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Jerry Grillo

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I was a teenage performer in a racist Wild West show, and I loved it—then

jerry grillo
Illustration by Chris Gash

Once upon a time, my job description was “attack the train, terrorize the passengers, chase the pretty showgirls, fight the armed conductors, get killed.” As an Indian in a Wild West show with the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, I carried out these duties faithfully, with occasional embellishment, for two consecutive summers in the late 1970s.

The railroad featured steam locomotives that pulled antique-style coaches filled with Stone Mountain Park visitors on a five-mile tour around the mountain. It first opened in 1962 on an industrial spur built more than a century earlier. At some point in the mid-1960s, someone thought to stage a Wild West show featuring an Indian attack. “Indian” is appropriate here because that’s how our characters were scripted. We were a bunch of white, suburban, teenaged boys trained as low-rent stuntmen. Wearing wigs, grease paint, and multicolored cotton jerseys, any resemblance we had to actual Native Americans was accidental or nonexistent.

I joined this tribe with two neighborhood friends, and we became part of a long tradition of palefaces portraying a marginalized people being abused by Caucasians for the sake of entertainment. The irony—that we did all this in the literal shadow of a mountain that features a three-acre carving of Confederate icons on its granite face, a place from which a revitalized Ku Klux Klan emerged—was lost on me back then. I was naive, even for 16. All I wanted to do was meet girls and drink beer.

Looking back now, given the hard enlightenment that comes with age—and knowing people who have lost loved ones to gun violence—I cringe at the truth of what we were engaged in. Here we were, mindlessly glorifying gunplay, nurturing a negative cultural stereotype—a live-action version of a sacred but flawed American mythology, the Western.

But there’s another truth to be spoken, if I’m being honest: It was so much damn fun. I thought of this caustic combination of fun, violence, and intolerance last summer when hundreds of people flooded Stone Mountain Park for a Confederate flag rally in the wake of the slaughter at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Hordes of fake Confederates giddily waved Civil War battle flags, banners of sanctioned bullying, bigotry, and racism. Of course, they claimed to be defending what they see as their Southern heritage, as if everything about their culture could be confined to four years of wrongheaded rebellion and bloodshed. How many at the flag rally, I wondered, knew that it had been 100 years since Leo Frank, a Jew, was lynched in Georgia (August 1915), and that later the same year, the Klan had reemerged beneath a burning cross atop Stone Mountain. But hey, at least these enlightened neo-Confederates had the sense to chase off a Klansman who brazenly shambled into the flag rally.

Of course, these wannabe rebels are as bogus and spoiled as we were back in the 1970s. Instead of waving Confederate battle flags, we brandished rubber tomahawks and .22 rifles with blanks. But we were all involved in something profoundly insensitive to a large swath of humanity.

The author, top row and second from left, and his crew in 1977.
The author, top row and second from left, and his crew in 1977.

Photograph courtesy of Jim Matalone

For us teenaged Indians, that swath included train passengers; it was our goal to freak them out. As Indians, we were stationed near the halfway point of the circuitous trip in a fake Western town that we called the “set,” miles from any adult supervision. So we drank alcohol, took psychedelic drugs, played poker, committed vandalism. It was like a surreal Lord of the Flies–themed summer camp.

When it was time to perform, we followed the same basic script: A screaming Indian burst from the woods on horseback as the train arrived. The conductors disembarked, guns drawn, to rescue a sheriff tied to a stake behind a blazing fire pit. Indians leapt from hiding places, boarded the train, and chased the showgirls, high-stepping it through a gantlet of howling passengers, avoiding the outstretched legs of smartass kids.

Meanwhile, all around the set, guys got punched, stabbed, bludgeoned, shot, or crushed by giant Styrofoam rocks. We saved the best—or the worst, I suppose—for the final show of the year on Labor Day. Seven of us marched onto the set in single file in our skivvies, the names of the Seven Dwarfs written on our chests in war paint, singing “heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” as one performer rode through on his motorcycle, in lieu of a horse, while another, with a fine rendering of a middle finger on his torso, played a drum solo on a full set of Pearls. When the conductors fired their first shot, we all dropped dead simultaneously.

Since then, some of the weird little world at Stone Mountain has changed. The Indian battle was put to rest around 1980, replaced by a slapstick show involving a bumbling drunk who foils a bad guy named Black Bart. In 1998 the park was privatized. Railroad shows came and went, then disappeared for a decade, until last summer when a comedic good guys/bad guys show debuted, featuring a female sheriff and some actors who weren’t white (a logical move for a park in DeKalb County, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the Southeast).

“We wanted to do something more inclusive and reflective of our visitors, including our residents, who use the park the most,” says Jeanine Jones, spokesperson for Stone Mountain Park.

The park still has Indians. Each fall, for nearly 16 years, the Stone Mountain Indian Festival & Pow-Wow has showcased Native American culture, music, and food. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one gets killed.

“We have a very diverse visitor base and want everyone to feel included and welcome,” Jones says. “Things evolve.”

Well, maybe some things do.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue under the headline “Mountain of Shame.”

Atlanta’s German Influx

Photograph by Josh Meister
Photograph by Josh Meister

Five years ago, Doreen Eitel left Germany and ended up in Columbus, Ohio, where she worked as an au pair. She married and moved to Tampa. Two years ago, the couple moved to Atlanta, and Eitel was pleasantly surprised.

