Everyone loves to fill you in on their favorite sandwich

I’ve written another Adventures in Food column for the AJC, this one about sandwiches, but here’s a much expanded version, with many more fun stories. Enjoy!

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Bill King’s current favorite sandwich is the smoked salmon BLT with lemon dill aioli served on sourdough bread at The Station at Person Street, in Raleigh, North Carolina, near where his son and daughter-in-law live. (BRETT CRANNELL)

Just about anywhere you go in the world, one thing you’re almost sure to find, no matter what the culture, is their equivalent of the sandwich.

And, folks everywhere love to talk about their favorite sandwiches — from PB&J to tuna fish, from the many variations on the hamburger to regional favorites like cheesesteaks and lobster rolls, along with breakfast sandwiches, sloppy joes, and other cultures’ contributions: gyro, panini, muffuletta, croque-monsieur, banh mi, Cuban sandwiches and pita.

Of course, what’s acceptable as a sandwich differs from region to region and person to person. Darrell Huckaby was telling me recently that his wife ridiculed him for loving pineapple sandwiches (a Southern delicacy). “She says she has never seen anyone except me eat those, but they were not only a staple, but kind of a fancy choice, when I was growing up,” he said. “Dole sliced pineapple rings on white bread with lots of mayonnaise. We always used Blue Plate. A slice of cheese and a piece of lettuce made it extra fancy, which is how I had mine today.”

The other argument he and his wife have involves banana sandwiches, “and whether it should have peanut butter or mayo, and whether the banana should be sliced in pinwheels or lengthwise. I prefer lengthwise.”

That reminds me of when I was growing up: My Mom would make a mountainous platter of sandwiches for her husband and three hungry sons, and of the several different types she’d make for one meal, there’d usually be both banana sandwiches and pineapple. I preferred banana and didn’t like pineapple sandwiches, while my middle brother Jon was the reverse!

Then, there was the woman my wife Leslie worked with, who was aghast at Southerners’ penchant for tomato sandwiches. However, my friend Allan Kozinn, who grew up in New York, also likes tomato sandwiches. “I didn’t know they were Southern,” he said. “I thought I invented them by not having anything else to put on them, and being too lazy to go get some. Hell, I’ve been known to eat salad dressing sandwiches, which is even more minimal.”

Everyone has a favorite fast-food sandwich, too, whether it’s McDonald’s filet-o-fish drowned in tartar sauce or one of the contenders in the recent chicken sandwich wars.

Or, they lament the loss of a sandwich that’s no longer around (a frequent thing in Atlanta). Longtime Atlanta disc jockey J.J. Jackson is among the folks who still miss Good Ole Days’ flowerpot sandwiches; others remain angry at Chick-fil-A for doing away with its chicken salad sandwich; and, when Milton Leathers goes to the Varsity, he misses “their old grilled Swiss cheese and ham on rye! It was perfect.”

When I first moved to Atlanta, before I was married, I practically lived off sandwiches, especially the too-wide-for-your-mouth deli sandwiches at Harold’s, on Marietta Street downtown. Ham, turkey or roast beef, they were huge.

Howard Pousner also was a Harold’s devotee. “I don’t know how Harold made any money,” he said, “because he couldn’t possibly charge enough for those enormous sandwiches. … Of course, he was probably riffing on the Stage and Carnegie delis in New York, also known for mile-high sandwiches!”

Speaking of thick sandwiches, I remember in high school a friend asking me if I wanted a late-night snack at his house. He proceeded to open a brand-new pack of cold-cuts and put half the pack in his sandwich, and the other half in mine. I was pretty sure his mom was going to kill him when she found out.

Nowadays, my favorite sandwich is the smoked salmon BLT at The Station at Person Street, in Raleigh, NC, near where my son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Jenny, live. It has smoked salmon, bacon, lettuce, tomato and lemon dill aioli, served on sourdough bread. I have to have one every time I visit them.

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Dominick Ebwele, a deli worker at the Shamrock Plaza Publix near Decatur, GA, makes a roast beef “pub sub” for a customer. The deli lets patrons customize a sandwich any way they want. CONTRIBUTED BY OLIVIA KING

According to my daughter, Olivia, a very popular item these days is the subway sandwich from Publix, fondly known as a “Pub sub.”

Brigid Choi, who grew up in Atlanta, but now lives in Seattle, laments that the thing she misses most out West is “we don’t have Publix, so Pub subs aren’t a thing! That’s something that people from the South miss around here.”

Pub subs have been named the country’s best sandwiches by the Thrillist site, and Publix will make it any way you want it. Still, their most popular hot sub is the one with freshly cooked chicken tenders.

Most of the time, though, when eating out, my daughter’s go-to is the grilled cheese, a diner classic. The best ones generally are at Waffle House, she said, though she was really taken with the grilled cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop in Thomasville, GA, while she was on a Midwifery clinical there for several weeks, learning to catch babies. (She ate a lot of Pub subs while in Thomasville, too.)

My buddy David Gibson also is partial to grilled cheese. “It is the ultimate comfort food,” he said. “Mine is usually a slice of cheddar sandwiched between two slices of American cheese, with mayo, grilled in a heavily buttered skillet. And I’m going to make one now.”

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The grilled cheese may not fit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict definition of a sandwich, but the diner classic is a time-honored favorite, with one fan calling it “the ultimate comfort food.” AJC FILE

If you don’t want to make your own, and you live in the Midwest or South, where QuikTrip convenience stores are located, Mike Webb noted that the chain “has a pretty good grilled cheese, for only $1.99.”

Ironically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t even consider the grilled cheese to be officially a “sandwich,” which they define as “a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit.”

But, then again, they once tried to convince us ketchup is a vegetable!

To my mind, any handheld dish that puts a filling, whether vegetable, dairy or meat, into some sort of grain-based covering is a sandwich. End of discussion.

For many folks, favorite sandwich memories involve childhood concoctions. Recalled my old friend Mark Gunter: “Every day, when I got home from school, I’d fix a butter and sugar sandwich,” which involved two slices of white bread, butter and white sugar.

Likewise, Steve Oney said, “My favorite childhood sandwich belongs in a Jeff Foxworthy routine: ‘You might be a redneck if … your favorite childhood sandwich was mayo on white bread.’ I must have eaten hundreds of them. Sometimes, I used Miracle Whip, other times Hellman’s. As for the bread, I never wavered: Little Miss Sunbeam. I went cold turkey (not as a sandwich ingredient) when I was at UGA. I wanted to live to 25.”

Anne Segrest Freeze, with whom I grew up, learned an important sandwich lesson in college. “My Boston roommate taught me, from her daddy, to always spread anything on a sandwich to the very edge, so that every bite tastes as good as that bite from the middle,” she said. “I kept that rule when I had my food shop in Athens (Foodworks) for our sandwiches.”

Of course, most Southerners are partial to barbecue sandwiches of one type or another. Georgian Jim Auchmutey, author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” grew up south Decatur, “and was fortunate to be surrounded by good barbecue places: Lefty’s on Candler Road, Log Cabin on Glenwood, Hensler’s in Avondale Estates and Old Hickory House on Memorial Drive.”

But, Jim said, “my favorite barbecue sandwich growing up was probably the sliced beef sandwich at Old Hickory House. I know, I know … we’re in Georgia, and barbecue is supposed to be pig meat. But, for some reason, the Old Hickory House chain did beef barbecue, and their sliced beef sammie was really good.”

Jim offered “a quick bit of history: Barbecue sandwiches were some of America’s first convenience foods. When people took to the road in cars during the 1920s, many of the earliest roadside eateries were barbecue places. It was right up there with hamburgers as road food. One of the biggest chain restaurant operations in the 1920s and ’30s was an operation out of Texas called Pig Stands. Some of their outlets were in little buildings that looked like a pig. Their slogan was: ‘Eat a Pig Sandwich.’ A lot of people don’t know that McDonald’s started as a barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, Calif., and then switched to burgers a few years later.”

Wayne Rogers, who hails from southeastern North Carolina, is partial to the liver pudding sandwich. Also called livermush in the western part of the state, liver pudding is a pork product prepared using pig liver, parts of pig heads, cornmeal and spices.

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“You can’t be a true New Jerseyan unless a Taylor ham, egg and cheese is your go-to breakfast sandwich,” said Tom Frangione. Mick Jagger even praised the classic dish during a Rolling Stones concert in New Jersey. (TOMAS PHOTOS)

Sandwiches rule up North, too. “You can’t be a true New Jerseyan unless a Taylor ham [a brand of pork roll], egg and cheese is your go-to breakfast sandwich,” Tom Frangione told me. “Preferably on a bagel, but only if you are in a bagel store. No supermarket or deli bagels. That’s heresy. Mick Jagger himself, from the stage at MetLife Stadium on the Rolling Stones 2019 tour, cited the nearby Tick Tock Diner (itself a New Jersey landmark) for their vaunted take on this classic.”

Tom is a serious sandwich lover. One year, his parents, at a loss for what to give him for Christmas, settled on a deli slicer.

Said Tom, “Like many a New Jerseyan, I’m Italian. And if Italian delis are your thing, Hoboken (just this side of Manhattan) is a true paradise. Home of the original cake boss (Carlo’s Bakery, which still makes the best chocolate dipped pecan wedge on earth), it also has a disproportionate share of Italian delis. And, leading that pack is Fiore’s, where the daily sandwich special is centered around their store-made mozzarella.”

Mondays at Fiore’s means tuna, mozzarella and balsamic vinegar, he said, which is “heavenly. But nothing compares to the Friday roast beef, mozzarella and brown gravy. It is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Back to Allan Kozinn, whose sandwich memories also skew Italian. “When I was in high school, in Yonkers, New York, there was an Italian family deli called Landi’s, just down the street from school,” he recalled. “Their subs were legendary to generations of Yonkers High School students, and at lunchtime there would be a line snaking down the street for one of their sandwiches. When you got to the front of the line, you told them what you wanted — it could be a turkey sub with lettuce and tomatoes, to which they would add oil, salt, pepper and some other combination of seasonings that was probably proprietary.”

