I lived in Athens, Ga., for four wonderful years. It's a great city. It has a tree that owns itself. It also has double-barreled cannon. If it had worked the South might won the War Between the States. Athens is also the home of Dan Magill, one of my favorite Americans, and Claude McBride. Ditto what I said about Dan.
The Athens downtown area has become a little like Bourbon Street, but without the stench or the exposure. It wasn't like that when I was there. I think I'm thankful for that.
And Athens is also home to the University of Georgia, where on six or seven autumn Saturdays a year I gather with 95,000 or so of my closest friends for our own style of prayer meeting between the hedges. I love the University of Georgia. The degree I received there changed my life. I love Athens, too. It's like home to me. When I hear people speak of Athens, "there" is "here" to me.
We never think it will happen at home, do we? You know what they say. It could never happen here? But it did. I am speaking now, of course, of the horrific triple murder that has rocked the collective psyche of this community for the past eight days. Breaking news. Spectacular murder. Well known, respected and beloved victims. Intelligent and respected suspect apparently does the deed and disappears into thin air.
It's the stuff of cable television movies. It's the type of story that we read on the front pages of newspapers in other places - but not ours. But now the monster is here and it is our friends and acquaintances that are in shock and in mourning. The national news media are sweeping our streets looking for a sensational story about the victims and/or the suspect.
Policemen have been patrolling our campus with automatic weapons. The FBI is canvassing our neighborhoods and the late-night news shows are leading with the dateline Athens, Ga. Our town.
I spent most of Saturday doing yard work. My lovely wife, Lisa, had given me a long list of chores - a list I had put off for as long as I could throughout the early spring. I raked and hoed and planted and mowed and even trimmed and blowed a little - or maybe I blew. But I made sure that I was through with all my chores in time to turn on the NFL draft and listen to the commissioner announce that Matthew Stafford of the University of Georgia was the first player selected in 2009 draft. Athens, Ga., would be the center of the universe for a fleeting moment - or at least for the part of the universe that pays attention to which 20-something-year-old jocks were becoming multi-millionaires Saturday afternoon.
What I saw when I turned on the tube was breaking news and it was from Athens, but it wasn't the kind of news any of us ever hoped would be associated with our town. On a glorious April afternoon when all had been right with the world three lives were tragically and prematurely ended and many others were ruined, or changed forever.
The first thing I did, of course, was call my children. I always want to hear their voices when these things happen, no matter where they happen. I want to be reassured that they are OK as I remind them, and myself, that life is indeed fleeting and that the next breath is not promised to any of us, much less the next day. I was doubly anxious to hear their voices when I heard that the senseless loss of life had happened where they were.
My daughter was shopping on Prince Avenue at 12:30 last Saturday and was still a little shaken up when I finally talked to her around 4. I can't imagine how the people felt who witnessed the vile act. And what of the friends and family of the victims? My son was oblivious to everything but the next selection in the draft, but promised to pay attention to his surroundings. I guess that's as much as you can hope for when dealing with a 20-year-old man-boy.
As the week wore on the shock wore off, only to be replaced with a feeling of melancholy. I knew Ben Teague in passing. I was not acquainted with any of the other principals in last week's terrible drama - but I feel for them and their families - and for all of us who love this community. And I pray that the perpetrator is caught and made to answer for his deeds. I also pray that none of us will ever have to turn on the television and see an Athens dateline for such a despicable deed again.
Once was way more than enough.