The Worst and Best Thanksgiving

What began as the worst Thanksgiving of my life became what might have been the best.

It was four years ago, 2012. You remember, the end of the world. A year earlier I’d written a song about it with the hook, “you can stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, 2012’s just around the corner and the shit’s about to fly, don’t get no second chances, might as well enjoy the ride, before ya stick your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye …” Yeah, that year.

We had a lot planned for November. It was my wife’s 50th birthday on Nov. 8. We weren’t even thinking about Thanksgiving yet. We were gonna have a big party. Our daughter Samantha and her husband Eric had flown into town. So had my brother Steve. I’d secretly put together a video of 50 people delivering happy birthday messages to Jane, some of them were folks she hadn’t seen in decades – her uncle in England, childhood friends and so forth. This was going to be her surprise gift before everything went to hell and we nearly lost our son.

The day before her birthday, Joe started running a high fever. Then he started coughing. Then he was throwing up something ugly and black. I found a huge wound on the back of his shoulder that had been the size of a small pimple the day before. Staph infection. It put him in the hospital for an entire month, Scottish Rite. At one point, the docs had to induce coma for a couple of days, partly because my boy couldn’t relax enough to be probably intubated. Truly wretched times.

Every night, one of us slept in his room (Mom, typically), and the other one had to find different arrangements. Usually, this meant getting your name on “the list” for a parent’s guest room at Scottish Rite. These were, basically, little rooms about the size of a walk-in closet with a bed. There was competition for these rooms because there always seemed to be more dads than there were rooms available. So, I spent some nights sleeping out in our van.

The night before Thanksgiving, though, was kind of cold and I decided to “spoil” myself by staying in a nearby hotel. On my way to the hotel, I was rear-ended. Damaged the back of our handicap-accessible van (our only means of road travel with Joe). I was already a raw nerve, so when I got out of the van to talk to the guy who hit me, I was not in a good mood. Didn’t matter that the dude was the size of a defensive end, I was in his face. To his grace and credit, he was calm and apologetic and hundreds of miles from home. We exchanged information and I went to my hotel room and probably cried, weeks of helpless frustration pouring out in curses and other ugly lamentations.

Hope and gratitude were in short supply the next morning. But I got to Scottish Rite early for another day in the house of healing, where the hospital staff had big things planned for their depressed and depressing charges. Good, kind people (businesses, but businesses are made up of people) had donated a bunch of roasted turkeys and all of the rest, and there was going to be a Thanksgiving dinner on our floor. Then came the good news that Joe was getting moved from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to a regular room. There’s your hope, running point for the gratitude to come.

Then our wonderful, dearest and loveliest of friends, Tommy and Terri, on their way back home to Sautee Nacoochee from South Georgia, stopped by for a visit. T and T are like our siblings from other mothers. They’ve known Joe since he was a tyke and always have treated him with love and respect and they’d been missing him, so here they were, and here they stayed, because Tommy got pressed into service.

My overriding memory of that Thanksgiving is of Tommy skillfully tearing into those turkeys, using whatever tools were available – plastic knives and forks mainly, slicing the birds, prepping and presenting them for the tired, hungry hordes. We went through a dozen of those birds. Slicing, cutting, occasionally ripping, little bits of meat flying like sawdust. Nurses brought in trays and pots and buckets of food, jugs of tea. We feasted together in Joe’s new hospital room.

I’ve always loved this ridiculous holiday marked by overindulgence and sappy emotions, mostly because of whom it brought together – mom and dad and brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles and aunts by the dozen, small armies of mostly Italians. Family. Thanksgiving. Let it be.

I’ve got 50 memories of 50 meals, of arguing over the drumstick, of stuffed mushrooms and stuffed tummies, of dark beer and football games, of family drama, of stories from my father about how he had managed to take down the monster turkey we were now consuming (a bird from some grocery store freezer, but he always claimed it had been stalking the woods near our house, six-feet tall at the shoulders). Lots of Thanksgiving memories, grainy, lovely, comfortable.

But that year at Scottish Rite, the least comfortable Thanksgiving, with my son on the mend after lurching toward the edge, my wife and I hallow-eyed but happy, loving friends pitching in around a hospital break-room for a hasty feast … it’s a scene I’d rather not repeat, but one I never want to forget. It was the most heartfelt giving and sharing of thanks I can remember.

The Two Lives of Bernard Taylor

This was published in Georgia Super Lawyers, March 2008. I recently had the opportunity to revisit Mr. Taylor for another story, but I was reminded of this story, one of my favorites in 10 years of writing for the Super Lawyers folks. This man’s life could be a good movie.

 

The scene unfolds at sudden-death speed.

Bernard Taylor, an undercover cop in 1970s Detroit, enters a darkened house with a shotgun to make a bust. From the front room a rifle is fired, but—as will be discovered later—gunpowder pulverizes the bullet in the chamber and the old .22 simply spits tiny bits of lead and powder off the bill of Taylor’s cap and into his eye. Taylor, hardly blinking, levels his shotgun. At that moment, he hears children’s voices coming from the gloom behind the shooter.

“I didn’t shoot,” says Taylor, now a partner at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, where for the past 25 years he’s worked as a trial lawyer. “I didn’t want to take a chance on hitting those kids. So I made the guy drop his gun and surrender. I was really fortunate. It could have been a disaster.” As it turned out, he was named police officer of the year.

“Funny how life is,” he adds.

Yeah, funny. Also sad, thrilling, horrifying—Taylor’s life would make a hell of a movie: How an African-American foster child, whose mother went to prison for reasons he can’t or won’t recall, grows up to become an undercover narcotics detective, putting away drug kingpins and corrupt cops, then leaves the force to become a defense attorney working commercial litigation, products liability and toxic tort lawsuits. Someone call Sidney Lumet.

But Taylor, who considers himself a movie buff (Doctor Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey are his favorites), isn’t comfortable talking about the first half of his life. At the same time, he’s too polite to refuse a writer’s nagging questions.