The guy making the sandwiches wore a white deli smock that “always had the wipings of who-knows-how-many sandwiches on it,” Allan said, “and in those days, guys at delis were not required to wear gloves. So he’d be coughing and sneezing into his hand, and making your sandwich, and kids joked about that, but no one was ever too grossed out to stop getting them, because they were delicious, and the alternatives were school food, which was dismal, or bringing a bag lunch from home, which, to a 16-year-old circa 1970, just wasn’t the kind of look you wanted to cultivate.”

Al Sussman, who used to live in New Jersey and worked in New York City, but retired to Pittsburgh, misses “the roast beef sandwiches at the Manhattan delis that one can hardly bite down on, because the roast beef is piled in so high.”

In Pittsburgh, Al said, the most popular stop for sandwiches “is Primanti Bros., home of sandwiches with cole slaw and French fries on top of the sandwich fixin’s.”

For Doug Criss, nothing beats a Philly cheesesteak. “What could be simpler? Beef (either ribeye or skirt steak) paired with cheese (American, provolone or cheese whiz) on a hoagie. Simplicity never tasted so good! I don’t even go for all the other stuff that a lot of folks like on their sandwiches: onions and other such nonsense. Just give me the bread, meat and the cheese!”

Rich Lavery, who is from Connecticut, but now lives in metro Atlanta, told me the “grinders” (hot subs) served in his home state beat the subs he’s had in Georgia, chiefly because of the bread. “It’s thicker on the outside, but doughy inside.”

David Persails now lives near Houston, Texas, but “back in the day, in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, we could pick up a very decent steak and onion sandwich from a small, local chain called Big John’s Steak and Onion. These were excellent then, and the restaurant is still running (since 1972!), though I haven’t visited in many years. Great for a local flavor, and now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I’m going to have to visit when we return this summer!”

In Chicago, Kit O’Toole loves the Italian beef sandwiches, and “our take on the sub, namely putting delicious giardiniera (an Italian preparation of marinated vegetables) on as a condiment.”

Kit added: “I don’t know if you’re counting a hot dog as a sandwich”— I am, Kit, with the blessing of Stephen Colbert and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — “but, of course we’re known for our ketchup-free dogs.”

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The Parkway Bakery roast beef po’boy with mayo and gravy only is a New Orleans favorite. (BRUCE SPIZER)

Of course, food is serious business in New Orleans, where native Bruce Spizer notes the po’boy is the most popular sandwich, although the muffuletta is also well-known, due the city’s large Italian-American population. The key to a great po’boy is fresh French bread and generous amounts of the ingredients, be it meat or seafood. Po’boys are normally ‘dressed,’ meaning mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, unless you request otherwise. The city has a po’boy festival each November.”

Bruce’s favorite place for po’boys is Parkway Tavern & Bakery. “During my childhood, when I returned from summer camp, my parents would take me straight to Parkway after picking me up at the train station or airport, because they knew I had gone eight weeks without my favorite New Orleans meal,” he said. “I would get a roast beef po’boy with mayo and gravy only. It was a messy and delicious experience. I still enjoy going there any time I am in the area.

“One of my favorite foods at the Jazz Fest is the cochon de lait po’boy, which is pulled pork. It comes with cole slaw, unless you order it ‘naked’ (as opposed to ‘dressed’). Another institution for po’boys is Mother’s, where I get the Fredi’s Special, which is ham, roast beef, roast beef debris and gravy.”

As for the muffuletta, another Louisiana native, Louis Mayeux, explained that it’s “an Italian sandwich with distinctive round bread. Along with lettuce and tomatoes, it has Italian meats and cheeses.”

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The hamburger at Rotier’s in Nashville is served on French bread. (ROTIER’S)

In Nashville, Greg Bailey recommends the cheeseburger at Rotier’s, which is served on French bread. “It may be the most iconic sandwich in Nashville,” he said. “It’s terrific … The bread is always soft and fresh, the burger cooked old-style … right off the griddle, dressed perfectly, and paired with an off-the-menu chocolate milkshake (best in town).”

Out in Washington state, Dan Raley said that, “for both my and my wife’s families, the turkey sandwich, full slice, was the Northwest staple. I first had it when I was 8, on a ferry headed to British Columbia. I’ll never forget it. It was just heaven. I’ve been devoted to a good turkey sandwich ever since.”

But, when Raley worked in Atlanta, “I was in for a totally new experience. I had never had barbecue before. I couldn’t believe what I was missing. Beef or pork, it didn’t matter. I was 8 years old all over again. Fox Bros. became a favorite hangout for me in my two years in the capital city of the South. I took family members there. I grabbed the MARTA and went alone on weekends. I might prefer the barbecue now over the turkey sandwich. I’ve been to North and South Carolina, plus Florida and Louisiana, for work, and I’ve sampled them all. Nothing beats good barbecue.”

In Los Angeles, Rip Rense said, the sandwich experience revolves around Philippe’s Downtown, “Home of the French-Dipped Sandwich.” Said Rip: “It was founded in 1908, and is substantially the same as it was then, in terms of menu selection and ambience, though it has changed locations a couple of times. The beef, pork, lamb, turkey dipped sandwiches are smaller than they used to be, and, of course, more expensive, but still great workingman’s (and women’s) fare.”

The ingredients, Rip said, are “a French roll dipped in au jus (secret recipe, of course) meat of choice, with or without cheese (cheddar, Swiss — I prefer Swiss.) A must: Philippe’s homemade trademarked hot mustard, which will clear out your sinuses in a hurry. Eat with a side of pickle and/or hot peppers, and you’re living large. I always add either their signature cole slaw or potato salad, as most folks do. A very satisfying repast.

“Stay away on days of Dodger home games, unless you like crowds. The sandwich — which Philippe’s claims to have invented (disputed by Cole’s on 6th Street downtown) — is uniquely Southern California fare.”

There is a new L.A. sandwich trend, Rip added, “that might or might not pick up speed: yakisoba sandwiches. These are staples in Japan (and often found in Chinese bakeries), and are showing up with frequency in Little Tokyo and Sawtelle Japantown. They’re basically stir-fried noodles with onion, and maybe carrots, on a French roll. Disclosure: I have not tried them, but they are very tempting in appearance.”

Another Angeleno, Rick Ginell, noted that “The Habit is a Santa Barbara fast-food place that has expanded into a chain that now stretches throughout Southern California. Their hamburgers actually rated No. 1 on a recent Consumer Reports survey, beating out the legendary In-N-Out Burger stands.”

In the wilds of Montana, meanwhile, the burgers tend to be made from bison, John Firehammer said. “The meat is tasty, and leaner than beef.”

But, he said, “there’s also a small Montana chain called the Staggering Ox, which specializes in ‘clubfoot sandwiches.’ The bread is baked in a tin can, creating an opening, which you can stuff with ingredients. The signature sandwich is called the Nuke,” which comes with ham, turkey, beef, swiss, provolone, cheddar, lettuce and sauce, with a wide range of the latter offered, including ranch, horsie, Italian and salsa. Unless you request otherwise, the sauce comes inside the sandwich.

And, when John visits his son, who’s in college in St. Paul, Minn., he loves the Twin Cities’ famous Juicy Lucy burger. “The cheese is placed inside the patty, not on top, and it’s delicious.”

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You run across sandwiches around the world. Former Atlantan Brigid Choi recently encountered an entire shelf of prepackaged sandwiches in a convenience store in Japan. (BRIGID CHOI)

Sandwiches certainly aren’t exclusive to America, either. Brigid Choi, who travels frequently, said that, in Japan, “you’re likely to see egg salad sandwiches, katsu sandwiches, curry sandwiches, and yakisoba sandwiches at convenience stores,” with entire sections of shelves devoted to prepackaged sandwiches.

However, ground zero for the sandwich remains the U.K., which gave the meal its English-language name, thanks to an 18th century nobleman, the Earl of Sandwich, who reputedly  asked for some beef to be served between two slices of bread to avoid him leaving a gambling table.

The Brits, who love to nickname everything, refer to buns or sandwich rolls as a bap or a cob, and often call sandwiches butties or sarnies. Miranda Rehm, who grew up in Atlanta, but moved to Britain in the mid-19080s, said, “One of my earliest experiences when I moved here involved being asked to go out and buy someone a ‘sarnie’ when I was temping at a bank. It took me a moment to realize they were asking for a sandwich!”

The offerings can range from the quintessential British sandwich — cucumber, egg and cress, made with butter, often served at afternoon tea — to a plebeian bacon sarnie or chip butty (essentially french fries in a roll). Fish finger sandwiches (using what Americans call fish sticks) also are popular there.

In 1950s Liverpool, where Bill Harry went to art college with John Lennon, post-war food rationing was still a thing, and mothers would take the beef drippings left in the bottom of a roasting pan “and pour it into a little white bowl where it would set with the fat on top and the jelly part beneath. They would then spread it on bread.

“I remember the time before sliced bread, when we would cut the bread, and it would be very thick, so we referred to them as ‘doorstops.’

“I lived in the working class dock area, and remember having dripping butties regularly. We never used the word sandwiches; it was always butties or sarnies.”

My friend Simon Rogers noted that, in the 1960s and ’70s, before shops started selling prepackaged sandwiches (popularized by the Marks & Spencer chain), British sandwich tradition was dominated by “the average working man’s cafe, lovingly called a greasy spoon, which offered the holy trinity of bacon, sausage or a fried egg. Any request for a sandwich made of anything else was met with looks of suspicion. The Monty Python spam sketch was not too far from the truth.”

Simon and another British friend of mine, David Bearne, recall a “coronation chicken” sandwich, which David said “would include mayonnaise, curry powder and sultanas.” Simon said the sandwich, invented in 1952 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, was “a bright yellow,” with an “almost glow-in-the-dark filling of cooked chicken, curry powder and heavy cream.”

To Simon, “there is still something deeply soothing about a bacon sandwich in a working man’s cafe between two thick doorstop slices of bread. Served with a big mug of steaming tea. Just don’t ask me what’s the better sauce to have with it, red or brown.”

That’s one of the things Brits like to argue about: the relative merits of red sauce (ketchup) and brown sauce, which Richard Buskin explained to me is “a tomato base blended with malt vinegar, wine vinegar, molasses, glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, dates, corn flour, rye flour, salt, spices and tamarind. I love it, but it’s very likely an acquired taste.”

