Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.
If you wanted to create the quintessential Southern small town, you’d model it after Natchitoches. Just ask Robert Harling: A Natchitoches native, he set his play Steel Magnolias in a homey fictional town that closely resembled the one in which he was raised. And when it came time to make the film starring Julia Roberts, there was never a doubt it would be shot in this city of French Quarter–style wrought-iron balconies and overflowing flower boxes.Visitors can still tour famous sites from the movie, including St. Augustine Catholic Church and the eighteenth-century American Cemetery. Fans of the movie will be familiar with the annual Christmas Festival of Lights, but if you missed the holiday, you can still catch one of the weekend festivals held here year round, such as the Cane River Zydeco Festival in August or the Meat Pie Festival and River Run in September. And if you can’t score a room at the Steel Magnolia House bed and breakfast, you needn’t worry—the town is home to more than thirty B&Bs, earning it the moniker “B&B Capital of the World.” While you’re in town, be sure to tour some of the Creole plantation homes along the Cane River, and check out a replica of Fort St. Jean Baptiste, built from the original 1716 blueprints.
Where to Stay
Sweet Cane Inn / This late-1800s home, now a bed and breakfast, boasts twelve-foot ceilings, eleven fireplaces, and a location in the heart of the historic district. Breakfast specialties include Creole crepes. sweetcaneinn.com
Where to Eat
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant/ Stop in at the birthplace of the Natchitoches Meat Pie—the deep-fried delicacy that put the town on the culinary map. lasyones.com
What to See
Rose Hill Mansion / A stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture, this private residence is open to the public for tours every day at 2 p.m. Reservations required. rosehillmansion.com
Meat Pie Festival and River Run
One of Louisiana’s official state foods, the Natchitoches meat pie—a crispy deep-fried flour shell stuffed with beef, pork, and the Cajun trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery—is said to have originated at Lasyone’s, a local institution. Every September, locals and visitors alike gather along the downtown banks of Cane River Lake to stuff themselves with the meaty handheld treats while enjoying zydeco and country music. There are games and crafts for kids; a beer fest and pub crawl for adults; and a meat-pie eating contest for folks of any age brave enough to tackle a plateful. The festival coincides with the River Run—a leisurely motorcycle ride along the Cane River with stops at historical sights and a quick break for—you guessed it—a meat pie.
In many ways, downtown Water Valley seems like a time capsule from the early twentieth century. Main Street runs parallel to a historic railway line; brick buildings and awning-dressed storefronts seem ripped from a vintage postcard. One of those stores, Turnage Drug, still spins the same malted milkshakes it’s served since 1905. But though the town seems like a love letter to yesteryear, don’t assume its best days are behind it. Water Valley is a vibrant hub for academics and artists, thanks, in part, to its proximity to Oxford (just twenty-five miles north) and its cluster of art studios, including the mixed-media Yalo Studio and the painting-focused Bozarts Gallery. Old-Fashioned Grocery, despite its name, is just six years old and sells produce and meats in keeping with modern preferences for locally sourced, conscientiously imported products. And in the bones of a former foundry, Yalobusha Brewing Company develops new twists on traditional beers, such as a seasonal blackberry saison. (The taproom is open for tastings Fridays and Saturdays).
Where to Stay
Blu-Buck Mercantile Hotel /In this town where everything old is new again, it’s only fitting to book a room on the second floor of a refurbished machine shop. Each apartment-style suite features soaring ceilings and a full kitchen. (888) 829-7076
Where to Eat
Crawdad Hole / Fill up on fresh shrimp and crab and, of course, crawfish served at picnic tables in a converted gas station. (662) 816-4006
What to See
Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum / Learn about the iron horse that built the town and read stories about Casey Jones, who worked as a fireman along this line of rail. caseyjonesmuseum.com
Meet the Neighbors
Snooky Williams / When Snooky Williams arrived in Water Valley in 1955, he was twenty-four, fresh out of the army, and looking to start his own clothing store. “At first, the townspeople didn’t know how to place me exactly,” says Williams, now eighty-five. “But I was accepted. They made me feel welcome.” Williams has been paying that hospitality forward ever since. For the past fifty years or so, he and his wife, Mary Lou, have opened their home for an annual spring mixer, inviting around 200 locals, and they always make it a point to send newcomers a handwritten invitation. Williams sold his clothing store in the 1980s and opened an insurance agency, from which he retired ten years ago. But he kept his Main Street office and maintains regular hours chatting up friends, old and new, when he’s not driving around town in his black Chevy pickup, the unofficial Welcome Wagon of Water Valley.
