Friday, July 27, 2012

Reclaiming the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games kick off tonight in London, and we'll all crowd around the television to watch the opening ceremony. In the run-up to these games, I've read a lot of really negative stuff about the 1996 games held in my hometown, Atlanta. All suggestions seem to be "For goodness' sake, avoid Atlanta's mistakes."

Over-commercialization and rigid press credentialing and access seem to be the biggest gripes. Though pre-9/11 security was tight, a nut-case was still able to plant an exploding backpack and do real damage. The Centennial Park bombing that took place on July 27, 1996, was horrendous, but - contrary to bomber Eric Rudolph's goal of shutting down the "socialist" event - it didn't seem to impact crowds at the venues for the rest of the games. And the weather was steamy hot. Atlanta in July. Who'd a thunk it?

But let me tell you the real story of the 1996 Olympics. I was there. I took my two-week vacation for that year to work as a shift supervisor for a team of security volunteers at Centennial Olympic Park. We weren't the gun-totin' professional security team; AT&T was responsible for those officers, I seem to remember. Our job was to give directions, reunite lost children with their parents (I did that three times), keep folks from bringing in beer (they had to buy it at the Budweiser pavilion inside the park) and bicycles/skates/skateboards, plus crowd control and generally keeping an eye on anyone looking sick or getting too rambunctious. The professionals took over - medical or law enforcement - from there.

My stint was one week before the games started and the first week of the games. I worked with a smart, fun team of folks from FirstAtlanta Bank. The hours were long. I normally reported in at 3pm and worked until the park closed, sometimes midnight, sometimes 1-2am. It was hot. But we had been well-trained, learning everything from how to keep cool (heat-wise and head-wise), how to spot suspicious behavior (which has stood me in good stead since then), basic first aid, and every bit of Olympic/Atlanta trivia you can think of. And, yeah, we got to wear those great safari hats that people offered large sums of money for ("No, I'm not going to sell you my hat." I still have mine, by the way). Bottom line, my job was hospitality.

The park was wide open, which was subsequently a criticism of Atlanta's games - too much activity concentrated in one area of the city. Well, boo-hoo. It was the place to see and be seen. It's where the athletes hung out in their off-hours or to celebrate victories. Visitors from all over the world were treated to great concerts and had a ball playing in the dancing fountains. It was definitely a party atmosphere. We laughed a lot, learned a lot, and - trained as we were - never lost our cool.

It wasn't all work, though. Kate and I attended a couple of equestrian events at the Conyers International Horse Park and a baseball event at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Thanks to a good friend with an extra ticket, Kate was lucky enough to attend the Opening Ceremony (yes, we still have the green and gold quilted pouch of goodies). Saw several concerts at the Park (picture above at Joan Osborne concert, I think). I also had volunteer shifts in front of All Saints', fortuitously located between the North Avenue MARTA station and Olympic Village where the athletes were staying. We gave directions, handed out water and snacks, and invited folks to come in from the heat, say a prayer, meditate, whatever. Many took us up on that.

Yeah, it was a big commercial event, but that was seen as a huge plus at the time. We kept hearing horror stories about Montreal still deep in debt from its 1976 games, and Atlanta was just not going there. I think the city ended up in the black by about $10 million, so thank you Coca-Cola, AT&T, IBM, and Budweiser. The thing is, I notice London's games are even more commercialized than Atlanta's. Here's hoping my English friends come out ahead, too. You do not want to be paying for this twenty years down the road.

The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta were wonderful. We had the best, friendliest, most helpful  volunteers on the planet (and I believe that record still stands). The athletic events set an unprecedented number of world records. Most of the visitors were just happy to be there and really got into the Olympic spirit. So hate on our games all you want, just understand that your negative view is colored by a prickly press corps and sour IOC officials. OK, our mascot was ridiculous, but thank God, London's is even worse. Leave Izzy alone now.

Ali lighting the flame. Kerri Strug making that vault. The Brazilian soccer team bringing me one of its t-shirts as a thank-you for directing them to the Budweiser tent. That frozen lemonade concoction. Collecting and trading pins. Those gorgeous blue-green butterflies at the Opening Ceremony, plus Gladys Knight singing Georgia on My Mind.

Awesome, Atlanta! Thank you for the opportunity to serve my city, my country, and the world.

Monday, July 16, 2012

One Good Guy

I lost a childhood friend this weekend. Steven Clark, who shared the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds of my elementary and junior high school with me, died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday.

Steve and I hadn't seen each other since we graduated from Brainerd Jr. High in 1966, but thanks to the power of Facebook, we reconnected a couple of years ago. I remembered him as kind, smart, and thoughtful. From our Facebook communications I learned he was still all those things and more.

The two of us shared a classroom all the way through elementary school. His face is in every single class picture I have, from first through sixth grades. (He's in the white shirt holding up half of the PTA award banner in our fifth grade picture above. That's little me grinning for all I'm worth, hands folded, below him.) Steve was big brother to four younger siblings, the very model of what a big bro should be. He never got caught up in any crazy school kid drama - whereas, I was always in the midst of it - and was always the even keel with a word of encouragement and friendship. One good kid.

