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Never Met a Stranger: Airborne with Ort

By T.W. Burger

The two bikes rattled down the piney hill, a cacophony of loose metal, knobby balloon tires barely hanging on to the red clay trail scored between the trees.  One of the boys was me.  The other was William Orten Carlton. I called him Billy. Most people called him B.C. then. Today, he is an institution in Athens who goes by “Ort.”  Both of us were in our early teens and apparently immortal, because people who can die do not rocket through the woods with such abandon, especially in the frigid Georgia winter rain. Sometimes we even became airborne. Sometimes on purpose.  We were both pretty odd; bookwormish, kind of solitary. Some people in school thought we were gay (not the word they used) because we committed the unforgivable sin of being different. We mostly just laughed it off.  Sometimes we sat in the attic, perusing Billy’s vast collection of telephone books (I am NOT making this up.) I would make up some whacky name and he would find it in some odd book from some town in Florida where the names and numbers took up maybe two pages. Bill’s paternal family was from Florida. His dad, an associate professor of botany at the University of Georgia, had worked his way through college being a cowboy. Before that, I never knew Florida had cowboys.  Our kingdom was what is now most of the Homewood Hills subdivision in Athens. Back then much of the neighborhood was new-growth forest, cut by a creek that had no name that I ever heard, and peppered with abandoned shacks and the stones of at least one graveyard, the remains of the forgotten community of Rabbit Eye, and here and there the skeletons of cows and horses.  Oddly, it was not spooky.  Some would consider two teens spending whole days in a patch of woods boring. Maybe, if we had done it on foot. But we were on our bikes, and those woods were woven over with trails that we had made, sometimes at top speed. From the air, I like to think it would look like one of those “dreamcatcher” objects that started out as Native American relics but have become commercial imitations. Other kids, years later, probably thought they were “Old Injun hunting paths” or something, but they were really the tire tracks of a couple of American misfits.  The best part of our hyperactive days in the woods was going home to Billy’s house, just a street behind mine. His mom, a diminutive woman named Betty would greet us as we slogged into the carport, slick with mud, bruised, sometimes bleeding, and joyful. She would make us strip down in the laundry room and wrap ourselves in waffle-weave cotton blankets while she ran our clothes through the washer and dryer.  In the house, the traditional treat was lightly toasted Roman Meal bread wrapped around Oscar Mayer hot dogs and doused with Gulden’s brown mustard. The memory sets my stomach growling. While we waited for our clothes to finish, we would sit and talk with Betty and she would keep shoveling food at us until we were satisfied, which took some doing.  I have this memory of this tiny woman with big hair frantically shoving wonderful, warm food at two teen lummoxes. I do not remember what we drank.  Some of my best memories from that time arose at that table in that suburban kitchen.  Fast-forward almost 60 years. Billy still lives in that house, though his folks are gone. In the long careening of years, I have done nearly everything for a living that one can do without going to jail and have wound up as a retired newspaper reporter out in the boonies. Billy, who I do not think ever had a normal job, has spent his life in radio, being an expert in some subjects that most of us did not even know were subjects, and buying and selling vinyl records. In the rare cases when we get together, we don’t get Roman Meal and Oscar Mayer sandwiches, but reminisce over artisan craft beer.  I am not sure Betty would approve, but there it is.  I no longer ride a bicycle, but drive around in my creaky Honda Element, taking photos of birds and deer and whatever will hold still long enough.  Now and then, though, I catch a glimpse of a narrow path through a cluster of trees, perhaps heading down a slope toward a creek, and it takes me back.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens and graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, with stints at various publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg, Pa.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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