Telling stories

People Still Lie In the Age of Transparency

Posted by southwrite on July 15, 2014

Man in HatThere’s very little about our lives that is secret anymore – or is likely to be secret for long.

Facebook keeps track of your typed posts even if you decide to delete them. Google knows everywhere you’ve been on the web.  And everything they know the NSA knows as well – and a lot more. And, of course, big business owns your personal data and probably knows more about you than your spouse.

All of this over exposure was supposed to make us a lot more transparent. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s now creepy statementPeople have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

So if we now live in an overexposed world in which its pretty easy to find out lots of things about lots of people, why tell lies that can be easily found out? Why tell your new date that you’re a company CEO when a Google search will reveal that you’ve just gotten out of prison.

Decide it would fun to take your top off in a bar and a score of cell phone cameras will send images of your bare breasts across the web. Forget about keeping that Miss America crown.

These days it’s easy for a company to search public records and Facebook accounts to ferret out the truth and lies hidden in resume and job applications. There’s a long list of coaches, CEOs and assorted academics who have lost their jobs because they claimed degrees they never bothered to earn.

In fact, the only reason the dark secrets of your past stay out of sight is when others don’t even try to find them.

With so much information so accessible to so many people why does anyone think they can get away with anything?

Of course we all lie at one time or another. Usually it’s to avoid conflict with someone or fudge the truth so that our behavior looks a little better. Sometimes we simply convince ourselves that events transpired a certain way when they really didn’t. Police and prosecutors are well aware that witness memories can be notoriously unreliable.

We tell small lies designed to keep us out of trouble and avoid conflict. We fudge the truth about our accomplishments to impress someone and even if we know what we’re doing in the beginning soon we accept the lie as whole truth.

But how do you explain some of the more outrageous lies that have been part of the public consciousness in recent times. Why does a public figure tell a personal story – such as decorated military service – that can be easily proven false by the public record?

Consider the story of the story of little 3-year-old Victoria Wilcher, disfigured by a pitbull, getting kicked out of a Jackson, Miss. KFC. The girl’s grandparents said that a manager at the fast food restaurant told them to leave because the girl’s scarred face was “disrupting our customers.” The accusation quickly went viral and the fast food chain quickly apologized and pledged $30,000 to the girl’s family for her care. Almost as quickly a local newspaper debunked the story. It not only didn’t happen, it appears that the family had not been in the KFC on that day.

Why did the family believe they could get away it? Didn’t they think someone would check a little further? Or did they believe the public is gullible when it comes to false stories that seem to fit with their deeply held beliefs – in this case businesses are run by heartless people.

The morale is that we need to be skeptical of stories – particularly when they sound too good to be true or fit too neatly into our own beliefs and biases.





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Is it Time to Flee Facebook?

Posted by southwrite on July 10, 2014

computer screenHave you ever asked yourself – what am I doing on Facebook? Many people have and maybe you should as well.

Perusing your friend’s Facebook page you may have come across things that caused you to stop and think, “I don’t know if I would have posted that!” Like those camera phone photos of your buddy drunk, unconscious and a funny picture painted on his face or that near topless shot of your friend’s daughter. Then there are the arguments in which perfectly normal people are suddenly transformed into irrational screaming maniacs.

Then there are the constant changes in Facebook policies and page layouts that seem to drive people crazy. Not to mention revelations that Facebook is manipulating not just your news feed, but your emotions as well. People got pretty upset about that last one  and the company reacted as it usually does – with a yawn.  Add to that news they also keep track of the words that you type and then don’t post. [Think about that.]

A great deal of ink (both real and virtual) has been spilled bemoaning how social media is souring real friendships, wasting time, and even getting people fired.