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Lyndon Parry of Nottingham, England, said this sandwich, featuring a full English breakfast (bacon, sausage, egg, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans and/or tinned tomatoes) on a soft roll is “a taste sensation, but very messy.” (LYNDON PARRY)

My first-cousin Lyndon Parry, who lives in Nottingham, said, “The thing you have to keep in mind with us Brits is we can put anything between two slices of bread.”

Breakfast sandwiches are big in the U.K., Lyndon said. Usually, it’s a bacon or sausage sandwich, frequently involving a fried egg.

But the ultimate, he said, features a full English breakfast (bacon, sausage, egg, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans and/or tinned tomatoes) on a soft roll. “It’s a taste sensation, but very messy.”

Lyndon’s brother John remembers a childhood treat where “thick bread was dipped one side in condensed milk, sweet and gooey. Then the bread and butter were dipped in sugar. It’s a wonder I still have my teeth!”

John also loves a sandwich combining marmite (a food spread made from yeast extract) and cheese.

Wendy Rogers offered some other classic British sandwiches: “Apart from the chip butty, there’s also the crisp sandwich. Potato chips, as you guys call them, are emptied onto a slice of bread and squashed (usually) between another slice. Very popular!

“Also, the salad cream sandwich. Salad cream is like mayo, but cheaper. It’s spread onto bread and, again, squashed into a sandwich. … The cheese ploughman also is popular. It’s a huge amount of cheese, with salad, and always Branston pickle, and is so-called because ploughmen had a mini meal in a sandwich to take into the fields!”

And then there’s the “cheese and pickle, an old-time British classic,” Miranda Rehm said, adding that “‘pickle’ here is a chutney/relish.”

Moving on in the world, many people wouldn’t automatically think of a sandwich as Mexican food, but Doug Hall, a Georgia native now living in Mexico City, would beg to differ. When Hall was a boy in Middle Georgia, he used to love mashed potato sandwiches made with a yeast roll.

He had not experienced them in years, he said. Then, after moving to Mexico City, “imagine my surprise when I sat down at Quesadillas Lucha, in the Coyoacan Market, and saw on the menu ‘quesadillas de papa.’” That’s a doubled-over corn tortilla filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, then deep-fried.

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The traditional Chinese dish rou jia mo is like a sandwich.

“I like mine with a helping of Mexican crema and red bayo bean salsa,” Hall said. “I try my best to limit myself to only a few a year. But, my goodness, they are wonderful.”

Rosa Song, a native of Beijing now living in Arizona, told me that sandwiches are pretty much the same in China as in America, “though we might use different bread or put different ingredients in.” One traditional Chinese dish, she said, is rou jia mo, which is “meat and a little bit of veggies” in a roll, and looks very much like an American sandwich.

Rosa’s favorite sandwich when she lived in China? “I only remember Subway,” she said with a laugh.

Yes, sandwich seems to be the universal language.

50 Years Ago: Oh, What a Night!

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The Athens Daily News coverage of Athens High School’s state football championship game with Valdosta High. (Courtesy of David Lester)

My senior year was marked by two major events involving my high school.

One, late in the school year, was a riot at the end of an intramural basketball game that acted as a spark for widespread racial unrest in the community, reflecting local African Americans’ frustration over plans to merge their high school and ours the next school year as part of the local integration plan. Before it was over, National Guard troops were camped out at the local fairgrounds.

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Andy Johnson quarterbacked the Athens High Trojans. (Trojan yearbook)

The other landmark event of our senior year, taking place 50 years ago tonight (Dec. 13, 1969), was a much happier one: Our Athens High Trojans, led by future University of Georgia and New England Patriots star Andy Johnson, met the mighty Valdosta Wildcats for the state football championship.

Providing a preview of the sort of late-game heroics that would make him a Georgia Bulldogs legend two years hence against Georgia Tech, Johnson led the Trojans down the field for a touchdown and 2-point play that tied the game 26-26 as time expired. Back then, ties still were acceptable, so Athens and Valdosta reigned for the next year as co-champions — a pretty big deal, considering that same undefeated Wildcats team was named co-national champion with a school in Coral Gables, Fla., by the National Sports News Service.

Many folks (including some neutral observers) still believe that matchup between North Georgia champ Athens and South Georgia champ Valdosta was one of the best high school football games ever played anywhere — and there are some who claim it was one of the best football games they’ve ever seen, at any level.

The buildup to the game, which pitted the unbeaten Wildcats against an Athens team that had lost once early in the season, was incredible. At the pep rally held in the AHS gym, a special phone hookup allowed Athens High and UGA grad Fran Tarkenton, then quarterbacking the New York Giants, to address the gathering. Tarkenton had led Athens to a 41-20 state championship victory over Valdosta in 1955, and he wanted the Trojans to make amends for a 14-13 loss to the Wildcats in the 1965 championship game.

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Jessica Sheffield Jordan was captain of the Athens High cheerleading squad. (Trojan yearbook)

““I can’t remember who actually contacted Fran Tarkenton, but he agreed to talk with us,” recalled Jessica Sheffield Jordan, captain of the Athens High cheerleading squad. “I actually spoke with him first to say hello and then he spoke to the group. It was so exciting having a former Trojan, Georgia Bulldog and current pro speaking to us!”

Athens-Valdosta was big-time high school football. The Athens team flew down to Valdosta. It was the first flight for many of the players. Recalled Richard “Dickie” Davis: “The flight was directly from Athens to Valdosta on a relatively small prop that felt like it was bouncing from cloud to cloud.”

The game was so big that it actually was broadcast in Athens by two competing radio stations. (Not bad for what was then a city of just 50,000 people.)

WGAU, the regular Trojans football station, had the game called by Hope Hines, later a well-known TV sportscaster in Tennessee, but the station I normally listened to, Top 40 outlet WRFC, also somehow was allowed to cover the game, and their sports director, a UGA senior named Bill Hartman (who went on to a long TV career in Atlanta) told me the game was especially meaningful to him “because Valdosta had beaten us for the title my senior year at AHS” in 1965.

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Andy Johnson carries the ball for the Trojans. (Trojan yearbook)

Said Hartman: “I’ve done play-by-play for a number of games, including the Bulldogs and the Falcons, but none was more exciting than the ’69 championship game.”

Hartman remembers he and his broadcast crew flew out of Athens’ tiny Ben Epps Field on a special charter flight full of Trojans fans. “It was a raucous journey to South Georgia.”

Among those on the charter flight from Athens were two of my classmates, Charlie Bonner and Bill Faircloth, who are first cousins. “Our parents wouldn’t let us drive down with friends,” Charlie recalled. Bill added that his dad even checked with his insurance agent “to make sure his policy would cover any accidents. Thankfully, he waited until we were home to tell me that.”

Many other fans made the 215-mile drive to Valdosta. Tom Hodgson recalled he and his brother and sister, Joe and Pooh (they were triplets), had to argue long and hard to get their parents to let them go.

“It was gonna require a night away from home without benefit of chaperone, and at a venue almost a day’s drive away,” he said. “Our parents weren’t stupid. But we were persistent. Persistence won.”

Of course, his parents were right, too. Staying in “a roadside motel with no pedigree so that we might ‘prep’ for the game a few hours before kick-off,” the Hodgson triplets soon found their room filled, “as other fans, including older and drunker alumni presented themselves and claimed space on our two double beds.”

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The Athens High drill team traveled by bus to Valdosta.

Lynda Harden Powell and Ginger “Cookie” Akins Holland rode a bus to Valdosta with the rest of the Athens High drill team. Powell remembers the excitement and camaraderie on the bus. “We had so much fun all being together and watching our Trojans play such an awesome game — and, of course, the outstanding performance of all our team, but particularly our own Andy Johnson. What a wonderful and memorable night!”

Holland remembers “standing in the cold in our bathing suit-style uniforms and marching into the stadium so excited with the drum beat, with [my] insides shaking. Andy Johnson was my boyfriend at the time, so I was happy about his playing, too.”

Valdosta’s Cleveland Field was a pretty intimidating place for opponents. Legendary Wildcats coach Wright Bazemore would dress out everyone in the program, from 8th grade up, and line them all along one sideline of the field. There were 120 Wildcats on the field that night and David Lester, a linebacker/guard and special teams player for Athens, recalled “There were only 32 of us.” (Some guys had quit the team after the season’s lone loss prompted Athens coach Weyman Sellers to go on a tirade.) “Valdosta was bigger than us,” Lester said. “Rand [Lambert, who would play college ball at Alabama] was probably our largest player, and I think he weighed 165 pounds soaking wet.”

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The 1969 state co-champs. (Trojan yearbook)

The show of force on the sideline wasn’t Bazemore’s only mind game. When the Athens team’s flight arrived in Valdosta, Lester said, “Valdosta sent a school bus with no seats, and they drove us all over town to see all the decorations, like signs saying, ‘Dump the Trojans!”’

Another trick on the visitors, Tom Hodgson said, was placing groups of Athens fans right in the middle of the Valdosta cheering section. “They may have thought that would dampen our ability to promote the team,” he said. “I assure you it did not.”

Larry Pope, who covered the game for the Athens Daily News, also recalls that the Valdosta fans “would stomp those metal bleachers all night long.”

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High school quarterback Andy Johnson exuded a confidence that inspired his teammates. (Trojan yearbook)

I wasn’t among the many Athens fans who traveled down for the game. My parents were throwing a Christmas party for the staff at the branch bank Dad managed, and I was in the kitchen, listening to Bill Hartman’s call of the game. Pretty soon, I had several of the party guests in there listening with me!

“That was probably the most exciting game I had ever listened to on the radio,” recalled my high school buddy Charles Isbell. “Nothing like winning a championship in your senior year. I still have a car tag that says Athens High 1970 AAA Co-Champs.”

Valdosta, which had dubbed itself “Winnersville” (and later was named Titletown USA by ESPN) was a high school football powerhouse. Under Bazemore, the Wildcats had won six state titles since 1960, and they were the prohibitive favorite over our Trojans. The Wildcats were 12-0 coming into the game, and that included 11 games in which their opponents did not score a point!