“I have discovered things that make Germany feel a little closer, and Atlanta feel more like home,” says Eitel, 28, who works for Novem, a German-owned business in Austell that provides car interior parts to companies like Mercedes-Benz, which in January announced it would move its U.S. headquarters from New Jersey to Atlanta. Mercedes joins upwards of 250 other German-owned firms—think Siemens and Porsche—with Atlanta outposts.

Photograph by Josh Meister
Photograph by Josh Meister

Mercedes will hire locals to fill some of the 900 or so jobs. Other workers will be relocated from New Jersey and Germany. This last bunch probably will be less interested in the generous tax credits that lured the company here than in knowing that they can still catch the FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund soccer game while downing mugs of Bitburger and devouring Leberkäse sandwiches, just like they would back home.

They’ll also find a 17,000-strong community of German expats here, who watch German soccer teams on a big screen every Saturday, August through May, at the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta in Colony Square. They drink real German beer and eat ersatz German cuisine at Der Biergarten downtown. They get German sausage at Patak Meats and German bread at Bernhard’s Bread Bakery. They commemorate German reunification at Kennesaw State University, where a 12-foot-tall chunk of the Berlin Wall is on display. They get together at different German Meetup groups and they worship at German Church Atlanta.

Of course, German expats use the Internet to find all of this stuff, a luxury that Eike Jordan didn’t have when he moved here to establish the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern United States in 1978, “when the fastest way to communicate was to spend a fortune on a phone call or use the old Telex machine, which I did every morning when my brother sent me the latest soccer scores from Germany,” Jordan says. “Now I can just watch the games live on my phone.”

Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey, 2013
Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey, 2013

Back then there were 32 German-owned companies in Georgia and a growing interest in doing business in a region where the costs were low and markets were growing.

“The Consulate General at the time suggested the German Chamber organization open an office here,” Jordan says. “I’d never been to the U.S., but my wife and I always wanted to go across borders and have some adventure.”

He started the German School of Atlanta in 1983, partly because he wanted his kids to retain some of their German identity, but especially for German families living here on a temporary work assignment. “There was concern about keeping the German language, because for young children here, most of the day happens in English,” he says. “Those children had to go back to Germany and continue with their education. They couldn’t afford a language gap.”

These days it’s actually easier to find a German language class than it is to find a good bratwurst in Atlanta. The Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta has taught language classes for years and hosts events like the March 6 “Spieleabend” (German immersion game night) to encourage participants to speak German. Also, 170 public schools in Georgia offer German classes, including one—Ashford Park Elementary in Brookhaven—that offers a dual-immersion curriculum in which students spend half the school day learning subjects like math and science in German.

Jordan believes all of this German language education is the foundation of Atlanta’s German cultural existence (actually, Georgia is named for a German; King George II of Great Britain was born and raised in Germany). And he also believes that incoming Germans, with Mercedes or otherwise, won’t need an official welcome Volkswagen.

“They’ll have Southern hospitality, like my family had when we moved here,” he says. “We felt welcomed from the start. In New York, no one cares if you move there. Atlanta? People invite you into their homes, and they mean it.”

Cultural Exchange
For decades Germany’s government funded the Goethe-Instituts around the world, promoting German language and culture. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, “and the money started going toward Eastern European and Asian countries,” Eike Jordan says. “They were closing Goethe institutes everywhere.” German businesses and the German American chamber stepped up. So did Claus Halle, a senior exec with Coca-Cola, who had established the Halle Foundation in 1986. The foundation has written checks to support German American cultural initiatives and student exchanges.

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue under the headline “Ich Bin Ein Atlantan.”

AJ Ghent Band introduces sacred steel guitar to the masses

When the bearded white dude introduced himself, AJ Ghent was nonplussed. “I didn’t have a clue who Zac Brown was,” recalls Ghent, whose band was rolling into a midnight set when Grammy winner Brown entered the almost empty Dixie Tavern one evening last summer. After the gig, Ghent and Brown hung out, talking. They didn’t leave the tavern until seven in the morning. “We clicked right away,” says Ghent.

Since then, the AJ Ghent Band has opened for Brown nationwide, introducing audiences to the evolution of “sacred steel,” an African American gospel style pioneered by Ghent’s great-uncle Willie Eason; grandfather Henry Nelson; and father Aubrey Ghent Sr. “They’re like the kings of sacred steel, but I didn’t want to be defined by what they’d done, or be stuck inside the box of a church environment,” says Ghent, twenty-seven, who moved to Atlanta from Florida in 2012, building on a regional following while playing with anomalously influential bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton.

Now, when he isn’t conjuring James Brown on vocals, Ghent makes his custom eight-string steel guitar wail like a spectral woman, often harmonizing with the vocals of his front-line bandmates, wife MarLa Ghent and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle. Will Groth (drums), Seth Watters (bass), and Gary Paulo (rhythm guitar/sax) bring rhythmic funk to the band’s bluesy rock.

The group is at work on a debut album for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label. “I’d like to create the energy of a live experience with a studio album,” says Ghent, for whom the live experience has changed. “I knew small clubs and pizza joints. Then we played the Georgia Dome with Zac, and it was like adjusting your ears to the sound of a million people screaming.”

This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue under the headline “From Altar to Arena.”

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