Some are telling us there’s even an exodus of folks fleeing the site out of boredom or horror. More than 11 million younger users have dumped the site for other social media. Of course, hipsters left the site (mostly for Twitter) long ago when they discovered it had become the providence of older adults and famous quotes. Journalist Ruth Graham tweets “Facebook is the inspiration superhighway.” That doesn’t exactly signal the end of the company considering it has 1.3 billion monthly active users, but clearly more people are thinking about it.

None of this is surprising. Facebook has morphed from a user community into a for profit corporation. It’s primary goal is no longer to serve its users, but to make enough money to please Wall Street and justify its $140 billion valuation. So there will be a lot more “studies” in which you are made the unwitting lab rat of the latest experiment in making the site more “sticky.”

Most of us don’t see Facebook as a business, but rather as the community in which we interact with friends [both real and virtual]. While it’s not the same as everyday live we might be better off if we acted as if it were. Then we probably wouldn’t be saying and posting some of the things that get us into trouble.

FB_FindUsOnFacebook-1024Behind the shield of an internet connection many say things to people that they’d think twice about before uttering in person. Words can be hurtful, both to the feeling of your friends and to your economic wellbeing if intemperate comments are directed at an employer. While you may be able to plausibly deny an off hand comment made over the water cooler, Facebook posts live on forever.

It might be wise to give some consideration to what you type and what you actually post . Think of yourself like a company and consider the “brand” you want to put forth for your public to see.

That means don’t create situations that you’re likely to regret. I’m not saying everyone should be frightened into silence. No, far from it. Just think about whether you’re saying something that you want to stand up for down the road. A well reasoned defense of some political issue can say you’re a thinker. A video of you drunk and unconscious will make you look like you don’t think at all.

In short, we need to accept Facebook for what it is rather than what we’d like it to be. Just as actions have consequences in real life, they can also have them in the not so real world of social media.



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The Loneliness of the Forgotten Rail Stop

Posted by southwrite on July 8, 2014

Train oldWhenever I hear a distant train whistle, I stop and listen and think for a moment of where it’s going and where it might have been. I’m not the only one. Trains are still popular these days. Trainwatching or railfanning, as it’s sometimes called, is a passion for a growing subculture of enthusiasts. Yet, for most of us, they’ve become a novelty and don’t have the same impact on our lives  they once did. We look at trains apart from the role they play in commerce, and transportation because they are no longer a part of our everyday life.

Not so long ago it wasn’t that way. Trains were a vital and essential part of everyday life — even in tiny rural communities.

The images of train schedules you see here are from the collection of Eastman, Ga.-resident Bob Braswell, who says they are most likely from the 1890s. I was really struck by the long string of stops at tiny communities throughout the Middle Georgia area – some I had heard of and some not.

Uplands Hotel AdScanning through the schedules, I see stops at Garretta, Mayberry, Rentz, Batson, and Leon on the way to Eastman. These are names likely to draw a blank stare from all but the oldest and most historically minded residents of the county. I look at them and try to imagine what the stops might have looked like. I wonder how many people rode the trains and what become of them and their lives?

The rail line to Eastman ran by the house in which I grew up although  the rails and cross ties had been removed long before I was born. One of the stops on the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad Co. is named Sutherland (a common misspelling of our family name).  I’m not sure where the stop had been, but no doubt passengers disembarked somewhere near my family home.

In the 19th and well into the 20th century, these little communities were thriving and busy enough to warrant passenger train service. It was a time when train travel was the primary way of getting from one place to another. Braswell also provided this early ad for the Uplands Hotel in Eastman. It  indicates a busy stop on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio, which many well-to-do travelers rode to Florida in the 1800s.  They stopped in towns along the way giving rise to a thriving hotel business. Some of these hotels are still standing. Most are empty shells or have been converted to other uses. The Uplands burned to the ground long before I was born and a  bank now sits on the site.

Railway schedule 2Another former rail stop called Plainfield is a few miles from  my parent’s old home and it’s still hanging on. Today, little remains of this once thriving community, which was declining even when I was growing up. Most people have moved away and the main shopping area off the main highway is now mostly gone.