“My colleagues know that I was a police officer, they know I worked undercover, but I never say much to them about it,” he says.

Others are less reticent.

“BT was a selfless and heroic cop, and I was glad he got out when he did, because I truly believe he would have been killed,” says Justin Ravitz, an avowed Marxist who became a legendary criminal court judge in Detroit. “BT literally was the Frank Serpico of the Detroit Police Department.”

Serpico, the detective who exposed rampant corruption in the New York police department, became famous after the release of the 1973 film Serpico starring Al Pacino. Taylor has achieved his fame as a lawyer.

He’s successfully represented corporate giants, chaired his firm’s products liability group and management committee, and in 2006, was named a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was asked to deliver an acceptance speech on behalf of all inductees, including John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A model citizen who volunteers for UNICEF and is president of the Dekalb County chapter of 100 Black Men of America, Taylor is the father of three daughters and one son: Bernard Taylor II, a trial lawyer in Chicago.

Taylor has distanced himself from what he calls “old demons”; but when colleagues talk about Taylor’s renowned courtroom unflappability, they inevitably bring up his past.

“Given Bernard’s history, it’s almost cheating when it comes to what he brings to the table,” says Gino Brogdon, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge and former Alston & Bird attorney, who recently helped launch Brogdon, Davis & Adams in Atlanta.

“Here is a guy who was an undercover cop in the ’70s. If you weren’t prepared doing the stuff he did, you die. It wasn’t pretty. He’s seen some terrible things—things that most of us would not be able to withstand mentally. He’s had the cold steel of a weapon pressed against his temple. He’s been shot.

“So there is nothing you can do in a courtroom to ruffle his feathers. Nothing.”

Brogdon didn’t know Taylor the cop, but he considers Taylor the lawyer his best friend and mentor, and compares him to Walter Payton, the late NFL running back.

“Payton had a workout that very few people could withstand, but everybody appreciated his beauty on Sunday,” Brogdon says. “Bernard is the Payton of trial work. He wins not only because of his superior talent in the courtroom, but because he works harder in the dark than any lawyer who ever picked up a briefcase.”

“I think it’s partly his early life training as a police officer,” adds Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, a one-time Alston & Bird colleague. “But it’s his character that allowed him to handle the sort of undercover work he was doing. He once told me—one of the few times he’s been willing to talk about it—that when he was working undercover he stumbled on things that just made him want to throw up. But it never made him unsteady.”

It did, however, make him leave his hometown.

“Detroit was a wonderful place to live in the 1950s,” Taylor remembers. “We had about 1.6 million people living there [and] it was very ethnically diverse. I grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that was right next to a Polish-American neighborhood, which was right next to a German neighborhood, which was next to an Italian neighborhood, and so on.”

As a teen, he lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and went to a predominantly Jewish school: Mumford High, made famous by the T-shirt Eddie Murphy later wore in Beverly Hills Cop.

Taylor, 58, spent the first seven years of his life in foster care before moving in with his grandmother, who had already raised 14 kids. Later, his aunt, Dorothy Perkins, took care of him. “[She was] the first person who showed me that I could do something with my life if I wanted to,” he says.

He wanted to be a cop.

“I think it was my mother’s situation that caused me to go out and do something in law enforcement,” says Taylor.

After graduating from the academy, Taylor joined the police department in 1970. It was a dangerous time: 26 Detroit police officers were killed while on duty during the 1970s.

“It was not unusual for a policeman a month to be killed during some stretches,” Taylor says. “That was a different era. It was rough, and the reason it was rough was because of narcotics—specifically, because of heroin. A few of us wanted to get involved to try and solve the problem.”

He was a patrolman for less than a year before volunteering to work undercover, cooperating with federal officers on special assignments.

“Some of the work I did was just hanging out in the streets, figuring out where the dope houses were, figuring out ways to get known in the community, ingratiating yourself to whoever was running the dope house, then buying drugs and making busts.”

Taylor and his comrades would spend a long time, sometimes up to a year, studying an organization, developing trust, joining the gang, then taking it down.

“You tried to infiltrate the organization, and typically that was through a confidential informant of some kind,” Taylor says. “You’d be part of the organization for six months to a year maybe. Most of the time, for me, I played the part of someone who had my own organization, or who was financing an organization. I was a buyer. But part of the process meant you socialized a lot, you’d live in the area. This was deep cover.”

Posing as a friendly buyer helped Taylor avoid having to sample the drugs. “Now, did I ever end up with a contact high from marijuana smoke? Oh yeah, because that was everywhere,” Taylor says.

It wasn’t easy for all of the obvious reasons. “The kind of work I was doing, you have to befriend people knowing that you’re lying to them,” Taylor says. “That was tough.”

He recalls two incidents where informants were murdered. Taylor had his own share of close calls, too.

“There was this one time when my cover [as an out-of-town drug dealer] was almost blown. I was going to meet with a substantial drug wholesaler who lived in the suburbs but wanted to meet me in the Detroit projects,” Taylor remembers.

“I arrived in a cab, supposedly coming from the airport. For whatever reason, the guy who was supposed to drive the cab didn’t make it and the guy they substituted, a federal agent, jumped in the cab wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t look like a cab driver. The guy I was meeting said he was uncomfortable with the driver. The implication was, they were going to deal with me harshly if the driver didn’t move on.”

The dealer held a gun to Taylor’s head and threatened to shoot if the cabbie didn’t leave. Taylor stayed in character and paid the driver, who left. The investigation went on. The dealer was later arrested.

After working a few years as an undercover detective, Taylor became the supervisor of a high-stakes deep cover operation, in which—a la The Departed—undercover candidates were plucked from the police academy before actually entering the officer rolls.

The Covert Operations Group was created to fight the city’s heroin epidemic while ferreting out police corruption. It worked closely with internal affairs.

