into some sort of fight or flight state of mind, wishing that I hadn’t just opened a tab.
Fifteen minutes into the show, the man who presumably takes pictures of naked people for a living got out his camera. The camera was professional grade, complete with a professional grade flash that pointed in my direction.
At some point, the camera clicked in my direction. For the record, I was fully dressed.
A few moments later, a few stragglers arrived to the party next to my table, and they needed more room. My table was the closest option.
I assume there was still a concert going on. I may as well have been in a Bennigan’s.
A diverse cast of characters surrounded me. The guy with the camera gave me a business card with naked people on it — I haven’t made it to his website yet. The two women who make posters for a living fought off some passing compliment I tried to give. The 30-year-old’s family didn’t say much other than suggest that the party should move on to a karaoke bar.
I started talking to the 30-year-old.
“So what do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a gypsy,” she replied.
“Yeah. I used to like to teach little kids, but they got to a point where they required a degree.”
“Well, small details.”
I lied. And then I paid my $1.50 tab.
I don’t typically work out, not that this should be much of a surprise.
Sure, I’m skinny, but I have Crohn’s Disease and a — quite possibly — unhealthy metabolism rate to thank for that. Peel away the button-down shirt, and my body is hardly a picture of health.
It was the cost of journalism, I used to say. I didn’t really know any journos who worked out and exercise regularly. so I figured I wouldn’t step out of line.
But now I’m a PR man, and everyone in my office works out. They go to gyms. They swim laps in Olympic-sized pools. They run in marathons.
After about a week on the job, I was inspired to give this exercise thing a try. I wasn’t going to a gym — too much intimidation there. I certainly wasn’t going to take up running — show me a jogger with a smile on his face, and I may reconsider.
So I turned to the infomercial I saw one morning for P90X. This Tony character leads exercises on your TV for 90 days and whips you into shape. There was a lot of mentions about muscle confusion, but that just confused me.
Thing is, P90X is expensive. Instead, I bought the older model that still had this Tony guy in it: Power 90.
If you’ve ever thought about working out in front of a TV, here are a few things you should know:
- The exercises are entirely too repetitive.
- The same thing can be said for the jokes. I can nearly recite the dialog on both workouts after one month.
- Your cat and/or dog will sit in the corner and stare at you while you do your best impression of a seizure.
- Oh, and the videos totally work.
I’m a month in today, and I feel great. I still don’t look like a golden god, but I look better. I’m sleeping better, too, and waking up earlier.
I still have two months to go, but the results so far are enough motivation for me to keep going. Next time I see you, I may be able pick you up off the ground.
Next time you see me, I may just be wearing one of those stupid muscle shirts. I wonder if TAP OUT! makes anything in my size.
I’m on the road this weekend. Look for a new post early this week — I’m sure I’ll post it to Twitter and Facebook when it’s ready.
My mother loves Groundhog Day. I’m fairly certain she is one of the few people who celebrated the Feb. 2 holiday before Bill Murray made a movie about it. You know, this one:
If you haven’t seen the movie, turn on a TV channel that Ted Turner owns. You’ll see it some time this week.
Best I can tell, my mom has no interest in traveling overseas — or even to the Midwest — or seeing the World Wonders, but a trip to see Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Penn., is on her bucket list.
Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous groundhog in the world. I’m fairly certain his aura was created by the leaders of Punxsutawney as a way to increase sales tax revenue.
The ploy worked, by the way. Thousands of people like my mom head to the small village in Pennsylvania every February. The fate of their winters depends on it.
Should Phil see its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter — which sounds like a lot, except the calendar change into spring is six weeks away. Should it not see its shadow, spring will come early.
Phil saw its shadow on Thursday. Winter reigns.
But there are knockoff groundhogs, too, and they disagree. In Atlanta, Gen. Beauregard Lee didn’t see its shadow, which blows my mind considering that Thursday was a very sunny day. In Athens, Groundhog Gus did not see its shadow either.
Buying into my mom’s craziness, I had planned to go crack a few cold ones and tailgate for Gus’ big day. Then I came to my senses and skipped it.
I wish I had gone to expose the sham that this stupid holiday is. As I read in the Athens Banner-Herald the next day, Gus didn’t see its shadow.
The rodent didn’t see anything. It never came outside.
Instead, Gus wrote a letter. The groundhog writes better than I do. Maybe it should give a few lectures at the University of Mississippi.
Not that Gus is wrong, by the way. It’s going to be 70 today in Athens.
That feels like spring to me.
The groundhog must have the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore on speed dial.
I remember the first time I met Lloyd Milton McKnight, who my good friend always referred to as Uncle Milt — he was, in fact, my friend’s uncle.
Uncle Milt was, simply, one of the best people I’ve ever known.
Milt died Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 70. When I received a text message at a bar Friday night, I had to read it a few times to believe it.
Uncle Milt had a certain indestructibility about him. Strong-minded, Southern, military men who just happen to be competitive shooters often do. When I found out he had cancer a few years back, I just assumed he’d beat it.
Milt was a man’s man. He served his country in the Air Force and then flew jet airliners for Delta when only real men earned their pilot wings. He had been retired for a few years, living in a pond-bordered home that Southern Living should feature when I first met him in 2008. My friend and I were going to a NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he and his wife lived about 15 minutes from the track.