The game went back and forth. Athens got on the board first, but with just seconds remaining in the first half, the Wildcats led 13-6. Valdosta stopped what appeared to be Athens’s final play of the half, the clock expired, and the hometown players started heading to the locker room. But the officials had thrown a flag against the Wildcats for 12 men on the field and awarded Athens one more untimed play. Andy took the snap from center, burst through the Valdosta defensive front and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. Valdosta led by only 13-12 at halftime.

Blake Giles, an Athens High grad and neophyte sports reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald at the time, said, “Coach Sellers later told me that Andy was the only player he ever had who had scored as part of the halftime show. To show what an idiot I was as a young sportswriter, I didn’t use that quote for years.”

Jim Kitchens, one of the co-captains on that Trojans team, remembers it this way: “They may have been disoriented because of the penalty, but Andy got loose and outran the fastest guy they had.” Johnson, Kitchens added, exuded a confidence that was infectious. “He was in perfect control to do something amazing.”

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Andy Johnson went on to play for the Georgia Bulldogs and New England Patriots. (Trojan yearbook)

As my lifelong friend Carlton Powell summed him up: “Andy was a generational talent. He just had the ‘it’ factor.”

Teammate Lester said that, in the second half, the Trojans  “went out renewed, because we now considered [the Wildcats] mortals.”

In the second half, Valdosta padded its lead a bit, then Athens closed the gap to 20-18, but, as the final minute approached, the Wildcats led 26-18.

It looked like Valdosta was going to run out the clock, Giles said, when Wildcats quarterback Don Golden fumbled with less than 2 minutes to play, and the Trojans recovered.

“Sellers said he told Andy on the sideline that Athens was going to score,” Giles recalled, “and Andy just said, ‘I know.’”

It took two consecutive tackle-eligible plays to do it, Giles noted. “Think about that. The tackle eligible has basically been outlawed now because coaches didn’t like being embarrassed. Even then, it was a rare play, but they ran it on two consecutive plays.”

Those passes capped off a 79-yard drive in the final 59 seconds, the last one covering 29 yards to Rand Lambert for a TD with 25 seconds remaining. The Trojans went for 2 and Andy found receiver Gray Sellers, the coach’s son, in the end zone for the conversion and the tie.

Future newspaper columnist Darrell Huckaby, who went to the game as a neutral observer but ended up pulling for Athens after Johnson’s end-of-first-half touchdown run, remembers that, after the game had ended, “The Athens people were all going crazy and the Valdosta people were acting like they had lost.”

Athens fan Johnny Barrett remembers that the Valdosta Touchdown Club awarded Bazemore a new car, and there was almost no applause from the home crowd.

“I remember Valdosta fans being devastated!” cheerleading captain Jordan said. “The tie was as bad as a loss to them. The next morning, at a restaurant, they were still moaning and groaning. They could not believe it! “

Trojans player Davis remembers “the Wildcats leaving the field quietly with heads down, as if defeated, and we Trojans as celebratory as if we had won 100-0.” He recalls that, on the flight home, “Coach Sellers was presented with a bottle of Champagne.”

Added another teammate, Mac Coile: “That team shocked Georgia that night.”

And Lester remembers that, when the team’s plane landed in Athens that night, there was a small crowd “waiting for us on the tarmac.”

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From the Thumb Tack Tribune. (Courtesy of Greer Madden)

The Athenians staying over in Valdosta partied hard, remembers Clissa Spratlin England, who wrote a sidebar for the Thumbtack Tribune about the party scene, in which she noted that the place to be was the Valdosta Holiday Inn, which “just happened to be the scene of about 10 different parties. However, most fans managed to attend all 10.”

For those of us who didn’t get to attend the game, “there was so much radio and newspaper coverage we all felt like we knew every play whether we were there or not,” recalled another classmate, Becky Miller Edwards.

The next day, we devoured the coverage of the game in the Daily News and Banner-Herald in Athens, as well as the Atlanta Constitution and Journal.

Lamented the Banner-Herald’s Giles: “The story I wrote on the Athens-Valdosta game had all of the basics, but it had none of the magic of the game. I was just too immature as a sportswriter to know how to do that. But, even now, 50 years later, that game remains one of the most remarkable sporting events I ever covered.”

Bill Bryant, with whom I’d gone to school with since we were 5 years old, covered the game for Athens High’s student paper, the Thumb Tack Tribune, on whose staff I served as a news and editorial writer. He remembers, “I got my first cash advance to cover the game; I think it was $15, which bought a lot of gas — and beer — in those days.”

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Bill Bryant’s story for the Thumb Tack Tribune. (Greer Madden)

His memories of the game include “the hit that Gary Travis put on the Valdosta player that created the fumble that gave us the ball back and opened the door for Andy to lead the Trojans to the tying touchdown. My lede for the game story for the TTT referenced the Dells’ ‘Oh, What a Night.’”

Legend has it that Bazemore was so impressed by the Athens effort that he asked to visit the Trojans in their locker room after the game, but none of the players I talked with recalled that. However, University of Georgia head coach Vince Dooley definitely was in the Athens locker room, which made sense, since Andy Johnson was headed to UGA the next year.

Ironically, a couple of Valdosta players, including QB Golden, also wound up as Bulldogs. But, because Andy quickly became the favorite to start as quarterback, Golden wound up playing for Georgia as a safety and punter.

Unfortunately, neither Johnson nor Golden lived to see this 50th anniversary. Golden and his wife died in a 2005 car wreck, and Andy passed away last year after a long illness.

That was hard to take, Lester said, quoting his teammate Gary Travis as saying, “Superman ain’t supposed to die.”

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A souvenir Athens Trojans football. (David Lester)

The week after the Athens-Valdosta game, Coach Sellers showed the game film several times in the Athens High auditorium. Dave Williams remembers going to a screening with his father and “sitting with Andy’s father, Marion, during the viewing. It was a special time, and very significant and apropos, as that was the last football season for the Athens High Trojans.” The next year AHS and crosstown rival Burney-Harris merged to form Clarke Central High School.

To folks who’ve grown up in an era when ties are no longer allowed, because everyone found them so unsatisfactory, the elation in Athens at the 26-26 final score of that championship game might seem a little strange.

But as Tom Hodgson put it: “The scoreboard said the game ended in a tie. Valdosta knows they really lost. And I know we really won. Go Trojans!”

My gratitude to the more than three dozen people who shared memories, information and photos for this article. Special thanks to Mindy Moore Bacon, Charlie Hayslett, David Lester and Greer Madden.

Our Thanksgiving tradition is … change

Of all the family holidays, Thanksgiving has been the one that most often has departed from the norm for me over the years, in terms of both location and the accompanying meal, adding a touch of adventure to the day. I’ve written a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about our “movable feast, but here’s an expanded version in which I share quite a few more reminiscences of the holiday. …

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The King family’s Thanksgiving tradition is that the holiday has been the one most subject to change. Nowadays, a big country bonfire is part of it. (Photo: Olivia King)

My early Thanksgivings in my hometown of Athens were pretty traditional. My parents played host to Grandma King and my Uncle Larry (Dad’s kid brother, just 11 years older than me). After the meal, we usually wound up listening on the radio to the Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity football game played for the Governor’s Cup on Thanksgiving for  60 years at Grant Field (back in the days when schools fielded separate freshman teams), and then we’d wind up playing football out in the front yard.

And, on those occasions when the Georgia and Georgia Tech varsity teams played on Thanksgiving, that would be a big focus of the holiday. A favorite memory is when my Athens High School classmate Andy Johnson led the Dawgs to a last-minute victory over the Jackets in a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving night in 1971.

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The Georgia Bullpups freshman team beat the Georgia Tech Baby Jackets in the annual Thanksgiving charity football game in 1966. (Pandora yearbook)

It was, however, football that provided me with my first departure from the usual Thanksgiving, as I joined a Sunday school group attending the 1966 Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity freshman game, which featured another Athenian, Paul Gilbert, quarterbacking the Bullpups. I remember we loudly dissed the Tech stadium as we sat down, and we quickly were showered with popcorn (complete with some boxes!) tossed down on us by surrounding Tech fans. Georgia won the game, so it was a fun day.

Three years later, as a high school senior, I missed the family gathering for one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. Early on the morning of the holiday, I was one of a half dozen staffers from Athens High’s Thumb Tack Tribune student newspaper flying to Chicago with our former adviser for a national journalism convention.

I wore a three-piece suit my parents had bought for me just for that trip. Most of us never had flown before. I remember my ears didn’t unclog until that evening.

It also was the first time my classmate Clissa England had flown, “and that was fun,” she recalled recently, adding: “It was so cold there, that I spent all my extra money on a pair of fur-lined boots that I wore for years. I’m not sure I could have even bought a pair like it in Athens!”

I was the only boy on the trip, which meant I had my own room, while the girls all doubled up.

The convention didn’t start until the next day, and our chaperone, Robin (known fondly as “the Bird”) had assumed we could spend Thanksgiving afternoon visiting museums or other edifying local attractions, but they all were closed. Finally, we asked a Chicago cop what we could do, and he suggested riding the famed “L” train out to Evanston and back, so we did.

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The famed Berghoff restaurant in Chicago.

That evening, instead of seeking out turkey and dressing, we dined at the Berghoff, a long-established family-owned German restaurant near the Palmer House, where we were staying. It was a bit pricey for high school students, but the Bird had heard about the place and wanted to eat there, so she had told us to save up for it.

I ordered a grilled fish (trout, I think) and was surprised that it came whole, complete with the head! I had no idea how to go about eating it. As my intended meal and I were eyeing each other, a gentleman at a nearby table came over and kindly showed me how to insert my knife at the tail, cut up to the head, flip it open, and remove the backbone.

The next night, we visited the Victorian-era Old Town section of Chicago, which reminded us of the then-thriving Underground Atlanta. While we were deciding what to have for dinner (I think it ended up being burgers), one my classmates was leaning against a lamp post, and a police officer, apparently used to “working girls” assuming that pose, suggested the post would stand up by itself and she should move on. She got a bit of teasing from the rest of us.

The biggest part of the adventure for me came on the Sunday, when we went to O’Hare to board our flight back to Atlanta. This was in the days of paper tickets, and the Delta agent in Atlanta mistakenly had pulled my return ticket as well when she took the ticket to Chicago. They wouldn’t let me board the plane!