Perched on a high bluff overlooking Mobile Bay, Fairhope is a town in bloom. A thirty-foot floral clock on Highway 98 welcomes visitors, and flowerbeds lining bustling Main Street are replanted quarterly with flowers such as Jingle Bell poinsettias, tulips, petunias, and marigolds. Down by the Fairhope Municipal Pier, a meticulously maintained rose garden contains more than 1,000 bushes representing forty-one varieties. And thanks to a 1981 tree-planting initiative, the community is now lined with thousands of longleaf pines, magnolias, birches, and live oaks. Shop for books and art at Page & Palette, a third-generation family business, and delight the kids with a visit to Fantasy Island Toys, open forty years. When it’s time to eat, opt for seafood; local favorites include Market by the Bay and Shux on the Pier. If you’re in town for one of the seasonal jubilees, you might even catch your own crab, shrimp, or flounder.
Where to Stay
Fairhope Inn / Situated in the heart of downtown Fairhope, this elegant small inn offers three antique-filled guest rooms anchored by four-poster beds. thefairhopeinn.com
Where to Eat
Shux on the Pier / It’s a year-round jubilee at this seafood joint with outdoor seating on the pier. Order fresh flame-grilled oysters and watch boats cruise the bay. shuxonthepier.com
What to See
Fairhope French Quarter / Twelve petite shops selling a range of goods, from bracelets to beignets, surround one of the South’s largest crepe myrtle trees. fairhopefrenchquarter.com
Fairhope Municipal Pier Many small towns have city squares and community greenspaces, and Fairhope is no exception. But perhaps its most popular gathering spot is a 1,448-foot stretch of wood planks extending over the bay: Fairhope Municipal Pier. Located on the west end of town, the pier is where locals and visitors congregate for jubilee celebrations, as well as fishing and picnicking. It features a popular marina and restaurant. There’s also an adjacent park with a pavilion, pond, tree trail, and rose garden, plus access to the expansive beach.
Atlanta is a city of transients, and as such, gets a bad rap for not having a proportionately passionate local fan base. But when Atlanta takes the field in Houston this Sunday for Super Bowl LI, it will be the first time a local major-league team has even sniffed a championship in almost 20 years. So it’s acceptable, if not your civic duty, to jump on the bandwagon and root for the Hawks . . . er . . . the Falcons!
Still, you don’t want to look like a fair-weather fan. We’ve put together a quick primer that should help you fit in at any Super Sunday soiree.
Matt Ryan (2)—All-Pro quarterback coming off an MVP-caliber year, finally shaking off the unfair stigma of being an underachiever and postseason disappearing act. His nickname is “Matty Ice” because he’s cool under pressure and because it rhymes with “Natty Ice,” shorthand for Natural Light Ice beer, which some rural Falcons fans drink by the case. (Okay, we might have made that last part up.)
Julio Jones (11)—All-pro wide receiver, dubbed “Jet Jones” because he spreads his arms as he crosses the goal line. Alternative nickname: “Millennium Falcon.”
Dan Quinn—This is his second year as head coach—of any team. Ever. That inexperience made him a controversial hire, but now he’s one win away from a statue in the parking lot that will replace the 25-year-old Georgia Dome. (Hopefully his monument will last longer.)
Week 2: After a disappointing home loss in the season opener to the Buccaneers, the Falcons were tied in the fourth quarter at Oakland. Ryan had a third-down pass deflected into the arms of Justin Hardy, who just happened to be standing in the end zone. Atlanta’s luck continued in the ensuing possession when the Raiders had a 51-yard TD pass waved off because the receiver went out-of-bounds. The 35-28 Falcons win was the start of a four-game winning streak and a good omen.