“This was serious, dangerous work,” Taylor says, “because we were uncovering information that could be threatening to some important people. We operated without policemen or the people on the street knowing what we were doing.”

“You didn’t know who to trust,” says Dr. Isaiah ‘Ike’ McKinnon, an internal affairs officer who recruited Taylor to join an investigation that led to the top of Detroit’s political ladder—including Willie Clyde Volsan, brother-in-law of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

Only a handful of people were supposed to know about the Covert Operations Group—Taylor, McKinnon, the officers working deep cover, and chief of police William Hart, who controlled the money undercover cops used to buy drugs—but, McKinnon says, “I can recall reporting everything that was part of my investigation to a boss who I assumed was a good person, only to find out he was reporting everything I gave him to the ultimate source: the mayor.”

McKinnon, now a professor of education and human services at the University of Detroit Mercy, adds, “There were so many offshoots in that investigation. It was like a hand with many fingers, each one pointing in a different direction. Then you climb up to the arm and find out that it’s controlling different parts of each finger. It was scary.”

Safety within and without the department was a constant concern. Ravitz, the criminal court judge who helped initiate the operation, saw how it was getting to Taylor.

“As he got higher and higher [in the investigation] I could see that he was clearly nervous,” Ravitz says. “I knew that the third floor of the department, the chief’s floor, had been stopping their support. It was difficult to get money to buy narcotics. The third floor was pulling back, and we were getting suspicious.”

As a result of the investigation, James Gulley, a Detroit businessman, was arrested in 1978 with three pounds of heroin and received a life sentence. He died in prison.

But in the end there were too many roadblocks within the department, and Taylor left in 1979; McKinnon followed in 1984.

In 1991, Hart, the police chief under whom Taylor and McKinnon worked, was indicted for stealing $2.6 million from the department’s drug enforcement fund. The following year, Volsan was arrested while introducing corrupt cops to FBI agents posing as drug dealers, and 11 police officers were charged with protecting drug dealers and money launderers.

Taylor doesn’t want to speculate or remark on whether these officers were targeted when he was a cop. Those files are not part of his reading material these days. He simply says, “There was always the suspicion that it went pretty high in the department.”

When Taylor left the police department in 1979, he left it completely, but he left it with a plan. While a cop he earned an undergraduate degree from Wayne State University, and, partly because of a childhood admiration for Thurgood Marshall, and partly because of the encouragement of Ravitz, he went into law.

“I remember an incident in Detroit where some policemen went into a motel and allegedly killed a bunch of people,” Taylor says. “This might have been before I was a police officer. Anyway, I went to the courtroom and observed the lawyers defending these officers. They were so effective. I realized that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And to show you how naïve I was, I didn’t know there was any other kind.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1982, he took a job with Jones, Bird and Howell (later Alston & Bird) in Atlanta. He’s been a trial lawyer from day one.

He rarely speaks to anyone from his police days, including his old mentor Ravitz (who died suddenly as we were going to press). McKinnon, his former partner, who later became police chief, expressed surprise and joy that Taylor has done so well, so far away from Detroit. The two former cops haven’t been in contact for years, and Taylor rarely gets back to his hometown. The last time was three years ago.

“I probably could have practiced law in Detroit, but there’s a lot of pain there,” Taylor says. “I didn’t think it would be healthy for me, personally, to go back.”

He may not want to go back, but his mind will replay the scenes from that other life.

“When I look back, it plays like a movie. It doesn’t look like something I did,” he says.

“There are times when I sit in this office and look at all of the stuff going on around me, and I realize how different my life has been from the many people I interact with on a daily basis. And I find it hard to believe I actually lived that life.”

 

Liquid Gold

This story was published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I was reminded of this story while reading a current (and expertly reported/written) piece on the same topic, by Max Blau of Atlanta magazine. After reading Max’s excellent article and then this older one, it occurred to me that, while Georgia has more microbreweries than it did eight years ago (yay), little else has changed regarding the state’s beer distribution laws (boo). Basically, craft brewers in Georgia are still in the same boat — unfortunately, it’s nothing like the boat that James Oglethorpe’s brewer rode in.

 

The path to enlightenment for Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney began with 10 cases of liquid gold. The two were students at the University of Colorado at the time, studying environmental conservation and accounting, and working part time at a Boulder brewery.

“After our first day on the job, we came back to the house, to our four other roommates, and we had all this beer. Their eyes got that big,” Bensch says, motioning wide with his hands, a bottle of Sweetwater IPA hanging casually between thumb and forefinger. “That’s when we started to find out how cool it was to have free beer.”

Their cars started running better, professors were nicer than usual, delivery guys from the Chinese restaurant were happy to deal food for beer. Bensch and McNerney progressed in the thriving Colorado craft-brewing scene, working their way through college, and life was good.

“Then you come to the realization that college is about over and you have to do something with yourself. As we’re sitting there having that conversation, we’re drinking beer and we say, ‘Hey, we’ll follow through with this,’” Bensch says, nodding to the cold one in his hand. “We made a pact with each other: Learn as much as we can over the next few years and open our own brewery.”

Since then, a lot of beer, brain cells, blood and sweat have gone into the effort, says Bensch, whose business card identifies him as the Big Kahuna at Sweetwater Brewing Company, the Atlanta based brewery he and brewmaster McNerney launched 11 years ago.

Sweetwater is a craft brewery, and part of the fastest growing segment of the $97 billion U.S. beer industry (and the alcoholic beverage market in general). Craft beers, or microbrews, accounted for $5.7 billion in sales last year. Distinguished by higher quality all-malt beers brewed to traditional standards, the craft brewing industry grew by 12 percent last year while sales of domestic non-craft brews (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, etc.) and imports inched upwards a sluggish 1.4 percent.

And the Southeast is the fastest growing region in craft beer sales with a 33.9 percent increase last year. Much of that income bolstered distant economies, but the industry that started and flourished in the West and Northeast is gaining a tentative foothold in parts of the South, most notably North Carolina, which has a dozen microbreweries and about twice as many brewpubs (restaurants that brew their own beer).