Airplanes turned out to be my in with Milt. He had models in his man cave, a finished basement with a big screen TV, a bar and an armory, of every jet he ever flew.
I didn’t know anything about guns, but I knew planes from my days of rooming with some pilots in college. Milt seemed impressed, and the stories soon followed.
Uncle Milt could make you remember to use your “sirs” and “ma’ams” without saying a word. You wouldn’t just avoid swearing in front of him; you’d want to use proper English. He wore glasses and typically kept a gun within arm’s length.
But Milt had a beauty about him that was magnetic. When I got to hang out with him, I was hanging out with the man I want to be when I grow up.
The way he called his wife by her proper name (Lujean) always made me smile. His stories were genuinely interesting. He could explain something as complex as making ammunition and make you feel like you learned something.
I learned a lot from Milt during those race trips. He showed me how to properly fire a handgun with hot action and the subtle differences between Boeing 757s and 767s. He’d listen to every word of my long-winded racing stories and opinions while Jean made us chili.
I can’t remember if Milt was a Dale Earnhardt fan or not, but I think they’d get along great.
I imagine they are now.
My prayers go out to his wife and family.
Editor’s note: I plan on writing a lot about barbecue. I’m not close to perfect, but my taste in barbecue is as close as it gets.
The nicest quirk about Hot Thomas’ Barbecue south of Watkinsville on Highway 15 jumped out as soon as Paul Neighbors and I realized we had no money.
Hot Thomas doesn’t take credit cards. The restaurant does, however, take credit. We owe the restaurant $21.34.
I thought restaurant tabs were a thing of the past. Then again, a lunch at Hot Thomas may as well be a lunch set in 1972.
Everything inside is old, and everyone is friendly — the staff, the patrons, everyone. Hot Thomas has a lot of regulars, but the service is just as nice to newcomers. Their warmth overpowered the dark light and uncomfortable metal chairs.
Hot Thomas isn’t part of the crew anymore. He died last year — it was a big story in the Athens Banner-Herald.
Perhaps the magic touch on the barbecue died with him. Paul Neighbors and I were glowing about our Hot Thomas experience — right until the food came.
There’s no getting around it: This ‘cue isn’t very good.
The pork is pedestrian at best. The ribs were clearly warmed up in a microwave and, while tender, didn’t possess a lick of smoky flavor. The stew was especially bland, but I don’t care for most stews.
Paul Neighbors, on the other hand, is a stew master. He lived on the stuff in college and well into his 40s. He gave Hot Thomas’ a go.
“What do you think about the stew?” I asked.
“I tried it,” he replied.
“No need to go back.”
The same can be said for our final verdict. I guess we’ll just mail the restaurant a check.
Monte Dutton and I have a few things in common.
We both have written about NASCAR, although he’s done it for a lot longer than I have. We both write songs, too. We’re both limited in our singing and guitar-playing abilities.
That hasn’t stopped us from playing guitar and singing our songs in front of people. Monte plays shows all over the country as he travels the NASCAR circuit. I play every once in a while at different bars in Athens.
On Friday, we shared a stage for the same time. Monte came up with the idea that we should do a songwriter swap, a format where we would alternate taking the lead on stage.
The show was a home game for Monte, who looks every bit the part of a middle-aged sports reporter. He’s admittedly overweight. He’s opinionated and genuinely gives a damn about the subjects he writes about. He’s quite the humorist, too.
We played in Clinton, S.C., his hometown. The small Southern city is also the home of Presbyterian College, which I’m told has a beautiful campus. I couldn’t confirm that statement, however. By the time I rolled into town Friday, the sun had already set.
Monte and I took up a corner of the bar inside the House of Pizza. It’s the lone tavern in Downtown Clinton. It strikes me as a new business in an old building, complete with hearty red walls and a tall, patterned-tin ceiling that was coated with fresh paint. The place was devoid of college students, who apparently like to drink a little closer to campus. In their place, several of Monte’s high school friends filled up the high-boy tables around us.
As I mentioned earlier, Neither Monte or I will ever be confused with real musicians. We can barely play, and we sing in a key that isn’t recognized.
But we have our lyrics.
I really dig Monte’s songs. The stories in them are funny, even if the themes are serious. His wordplay can really capture whatever tone he shoots for. “Slip Away” breaks my heart. “What I Ain’t Got” is hopeless.” “First I Took My Clothes Off (And You Changed Your Mind)” proved to be a crowd favorite.
Several of his songs end up in his first novel, “The Audacity of Dope,” which follows a journeyman songwriter after he becomes an unwilling national hero. I picked up the book yesterday and can’t put it down.
Monte signed a copy his 400-page effort and handed it over, adding that I now owed him — this is a lot of pressure, as I’m not good at owing people. If the second half of the novel is as good as the first, I reckon I’ll owe him a glowing review on Amazon.com.
I squeezed about every song I’ve ever written — and a few I didn’t actually write — into our three-hour set. As best as I could tell, no one left because of us, and a few people actually joined the crowd.
While we packed up, we received the best compliment we could have hoped for: an invitation to come back.
Next time, I’ll have to check out that campus.