Week 4: Ryan throws for 503 yards and Jones pulls down 300 yards receiving, marking the first time in the Super Bowl era that a quarterback and receiver have done so.
Week 7: The Birds wore throwback black jerseys from 1966. And just as that team did 11 times—and many, many more times in the next few years—Atlanta lost to the Chargers.
Week 16: After beating the rival Panthers 33-16, the Falcons clinched their first NFC South Division title since 2012—assuring that the Georgia Dome would get at least one last hurrah.
Week 17: Ryan ends the season with 331 yards passing and 4 TDs in a win over New Orleans. Matty Ice finished with a 117.1 QB Rating, fifth best in NFL history.
Divisional Playoff: Falcons 36, Seahawks 20. Atlanta goes to the NFC Championship game for the first time since a heart-wrenching loss to the 49ers in 2012.
NFC Championship: The last game ever at the Georgia Dome, Falcons sent the “old” place off in style by throttling the Packers 44-21. On to Houston!
Falcons Super Bowl history Brief. The first, and previously only, time the Falcons made the big game was Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999. These were the “Dirty Birds,” led by running back Jamal Anderson and All-Pro safety Eugene Robinson. The night before the game, Robinson was arrested by an undercover cop for soliciting a prostitute. The next day, he gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass and missed a key tackle late in the game, which the Falcons dropped to the Denver Broncos 34-19.
Something you should never say to a Falcons fan “My favorite player is Eugene Robinson.”
Slogans you need to know
Rise Up: Sure, it’s an official campaign, cooked up by an advertising firm in 2010. It’s not even original, having been used by several other teams, including the Hawks awhile back. But you’re guaranteed to hear this rallying cry at any game or viewing party. Just goes to show that Samuel L. Jackson can turn anything into an immortal catch phrase (more on that below).
In Brotherhood: Speaking of a borrowed phrase, Coach Quinn lifted this motivational gem from a band of Navy Seals that came to speak to the team. While “Rise Up” has become the mantra of the people in the stands, “In Brotherhood” is the team’s rallying cry in the locker room and on the field. (Although fans get in on the action through social media with #InBrotherhood.)
Dirty Bird: The calling card of the last Super Bowl-bound Atlanta team was a bit more spontaneous. And since it was the 1990s—you know it also had its own dance. The phrase and choreography were hatched by running back Jamal Anderson as an end zone celebration.
Famous Falcons fans Samuel L. Jackson—Super fan, face of the Rise Up campaign, and a must-follow for his in-game commentary, which is, of course, often R-Rated, MUGHPFUUHGQQQAH!
Usher—The Atlanta resident and R&B superstar is often spotted on the Falcons sidelines.
Falcons-Pats history Since the franchises play in different conferences and both have experienced long periods of mediocrity—though New England’s is hard to remember—the two teams have only faced each other a handful of times. The Pats lead the all-time series 7-6.
But there is a connection: When Blank first bought the Falcons in 2001, he had never owned a professional sports team. He turned New England owner Robert Kraft for advice. Kraft told Blank to just run the team like he had run Home Depot—and to get used to being followed around by reporters. Blank told us in an interview last week that the two were hoping to face each other this year. “I’ve often had to remind him that we’re not actually going to be playing each other on the field . . . it’s our teams who will!” he said.
Trash talking Patriots fans 101 Making their ninth Super Bowl appearance (the most of any other franchise), the Patriots have won four titles. All that success, combined with a couple of cheating scandals, has made them extremely hateable outside of New England. Here are some pressure points to aim for:
Deflategate: More recently, in 2015, New England’s star quarterback, Tom Brady, was busted for using irregularly deflated footballs that were easier for his receivers to grip. We defy you to come up with a zinger using “deflated” and “balls” that any Pats fan hasn’t already heard—but it’s still fun.