The United States is home to 1,449 breweries according to the Brewer’s Association; of those 1,406 are considered craft breweries (this includes brewpubs). Georgia has three award-winning craft brewers – Sweetwater, Atlanta Brewing Company and Terrapin Beer Company (Athens), and a dozen brewpubs scattered across the state. These are the survivors in a state where strict regulatory challenges are threatening the growth of this niche industry. Three Georgia companies – Dogwood Brewing Company, Old Savannah Brewing Company and Zuma Brewing – have closed over the past four years.

“We’re lucky to still have three great microbreweries in Georgia, each with its own distinct personality,” says Owen Ogletree, a nationally certified beer judge who founded the Classic City Brew Fest in Athens and writes about beer for a number of publications.

“But Portland, Oregon, has more breweries than we have in the entire Southeast. Out West, in places like Oregon, California and Colorado, they’re encouraging these small, local breweries to succeed. They’re generating interest in local flavors and culture, and enhancing local economies. That’s just not happening in Georgia yet.”

Oddly enough, it was a Georgian who is largely responsible for opening the craft beer taps almost 30 years ago. President Jimmy Carter signed the law legalizing homebrewing in February 1979 and started a chain reaction.

The law allows an individual (21 and over) to brew up to 100 gallons a year for personal use (200 gallons per household). By the 1980s, a wave of artisan homebrewers started opening commercial breweries and brewpubs, and the beer geeks have been smiling ever since.

The Art Of Beer

Brian “Spike” Buckowski always has loved beer, but he became a brewmaster because he hates wearing suits and ties, can dance only to the beat of some weird internal drummer and does not play well with others. Typical artist.

“He really does have the magic touch,” says Dave Blanchard, co-owner of The Brick Store Pub in Decatur. “When Spike makes something, you know it’s going to be very good. He’s really made a name for Terrapin in beer nerd circles.”

Buckowski and John Cochran met while working at Atlanta Brewing Company in 1997. One day, after getting reamed out by the boss (the brewery is under different ownership now) for ditching work to attend the Atlanta Braves home opener, they decided to start their own company. The prevailing sentiment was, “that’ll show him.”

“I always knew I was going to do something for myself,” Buckowski says. “My dad is an electrician who owns his own business, and he always taught me that if you get up every day and love your job, your life is pretty much set. And I absolutely love what I do.”

So do legions of beer drinkers. The first batches of Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale were brewed at Dogwood in 2002 and sold only on tap in Athens. The product was introduced at the Classic City Brew Fest in April that year and six months later won a gold medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival.

“After bottling it and sending it out for judging in Denver, we couldn’t afford to go the festival ourselves,” Buckowski says. “When we got the phone call telling us we won, it was like, we’ve really got to do something with this now.”

Based in Athens from the start (Cochran is a UGA grad), they made 163 barrels that first year (a barrel equals 31 gallons, or two kegs). The next year they started brewing under contract at Frederick Brewing Company in Maryland. Last year they produced about 9,000 barrels and realized their dream of opening their own brewery, signing a lease in July on a 45,000-square-foot facility just outside downtown Athens. But the brewery sat idle until December, when the state finally granted them a brewing license.

“I don’t know if they were dragging their feet or what,” Buckowski says. “But we’d submit the paperwork and they’d say, ‘OK, now you need this, this and this.’ We’d do that, that and that, submit it again, then they’d go, ‘OK, and now you need this, this and this.’ It went on like that, and meanwhile we’re paying for this building.”

While Cochran has been running point as Terrapin’s president, Buckowski has added new styles to the year-round roster (Golden Ale and India Brown Ale), and introduced the popular, higher-alcohol, seasonal Monster Beer series (such as Big Hoppy Monster and Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout).

“We’re considering making that a year-round project,” Cochran says, clutching a 22-ounce bottle of Buckowski’s new invention, Hop Shortage, the first beer in a limited edition series called Side Project.

The beer name reflects the reality – there is a worldwide hop shortage and it’s preventing smaller craft brewers from acquiring their aromatic the key ingredient. Hop Shortage is an ironic name – it’s a particularly hoppy beer, Buckowski’s sardonic, tasty sense of humor in a bottle. The Terrapin boys expect the hop situation to improve, but want to continue growing its limited “Side Project” editions.

“This is where the industry is going, this is what craft brewing is about, the experiment. We want to be on the forefront of that, so we’re going to start producing random, crazy beer styles and see what people think of them.”

Buckowski is a Grateful Dead freak who decided to move to Georgia after scoring tickets to three consecutive Dead shows in Atlanta one week in 1992. “I also got tickets to see Rush that week,” he says. “I was sold.”

They named the company after the Dead’s famous Terrapin Station album. And they hired Richard Biffle, the artist who created the Dead’s album covers, to design their colorful turtle logo labels.

Strange Brew

Like Buckowski, the Sweetwater boys found Atlanta by accident.

“We were down in Charleston helping some guys open up a brewpub, on a consulting basis,” Bensch says. “All of my possessions were in my truck, including my dog. This was during the blizzard of 1995, and we were just cruising around the Southeast looking for a spot.

“Got here right before the Olympics and there was such a good buzz in Atlanta, the whole world was watching the city. The beers being made here at the time were a completely different style from what we wanted to make, and we felt like, if we’re gonna roll the dice and take a chance on building something, this was the right place to do it.”

They brewed their first batch on April 20, 1997, and ever since, Sweetwater 420 has been the company’s popular signature beer. They have won national and international medals for several styles, including a gold for best small brewery in the 2002 Great American Beer Festival.

Today, Sweetwater, which has always brewed its own beer, is Georgia’s largest craft brewery, producing more than 45,000 barrels in 2007. By comparison, Georgia’s two mega-breweries (Miller has a plant in Albany, Anheuser-Busch in Cartersville) produce about 15 million barrels a year between them.

