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Ort in the sky, Or, How the hell did we get to THIS point, for God’s sake?

Terry Burger and Billy Carlton catching up on old times at a tavern in Athens

By T.W. Burger

Since 1962, according to Ort himself, I have known him as Billy or “BC,” for Billy Carlton. The appellation “Ort” came about after I had moved away. On my visits home, I finally got used to referring to him as Ort so that whoever I was speaking to would know who the heck I was referring to.

It was like knowing Superman’s secret identity.

I ask you, all of you, did any of us think he could actually DIE?

Yeah, me neither.

Oh, sure, we can say that he will always be there in our memories. But sitting down to a beer or two and toasting an empty stool at the bar is less satisfying than sitting down with somebody more visible and corporeal. Frankly, drinking beer with a memory sounds way too much like a honky tonk song for my tastes.

In the middle of writing this column, remembering his collection of telephone books, 45 RPM records, information about tiny AM radio stations and small town newspapers, our first publication together (The Banana Boat Whistler, handwritten with BIC pen on notebook paper,) I was back, sitting with Billy in the back seat of the family Studebaker as his dad piloted it through the Georgia mountains.

I was a frequent and happy tagalong on the family’s Sunday drives in the big, V-8 gray-and-white Studebaker Commander from the mid-50s.

William Orten Carlson in 1963

Bill’s mom, Betty, a little bird of a woman with big hair, in the front passenger seat, smiling back at us. Big Dr. Bill Carlton, a professor of Botany at UGA who worked his way through college as a Florida cowboy, telling stories from the driver’s seat. He wore cowboy boots, even in the early 60s, even to class. He was reportedly a dead shot with the .32 caliber single-shot rifle that still resided in their bedroom closet.

Stuck in Memory, sitting with Billy in the back seat of the Studebaker as his dad piloted it to Amicalola Falls or Tallulah Gorge on a rainy autumn day. Billy told me recently that his dad regarded me as a second son, which felt good. That sort of made Billy my other brother, which also felt good.

The problem, rumbling in the north Georgia mountains in that cloud-colored tank, is getting from there and then to here and now, but wishing I could stay.

As I got older, I worried about Bill’s future. In some ways, I was right to do so. For all the magical stunts of memory and category he could pull off, he never had a real job. Yet, as he matured, he became a fixture in his community; It has been said that having a beer with Ort gave you bragging rights. Unlike most of us poor, working slobs, Bill pulled the world in around him and made it his.

And then the sly bastard left us.

If that’s not a dirty trick, I don’t know what is.

Goodbye Billy.

T.W. "Terry" Burger was raised in Athens. He 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, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a contributing writer for Classic City News, and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

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