Star Wars jokes: Between the team’s sinister dominance and Coach Bill Belichik’s constantly dour mood, the Patriots have earned comparisons to the Galactic Empire. Try downloading the “Imperial March” as a ring tone to play each time New England scores.
Bandwagon: If they don’t know the name Tony Eason, they’re not true Patriots fans—and probably won’t know enough about football or the Falcons to call you out as a hypocrite.
It’s Chow-dah!: If all else fails to flap the Pats fans, just poke fun at that outlandish accent, y’all!
Forget Comic-Con, the annual West Coast convention of spray-tanned film execs, toy makers hawking plastic Thor hammers, and (shudder) casual sci-fi and fantasy fans. Hard-core geeks prefer Atlanta’s Dragon Con, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. These cosplayers spend all year brainstorming, researching, and sweating over every stitch of their costumes. Why the obsession? Sure, it’s fun to impress the throngs at the annual parade. Better still to one-up your peers in the hotel lobby. But ultimately, Dragon Con is about community, from Avengers to zombies. At last year’s convention, we invited attendees to tell us their stories. One thing’s for sure: They’ll be back this year.
from Iron Man 2 Russ Meyerriecks, 34
2nd Dragon Con
I made this costume last year for my first Dragon Con. I just wanted to fit in, but it was a big hit. Originally I was going to be Judge Dredd, but I couldn’t get the lettering on the helmet right. I figured with the body armor, I could either pivot to Iron Man or War Machine, and War Machine has more guns. It’s acceptable to wear the same costume in back-to-back years, but you’d better soup it up. This year I’ve added a computerized voice command that closes my mask, “arms” my cannon, and replies with actual voice clips of JARVIS (actor Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man movies.
from Overwatch Jasmine Mackey, 24
3rd Dragon Con
Dragon Con rules because the costumes take over downtown. Most cosplay events are contained in one hotel or a convention center, but since Dragon Con is in multiple hotels and lots of people stay off-site, you’ll see cosplayers at the Hard Rock, Peachtree Center, and even on MARTA. And while other cons are only during the day, Dragon Con is on at all hours. My favorite is the burlesque ball. Every year there’s a different, nerdy theme. One year it was Tron, and everything was lined with lights in the dark. We line up three hours before the doors open at midnight, and it is totally worth the wait.
Top left:Smaug the Dragon from The Hobbit,Brigette Ellison, 28, Las Vegas, 2nd Dragon Con Top center:Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit, Janette Jolman, 32, Knoxville, Tennessee, 12th Dragon Con Top right:Bifur from The Hobbit, Tracy Garner, 55, Atlanta, 28th Dragon Con Bottom left: Kilifrom The Hobbit, Melody Hunter, 37, Pitusville, Florida, 2nd Dragon Con Bottom right:Gloin from The Hobbit, Ed Garner, 58, Atlanta, 28th Dragon Con Janette: I relate to Thorin, the displaced dwarf king. As the only female cop working with about 30 other guys, I’ve always felt like an outcast. But through cosplay and conventions, I’ve met a group of like-minded souls from all over. I love being Thorin—even when I open my mouth and kill the illusion with my high voice. The shock on people’s faces when they realize I’m a woman is the ultimate compliment.
Right: The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Tom Morfoot, 54, Atlanta, “20-somethingth” Dragon Con Center:Caractacus Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chris Lee, 50, Nashville, Tennessee, 10th Dragon Con Left: Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Leah D’Andrea-Lee, 34, Nashville, Tennessee, 14th Dragon Con
Leah: Chris and I met here in 2006. We were both huge into Star Wars. Chris: We were introduced by a mutual friend who does Chewbacca. I proposed to her six years later at Star Wars Celebration VI. I was Luke; she was Leia. Leah: We do a big costume every other year. The only movie we have in common besides Star Wars is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Tom: I met the Lees here a few years ago. I like dressing up as characters nobody else does. So much so that I don’t even go to the panels; I’m afraid I’ll miss out on seeing the best costumes.