As soon as we found each other on Facebook, Steve emailed me and said "We just have to talk!"  He called, and we spent the better part of an hour filling in the years in between - family, vocations, music, religion, memories. You name it, we talked about it. He sounded the same. We laughed a lot about things done and left undone (for which you're supposed to repent, I know). As a church organist, he had occasion to play in Episcopal churches; we spent time affirming our love for the great choral tradition and liturgy of my church. We brought each other up to date on where various classmates were and what they were doing. Just like two friends catching up after summer vacation - a very long summer vacation.

My travels took me to/through Nashville twice since reconnecting with Steve, both family events allowing no opportunity to  meet up with my old friend. I was hoping we'd have more time in the coming years to get together, but it wasn't to be. My brother David died of pancreatic cancer in 1990, and when I heard Steve's news in February, it gave me a jolt. Yet, I really hoped that medicine had come far enough along on the disease in the last couple of decades to make the prognosis not as dire as it had been for us. Alas, it hasn't come far enough.

I do feel fortunate to have learned that the good kid I knew all those years ago grew up to be one good guy. Rest in joy and peace, Steve Clark.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Summer Reading List Update

I know you have been at the edge of your seats wondering how my summer reading effort is getting along. Well, here it is July, and I am doing my best to fill in each category. Here's the tally so far:
  • 2 Biographies: Well, I have two ready to go, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (OK, I'm including autobiographies in the biography section - sue me) and Kindred Souls, about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and David Gurewitsch, both via my iPod. I did listen to Tina Fey read her Bossypants - hilarious, giggled all the way through, but since it's about show-biz, I won't count it (though I highly recommend giving it a listen). 
  • 2 fiction (not junk): As you can imagine I've already overloaded this category. Finally read Henry James' Washington Square. Also, Summer by Edith Wharton. Currently reading Pure, by Andrew Miller - excellent story about clearing out Les Innocents cemetery in pre-Revolution Paris. 
  • 2 non-fiction: Just finished The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, read in the hope of giving me some insight into my bad (and good) habits. Now, I just need to switch around a few cue-behavior-reward patterns, and I'm all set. Next up: Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.
  • 2 theology/religion: Only one, so far: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Beyond that, I haven't a clue.  Still searching. Looking for suggestions.
  • 1 self-help: Nothing selected so far. I may look for another non-fiction and move The Power of Habit into this slot. Or maybe Bossypants, since it gave me lots of laughs and a light heart.
I have stacks and stacks of fiction ready to go, and by "stacks," I include audiobooks and Kindle e-books, as well as books made from trees.  It has been a test of mental fortitude to stick to my categories in this dreadful heat, though none of my choices have disappointed so far. Still, I long to read a mindless mystery or tawdry beach-book.

If I get through this competition with myself, a great big hot fudge sundae is waiting for me at the end. Yeah. One of those bad cue-behavior-reward habit cycles I refuse to break.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Irish of Old New York

After six years of self-guided New York City tours, I felt the need to break out and find better ways to discover/uncover all the city has to offer. I found "Friendly Native New Yorker Walking Tours" on Meetup and figured, what the heck, and signed up. The first tour available, The Irish of Old New York, was yesterday.

Because of the extreme heat we're experiencing right now, our guide Linda kindly moved the original time of 12:45pm to 6pm (thank you very much!). With my $15 cash in hand - the charge for each tour, comfortable walking shoes, and lightweight clothing, I met up with the group in front of St. Paul's Chapel to begin the tour.

Why begin a tour about the Irish at an Episcopal Chapel, you might wonder (as did I)? Well, it seems two early prominent Irish transplants have monuments in St. Paul's cemetery, though neither is buried there. Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827), Irish revolutionary and American lawyer, and Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), the father of modern chemistry, have cenotaphs - both engraved with the Irish harp and clasped hands - in cemeteries on either side of the church. And smack dab on front of St. Paul's is a monument in memory of Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery, who died at the Battle of Quebec in 1775.

We moved on to City Hall, co-designed by Irish-American John McComb, Jr. in 1803. He also designed Gracie Mansion and Castle Clinton, by the way. Our guide enlightened us about one of the early governors of New York, Thomas Dongan, whose residence stood on the site of what was the New York Times building and is now Pace University. We heard wild stories of the Irish who helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. How that thing ever got built is beyond me.

At Chambers and Broadway stands what once was A.T. Stewart's Marble Palace, the first department store in the United States. Next door (on Chambers) is the old Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, which provided financial services for Irish emigrants. Both are across the street from the Tweed Courthouse (yeah, that Tweed). Boss Tweed was not Irish, but his Tammany Hall cohorts bought many a vote from Irish emigrants via jobs, health care, and other services.

We passed through the splendiferous Municipal Building on our way to notorious Five Points, famous for Gangs of New York. Once the roughest area of the city, it's now an area with a little park, row houses, businesses, courthouses, and government buildings. Such scary history, though. When the old brewery was converted to tenement housing in 1837, as many as 1200 people lived there. Murder, disease, dead bodies. Lovely. We also got the scoop on the Draft Riots of 1863. Seems most of the names drawn were poor Irish, and violence ensued.

The tour ended at St. James Church, where the United States branch of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians was founded in 1836. The AOH sponsors the ever-popular St. Patrick's Day Parade each year in New York City. Erin go yadda-yadda.

So, there you have it. A recap of our two-and-a-half hour walking tour. Well worth $15. The group - many of them regulars - was friendly and our guide knowledgeable. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the next meet-up.

But I don't think I'll ever want to live any place called The Old Brewery.