As Clissa recalls: “I still remember the Bird’s face when she had to leave you at the Chicago airport. And, if I recall, your dad was one of the parents who picked us up, and we had to tell him you would arrive later!”

I caught a later indirect flight and finally arrived back at the old Atlanta airport. Thankfully, one of the girls on the trip, Saye Sutton, had hung around with her Atlanta boyfriend, and they took me back to Athens.

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George Harrison during his 1974 North American tour. (Best Classic Bands)

Five years later, on Nov. 28, 1974, I again was absent from the family holiday gathering in Athens as my date and I enjoyed the lavish Thanksgiving buffet at the Stone Mountain Inn before attending a George Harrison concert that night at Atlanta’s Omni. George performed with a band that included Billy Preston, and despite the fact that the Beatles guitarist was hoarse, the show was quite a thrill — the first time I saw a Beatle perform live. (It seems incredible now, but Harrison actually performed two separate concerts at the Omni that night. No artist ever would do that these days!)

Exactly a year and a day later, I married Leslie Thornton, the young woman who had attended the Harrison show with me, in a ceremony at the antebellum childhood home of famed journalist Henry Grady in Athens. My memories of that 1975 Thanksgiving are chiefly of last-minute wedding preparations — and watching Georgia beat Georgia Tech again on national television.

For a decade after that, Leslie and I traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a Thanksgiving gathering at Leslie’s grandmother’s house. The family was Italian, but the only Italian touch to the meal was the serving of a predinner antipasto with pickled vegetables. In addition to the usual Thanksgiving offerings, her grandmother also made a faux “mincemeat” pie (with apples, cloves and cinnamon).

After Leslie’s grandmother eventually gave up hosting Thanksgiving, we settled back into celebrating it with my parents.

Although born in Britain, Mom went all-American for Thanksgiving, preparing a huge repast that included turkey, ham, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, squash casserole, cranberry congealed salad (or, sometimes, either sliced jellied cranberry sauce, or a cranberry apple compote), her renowned brown bread, and yeast rolls. Some years, to change the menu up a little, she’d add a Wellington made with turkey (instead of beef) or turkey divan.

However, the stars of the meal definitely were the desserts, which included pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, and pound cake. As my brother Jonathan recalled, “Mom had a way with pies.”

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Mollie Parry King in her Athens kitchen. (Bill King)

My daughter Olivia said her chief memory of those gatherings is “Grandma in the kitchen early on Thanksgiving Day.”

My Dad, who wasn’t really a fan of turkey, admonished his sons each year, “Take some turkey with you. Otherwise, I’ll be eating turkey sandwiches, turkey stew, turkey hash …”

The day after, we usually stayed over in Athens for shopping. And, my daughter recalls, that was when Mom got out her collection of Father Christmas figures to position around the house. “That was always a highlight for me,” Olivia said.

One year, we missed the Athens gathering when Leslie was sick. I wound up having a solo Thanksgiving lunch sitting at the bar in a neighborhood tavern.

That was depressing, but my least favorite Thanksgiving definitely was 2008. My mother had died suddenly 10 days earlier, and we were preparing to move Dad into assisted living the next day, much to his consternation. As my brother Tim put it: “Definitely not a day in the happy memory book.”

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Olivia King stripping the turkey on Thanksgiving morning during one of our makeshift celebrations at the former family home in Athens. (Bill King)

Funnily enough, the only time my wife and I ever have “hosted” a Thanksgiving feast was for the first three years after Mom’s death, when  my family and brother Tim gathered at my parents’ old home in Athens for a meal overseen by my daughter, and centered around a grocery store-cooked turkey and fixings. (My brother Jon and his family traveled to Atlanta to dine with his in-laws.)

Since then, for the past seven years, we’ve traveled to the North Georgia mountains for a large country-style Thanksgiving hosted by Leslie’s niece and her husband, Maggie and Richard Johnson, at their Blackberry Farmstead, a 23-acre farm located near Toccoa.

The vast menu for the meal, which usually feeds 25 to 30 guests, features contributions from all the married family members. As Maggie told me recently, “The young and unwed aren’t asked to bring anything. Once their status changes, we usually start with something small like sweet tea or a veggie tray. If they prove to be responsible enough to bring the less significant items, we graduate them up to something more substantial.”

Maggie said that most of the recipes come from her father’s mom. “After spending so many years at Thanksgiving with her, we try to keep it as authentic as possible, even using her same vintage Taylor Smith Classic Heritage Green China.”

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The Thanksgiving Day celebration at Blackberry Farmstead draws a big family crowd. (Betsy Skelton)

Besides turkey and dressing and yeast rolls, there’s squash casserole, macaroni, sweet potato souffle, broccoli salad, green bean casserole, fruit salad, and, as Maggie put it, her younger brother Conrad and his wife April “add a more modern flare by bringing a cold wild rice dish and Brussels sprouts.” The desserts include the traditional pumpkin and apple pies, plus Leslie makes pumpkin seed brownies and banana pudding, and Olivia, who goes up a day early to help her cousin with preparations, makes Christmas mounds.

There’s also a raffle for various homemade prizes, including some of the goat’s milk and beeswax and honey products that Maggie and Richard produce and sell.

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Bill King looks on as his son Bill and daughter Olivia play with a baby goat. (Jenny Robb-King)

Thanksgiving afternoon is spent with Maggie and Richard’s kids, Delaney, Dylan and Fern, guiding us around a virtual petting zoo of animals that roam the farm, including goats named after country music legends (Maybelle, Dolly, Kitty Wells and so on), a pair of potbellied pigs (Buzz Lightyear and Hollywood), Great Pyrenees dogs, guinea fowl, chickens and ducks. Cuddling the baby goats is a particular highlight for Olivia, as well as our son Bill and his wife, Jenny, and Leslie loves bringing Pup-Peroni treats for the dogs.

The Toccoa gathering was my daughter-in-law Jenny’s introduction to the family a few years back, and she remembers “my first reaction was just amazement that so many people could all fit in one room!”

Jenny said she also was surprised (and delighted) to see Maggie’s kids being so confident with the animals. “I commented on one of those chickens with the crazy looking feathers that looks like a silly hairdo (Polish chickens), and the next thing I knew Delaney had grabbed one and was handing it to me!”

The Toccoa gatherings wind up Thanksgiving evening with hotdogs and s’mores roasted over an old-fashioned bonfire.

That may not be the usual holiday fare, but it’s right in keeping with my family’s rather untraditional Thanksgiving tradition.

My ’80s: A Memorable Encounter With MTV’s Martha Quinn

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The five original VJs on MTV in 1981.

A recent post on a friend’s Facebook page noted the anniversary of the birth of MTV on Aug. 1, 1981, and how the channel, which essentially created a broadcasting genre by playing music videos 24/7, became one of her “obsessions.”

In the comments, I trotted out my story about Martha Quinn, the MTV host, or “VJ,” who became America’s sweetheart in the 1980s, and who I spent an afternoon with at an Atlanta area hotel in the summer of 1984, for a cover story in TVWeek, the television magazine I was editing at the time for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

My friend, Karin Johnson, loved my Martha story (which I’ll share below), so that prompted me to dig into the archives and find that TVWeek article.

Coincidentally, it was published 35 years ago today!

now explosion 2MTV didn’t invent the music video (which we called “promo films” back in the 1960s when The Beatles were doing them), and it didn’t even invent the concept of a “video radio station” (that had been done back in 1970 in Atlanta by an independent local TV station that ran the “Now Explosion” on weekends, which later was syndicated to other markets). Another Atlanta-based outfit, Video Concert Hall, had started programming several hours of music videos on USA Network, Showtime and other outlets in 1979. Still, it was MTV that turned music video into a cultural phenomenon — at least, for a while.

In place of radio’s DJs, the channel had on-camera “VJs,” who introduced the clips, offered music news and did interviews with performers. The quintet of original VJs were deliberate demographic choices: aging black hipster J.J. Jackson, who had been an FM progressive rock DJ in Boston and Los Angeles (not the former Atlanta disc jockey); cocky and curly-haired Mark Goodman, who was a Top 40 DJ in New York;  All-American boy Alan Hunter, a Mississippi-born actor; blonde space queen Nina Blackwood, an actress who had the “sexy rock chick” thing going; and the fresh-faced and impossibly cute Quinn, just over a month out of New York University when the channel debuted, who represented the “girl next door” ideal.

mtv logoActually, MTV was a hard sell at first — for advertisers, cable TV companies who weren’t crazy about allotting space to the channel, and even the record labels (who were expected to provide the clips for free, just as they did records to radio stations). In fact, on that August day in 1981 when the New York-based channel debuted, MTV wasn’t even carried in Manhattan, so the staff had to bus out to New Jersey in order to watch the premiere, which famously started with the Buggles’ tune “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Because its owners at the time, a joint venture between Warner Communications and Amex, had no intention of operating a channel that couldn’t be seen in most big cities, MTV did a saturation buy of TV commercials on national and local outlets, with stars like Pete Townshend and Billy Idol urging viewers to call their cable companies and demand, “I want my MTV!”  It became one of the most successful catch phrases of a decade known for catch phrases, and provided Dire Straits with a chorus to “Money for Nothing.”

MTV continued to build its audience, and music videos suddenly became a thing. USA added “Night Flight” in 1981, the Video Music Channel started out of Atlanta in 1982, and by 1983, NBC was showing “Friday Night Videos” in late night, TBS was showing “Night Tracks,” and soon even local stations were programming their own late-night music video shows. The AJC added a weekly video music column to my duties.

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Martha Quinn in 1984.

When Quinn came to Atlanta on a promotional visit that summer of ’84, she couldn’t believe the change since the last time she had been there, when MTV was carried only in a few suburbs.

That had changed the previous December, when the city’s major cable systems finally gave Atlantans their MTV. But, Martha didn’t know that, and so she arrived expecting the same sort of indifference she’d gotten before.

Instead, the 5-foot brunette with the large eyes and megawatt smile was recognized everywhere. Would-be paparazzi kept following her car. “It really is a big difference,” the 25-year-old said with childlike enthusiasm.