Ben Horne’s, a classic tin roofed country store at the intersection of Ga. 117 and Plainfield Road closed some years ago. Now it sits at the main intersection with  its gas pumps long removed and its walls crumbling. In better days my parents sometimes bought groceries there and I was usually able to spend some time with the out of date comic books in a rack near the wooden front counter. Like hundreds of other country  stores, it served the needs of the surrounding community. Also like them it couldn’t survive.

Decades before, Plainfield and the others were all vibrant communities supported to a significant degree by regular train service. When the trains stopped and the rail disappeared much of the reason for their existence was also gone. Like so much of rural life and culture its vanishing leaves us to wonder and dream of what was and might have been..



Railway schedule

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This Hospital Might Just Save Journalism

Posted by southwrite on July 7, 2014

CCJ director Tim Regan-Porter

CCJ director Tim Regan-Porter

Everyone knows that journalism is in trouble. Newspapers are on life support and there are few occupations chancier than being a reporter. Not many media companies have figured out how to make money off the news and actually pay writers at the same time.

Yet, a growing number of people of people in the profession are saying that one good answer might be found on the campus of Mercer University in the Middle Georgia City of Macon. Here the Center for Collaborative Journalism (CCJ) is taking a “hospital” approach to training journalists and in the process is reviving professional journalism.

The 186-year-old Macon daily, The Telegraph, and Georgia Public Broadcasting have co-located to a new mixed use development on the Mercer campus. Students from the journalism program are now working side by side reporters leaning by doing a good bit of the legwork for newspaper and public radio reports. It’s a lot more than just fetching coffee.

These students are producing real journalism. Mercer junior Jane Hammond did an early  story for National Public Radio on the Atlanta’s Braves move to  Cobb County and another on the Mercer basketball team’s upset of Duke. She also did a four minute feature on concussions in youth football.

“I’m fairly confidence that this is the only one like in the nation that has a public broadcaster and a (professional) newspaper in a school,” explains Tim Regan-Porter, the Center’s director. “There’s nothing else like this in which we’re integrating the professionals into the curriculum. It’s a first as far as we can determine.”

Journalism schools have long offered internship at media outlets. I spent three months at a weekly in Barnesville, Ga while at the University of Georgia’s journalism school. None have ever put students this close to real newsrooms enabled this much mentoring by editors and reporters.

The idea for the journalism center originated with the Macon Telegraph’s former publisher George McCanless. The energy and enthusiasm that he saw among the students he met at UGA was in sharp contrast to the generally pessimistic feelings of professional journalists. Why not move the newspaper out of its aging and cavernous building and onto the campus so that his reporters could experience some of that passion?

Back in Macon, he called up Mercer’s entrepreneurial-minded president Bill Underwood. He liked the idea and suggested they include a public broadcaster in the mix as well. And, to make it happen the two approached the Knight Foundation about providing funding.

The Knight Foundation also liked the notion – to the tune of $4.6 million. (Macon’s Peyton Anderson Foundation kicked in another $1 million.) They also informed journalism school deans and presidents of the universities “saying that if you want foundation money you need to start exploring these types of models. Teaching hospitals is the way you need to be thinking about it. Think less about academic credentials and start leveraging professionals to teach,” he adds.

“Bill Underwood went to Knight and made the pitch that of all the professional schools, medicine does the best job of training professionals because they have teaching hospitals,” explains Regan-Porter. “They’re actually serving the community and you have mentoring going on in a very real direct way. And they not only tend to the best educational services and professional services, but they also tend to provide the best hospital services for their area, because the doctors are staying up to speed with the latest medical technologies. That’s what we want to do for journalism.”

The Center for Collaborative Journalism in Mercer Village is now home to The Macon Telegraph and Georgia Public Media.

The Center for Collaborative Journalism in Mercer Village is now home to The Telegraph and Georgia Public Media.

