When the motorcycles roared in, the gang only thought it was tough. The Traveler’s Story.
June 10, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Traces of gold dust almost created a genuine boom town in Helen, Georgia. But, alas, richer deposits of the ore were found elsewhere, so the few ramshackle buildings became something of a ghost town, always a ghost town. Helen could have faded away, but its people were too stubborn to let the little town go.
The Sights: Helen has become a picturesque little Alpine village, simply located in the Nacoochee Valley instead of the Alps. The town has been transformed from a drab little hamlet into an architectural glimpse of Bavaria, a storybook village of gables, rococo towers, gingerbread balconies, and scalloped fascia boards. A vacant lot was even converted into a charming cobblestone alley, lined with almost two hundred Old World shops that offer imports from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. German restaurants dish up meals of schnitzel, sauerbraten, roulade, or wurst, and good wines come from Helen’s own Habersham Winery.
The Story: Too many times during too many years in the little Georgia mountain town, the only difference between hope and hopeless is the amount of rain falling on a crop, provided the seeds didn’t fall on hard rock and hard ground beneath a sun that blistered the good earth.
Drought had become almost as predictable as death and taxes.
“We took a mess of the vegetables we grew and cooked some of them for dinner,” the farmer says. “My daddy ate fourteen acres of corn at one meal.”
They sweat about the price of hogs.
They sweat about the price of coffee.
They sweat about religion.
Anytime you journey into the conscience of small town America, you will find some First Baptist Church standing guard over the heart, soul, and sins of those who walk the back alleys of a Saturday night. The sweaters are talking about the church with a big neon sign out front, flashing in green, blue, red, and yellow neon: If you’re tired of sin, come on in.
And some lonely lady in town had written underneath in passionate red lipstick, “And if you’re not, call 685-4396.”
They sweat about love. They sweat about love gone sour.
“Cobb’s wife left him,” one says.
“Hasn’t lost anything.”
“He thinks he has.”
The sweater shrugs and says,” If she were mine, I’d trade her for a flea-bitten old hound dog, then shoot the dog.”
They sweat about the hard times when, one tells me, the kids in town all thought that half-price and marked-down were brand names.
The tip they provide is a simple one. “Always borrow from a pessimist.”
“He never expects you to pay him back anyway.”
They sweat about the odd crosswinds of politics.
“I hear old Dawson is running for the state legislature,” says one.
“He’s trying awful hard to get himself elected.”
“He’s got what it takes to be a politician.”
“He’s like a blister. He never shows up till the work’s all done.”
The candidates had all gathered at town hall last Saturday night. The first one stood and told about how he had taken a rifle shot in the leg, storming Pork Chop Hill in Korea. The next one rose slowly and painfully to his feet and said he should rightfully be the people’s choice on account of him losing an arm in the rice paddies of Vietnam.
“Was Dawson in the war?” one asks.
‘I don’t believe he’s ever fought anybody tougher than his wife,” comes the answer, “and I know he ain’t never won a battle.”
“Then what did he tell them?”
“He said he didn’t know that having some kind of infirmity was a prerequisite for getting elected around here. But if it was, he certainly wanted every voter to know that he was the doggondest most ruptured sonuvagun in White County.”
A young man had drifted into Helen, hoping to build a career. “Tell me,” he asked one of the sweaters, “what chances does an honest young lawyer and Democrat have to make it around here.”
“I don’t think you’ll have any problems,” he was told. “If you’re an honest lawyer, I can guarantee that you’ll have absolutely no competition. And if you’re a Democrat, don’t worry. The game laws will protect you.”
They sweat the ravages of crime. But not much. I was eating breakfast in the Country Café with the law in Helen early one morning, and, between salty bites of smoked ham, he told me about that fateful Sunday in July when a band of Hell’s Angels came roaring into the little Alpine town.
“I could tell by looking at them that they didn’t belong here,” he said. “They had beards that hadn’t never seen a pair of scissors, and they had metal studs in their leather jackets. They had tattoos in places where I don’t have places, and they was wearing more grease in their hair than I got in my patrol car, and every one of them was looking like he’d been sucking on a loco weed.”
“What’d you do?”
“Me and my partner just wandered on down to where they were parking their motorcycles and run them out of town.” He paused and stared down for a moment at an egg that had been scrambled, chopped, chased around the skillet at least twice with hog lard, and fried. Then he continued, “But they didn’t like leaving one bit. That lead dog of theirs turned around and shook his big old fist at me and said, ‘Tonight, me and the boys are coming back here, and we’re gonna destroy your little old town.’”
“That’s a pretty mean biker group,” I stuttered. “What’d you do? Call the state troopers? The National Guard?”
“Didn’t have to,” the officer answered matter-of-factly. “We just passed the word around about what those old boys was aiming on doing, and by nightfall, we had about a hundred and fifty of these old mountain boys in town with their squirrel guns.”
He paused again, and a slow grin plowed its way between his wind-chapped lips. “Hell’s Angles never did come back to Helen, Georgia,” he said, “and that’s a shame. Because if those boys had rolled back into town, we’d have had us a helluva motorcycle sale come Monday morning.”
His laughter was gentle. His eyes weren’t.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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