Before MTV finally was picked up in New York, she said, no one could see the TV job she claimed to have. “For a long time, people didn’t recognize me. But, I’d go to North Dakota or Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had MTV from Day One, and they knew me.”

Once they could see MTV, viewers everywhere immediately fell in love with the adorable Quinn, the stepdaughter of well-known economic columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. Her bright personality and mixture of little girl innocence and slightly punky sex appeal soon had her breaking out of the VJ pack.

As Conan O’ Brien recalled in the book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” “I remember thinking, Martha Quinn’s cute. She seemed attainable to me. She was the only one whose name I could remember early on.”

Fellow VJ Alan Hunter noted: “Nina was the vamp, and Martha was the girl next door. Guys always said to me, ‘What’s Nina like? I want to sleep with her.’ And ‘What’s Martha like? I want to date her.’”

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The “girl next door” in the early days of MTV.

“We definitely were picked for reasons,” Martha told me, “and I think we fulfill what they need.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic once said, “I think everybody in North America had a small crush on Martha Quinn,” and I certainly was no exception. On top of that, she was even more appealing in person than on TV.

Sitting cross-legged on a chair in her hotel room, and crunching on a bag of potato chips as we talked, she was wearing jeans, a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of one of her idols, John Lennon, and six earrings, including one with a toy airplane that bobbed as she talked animatedly.

One thing that most people liked about Martha was that she was relatable. When she met a big name, of whom she was a fan, she didn’t try to hide being starstruck. And, while Prince famously dismissed her asking him “So, how do you feel?” by answering, “With my hands, Martha,” Bob Dylan specifically requested MTV fly her to London to interview him.

“My first interview was with Hall and Oates,” she said, “and I was incredibly nervous. And there’s a band I won’t name that I was interviewing, and one guy said something unbelievably rude to me and I didn’t know how to handle it. I sat there and took it. My only regret is that I didn’t just take my mic off and say, ‘Hey, this interview’s over.’”

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The perky VJ with the megawatt smile quickly became a favorite of MTV viewers.

Prior to becoming a VJ, Martha had worked on the NYU student radio station and been an intern at New York’s WNBC Radio. “My job was to get sandwiches from the commissary and to alphabetize all the singles. I was stuck in the closet for a year,” she said with a laugh.

Originally, she had wanted to be an actress, and while in college had worked in TV commercials. “I was a Chicken McNugget girl in New York, and, national, I did Country Time Lemonade and was a bride on a Kellogg’s cereal spot,” she said. ‘It was really fun to do during college, because it didn’t matter. But, when I graduated, I was panicked, thinking I have to depend on these jobs now.”

She had lined up a job at a small “beautiful music” radio station (remember those?) on Long Island when a casual visit to WNBC Radio, where she had interned, changed everything. “Bob Pittman, one of the originators of MTV, used to be program director of WNBC. And his name came up and somebody said, ‘Martha, you should be a VJ.’ I said, ‘What’s a VJ?’ and he said, ‘It’s on cable TV’ and I said, ‘Ha, I have a job’ and he said, ‘Martha, take my word for it, this is better.’”

Still not that interested, she auditioned anyway. “I had walked onto the MTV set not really having a grasp of what it was and, as I went out, I thought, ‘Man, I’d love to have that job. That’s perfect for me.’ I couldn’t have invented a job better suited to me.”

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Martha Quinn and the other VJs wrote a 2013 book about their time at Music Television.

Of course, life for a VJ wasn’t really perfect. Hearing from old classmates who had ignored her in high school but now wanted to be pals made her “livid.” And, among the 200 letters a week that she received, were some that were disturbing. One guy started sending flowers, followed by “a picture of himself with a bloodstained thumb print on the bottom and a note that said he was going to come get me.”

As an interviewee, though, Martha was very personable, and we got on well. As the T-shirt showed, Martha’s a big fan of The Beatles, so we had that in common. (A few years later, when she interviewed Paul McCartney, and he was drinking tea, she finished off what he’d left in his cup and put the cup and saucer in her purse as collectibles.)

After the official interview portion of our time together was over, she kept chatting casually, gossiping about attending a Lennon memorial the previous December at which Yoko Ono and then-8-year-old son Sean Lennon had appeared. Martha was aghast at how pushy singer Roberta Flack had been in accosting young Sean.

I left the hotel room thinking the interview had gone very well, and apparently it did. A few days after the piece, headlined, “The Quinn-tessential veejay loves her MTV,” had been published, we came home one evening to find a perky voice on our answering machine (again, remember those?). It was a lovely message from Martha, telling me how much she’d enjoyed the article.

That sort of personal feedback from someone famous I’d interviewed was pretty rare (though I had received a thank-you note from Judy Collins after another interview).

Shortly after that, I got a letter from Martha’s father, a New York attorney, asking if I could send him some extra copies of that edition of TVWeek, which featured his daughter on the cover.

Thoroughly charmed, I mailed him a stack of them.

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Martha Quinn in 2018. She’s now with IHeartRadio.

Martha spent two stints with MTV, up to 1993, and afterward did some acting and commercial work, and spent 11 years hosting a 1980s music show on SiriusXM Radio. Now, at age 60, she is with IHeartRadio, hosting the morning show on its San Francisco station and a podcast on the company’s app.

As for MTV, I stopped watching after it went heavily into rap music in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and then the channel gradually started cutting back music videos altogether, focusing more on game shows and reality programming targeting teenagers and young adults, like “The Real World” and “Jersey Shore,” which drew bigger ratings. The VJs are long gone.

Until I started working on this piece, I had not seen the channel in years, and, in fact, wasn’t even sure DirecTV still carried it. It does, and it appears to be one marathon after another of reality shows, just like its sister channels, MTV2 and VH1. However, I discovered that there’s a fourth channel, MTV Classic, that still plays music videos, though only those from the ’80s through the ’90s and early 2000s.

I watched a few hours this weekend, even keeping it on while I did some work, just like I did back in the ’80s. I watched a block called “I Want My 80s” that included a lot of long-forgotten crap and some good stuff (a good summation of 1980s music). I saw a self-indulgent Huey Lewis video that spent several minutes on a lame Frankenstein parody before finally getting to the song, and clips from Aerosmith, hair bands like Whitesnake, Journey, the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” (the most irritating ear worm ever), REO Speedwagon, the Pointer Sisters, the  B-52’s (“Love Shack”) and the Psychedelic Furs video for “Pretty in Pink,” with footage from the Molly Ringwald Brat Pack movie of the same name. Later, I saw a pop show that veered from boy bands to the Cars to Brandy to Eric Clapton to Crowded House to Elvis Costello, and also included the quintessential ’80s music video: Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” from the movie “Flashdance.”

MTV Classic also showed a video from 1983 of a then blond and vibrant David Bowie doing “Modern Love.” Watching that made me sad.

Unfortunately, they only played the videos, with no vintage VJ footage. Too bad; after watching Bowie, I could have used a bracing shot or two of Martha Quinn.

Waffle House? My Family’s Got It Covered — and Scattered, Too!

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The former Waffle House in the Five Points neighborhood of Athens, Ga.

My friend Ligaya Figueras, the food and dining editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently emailed me to announce excitedly: “I ate at Waffle House Saturday night for the first time.”

“Wow,” I replied, “your first time at Waffle House? Now, you’re a real Atlantan!”

The reason this Midwest native finally had checked out the metro Atlanta-based chain of diners was for a special package of Waffle House articles for the Sunday paper. She found the experience “really quirky and funny.”

Ligaya’s piece about her initiation into WH was headlined, “You never forget your first Waffle House experience,” but, truth be told, I actually don’t actually remember my first time at a Waffle House.

A logical assumption is that it probably was while I was in college, but back then the WH didn’t occupy the elevated place in pop culture it has assumed in recent years, where hip-hop and country artists alike mention it in their lyrics, and you have the likes of “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert and alt country singer Sturgill Simpson visiting one of the diners for a bit on his show. (They ended up writing a song about Waffle House to go on the chain’s jukeboxes, which feature an entire playlist of songs about WH.)

In other words, I don’t recall my first time at Waffle House, because it was no big deal.

That’s not to denigrate the place Waffle House occupies in our culinary universe. I mean, breakfast any time of the day or night. What’s not to love about that? As Atlanta Falcons star receiver Julio Jones bragged when he was an NFL rookie: “In high school, my nickname was ‘Waffle House.’ Know why? Because I’m always open.”

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Everyone who’s eaten at Waffle House has their “go-to” meal from the menu.

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner — or, the quintessential WH experience, grabbing a late-night meal to help sober up — Southerners have been going to Waffle House ever since the first one opened in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Ga., not far from our home in Decatur. And, now, there are more than 1,900 WH locations across 25 states.

Everyone who’s experienced Waffle House has a favorite meal they tend to order. My go-to is the ham and cheese omelette, though at various times I’ve gone with a burger and, once, even one of the 10-ounce T-bone steaks that they sell more of than anyone else in the world (and which they announced they were getting rid of after a yearlong farewell tour in 2012 — only it’s still on the menu, so that must have been like one of The Who’s “farewell” tours).

(Honestly, steak isn’t the best thing they do. It’s hash browns. Or eggs. Or waffles. Or that perfectly crisp bacon.)

Leslie’s standard order is cheesy eggs with raisin toast and grits. Our son Bill favors the All-Star Special (two eggs; hash browns or grits; bacon, ham or sausage; toast (white, wheat, or raisin); and a waffle or biscuit), but he notes that a “waffle and hash browns covered [with melted cheese] are the essential core of any meal there.” Our daughter Livvy favors a grilled cheese with hash browns covered and topped (cheese and Bert’s chili).

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Some of the popular breakfast offerings at Waffle House.

I don’t get to Waffle House that often any more (maybe two or three of times a year), but at one point that was at least a two or three times a month. For Leslie and Livvy, it was weekly for a while, thanks to Leslie’s work on her master’s and Livvy taking some postbac science classes after she graduated from the University of Georgia and before she started nursing school at Emory University.