from Smite Matthew Silva, 27
11th Dragon Con
Vintage Japanese “pin-up” girl Emily Coughlin, 24
3rd Dragon Con Matthew Silva: My dad brought me here when I was a kid. He was into Star Trek, and I was into general sci-fi. Back then, I’d have been scandalized by seeing a 50-year-old man in a pink leotard and tutu. Now I’m like, “Hey Tom, how’ve you been?” Emily: Matthew and I are both make-up artists for film and TV, and we met on a job years ago. Even though we had each been to Dragon Con, this is only our second con as a couple. Matthew: It’s fun to show our own work—I have two fake beards this year—and it’s fun to see others’. Emily: It’s also just a nonstop party with so many new and interesting people.
from Super Mario Bros. Spencer Murrill, 31
10th Dragon Con
For me, Dragon Con is just an excuse to build a puppet. It’s really the only cosplay I ever do. I’m a freelance artist, making props and molds and sculptures, but I’ve been a puppeteer since I was nine. I played Super Mario Bros. when I was a kid, and I always thought the piranha plant would make a good puppet. Dragon Con has a puppetry track, and everyone here is very open-minded and supportive, no matter what the skill level. This place is one of my few outlets, one of the few places where I’m just free to create.
from Final Fantasy VII, crossed with Tron Legacy Michael Schaffer, 25
3rd Dragon Con
I’ve been into cosplay since 2008 and go to events all over the country. Dragon Con is well known for its variety and quality. Everyone brings their A-game. You see real craftsmanship and attention to detail. It’s competitive, but in a friendly way. People help each other, and you make a lot of new friends. This year’s costume took me about three months. I really wanted to incorporate the reflective, glow-in-the-dark look of Tron. But instead of just being armed with the little Frisbee-like rings, I’m wielding Cloud Strife’s giant (cardboard and wood) sword—just in case.
a Twi’lek from the Star Wars universe Skye Bedell, 20
Durham, North Carolina
1st Dragon Con
My first mistake was only packing one day’s worth of paint. I’ve had to sleep in this, no shower, for four days. My mom got me into costuming and conventions when I was a kid. Everyone always told me I needed to go to Dragon Con. It’s so much bigger than I had expected, and the cosplay is at a much higher level. I’ve learned so much—not just from panels, but from other people. For instance, a new way to airbrush on my makeup so it won’t cake up as much. And next year, I’ll definitely bring more paint.
from Twisted Metal 2 Collin Royster, 29
8th Dragon Con Twisted Metal 2 was my favorite video game growing up—a sort of demolition derby on steroids and acid. I found an old Power Wheels, a purple Escalade, in a junk yard for $5 and put six months, $500, and about six boxes of pop rivets into it. It can hit about 22 miles per hour. After the con, my dad and I will race in a little Power Wheels series back home.
Astrid and her dragon, Stormfly
from How to Train Your Dragon Gabrielle Carter, 13
4th Dragon Con
It’s hard to lug 25 pounds of cut-up yoga mats and craft foam through the crowded Hyatt lobby. My mom and I worked on the costume every night for five months. Stormfly broke his right toe somewhere along the way. Thankfully, my mom, who owns a party supply company, is never far away with a roll of tape.
from Star Wars: The Force Awakens Sara Colletta
Fear, Joy, Anger, and Sadness
from Inside Out Travis Cox, Sarah Shoulak, Baxter “Bucky” Durham, Allie Blackmon
Steampunk bandit and East Asian steampunk Danielle Keyes and Alan Akira
from The Shining Fernanda Martin and Stephanie Carson
from Fairy Tail David Bernstein
Cinderella Raven Sowell
Las Vegas Mad Max Erin Grundel
from League of Legends Virginia Bland
from The Venture Bros. Drew Ritland
from Game of Thrones Hayden Rowe
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue under the headline “Return of the Con.”
Collin Rishell was a high school freshman in Spanish Fort, Alabama, when his band director took him and the other band members to watch a Drum Corps International competition. What he saw was something like a massive Broadway show, with a big sound and elaborate choreography.