In March Sweetwater increased production capacity, ripping the roof off its Midtown Atlanta brewery to install eight additional tanks.

“That will be our final expansion here,” Bensch says. It’s a potentially ominous statement for fans of Sweetwater’s popular brewery tours and tastings. If the company outgrows its current digs, staying in Georgia might not be an option. “This is a tough place to be in the beer business. That’s why there are only three of us.”

Georgia’s microbreweries are hamstrung in several ways.

Like almost every other state, Georgia is tied to a three-tier system, in which beer must go from the producer (brewer) to a wholesaler (distributor) before reaching the bar-tap or store shelf (retailer). It’s the same basic structure that’s been in place since Prohibition was repealed.

Some states allow a producer to own two tiers in this system. Brewpubs are an example – retail establishments that make the beer and sell it to customers of their establishment. Most states have tweaked the law enough to allow craft brewers the option to sell beer directly to customers who visit or tour their facilities. It’s been a great boon for the tourist industries in those states, “those” being the operative word, because in Georgia, state law forbids brewers from selling directly to their visitors.

“I was up at Highland Brewing in North Carolina, where they were making a special release, and you should have seen the people, about 200 of them, lined up out the door to buy beer,” Cochran says.

Large craft breweries such as California’s Sierra Nevada may have taprooms and restaurants on site, enhancing the tourism experience. In Georgia, breweries can’t have brewpubs on site, and brewpubs can’t sell their beer off restaurant premises. Also, Georgia has tough franchise laws – once a brewer hooks up with a distributor, getting out of the deal is difficult, ultimately requiring state approval.

In Georgia, it is illegal for brewers to pour their own products at festivals, or any event outside the brewery – but they can travel to another state and do it. And a year ago, the Georgia Department of Revenue started proposing new rules to limit the amount of beer visitors may drink at brewery tasting tours, the favored and most affordable marketing tool for microbreweries, most of which can’t afford large advertising campaigns.

“The biggest challenge facing craft breweries in this state is the regulatory environment,” says Crawford Moran, brewmaster at Five Seasons Brewing in Alpharetta. Moran knows the sting – he was the owner of Dogwood Brewing Company.

“There’s no good reason why a small, local brewery shouldn’t be able to self-distribute, up to a certain point. No good reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to have a restaurant or pub attached. Those are the things that help small companies grow into larger companies.”

So, a state like Colorado, with a more supportive environment for brewers, has half the population of Georgia with about 15 times as many microbreweries.

“They produce over $500 million in craft brews in eastern Colorado alone,” notes Robert Budd, president of Atlanta Brewing Company, which fell into the hands of new owners several years ago and won its first gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival last year for its Red Brick Blonde ale. This year they added a gold (for Red Brick Barrell Select) and a bronze (for Numbers Ale) at the World Beer Cup in San Diego.

Budd envisions a beer tourism market not unlike the one fermenting in North Georgia wine country. This year the legislature boosted the wineries’ business potential, introducing and approving one bill that allows internet wine sales and another permitting wineries that have tasting rooms or restaurants to serve other alcoholic beverages, including beer. Budd says he can’t figure out why Georgia’s homegrown craft breweries were left out.

“That totally shocks me,” he says. “This is a green industry, a sustainable industry, a tourism industry that produces more tax per dollar of profit than any other industry. I think that we, Sweetwater and Terrapin are at the forefront of a Georgia industry with tremendous economic development potential.”

And he thinks that history may be on his side.

“You know, the South has been making beer for at least 300 years. When Oglethorpe landed in Georgia, his brewer was on the boat.”

 

Mighty Joe at the Bat

 

Grillo at the bat

 

The outlook was uncertain for the Heroes squad that day:

The score was thirty-thirty with one inning left to play,

And when big Craig singled to left, and Ally did it too,

Two ducks were on the pond for Joe, whose work here wasn’t through.

 

Joe grabbed a bat that fit his grip, and rolled up to the plate;

His steely look of confidence foretold the pitcher’s fate;

He stared the hurler up and down, and held his bat up high,

The pitch came in, Joe took a swing, and hit a mighty fly.

 

The pitcher’s spirits plummeted as the ball disappeared;

It sailed right past a jetliner into the stratosphere,

Then into orbit, toward the moon, the ball went into space,

Outward bound, toward Jupiter, as Joe rolled to first base.

 

The crowd went nuts as Joe took second, then glided into third,

The ball flew right past Saturn’s rings (at least, that’s what I heard).

As Joe crossed home triumphantly (his wheels had touched them all),

A groan swept through the ballpark as the umpire cried, “foul ball!”

My Son Is

Random thoughts on the most important boy that I know in the waning weeks of Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month:

My son is a constant loop in my thought track.

My son is the boy you can hear from outside the house or the room, making sounds that seem to have no form.

My son is quiet, sometimes for hours.

My son spends most of his time inside, in his wheelchair or on the floor, watching movies, listening to music or stories, making fancy moves, playing with me.

My son is the boy with clenched hands, held up in the air as if in protest, tight hands that close like vice grips because the part of his brain that says “let go” is on sabbatical.

My son stands out in a crowd even if he can’t stand by himself.

My son was diagnosed as an infant with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, and if you’re sincerely interested in learning more about that, there’s plenty of great information on the Internet that you should read.

My son is fine, and that’s exactly what I’ll say when you ask, “what’s wrong with him?”

My son’s diagnosis doesn’t define who he is; everyone is different and should be valued for their individuality, including people diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy.

My son sometimes has scratches on his smooth and brilliant face, some of them fading, some of them fresh, because he can’t quite control his hands, and because it’s difficult to closely trim his fingernails, what with those clenched hands.

My son has a smile with no strings attached, a gigantic smile for you and especially for me whenever I enter his space, because my son, inexplicably, hasn’t tired of his old man yet.