The Telegraph moved its news room operations to the new building in Mercer Village, a mixed-use development in Macon’s College Hill Corridor, near the University’s historic campus, about six months ago. A new student residence hall sits just across the street from the building on a street that includes a variety of restaurants and shops. The original plan was to house the entire company here, but funding fell short. Georgia Public Media occupied another section of the building. More recently the Center acquired its own television station.

Getting professionals involved in the training of student journalists has been one area in which the program has been particularly successful. Regan-Porter came to the Collaborative Center after co-founding of Paste Magazine, one of the nation’s leading Music/Film/Culture publications and a direct competitor to Rolling Stone. He declined offers from bigger and more prestigious institutions both because of the program and the opportunity to live in the hip and historic College Hill neighbor that surrounds Mercer.

Reporters come into the classroom as guest lecturers and also work in the school’s writing lab critiquing student articles. That’s been particularly important as students enroll in the ongoing Practicum class that requires them to do published work. The process is good for students – they get professional mentoring – and for reporters – they get some help with their own work.

So where is the program going from here? Regan-Porter’s answer reflects just how different this effort is compared to the typical academic approach.

“We’re still figuring it out,” he admits. “We’re making changes every year and we will continue to do that – which is unique for academia. They don’t exactly like changes every year, but we’re very free rein. We have a lot of flexibility.”

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Freeing Freedom

Posted by southwrite on July 4, 2014

Folding FlagIt’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day. For most, it’s the beginning of a long weekend and the first real getaway of the summer. (Unless you’re in retail and then commerce never stops for celebrating independence.)

Today, there’ll be many speeches – some heartfelt, many profoundly insincere. Quite a few will include the phrase “freedom isn’t free” and include a call to appreciate our men and women in uniform for their service.

In too many cases the implication is that freedom and its preservation is always about war and battle. Sometimes that’s the case, but usually not. Building a strong democracy is everyone’s responsibility, not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and the like.

And here we come to a hard truth that you won’t really hear much about in speeches today. I think to be a real citizen, as opposed to just a consumer, demands that we understand our country, its history and its ideals at a deeper level than just blind patriotism and cheering on the team.

Over time the United States has been recognized more for its inspiring words and ideals of freedom  than its actual implementation. At the beginning and throughout much of its history, freedom has been something reserved for the privileged few –white property owning men – and not the great mass of people. For some Americans who think about such things, it’s hard to reconcile the soaring language with the record of slavery, discrimination, crony capitalism and sometimes genocide.

1963_march_on_washingtonIt’s easy to get wrapped up in these faults and forget what truly makes America great. Born out of revolution, the U.S. has always had a great capacity and even desire to transform itself. These transformations have never been easy or peaceful, but the genius of the Founders was in creating a framework for change. From freeing the country from the evil of slavery to granting women the right to vote to expanding personal liberty in so many areas, American democracy has worked – even if not always quickly or well.

We should be proud of these accomplishments without giving in to blinding myths like American exceptionalism. The belief that the U.S. is somehow fundamentally different from other countries and chosen by God to spread our own particular brand of democracy and capitalism is one dear to the hearts of many people – and not just conservatives. For people in other countries it’s a head scratching idea given our country’s obvious faults.

It’s true that Americans have always been a people that liked to see themselves through the lens of high ideals rather than gritty reality.

Signing of DeclarationThe affection for myths started early. John Trumbull’s famous painting Declaration of Independence you see here is an idealized  vision that  never happened. In fact, all the signers – and the painting depicts some who didn’t sign — were never together in one room at the same time. The actual signing of the document took place over a period of weeks as the delegates came and went. The painting conveys the idea that the document came full blown from the mind of Jefferson and the delegates rose as one to sign it. That’s not the way it happened. The Declaration of Independence is a political compromise, just like much else in our nation’s history.

