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At rest on the tracks

By Walter Geiger The old man walked out onto the railroad tracks where so much history has been made and observed. The trestle over River Road seemed a little worse for wear than it had on his last visit over 40 years prior. He took his time crossing on the creosote railroad ties that he had scampered across in his youth. The asphalt below seemed a much more perilous plunge. He was accompanied by his youngest daughter now one amongst the legions of beautiful coeds the town is famous for. They stopped and turned to the east and looked over the expanse of Oconee Hill Cemetery. They turned to the west and the massive eastern wall of Sanford Stadium. The old man explained to his daughter how things were before the stadium was enclosed ‘“ how the track people could look down onto the playing field when the Bulldogs were in town. He told her of the epic battle with Alabama and Bear Bryant in 1976 ‘“ the game which holds the record for the largest and longest celebration in UGA football history. The track people staked out their spots on Friday and spent the night there in sleeping bags or under blankets. More than a few rolled down the hill and into the street below as they drifted off and their muscles relaxed. The man knew such a roll today would likely put him in the hospital or, worse, the nursing home if it didn’t kill him outright. On the other side of the stadium that Friday night long ago, the Alabama players could not sleep for the party going on outside the Holiday Inn where visiting teams stayed back then. The Bear finally had his players move their mattresses into the halls in order to get some rest before the big game. There was little to be had. Saturday morning, the Alabama buses arrived at the stadium right below the tracks. They were not greeted warmly. The gravel base of the tracks provided multiple weapons for harassment and intimidation. The shellacking continued on the field as Georgia powered to a 21-0 win and the inside track to the SEC championship. The postgame celebration was even wilder and 10 blocks of Milledge Avenue ‘“ fraternity row back then ‘“ had to be closed off as a street party raged long into the night. There were so many stories from the tracks ‘“so many great games and great players. They all ran together in his mind. Games played in the heat. Games played in driving rain and at least one played in sleet, snow and ice. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag containing a portion of the cremains of Garry West. He had spooned them into the bag from a red urn emblazoned with a black G after a memorial service in Homosassa, Fla. a few weeks earlier. He had met Garry at River Mill Apartments which he could see from the spot on the tracks he shared with his daughter. He and Garry had been friends, roommates and in each other’s weddings. They had raised their share of hell. They had also watched many football games together from the tracks. Garry West was a salesman. We joked he could sell screen doors to a submarine captain. He sold various things until cancer took him out in December. Thankfully, he didn’t suffer long. Garry’s high school sweetheart, Lisa Lovingood, was killed in the wee hours of morning on Oct. 2, 1976 ‘“ the day Alabama was dethroned. She and her roommate were returning to Athens for the game after working an auction in Gainesville when their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Both of them were killed instantly. The drunk walked away. Garry got the news of Lisa’s death on the tracks. Though all the landmarks were different, the man tried to find the spot where they spent that eventful night. He could see slices of the green turf of Vince Dooley Field through gaps in the mass of concrete before him. He opened the plastic bag and released its contents onto the gravel at their feet. As they turned to leave, the man was overcome by the memories ‘“ good and bad but mostly good. He had been asked to spread the cremains in Athens and he could think of no better place than here on the tracks. It seemed appropriate. Though one can no longer see the field from their former perch, he knew Garry now had the best seat in the house. Walter Geiger is publisher of The Herald Gazette and Pike County Journal Reporter.

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