My son can walk, with help, and for those who are willing to help, it’s time well spent. In fact, you might find yourself dancing with him once you get him up and going.

My son laughs at fart sounds and roughhousing and curse words, and at other people’s laughter, because he wants in on the joke, expects to be in on the joke, in spite of a world that mostly considers him an afterthought.

My son is a minority within a minority, but he doesn’t have many advocates crying out for his civil and human rights.

My son may not deserve your love, but he deserves your respect.

My son and his parents live life on the brink, and the brink is consistently being redefined or moved.

My son loves super heroes and music, especially music.

My son has good taste in music, but is patient enough to listen when I play it, and encourages me by singing along to whatever tune I happen to be scratching at, especially Ripple. He loves Ripple.

My son sings out loud in wordless joy, smiling at his mother’s silly dancing, always up for a live show, always unabashed in his appreciation.

My son loves an adventure, especially if it includes a fast, bumpy ride that puts the wind in his face, which inevitably elicits delighted squeals and screams.

My son cries when I sneeze, almost always, tears and everything, but he isn’t a baby, and if you respect him, you won’t speak to him like one. He is quirky.

My son is brave, proud, strong and sincere.

My son is social, and friendly, and forgiving, and honest, and damaged, and perfect.

My son is a troublemaker, sometimes frustrating, sometimes scary, and very funny.

My son is a work in progress, like your son.

My son is a teacher.

My son is wonderful company, and his company is a gift that few people seem to want or understand, but it is a gift that I can’t seem to get enough of.

My son is loved, fiercely.

My son has very few friends his own age. He doesn’t have many visitors. But if he gets lonely, he doesn’t show it, at least not in ways we understand yet.

My son always says please and thank you, without using those words.

My son hates long drives. For now.

My son is approachable and accepting and loves your company, if you’re willing to share it, and if you really want to know him or be with him, he is within reach, and he’s totally worth the effort.

My son can be a tough taskmaster. He doesn’t give his parents any days off, just like other sons.

My son is unique.

My son needs me, and his needs are ever-changing, and the older he gets, the more he needs me, and the more I grow.

My son would be left behind if it were not for a handful of people who are physically capable and otherwise compelled to care for him, and the bigger he gets, the harder it is to care for him, and the easier it is to leave him behind.

My son will never be left behind as long as I’m alive.

My son is a constant loop in my thought track, and I don’t plan on pressing the stop button, because he’s my son.

Lucky Meeting

I’m from Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia. Johan is from Stockholm, Sweden. Our paths crossed in Fenway Park in the middle of March, several weeks before opening day.

We met because flags were flying at half-mast and he wanted to know why.

“Nancy Reagan just died,” I said. “That must be why.”

“Right, of course,” he said. “I heard about that. What’s strange is, the last time I was in America, Michael Jackson died.”

“I’m surprised they haven’t cancelled your visa,” I said. “You’re kind of like the angel of death for famous Americans.”

He laughed, said, “Would you believe that my nickname is ‘Lucky’?”

The tour guide, Cheryl, took us through the visitor’s clubhouse, let us sit in the oldest bleacher seats in baseball, and in the seats on top of the green monster, showed us the rooftop vegetable garden, took us into the press box, filled us with history – Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth (before and after the curse), Teddy Ballgame and Tony C. and Yaz and Fisk and Game 6 – 1975, not 1986.

Fenway is 104-years-old. It has been the site of some of the greatest thrills and heartbreaking tragedies a game can conjure, and the workplace of some of the game’s most compelling figures. Its ghosts have ghosts. Cheryl relived for us the miracle of 2004, when the Red Sox ended the 86-year curse, and the catharsis of 2013, when they finally won the Series at home, a gift to all of Boston following the deadly marathon bombing.

She showed us the seat in the right-field bleachers where a sleeping fan was hit on the head by a 502-foot Williams home run, the longest ever hit at Fenway. The seat is painted red.

It was the first time Johan or I had ever visited Fenway, this sports cathedral, an outdoor theatre that has been staging a passion play called Red Sox baseball for more than a century. But I wanted to know why a Swedish psychologist visiting Boston to teach an advanced course at MIT was shelling out 18 bucks to tour a ballpark on its day off.

Turns out, he lived in San Diego a while back, spent a couple of years there and managed to get bit by the baseball bug, in spite of the Padres.

“But I’ve always wanted to visit Fenway Park,” Johan/Lucky said. “I think this place is bigger than the game.”

 

 

Campus Carry: Terrible Idea

A NEW NOTE:  With the dimwitted bozos under the Gold Dome pushing for guns on college campuses again, figured I’d dust off this story from a couple of years ago and provide a little bit of background information.  

At the time when it was written, the legislature was attempting to turn Georgia into a 59,000-square-mile version of Deadwood with gun laws that would arm pretty much anyone in anyplace, including college campuses. The campus carry provision didn’t make it into the whacko law that was eventually passed, but this story came out before the vote, and the text I turned in included comments from college students and parents, folks who had a lot at stake.

The publisher of the magazine where I was employed at the time chose to cut all of the comments from students or parents, sources who were eager to openly discuss the issue with a reporter. So, an important voice was eliminated from the public discussion, the voice of stakeholders in the state’s university system. 

Now I’m part of that system, and I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of adding guns to a crowded campus filled with stressed-out, often socially-awkward, and potentially high-strung students, professors, staffers, and so forth. If the campus carry provision becomes the law, I will feel the exact opposite of protected. Anyway, here’s the story, with quotes from college students and parents.

 

I’ve never seen the man before, don’t know his name. But he’s definitely local or he wouldn’t be embedded at the local gun store, where he presents an air of native permanence, while I’ve only lived in this rural Northeast Georgia community for 15 years. So, I’m the gatecrasher here, asking questions about the hundreds of firearms on display, taking notes, handing out business cards.

He takes the card, looks at it, smiles and asks, “you a liberal or conservative?”

I say, “I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to ask about guns.”