Six years later, Rishell, 19, is a second-year drum major for Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and is one of three local groups competing at the Georgia Dome for the DCI Southeastern Championship. Like the other 26 competitors, Spirit consists of 150 high school– and college-aged percussionists, brass, and color guard members, some of whom travel from as far away as Japan. When full-time rehearsals begin in May, members rehearse for 12 hours a day in the Atlanta heat. “I do it to attain that higher level,” says Rishell. “But I also do it for this family I come back to every year.”
This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.
First Baptist | Duluth | 29 miles northeast of Atlanta
Jeremiah Buziba is five years old. He stands at the end of a line of 11 kids he met less than a month ago, in front of a classroom full of adults he doesn’t know. He doesn’t appear to be overly familiar with the song he’s supposed to be singing, “God Is with You Always.” And yet he’s stealing the show. He jumps up and down, in and out of line, kicks up his legs and spins while peeking around his glasses at the teacher. He was born in Uganda just before his parents, a machinist and a hairdresser, immigrated to Duluth in search of a better life, which they found immediately. What took longer was finding the right Christian church. After five years and five or six churches, they came here to First Baptist Church of Duluth, where Pastor Mark Hearn has made acceptance his mission. In 2010, 92 percent of Hearn’s incoming church members were white, while all around him Duluth was rapidly diversifying. At Duluth High School, he learned, students spoke a total of 57 different languages. Hearn saw that his own neighbors were Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, and Zimbabwean. So he set about hiring nonwhite staff, promoting nonwhite deacons, establishing an ESL program and Bible study for adults. “It was not about acclimation to our ways,” he says. “It’s about accommodation for theirs.” Today service is translated live through headsets into Spanish, Korean, and soon Mandarin, and the flags of 37 countries hang in the sanctuary, including that of the Buzibas’ Uganda. Meanwhile Jeremiah has stopped looking to his teacher and now turns to four-year-old classmate Eugene Son for guidance through the routine. Eugene’s parents came from Seoul. After years at a Korean Baptist church, they started attending service here a few weeks ago. They want Eugene and his brother and sister to learn more about American ways and manners. Tonight Eugene and Jeremiah will find their way through this performance together.
This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.
A purple dawn breaks across the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, but Sheep/Swine Barn #1 has been bright and bustling for more than an hour. On the 36,300-square-foot concrete floor, covered in sawdust and dirt, hundreds of agriculture students from fourth grade up tend to their hogs. There are gilts (young females) and barrows (young males), some weighing in at more than 250 pounds. They’re squealing, eating, sleeping, or testing the cramped steel boundaries of 408 uniform pens.
The cells are blocked off by school. Participants have hauled trailers from the far corners of the state. This is the first of four days of the Georgia Junior National Livestock Show—the state championship for students who raise and show pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats instead of shooting free throws or kicking field goals. While football might be Georgia’s weekend religion, agriculture is its everyday way of life—a $74 billion industry, the state’s largest. These youths are continuing a tradition that predates the pigskin, reaching back to Georgia’s earliest English settlers. Judging livestock, the quality and quantity of food each animal will produce, has been a crucial skill since man first domesticated animals.
The spirit here is the same as at any Friday night football game, complete with interschool rivalries and, outside, rows of tailgating tents, soon to be stocked with wings and Crock-Pot barbecue. Back inside the barn, beneath the red, white, and blue banner of the Veterans High School Warhawks from nearby Kathleen, Georgia, sophomore Caroline Thompson mixes a thick meal of grain and plant protein with water and pours it for her two hungry gilts. Caroline cuts an unlikely figure as a farmer. Her long brown hair is down, the back of her jeans bedazzled, and her flowing black blouse seems inappropriately thin against the late-February chill. “I’m cold,” she says in a drawl. “But my outfit is cute.”
The 15-year-old daughter of a timber salesman and a phone company associate, Caroline dedicated her junior high years to the drops and dance routines of competitive cheerleading. But when Veterans ag teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser Clay Walker—taking note of her outgoing personality, her responsibility in the classroom, and her overall competitiveness—encouraged her to shift her focus to raising livestock, Caroline found something she’d been missing. “When I cheered, I never got much out of it,” she says. “Here I get the chance to take something to greatness.”