In one sense these myths are a blessing in that they call us to those higher ideals of liberty and remind of what we want to be. Even if we don’t always live up to them we are still empowered by the knowledge of what is right and from that knowledge comes the capacity for change – and for greatness.

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The Ghosts of my Old Home Place

Posted by southwrite on July 3, 2014

Abondoned House WoodsOn the hot sticky summer afternoons of my youth, I’d find myself walking the dirt road that ran in front of my parent’s home. Barefoot I’d make my way past the fields and thorny blackberry bushes to where the road curved and I lost sight of the red brick house where I grew up. Emboldened by freedom and desire for adventure I’d keep walking as the hot Middle Georgia sun beat down on me and sweat trickled down face and back.

Following the ruts, I’d reach the heavy woods and then set off down a less traveled path back into the thick pines. After a time I’d finally see the lone chimney standing against the trees. It was all that was left of the house that once stood there – long abandoned and collapsed. At some point most of the ruins had been taken away so that only the crumbling brick fireplace remained.

It was somebody’s old home place. I never knew who had lived there, as they were long gone even in those years – dead no doubt and buried in some other place. Yet, I felt drawn to the spot. I’d sit there for a time, look at the outline of the foundation  and wonder.

When you’re deep in the woods alone there is no silence. The whisper of the wind through the pines, a small movement in the underbrush, the song of a bird is loud and ever present. Occasionally you’d hear the distant and lonely sound of a train whistle passing through Eastman  some five miles away.

If you meditate there long enough you start to hear other things as well. It becomes hard to tell where imagination ends and reality begins. You begin to hear the voices – both adults and children – talking and shouting. This was someone’s old home place where people were born and died. It was the center of their world. Now it was gone.

Author Tom Poland describes them this way: You’ve seen old home places. You’re driving a back road and you go by what I call ruins. I have in mind those places where you can tell a hand once tended a yard and you can tell by how the trees grow that, yes, once upon a time a home nestled among these trees. You can spot old home places in the spring by the golden profusions of jonquils that grow in a disorderly way. You can spot them by the little chimneys that stand like monuments to the lives they once warmed. You can spot them by the stately piles of rocks where a foundation once rested. These little heaps of rocks, standing amid weeds and pines amount to cairns, a mound of stones heaped up as a memorial, and memorials they became.

Growing up in rural Dodge County, Georgia, I saw a number of these simple  wood frame houses (the look is really classic). There was another on the edge of a field just across the dirt road. It was still standing the last time I was there, but already half swallowed by vines, and bush. The rural south is filled with these old home places. Abandoned, they hold out against the encroachment of age and undergrowth as long as they can. Then one day they vanish, consumed by indifference.

Path in WoodsI’d walk by keeping my distance from the thick growth. I knew there were snakes in there, but deep down I also suspected spirits of the death also hid within the dark walls. I wondered where the people had gone and why they stopped caring.

Then I saw it take my grandmother’s rambling old Four Square house. A short walk from my parent’s place, I had spent many afternoons playing in her wide sandy front yard. Here we escaped to the warmth of her fireplace when ice storms cut the power to our modern all-electric brick ranch. Built sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, the house had no indoor plumbing [there was a two-hole outhouse across the back yard] and water was drawn from a deep well at the corner of one of the wrap around porches.

After she passed and the property sold, the new owner torn off the porches and stuffed the house’s four equal sized rooms with hay bales. He planted pines in the big front yard hiding the house from the road. Driving by after many years and seeing what it had become, I was filled with a deep sadness. This place and the surrounding acreage that had once been  owned by my family was alien to me. The house was still standing because it made for convenient storage. It was a reminder of how things change and how quickly what we know is gone.

We’re good at giving up these old places.

In fact, we abandon just about everything. Small town and big city America is filled with empty structures. They range from industrial buildings and warehouses to old storefronts. Some are almost ancient, but others are more modern. Consider these pictures of abandoned shopping malls or the left behind cars, trucks, boats, industrial machinery and, of course, houses found on the stark and beautiful landscape of Iceland.