Except, this guy knows better. Any discussion about guns becomes a political debate faster than you can say, “reach for the sky,” especially in Georgia, where policymakers are pushing legislation to radically overhaul the state’s gun laws. That’s kind of like firing a gun with a plugged barrel while wearing a blindfold, according to people who have experience studying the issue.

“The problem is, what can we do to reduce the number of firearm deaths and injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners,” says Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) at the CDC, and now the president/CEO of the Centers for Global Health, based in Decatur. “We can’t rattle off ideas at the top of our head and expect to get anywhere. We need to do the research, because the fact is, we don’t know what works, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask policymakers to try and pass legislation if they don’t know what works.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has a different angle – he believes in enforcing laws that already exist. “I wish the legislature would call us sometimes,” quips Sills, a veteran cop and immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. “I am adamantly opposed to anything more than what we have now. We already have a plethora of laws to deal with criminals who use guns and I’m telling you, it’s not being utilized.”

But when it comes to guns in this country, reactionary partisanship sparked by emotion or the deep pockets of the gun lobby (think the National Rifle Association) or both, is the norm. In 2013 the General Assembly considered bills that would not only arm public school teachers and administrators but also allow weapons on college campuses (the controversial ‘campus carry’ provision), or in churches, bars, airports, government buildings, on public transportation – places where guns are typically restricted. Supporters of this kind of thing claim that looser gun restrictions will make Georgia safer.

“Now, anywhere you go you are in danger,” says Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, which helped craft some of the legislation proposed in 2013. “There’s too much gun control now, as far as we’re concerned. We feel that we should be able to defend ourselves any place we go.”

Meanwhile, critics are puzzled by the urgency of the latest effort to increase the presence of firearms, and the timing (in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.).

“I think we should support reasonable gun legislation,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “But for some reason, the tide is turning on even the most reasonable protections against gun violence, and I don’t believe that’s the right direction for this city, this state or this country.”

The man at my local gun store isn’t interested in what Mayor Reed thinks because right now he’s got a point to make with me.

“You take this business card to some places I know in Kentucky, like you done here, and they’ll put a gun on you, escort you out the door,” he says, as a matter of fact, because he’s spent a lot of time in Kentucky.

And I say, trying to match his good-natured tone, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone aimed a gun at me.”

It was two guns actually, pointed at my chest from a few feet away, because police officers are trained to aim at the largest center of mass on a human body. Fortunately, the officers weren’t looking for me. I happened to be opening the back door of my family’s print shop when they happened to be looking for an escaped convict who had shot and killed a local preacher. My experience staring down the menacing maw of eternity is the American experience, because we are a nation of guns, gun owners and potential gun victims.

Missed Target

More than two-dozen gun-related bills were filed during the 2013 session. The two biggies, Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 512, went down to the wire (the ‘campus carry’ provision was the sticking point). They didn’t survive the session, but you can bet your last bullet that they’ll be back in some form or fashion in the 2014 session that begins next month.

“Some kind of strong gun legislation is coming up again,” promises State Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the Rules Committee, and a chief sponsor of HB 512 (the Safe Carry Protection Act).

“I thought it was a good bill, but if it could be made more palatable to the other side, that might be something we’ll look at,” adds Meadows, who carries a little Ruger pistol in his back pocket. “But if my name is on it, I want it to be good legislation, not just something that’ll flare up and make everybody talk.”

Opponents of ‘campus carry’ talked plenty last session, from grassroots advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense to the University System of Georgia (USG), whose chancellor, Hank Huckaby (a former legislator) told lawmakers, “adding loaded weapons to an already potentially volatile mix of youthful exuberance, stress, and yes, at times alcohol and other factors, could lead to a tragedy of our own making that we could otherwise avoid.”

That was in March. Even with such widespread opposition to the campus carry concept, HB 512 received overwhelming support by House Republicans and made it as far as the Senate’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee before time ran out on the session. By September, the entire public university system had developed a case of self-imposed laryngitis, underlying the sensitive political nature of the hot-blooded, often emotional issue of gun rights.

“At this time, we will not be making any statements or comments regarding this subject,” came the response from USG spokesman John Milsaps to an interview request. It was the same “no comment” from every university we contacted except one.

“We are committed to providing a safe education and work environment for our students, faculty and staff,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia. “We believe the law as currently written best achieves that.”

One officially-gagged university spokesperson who did not want to be identified says, “we’ve been told by the University System not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

Georgia State University administrators did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but a number of GSU customers did.

“I think it’s a bad idea, because there are people that can buy guns that don’t really know how to use them,” says Angelica Currens, a GSU senior with a double major in psychology and criminal justice. “You have to take a test to get a driver’s license, but you’re not required to get any training for a gun, which can potentially be more dangerous, and that bothers me.”

Ollie Hudgins and his mom Jennifer have a different point of view. “Crime is on and around my campus, so knowing that there could be qualified and licensed gun-owners nearby makes me feel safer,” he says. Under the campus carry provision, only students who are at least 21 with a Georgia Weapons Carry License (it costs about $80 and part of that is for a G.B.I. background check) would be allowed to pack heat at school.

“College students are adults that have the rights of any other adult,” says Jennifer Hudgins. “College is not a bubble and we are not doing them any favors by treating them as children and protecting them from the outside world. The right to carry a concealed weapon should be theirs if they are willing to go through the responsible, legal steps to obtain the proper license.”

Vicki White Warneke has two daughters at GSU, one who witnessed a gun death on campus, a drug deal that turned violent. “More guns on campus is not the answer,” she says. “There are so many people these days with anger issues and no common sense. I would hate to see what happens if and when someone who is carrying gets pissed off.”

So, the current gun laws survived another year, and the Meadows crowd circled the wagons to discuss what form their legislation might take in 2014. Don’t be surprised if ‘campus carry’ is axed, which makes sense to State Rep. Scott Holcomb.