This year she hopes “greatness” is what’s milling around in the sawdust at her feet, digging its wet snout into her leg. Her parents helped her come up with the $450 apiece (plus another $1,500 for feed and fees) for the purebred Yorkshire Blue and the crossbred Belle as piglets from a breeder in Indiana. Over the past four months, she has built these animals from 50-pound weaners into 250-pound adults, steadily adding about two pounds per day before slowing the gain leading up to the show. There the swine will be judged on muscling, leanness, growth, and bone structure.
Today Caroline will also be judged. The showmanship competition takes into account how well the student can control and parade the beast before the judges. All that’s at stake for Caroline is pride and a trophy belt buckle. But a prize pig will be bought by breeders looking to refine the line. The rest will go to market to be butchered. “The better you do,” Caroline tells Blue as she brushes sawdust off of his back, “the better chance you have to live.”
Meanwhile in the adjacent Beef/Dairy Barn, fellow Warhawk Madison Smith and her father, Dallas Smith, are trying to calm a newly washed cow that’s been spooked by a blow dryer.
“Talk to her!” says an onlooker to the thrashing animal’s owner. “They know your voice. Calm her down!”
Madison, a junior, steadies the cow from the side, while her father, the lone adult in the vicinity, grips the lead. Eye to eye with a half ton of terrified beef, the project manager with no farming background whatsoever could fairly wonder how he got here. Like Caroline, Madison was intrigued by the Veterans ag program, and like Caroline, Madison started out on pigs. Last year she decided to step up to cattle, which require a yearlong commitment, not to mention more money—$2,250 per head, plus another $2,000 in feed and fees. In January she won senior championship showmanship at the Screven County 23rd Annual Moo Moo Classic, an achievement commemorated by a silver saucer-sized buckle on Madison’s belt.
Once the panicked cow is calmed, Madison and her father walk to her freshly cleaned and combed black Chi heifer, Crickett, who has been chewing hay and watching the action from her nearby stall. Crickett’s the jealous type. “She stares at me while I’m feeding my pigs,” says Madison.
Crickett has her owner’s full attention when the 11th graders are called. Madison leads her charge clomping out of the barn and over to the open-air practice ring, a staging area, where she signs in and is given a number. As they wait, Madison combs the heifer’s black coat, and Dallas picks out a few pieces of lint. Crickett starts licking Madison’s hand. “Stop!” says Madison in a whisper shout. “You’re going to make it slippery!”
Finally Madison’s heat is called. She lines Crickett up with about a dozen other cattle and their handlers, and they file into the show ring. The judge, usually a teacher or an exec from the ag industry, watches each handler for confidence, control, and consistency—keeping the animal at a distance, holding the head up, positioning the hind feet so that the back of the beast is level from neck to tail. Madison is poised, never losing eye contact with the judge. But Crickett can’t keep her feet set, so the judge eliminates them.
As they exit, an official hands Madison a green “Participation” ribbon, which she hands dismissively to her dad. She’ll take Crickett back to her stall, work on the footing, and try to otherwise prep the cow for her next showing in a couple of months.
It’s time for lunch. Out of earshot from Crickett, Madison quietly says she’s hungry for a hamburger.
Later in the afternoon, Caroline and the 10th-grade pig contestants are summoned to the swine show arena, essentially a rectangular high school bandbox with worn green turf. At the far end is a concession stand selling nachos and soda and hot dogs—“all-beef,” reads the menu.
At the judge’s signal, the students and pigs are released onto the turf in heats of 20 to 30. Unlike the orderly rank and file of the cow show, the hogs scatter irregularly in every direction, like a dumped bag of two dozen footballs. Armed only with a rod-like whip, the students must keep the animal’s profile between them and the roving judge and draw his attention in any positive way they can. Suddenly Caroline’s bejeweled jeans make sense, as other contestants’ metal-studded belts and shiny buckles and sequined shirts glisten beneath the fluorescents.