As Leslie recalled: “The Waffle House at Georgia State [in downtown Atlanta] is popular with students, staff, faculty and other, non-university workers. When I took a morning class, Practical Grammar, the professor didn’t like food in the classroom, so I would stop by the Waffle House each time for coffee. They got to know my schedule, so that they would set up a to-go coffee as soon as I came in sight from the MARTA station down the street. When Olivia and I were taking classes there at the same time, we’d go early Friday before class and eat breakfast together.”

Waffle House figured prominently in the years when our kids were in college in Athens. It’s always been popular with students, day and night. Livvy, who was attending UGA at the time, was on hand in 2015, when a nearby Chick-fil A and WH in teamed up to offer an evening of chicken and waffles. The line of customers wrapped around the outside of the store.

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You can get lunch and dinner at the WH, too.

When my son was in school at UGA, he and I would meet at the Waffle House in Five Points, near campus, before home football games, in lieu of tailgating. Simple, quick and no packing or cleanup. Also, we’d get to see the cheerleaders arrive at Hodgson’s Pharmacy, directly across the street, for their traditional pregame visit to the soda fountain.

The staff at the Five Points Waffle House was friendly and efficient, which was a good thing, since the place usually was packed with a mix of barely awake college kids (a steady stream from fraternity and sorority row nearby), townie regulars and those of us just in town for the game (usually including some fans of the visiting team).

One game day, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (the same guy who’s now Trump’s agriculture secretary) and his aides came in and took a booth near us. I had not voted for him, but my son and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shake the governor’s hand. Plus, I took the opportunity to lobby for saving the HOPE Scholarship (which makes college available to Georgia residents who have demonstrated academic achievement, and which was under threat at the time).

However, my son’s favorite part of the story is this: After meeting the governor, he recalls, “you walked out without paying.” I had forgotten we had not yet taken care of the check. A waitress called me back. “They were very nice about it, though,” young Bill said.

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It was a sad day in Athens.

There are eight other Waffle House restaurants in the Athens area, but the one at Five Points always was my favorite. Unfortunately, it closed last summer after 50 years, when their lease wasn’t renewed, but it still had managed to make it into a toast at my son’s wedding celebration about three weeks earlier, when his best man told a story about one of their adventures there during college.

During the three years my Dad was in assisted living in a little town outside Athens, my brothers, Jon and Tim, and I visited him every Sunday, and, after our visit, we’d go into the WH down the road, where the staff always recognized and greeted us.

But, the most special connection between the King family and Waffle House was Christmas Eve. For 15 years, we dined at a WH every year on the evening of Dec. 24. It began when Livvy was young and was in the youth choir at Holy Trinity Episcopal in Decatur; we’d go to the early Christmas Eve service and then have a meal at the Waffle House.

Even after she had outgrown the choir, we still kept our Xmas Eve Waffle House tradition. It finally ended, sadly, about three years ago, because we found the service had gotten just wretched. (Apparently the worst workers are now scheduled on Christmas Eve. They were extremely slow, and couldn’t get our orders right.)

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Me and Leslie having supper at a Waffle House near our home.

We were very sad to end that family tradition, but, when you have a worker tell you they can’t make you an omelette because “the omelette machine is broken,” it’s time to move on.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a fan of Waffle House. Just not on Christmas Eve.

So, yes, our long family history with Waffle House continues. Leslie and I ate there just this week.

I think the role Waffle House has played in our family life was summed up nicely when we attended my son’s master’s degree graduation at UNC in Chapel Hill five years ago. At the reception, I heard a friend of his ask what we were doing afterward.

My son’s reply was perfect: “We’re probably going to Waffle House, because we’re Kings, and that’s what we do!”

(To read Quick Cuts entries from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)

30 Years On, Michael Keaton Remains the Best ‘Batman’

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The original 1989 poster for the “Batman” movie was simple, but effective.

I was a bit taken aback to read this past weekend that we’d reached the 30th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a film that has been credited with creating the template for the modern superhero film, on which Hollywood now is so dependent.

Back when “Batman” was being developed, things were quite different. The downward spiral of the original Superman films had pretty much killed off interest in “comic book movies,” to the point that it took producer Michael Uslan a decade to get a studio on board with his vision of a dark, serious Batman film.

Uslan told CNN recently that he always had been a fan of the original vision of the Batman as a fearsome vigilante. Like me, he had been turned off by the campy mid-’60s TV version starring Adam West, with its “BIFF! POW!” word balloons and hokey dialogue.

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Michael Keaton was a controversial choice to play Bruce Wayne and the Batman.

I remember being thrilled when I heard that a serious big-screen version of the Caped Crusader was in the works, though I was a bit apprehensive after word came out that Tim Burton, director of “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” was making “Batman,” and that he’d cast Michael Keaton, known mainly for comedic roles, in the title role.

I wasn’t alone. DC Comics was inundated with letters complaining about the casting decision, but Warner Bros. held firm. I shudder to think what their reaction might have been in the face of the sort of kneejerk social media uproar that’s become all too commonplace today.

Anyway, the advance word on the film was that it was “dark,” and that was good enough for me. Plus, the fact that one of the hottest stars of that time, Jack Nicholson, was on board as the Joker did indicate that this wasn’t going to be some throwaway B-movie.

So, on the afternoon of June 23, 1989, Leslie and I traveled out to a suburban cinema with our comic book-loving 4-year-old son Bill, and our friend John Sosebee, for one of the first showings of Burton’s “Batman.”

I remember loving the mood set by Danny Elfman’s brooding, unforgettable theme music, and the film’s opening vision of Gotham City as a grimy, menacing gothic skyline (designed by art director Anton Furst, who ended up winning an Oscar).

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Burton made a wise choice in focusing primarily on the damaged Bruce Wayne character.

Keaton was a revelation. His Batman was as menacing as I’d hoped, and his Bruce Wayne was a nice blend of sardonic introvert and a touch of crazy lurking beneath the surface — just off-center enough to make his Bat-alter ego more believable. One of the smartest things Burton did was make the emotionally stunted Bruce Wayne character the center of the film.

The only real problem with his Batman was the body-armor and rubber cowl, which weren’t as flexible as in later films, meaning he couldn’t turn his head, giving him a rather stiff-necked Frankenstein’s monster walk.

As for Nicholson, while he hammed it up with abandon as an ambitious mid-level hood who gets knocked into a vat of acid and survives as a grotesquely scarred homicidal maniac, the fact that he was playing the Joker as malevolently insane kept his over-the-top performance from tilting the balance away from the film’s pervading darkness.

In fact, for younger members of the audience, Nicholson’s Joker was downright scary. I remember during the movie looking over at young Bill, who was sitting in John’s lap. He was absolutely frozen with fear and excitement, scared and enthralled at the same time.

joker batman
Jack Nicholson played the Joker as a homicidal lunatic.

(Not so enthralled, though, that he didn’t skip over the Joker’s month on his bedroom “Batman” calendar a year later.)

Until the 30th anniversary prompted me to watch the film again, it had been quite a few years since I last had viewed Burton’s “Batman.” So, I watched it again this week, and much of the film still held up, though the director’s operatic tendencies sometimes got in the way of his storytelling.

Nicholson’s Joker pales considerably in comparison with the later interpretation by the late Heath Ledger (now, that’s how you play crazy), and, as appealing as my old high school classmate Kim Basinger was, her Vicki Vale character didn’t really add much to the proceedings other than a damsel in distress. (Burton’s flawed but wildly entertaining 1992 sequel, “Batman Returns,” had a much more interesting romantic subplot involving the Batman, Catwoman and their psychologically battered secret identities, with Keaton and Pfeiffer having tons more chemistry than he had with Basinger).

batman vicki vale
Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale character mainly served as a romantic interest and damsel in distress.

After three decades, the score by Elfman (of the band Oingo Boingo) is as majestic and forboding as ever, but the Prince funk-pop tunes scattered throughout the film sound more than a little dated now.

Speaking of dated, the film actually isn’t overall, thanks in part to its rather indeterminate setting. The Batmobile is quite futuristic (especially with its slightly primitive CGI “shielding”), and the movie appears to be set in the era in which it came out, but the newspaper  newsroom where Vale is working looks like something out of “The Front Page,” and the mobsters’ pin-stripe suits are amusingly anachronistic.

The sequence where the Batman gets rid of the Joker’s poisonous balloons with his one-man Batwing plane — and the subsequent cathedral bell tower showdown between the two toward the end — both are refreshingly low-tech compared with today’s bombastic super hero films (and lacking in the requisite explosions and mass destruction of surrounding buildings that are de rigueur nowadays).

And, the film’s iconic final shot, with the camera panning slowly upward until it finally lands on a silhouetted Batman standing vigil atop a Gotham skyscraper, is as effective as ever.

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The 30th anniversary poster for “Batman.”

My biggest complaint still is with Keaton’s opening line, where he introduces himself to a couple of hoods on a rooftop by saying, “I’m Batman.” True devotees know that he should have said, “I’m the Batman.”

The Batman always has been my favorite comic book hero (Superman’s near-invincibility made him somewhat less appealing to me, and I found the Marvel characters’ many neuroses tiresome), and I passed that love of the Dark Knight on to my son, who grew up on Batman movies starting with Burton’s two entries.

Through the years, our Batman devotion managed to survive the two awful wink-wink campy Joel Schumacher disasters (starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney) that followed the Burton-Keaton films — and which briefly put the franchise on hiatus. (Keaton declined to continue the role in 1995’s “Batman Forever” after Burton left, because, he later said, he read the script and “It sucked.” He was right.)

Eventually, though, we were rewarded with the magnificent trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan — “Batman Begins” (2005), The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) — featuring Welshman Christian Bale as the Batman.

I agree completely with my son, who once said that “The Dark Knight” was “about as close to a flawless Batman movie as I think is possible.”

Burton’s original two movies, “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” certainly aren’t as good overall as the Nolan films, but, 30 years later, I do think Keaton remains my all-time favorite in the role.

For me, he definitely is the Batman.

(To read Quick Cuts entries from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)

Station to Station: Romance of the Rails

Although the chances to travel via railroad are infrequent these days, some of us still find the idea of dining in a rail car — with the scenery rolling by outside the window and the clickety-clack of the rails beneath us — both nostalgic and romantic. Heck, even if the car isn’t going anywhere, and it’s just part of a railroad-themed restaurant, it’s still a pretty cool way to dine.