“You had universal opposition to the extension of gun rights on college campuses,” says Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who spoke against HB 512 on the Capitol floor. “You had a group of Democrats and Republicans who think reasonable restrictions are appropriate. “But you also had a core group of ardent Republicans who believe guns should be allowed virtually anywhere at anytime for anyone under any circumstance whatsoever. That isn’t logical and it can’t be justified.”

Deadly Aim

April 16, 2007 is branded on Brenda Kendrick’s broken heart. That’s the day Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the university campus.

“My niece was killed that day, in French class. Austin Michelle Cloyd. She was my younger brother’s daughter, a freshman. It was a week before her 19th birthday,” says Kendrick, who is a school psychologist for the White County School District in Northeast Georgia. “I’d never really thought about the gun issue before.”

That day changed her perspective, but it was the Newtown massacre a year ago that inspired her to take action. The day after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an Indiana woman named Shannon Watts started a Facebook page called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has since become a non-profit modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Kendrick  joined immediately.

With chapters in all 50 states, Moms Demand Action is targeting state and federal lawmakers, companies and educational institutions to establish what it considers common-sense gun reforms, such as background checks for all gun and ammo purchases, restricting military-style weapons and ammo, establishing product safety oversight of guns and ammo.

“Teddy bears are more regulated than guns, they have to meet consumer health and safety standards, but guns don’t,” Kendrick says. But teddy bears don’t have quite the lobbying power that guns do. Guns are big business in the U.S. (a $33 billion industry supporting about 220,000 jobs). They are also prevalent (about 300,000 Georgians with permits to carry handguns; about 300 million guns in the U.S., and the number rises about 4 million a year, according to the NRA).

And deadly: there are about 32,000 gun deaths a year in the U.S., approximately the same as the number of traffic deaths (although two thirds of the gun deaths are suicides). But for some, the very idea of “gun control” is intolerable. The NRA is the fattest cat on this side, shelling out about $3 million a year on federal lobbying efforts (and a reported $25 million during the 2012 election cycle) to oppose such things as restrictions on assault weapons or the registration of firearms. In response to several requests for an interview, an NRA spokesperson finally sent this comment via email: “NRA is working closely with legislators and Second Amendment advocates across Georgia to benefit law abiding gun owners in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.”

Veteran lawman Sheriff Sills was a bit more lucid, and firm, saying flatly, “I am not in favor of gun control,” adding, “The term ‘assault rifle’ is just bogus hyperbole. It is meaningless. The problem isn’t the gun, it’s the person holding the gun.”

He bases his opinion on four decades of blood-stained experience. “I have seen every kind of carnage there is. I carried a person’s foot in my pocket once. I’m desensitized because I’m supposed to be. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says. “But dear God, I really believe we have become desensitized as a people, all these violent movies and games and what’s available on the Internet for young people. When we played cops and robbers as kids, we never saw somebody’s head blown off. Kids today, by the time they’re 16 they’ve seen so much gory stuff.”

So, it isn’t the guns, he says. The problems, in addition to the breakdown of the American family, include a disintegrating system to treat the mentally ill, and a broken criminal justice system. “Its a five year sentence for a person to possess a firearm if they are a convicted felon. If you carry a firearm in the commission of crime, that carries a 10 year sentence,” he says. “But those firearm charges are usually the first thing that gets chipped away in a plea negotiation. If we wanted to send a message and stop people from committing crimes with guns, we have laws to do it.”

Sills cites example after example of recidivist criminals who commit violent acts, such as the murder last year (a few days after the Newtown massacre) of a Clayton County police officer, who was reportedly shot to death by a man with a history of gun-related convictions who was out of prison on parole.

Of course, none of that can fill the loss or ease the pain Kendrick and her family feels, so they continue advocating for what they consider common-sense gun laws that also protect Second Amendment rights, which is exactly what Mark Rosenberg and his former arch enemy are trying to do.

In 1983, Rosenberg went to the CDC to help establish the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, with the idea of applying a public health approach to studying violent injury, which was a leading cause of death for young people (ages 1 to 44). In particular, they wanted to take a close look at the rising number of firearm deaths with the goal of prevention in mind. So, they researched the underlying causes of gun violence.

The researchers uncovered some useful information, such as the likelihood of being shot and killed in your home is significantly greater if you have a firearm in your home, which is a no-brainer. Some of the numbers were inflated, and have since been adjusted (instead of 43 times more likely, you’re three times as likely to be shot and killed if you’ve got a gun in your home), and the methodology of the study was questioned by criminologists and other scientists, but more importantly, by the powerful NRA. The NRA had an influential front man in Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas), who led the fight to shut down the CDC’s research into gun violence, which is exactly what happened. That was in 1996, when Rosenberg and Dickey couldn’t imagine occupying the same room together without an eruption. Something else happened instead.

“He came to my office one day, when things had subsided a little,” says Dickey, who is retired now.

“We talked about our children, discovered we struggled with some of the same things as parents, got to know each other and became friends,” Rosenberg says.

They kept a dialogue going, and last year they co-wrote an editorial that appeared in the Washington Post calling for more research, from a public health perspective, into gun violence. According to the editorial, since 1996, “the United States has spent about $240 million a year on traffic safety research, but there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries. As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?”

For Rosenberg and for the gun-toting masses, the Second Amendment is nigh on sacrosanct (but it clearly doesn’t give me the right to carry any weapon I want in any manner I choose for any purpose). He doesn’t want my gun (I only have one, an old .22 rifle) and probably doesn’t want yours. This isn’t a black or white, all or none issue.

“It isn’t legal in our country to take guns away from law abiding citizens. That would be totally unconstitutional,” Rosenberg says. “We don’t know if registration and licensing would make a difference. We don’t know if restricting access for people adjudicated mentally ill would make a difference. We haven’t done the research.

“So, we have two goals – reduce firearm injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. That’s what Jay and I agree on. You can do both,” he says. “You can do both.”