So much that was once useful and probably loved falls from a state of grace into one of loss.  With people gone even the best constructed houses eventually fall away. Sadly, it’s the way we do things.

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When too Much Really is too Much

Posted by southwrite on July 1, 2014

Alice in WonderlandI was talking to a friend recently about an acquaintance and the topic of openness. The person in question tended  to be a bit too explicitly personal in her Twitter postings. Although neither of us were close to this person – it was after all a social “media” acquaintance – we had gotten a pretty intimate view of certain aspects of her life. My friend was concerned that the young lady’s twittering might prove detrimental to her career – what if her employer saw it?

That got me to thinking when is too much too much?  These days the cliché “too much information!” comes to mind on a nearly hourly basis.

Obviously, reality TV and the extreme people who succeed on such shows have made keeping anything private – no matter how embarrassing – seem so, well, 20th Century. In fact, the more extravagant the misdeed the more likely it is to make you a star or an in demand book author (good news for ghost writers).

In fact, campaigning for a spot on a reality show is something you plan your life around. If it isn’t already, reality show contestant should be a job category – and one with true growth potential.

It wasn’t always like that. Once revealing too much was a much more local affair. There was the ameatur bodybuilder who told me about her use of steroids. There was the guy who couldn’t stop talking about his many, many, many feminine conquests. Relatively few ordinary people thought about leveraging their mistakes into media attention and that was a good thing.

Unless you’re aspiring to join the Real Housewives, looking bad may not be so good. Everyone should know by now that what you do online is never private no matter what your privacy settings may be. Social media of every kind has given us all the means to project our talents, opinions and foibles far and wide. Where once our bad taste might have been limited to a few friends, family and co-workers, we can now build a sizable platform from which to expose ourselves.

This ability can outpace your better judgment. Some people have discovered that employers troll social media sites looking for background data on job applicants. Facebook posts and funny pictures can solidify opinions long before you ever show up in your best business suit.

Just as businesses are careful about the image they project to the public, freelancers need to be conscious of what they’re saying to their customers as well. If provocative statements are part of your image then by all means keep writing those attention grabbing Twitter posts. If they aren’t something you want clients to read then don’t. And, save your misdeeds, tall tales, and bad taste for the home office. The dog won’t care and won’t tell.

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As Gods of the Air

Posted by southwrite on June 30, 2014

Plane Stormy SkyYou can’t imagine how loud and cramped the cockpit of a Cessna 150 is until you’re sitting in it, engine revving. As the red and white machine taxis down the runway of the small airport in the East Georgia town of Covington, I glance at my pilot. Jack is thin and bearded with sandy hair just beginning to gray.

I’m impressed with how diligent he is in his pre-flight checks. He goes over the plane making sure everything is in order and carefully follows a printed list of checks. These prop-driven marvels haven’t changed much in design since they were first introduced back before World War II, and neither has the flight inspection that ensures all systems are working.

A few days before, Jack had called asking if I’d like to go for a ride in his new plane. “We can fly up to Tocca for lunch,’ he says. It’s a joke among pilots. To provide an excuse for the expense of going up, you plan a flight somewhere to eat. It becomes “the world’s most expensive hamburger.”

We taxi down the runway, the engine’s roar getting louder, our progress faster. Slowly, much too slowly, we start to lift off and by the time the runway expires we are aloft. The plane climbs gaining altitude.

While most people start thinking about flying as kids and many have their pilot’s license before leaving their teens, Jack didn’t do his check ride until he was 66. That was the fulfillment of a long-delayed dream that began decades before when he first took a few lessons while working in Montana during the 70s. The heavy snows of a tough Western winter cut short his training, and job demands kept him from pursuing it further – until retirement.

“I always had this fantasy about flying at the top of the trees,” he tells me over the headphone we have to wear in order to communicate in the roaring cockpit. Jack is not the kind of guy who is content with a safe, mundane life.