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The dining car “Valdosta” was part of The Station restaurant at the old Hoyt Street passenger depot in Athens. (Photo by Minla Shields)

I think perhaps my love of dining in rail cars goes back to when my parents and I took an overnight trip on the legendary Silver Comet to New York City in the 1950s. And, two of my British uncles spent their careers with British Rail, so I guess maybe the romance of the rails comes to me naturally. Where I live probably helps, too: Atlanta and Georgia are rich in railroad history — Georgia once contained more rail lines than any other Southeastern state, and Atlanta was founded as a railroad terminus. All of which dovetails nicely with my love of trains.

Back in the Gilded Age, when train travel ruled, dining cars provided a taste of luxury that many wouldn’t experience otherwise. Even after rail travel fell out of favor in the U.S., the tradition of fine dining in rail cars lived on in nostalgic railroad-themed restaurants. Such spots always have been favorites of mine, ranging from a dining car at a repurposed depot in my hometown and the more elaborate Chattanooga Choo-Choo, to the late, lamented Victoria Station chain and the now-defunct New Georgia Railroad.

I reminisce about memorable dining cars I’ve experienced  in a column I’ve written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (To read it, go here.)

Here’s some of the story behind that story:

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The “Valdosta” dining car was where Bill and Leslie King had their first big date. (Photo by Minla Shields

It begins in the fall of 1974, when my future wife and I had our first big date in a vintage dining car in Athens, GA. I was a few months out of the University of Georgia, and Leslie was a senior there; when she was named editor of the student newspaper, The Red & Black, I decided to take her out for a special dinner to celebrate.

We’d not been dating that long, and most of our outings had been to T.K. Harty’s Saloon, a drinking establishment that was very popular with UGA students.

It was located at The Station, an entertainment complex that opened in 1971 in the former 1909 Southern Railway depot in Athens, which hadn’t been used by the railroad for passenger service in 20 years.

(The nearby Seaboard station served Athens’ passenger rail needs in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and was where my family boarded the Silver Comet for that trip to NYC. I recall as a boy that Dad sometimes would take us down to the station just to watch the Silver Comet come in, and we weren’t alone. There would be a line of cars sitting there, full of families doing the same thing. Entertainment options in our college town were somewhat limited in those days!)

Anyway, T.K. Harty’s was in the former railroad freight office, and several shops and other businesses were located in what had been the warehouse area of the station.

Across from them, in the former passenger depot itself, was The Station’s namesake restaurant. The distinctive brick depot building had granite window sills and thresholds, arched windows and triple arched brickwork above the glass. It had a Grand Cabaret restaurant in the former depot’s waiting room (which also hosted the occasional dinner theater production) and a bar called the 20th Century Limited Room in the former baggage area. It all had a charming Victorian look.

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One of the shops located in the former freight warehouse area of The Station in Athens. (Photo by Minlda Shields)

But, the neatest thing about The Station restaurant (at least, in my estimation) was that you could eat in a narrow 1917 Atlantic Coast Line dining car called the “Valdosta,” which sat on an abandoned track between the freight and passenger buildings, right next to the depot. In fact, the compact kitchen for the entire restaurant was located in the Pullman dining car. (The three partners who had developed The Station had added gas jets to the old woodburning stove, but otherwise it was just as it had been in the days when it was in railway service.)

I chatted recently with renowned Athens caterer Lee Epting, who was one of those partners, and he said he bought the “Valdosta” in Chattanooga for $10,000. The Chattanooga Choo-Choo hotel/restaurant complex, then in development, also wanted it, he said, “but I got there first.”

Epting said that, when they started, none of the partners was very knowledgeable about running a restaurant, and one of them maintained that bread service wouldn’t be necessary. When customers on the first night started demanding bread, that changed quickly, he said.

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A 1970s shot inside the “Valdosta” at the Station in Athens. (Photo courtesy of Ginger Cookie Akins Holland)

The menu offered a New York strip, filet, Chicken Valdosta (a very popular dish with rice), seafood Newberg, shrimp Creole, and chocolate mousse and strawberry cake desserts. Our memories of what we ate on our big date were hazy, but Leslie and I thought we’d had beef. Maybe prime rib? However, Epting said we would have had to special order that ahead of time; prime rib wasn’t on the regular menu. “I think you probably had New York strips,” he said.

The dining car was very ornate, with stained glass, and they used heavy china and silverware from the old Southern Railway days.

As one of my Athens classmates, Tom Hodgson, recalled, The Station was “considered the most fancy restaurant in Athens at the time.”

Dave Williams, who works at the UGA Athletic Association now, and grew up in Athens, also remembered that “it was somewhat upscale as compared to the usual places we ate and hung out. But that area was very popular with us when we were finishing up high school and starting at Georgia. I remember enjoying the steaks.”

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T.K. Harty’s Saloon, where much of Bill and Leslie’s courtship took place, was located in the train station’s former freight office. It sat across from the “Valdosta.” (Photo by Minla Shields)

Another childhood pal, Charlie Bonner, remembered, “We had my grandfather’s 80th birthday in The Station building. … It was my go-to place for a big date.”

Betz Lowry recalled it was “where the frats and sorority girls hung out. Maybe because they had mixed drinks at a good price.”

Karen Rabek said she loved eating there, and “my parents loved that it was a former train station. It was so elegant.”

Deanie May Fincher, with whom I went to school from kindergarten through UGA, worked there several years while in college. She never actually ate a meal in the train car, she said, “but I’d taste the delicious strawberry cake. Football weekends were super busy.”

“It was a great time,” Epting said. “We had a lot of fun.”

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The former depot-turned-restaurant in Athens is now the Athens Community Council on Aging headquarters. (Photo: railga.com)

The Station also became a favorite of Athens folk for bridesmaids luncheons, rehearsal dinners and birthdays. Chicken Valdosta was big with the brides. “I wish to hell I could find that recipe,” Epting said. “It was good. We served a lot of that.”

The story of The Station complex got kind of crazy in the late ’70s. In 1977, the lease on the train station expired, and the original owners decided to sell it. T.K. Harty, owner of the saloon bearing his name, bought the entire complex and decided to evict a place called Somebody’s Pizza. (I think they’d been undercutting him on beer sales.)

The owner of the pizza joint, John Mooney, didn’t take kindly to that, so he decided to have someone kill Harty. He hired an electrician who worked at various local restaurants to do the deed, and Harty was shot dead at his home. Mooney might have gotten away with it, but the amateur hit man bragged about the deal to someone, and he and Mooney both ended up convicted. (It gets even stranger; Mooney escaped from prison, and lived under another name out West for some years, before one of those network TV true crime shows featured the case, and a neighbor recognized Mooney, who was taken back into custody.)

In its later years, The Station became an events venue (I remember Leslie and I attending a party there thrown by my dentist sometime in the early 1980s). The former freight area where T.K.’s was located eventually burned, and, after The Station closed down, the depot was scheduled for demolition until the Athens Community Council on Aging took it over and restored it. Their offices are still there.

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The dining car at The Station in Carrboro, NC, which purportedly is the same car that used to be at The Station in Athens. (Photo by Olivia King)

As for the train car where we’d dined, I asked Epting whatever happened to the “Valdosta,” and he explained that, after selling The Station complex to Harty, he’d decided to start a similar restaurant at the 1913 depot in Carrboro, NC, cheek-by-jowl with Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. He took the “Valdosta” with him. That version of The Station became known as a music venue, with Athens’ own R.E.M. playing its first show outside Georgia there in 1980.

Epting, who also started a Station in Hickory, NC, eventually sold the Carrboro restaurant, which has gone through numerous owners and incarnations over the years (even becoming an insurance agency for a while).

“At one point,” Epting told me, “a Chinese restaurant moved into it. They tore out all the stained glass [in the train car], which came from Central Presbyterian Church in Athens, and painted the mahogany wainscoting inside the car red.”

So, where is the “Valdosta” now, I asked. “It’s right where it was,” he said.

My son, who got one of his degrees at UNC Chapel Hill, and has lived since then in Raleigh, had mentioned The Station in Carrboro when I first told him I was going to write about dining car restaurants. Since we were headed to North Carolina for Memorial Day weekend to visit them, Bill and his wife Jenny offered to take us to The Station in Carrboro.

Unfortunately, the restaurant portion of the complex (which has gone through several ownerships) had closed down a week or so earlier, but a dining car, bar car and caboose kitchen remained beside the depot bar. We walked around the dining car, trying to determine whether it was indeed the “Valdosta.” (The current owner didn’t know.)

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Bill and Leslie on the platform of the dining car in Carrboro. (Photo by Olivia King)

The door looked different, but the car was renovated in 2007, so it may have been altered then. It had the same pattern of ladder bars on one end, and similar window locations. (Later, my eagle-eye son spotted a seam over one window that was in the same spot as in a picture of the Athens train car.)

We couldn’t be sure it was the “Valdosta,” but we decided it was likely enough to warrant a photo of Leslie and me on the car’s platform. The bar in the old depot was still open, so we retired there for a drink, toasting good times, past and present.

Speaking of the picture my son examined, I’d been having a hard time coming up with any shots of The Station in Athens, as I mentioned to a former college classmate and retired AJC colleague, Minla Shields, when I had lunch with her shortly after our return from North Carolina.

A few days later, I received an email from Minla. “Look what I found in my negatives (just by happenstance),” she said.

It was photos of The Station that she had taken during her time on The Red & Black at UGA, including the “Valdosta”!

“I wasn’t looking for these, because I don’t remember shooting them,” Minla said. “It’s just so funny! I’ve been slowly going through an index bin of clips and negs — throwing most away. Had we not had lunch last week, this envelope would be in the trash.”

I think that’s what they call serendipity.

And, the perfect ending for my story of The Station.

• A post-script: I just heard back from Lloyd Neal at the Southeastern Railway Museum. He reports one of their experts stopped by the Station in Carrboro to examine the train cars and “confirmed one of the cars is the ‘Valdosta’ as you suspected.” He found part of the name VALDOSTA painted over on the car and found that the windows matched as well. So, it is the same car in which we had our first big date!

(To read Quick Cuts posts from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)