Gradually the judge picks his winners, sending them to a pen to await the next round. After about 10 minutes, Caroline and Blue are selected, earning a fist bump from Walker, looking on from the railing. He says his students are learning much more than how to parade a prize pig. “These kids understand where their food comes from.” The population keeps going up, he says, but the amount of land doesn’t. “These are the kids who’ll make sure we’re still fed.”
The second round follows quickly after Caroline’s preliminary heat. She gives Blue a quick spray of something called Pink Oil to shine him up and then a drink of water to reenergize him, but the pig is dragging, exhausted from the previous heat. He squeals from the floor, and Caroline has trouble keeping him focused. The judge picks the winners, and Caroline and Blue are left behind. Caroline shakes the judge’s hand and guides Blue back to the pen with Belle.
Neither of the gilts will attract a breeder. Both are bound for market. But there are no tearful goodbyes. Caroline is a farmer. “Yes, they’re my pets,” she says. “But when they go to slaughter, that’s part of it.”
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.
Atlanta Fencer’s Club | East Point | 6 miles south of Atlanta Ryan Droutman is taking a breather. The 12-year-old fencer sits sweating in a red plastic lawn chair, mask tucked beneath his arm, foil lying across his lap, as he referees a bout between two classmates, one of whom is old enough to be his grandfather. “Annnnnd . . . fence,” says Ryan, suppressing a cough. His hacking is soon drowned out by the thud of tennis shoes on the hollow wooden floor and the clack of steel blades as the two masked combatants advance. Ryan glances over at his father, pacing the periphery, lost in his work on a laptop he’s balancing against his chest. The son knows his dad could pull the plug at any moment. When Ryan woke up this morning, he said that his cold was bad enough to warrant a sick day—until his father reminded him of the strict “no class today, no fencing practice tonight” policy. So Ryan went to school. He’d always dreamed of being a knight, and when horseback riding didn’t quite fulfill the fantasy, his dad signed him up for fencing lessons just before his ninth birthday. “I love the strategic thinking,” says Ryan. “It’s like physical chess.” Ryan competes in weekend tournaments around the country and is currently ranked 69th in the U.S. 12-and-under age group. He has the respect of his elders in this room, one of whom, a software engineer twice his age, challenges the preteen to a bout. Ryan eagerly puts on his black-mesh mask. He gets into position, spreads his feet, and raises his foil en garde. Ryan is instantly the aggressor, lunging forward, feinting right, parrying his opponent’s retreating stab, and scoring a hit on the elder’s shoulder. “Yeah!” says Ryan, releasing a quick burst of coughing, which he tries to stifle through the rest of the victory. “Best two out of three?” says the opponent. “Nope,” says Ryan’s father, keys out, ready to take his son home.
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.
He’s opened for Sugarland, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, and Darius Rucker. But with his latest album, Give It Hell Tryin’, the Dahlonega native is poised to make his own name. On June 2, the up-and-coming country singer performs at Terminal West. Here’s a primer:
1. He bought his first guitar from a famous Dahlonega schoolmate.
When Thomas decided to get into music after high school, he looked for other kids who played. “There was one friend who was always carrying around a guitar,” he says. “I asked if I could buy one from him. He sold it to me for $80. His name was Zac Brown.
2. Before music became a full-time gig, Thomas did . . . everything.
Carpenter. Computers. Delivery boy. Worked in a tennis shop. Hotel room service. Pier 1 Imports. McDonald’s. “One of my first jobs was at a country store where farmers would drink coffee and tell stories,” he says. “A lot of my songwriting comes from having listened to those old farmers.”
3. His new single is so catchy, it will have your kids asking, “What’s Jack?”
Since the first single off the new album, “Kick Back (With a Bottle of Jack),” was released, Thomas has discovered its universal appeal. “This is horrible,” he says, “but I even have little kids coming up to me saying, ‘I love to kick back with a bottle of Jack.’ I just laugh it off and say, ‘Thank you.’”
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.
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