Being the passenger in a tiny plane is a true “living in the moment” exercise. I’ve traveled in big passenger jets and prop driven puddle jumpers often, but this is a different experience. Wedged into this cramped metal can, you become acutely aware that you are thousands of feet above the earth with only a single engine to keep you up. There is an overwhelming feeling of being aloft as the ground passes below and you look upon the horizon in a way you’re never quite seen it before.

If you’re afraid of heights – as I am – the terror will start to well up and, despite your best efforts to focus on all the things going on around you, it will be there – just below the surface. At the same time you see how different – and how beautiful – the world looks from up in the sky.

Jack wants a Diet Coke. Spotting a small airport in the distance he pilots the plane in for landing. Like just about every other small town general aviation airport, the single building is closed for the weekend. There is a drink machine outside which allows him to satisfy his need for caffeine.

As he walk back to the plane the older man stops and looks at me intently. “Let me tell you something,” he beings. “If I should have a heart attack, try to pop one of these into my mouth and maybe I’ll come back to life.” He holds up a small pill bottle. I nod as he turns away and strides back to the plane.

Jack tells me to watch for birds. Hitting one could be a “really bad thing” for the plane he says. I scan the horizon knowing that I probably won’t see the flock of geese in time to avoid a fatal collision. At least it takes my mind off the thought of what might happen if the engine suddenly stopped and we have to make an emergency landing. “I’m always looking around for open fields and highways that I can put her down on,” he explains.

Pilots are always thinking ahead to the time when their equipment doesn’t work.

If we do develop engine trouble, the plane won’t drop like a rock, but will continue to sail along losing altitude until it finally hits the earth. Using the flaps, Jack can guide its slow descent onto a good makeshift runway – I hope.

I think of my own mortality. In this plane, I’ll know I’m going to die long before I actually do. What possessed me to think that going up with this guy was a good idea?

As we near our destination, Jack offers more droll wisdom on the dangers of flight. “There are only two kinds of landings,” says Jack calmly. “Good and crash.”

The trip is the first of several we take together. Flying from the Covington airport we visit other small towns in East and South Georgia. It’s always a thrill mingled with terror. I’m drawn to it and drink it in and begin to understand the appeal of risky occupations. You’re never more fully alive until you’re deeply immersed in an experience that scares and constantly demands your full attention.

Flying is like that. It’s that odd mixture of boundless freedom mingled with the realization that it could all end in a moment. It’s life.



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For the Love of Trains

Posted by southwrite on June 29, 2014

The northbound stack gliding through the Folkston funnel. (Photo: Dylan Jones)

The northbound stack gliding through the Folkston funnel. (Photo: Dylan Jones)

(The second  of a two part series on the romance of trains and trainwatching.)

Many people love trains, but for some it’s an obsession. (At least it might seem so to family members and by-standers with less passion for the big machines.)

Collecting model trains is a well-established hobby, but one of the most exciting aspects of trains is seeing the real thing – as up close and personal as possible.

If you like watching trains, there are many placed to see them. Across the country towns large and small have set aside viewing platforms and refurbished depots to accommodate the hobby of  trainwatching (or railfanning as some call it.)

That’s especially true in Georgia. Trains go through big cities and small towns alike. Atlanta, along with many other communities, owe their very existence to the railroad. Austell, Blue Ridge, Cartersville, Cordele, Macon, Marietta, Manchester, Savannah and a host of other cities are great train viewing locations. Few of these places are stops anymore, but many still offer the thrill of seeing a crossing guard fall and a long precession of metal come rumbling through.

While some regard trains as a nuisance – nobody likes waiting at a noisy crossing guard – some communities have embraced trains as a tourist attraction and created venues to make viewing easier and safer.

No place has done more to make itself a “railfan” capitol than the tiny town of Folkston on the Georgia border just 40 miles northwest of Jacksonville.

The viewing platform for train watchers in Folkston.

The viewing platform for train watchers in Folkston.  (Photo John A. Leynes)

Here two CSX lines from Savanna and Jesup merge to form the “Folkston Funnel” The tracks run parallel until they split again in Florida running toward Jacksonville and Baldwin. As many as 40 to 70 trains a day hurtle through town. The traffic includes Amtrack passenger trains and the “Tropicana Juice Train” with its loads of orange juice bound for America’s breakfast tables.

It makes for quite a spectacle and frequently blocks traffic although an overpass near the depot has eased transit.

The town’s old depot has been preserved and a few years ago the city built a covered viewing platform next to tracks in the center of town. It’s outfitted with lights, chairs and other amenities. A web cam even streams train images over the Internet.

Driven by word of mouth among fans, Folkston attracts thousands of people from across the country to watch the trains each year. It’s also been recognized with media coverage by press ranging from CBS News to the Wall Street Journal.

Locals say this fascination with trains also has a definite economic impact. Over the years the increased tourism has helped fuel the opening of new shops and restaurants.

In fact, it’s made this little town in South Georgia the closet thing to a trainwatching Mecca you’re likely to find.


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Romancing the Rail

Posted by southwrite on June 28, 2014

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

(The first of a two part series on the romance of trains and trainwatching.)

I love trains. The sound of a distant whistle makes me stop and stirs an emotion that has been with me since childhood. Men instinctively know what I’m talking about – women not so much.

We probably played with toy trains when we were boys and when we see one passing by today, it brings back memories of what was probably our favorite possession. The lucky ones among us had an electric powered set of engine and cars that traveled on a circular train around the basement. Almost as good was having a friend with one.

In middle and old age, many a man has filled his home with trains and track and station. Instead of a Corvette or antique Thunderbird, they buy multiple Lionel Train sets and became expert in the different models. Their mistress is a model railroad club and their fortune is spent on meet-ups and train conventions.

Trains are mechanical marvels – the empowerment of the industrial age and the driver of commerce. Trains both opened up the West and closed it with the First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.

Trains have always been the embodiment of romance and travel to unknown places. These days few really dream of hopping a freight out of town to a new life of adventure on the road. The attraction is more in the trains themselves.

You just can’t imagine how powerful – and loud! – a locomotive can be until you watch it thundering past so close you can almost reach out and touch it. It inspires an almost primal feeling as the mammoth piece of metal and its stream of clattering freight and tanker cars passes the refurbished depot in the north Georgia city of Dalton.

Dalton Depot 006Today a small crowd of mostly middle aged and older men have gathered in front of the 1914 era depot downtown. A couple hastily ready cameras mounted on tripods while others listen to scanners to monitor conversations between conductors and dispatchers. Within minutes the long train has passed by leaving these viewers smiling and eager for the next one.

They don’t have long to wait. More trains thunder through the city – 50 to 60 daily – than almost any other place in the country. This is one of the few places in Georgia where the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway cross each other at grade.

If you love watching trains this is perfect place to be. You can see them coming down the long expanse of track. A short distance north the Gordon Street Bridge provides a panoramic view of the city and the trains as they pass through. The depot, which also houses the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau, offers a large brightly lit waiting area inside equipped with a 42 inch monitor. An audio system is connected to the radio frequency used by dispatchers to talk to the engines.

The romantic era of rail travel may be long gone, but for a loyal cadre of hobbyists they still invoke a passion that sometimes borders on the fanatical. Railfans, as they’re called, travel across the country to find a good location for viewing their favorite engines. It’s both a passion and pleasure.

Watching the trails go always evokes some romantic notions of climbing aboard a boxcar and heading to new and unimagined places.

“You wonder when you see them where are they going and where they came from,” said one trainwatcher as a long expanse of cars lumbered past. I knew exactly what he meant. It was an emotion that had already welled up inside me from a place far away.


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