- Featured Stories
- Douglas County
- City of Ava
- General Interest
By River Stillwood
I’m back in the airport. This time, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Folks are streaming past. A quickstepping human torrent. Literally thousands of strangers headed to or from Whoknowswhere. Business travelers. Casual travelers. Vacationers. There are few children, perhaps because it’s not a holiday weekend and most have school tomorrow.
Beside me, my casual traveler Dad is napping. Head nodding forward. Deep, regular breaths. An easy sleep. Contented. We’re at his gate where, in just under two hours, Delta flight 1297 will whisk him back to his beloved wife and cats in Sarasota, Florida. We’re both tired. Good tired. The tired you get from an adventure well-met and fruitful. The tired you get from reuniting with loved ones and spending every minute possible catching up and enjoying each other’s company. The tired you get from daring to rediscover your past and finding much of it still there, waiting for your return. Such was the trip Dad and I have just shared.
We came to Atlanta because Dad did much of his growing up on its outskirts. From five-or six-years old until adulthood, he lived with his mother, Grace, and stepfather, Ray Swanson, in Decatur, Stone Mountain, and Avondale Estates. While he attended military academies in Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee, he called Georgia “home.” We came here five days ago to see if the landmarks of his youth still stand and, if so, what sleeping memories they might awaken. At 82, this was Dad’s Trip Down Memory Lane. At 50, this was my chance to intimately know Dad’s childhood.
The Decatur of Dad’s childhood is largely gone. After more than 70 years, the landscape is so changed that all indications of their apartment house have been wiped away or buried beneath modern buildings and glittery restaurants and large housing complexes. Still, the elegant Decatur Courthouse down the block from their apartment is still there, facing McDonough Avenue, it’s back a clear shot from Clairemont.
After a year or so in Decatur, Ray, Grace and Dad moved about forty-five minutes northeast, to Stone Mountain, GA. Grace and Ray wanted to become “gentleman farmers,” raising chickens for commercial meat and eggs. As well, Grace thought it would be an idyllic place for Dad to grow up. And it was. Their farm was directly across from what would later become Georgia’s most famous tourist attraction, Stone Mountain State Park, where one of the earth’s largest granite megaliths lies bulging 1683 feet above sea level.
From their chicken farm, Dad and his folks could clearly see the nascent carving on the side of the mountain that would eventually become the bas relief portraits of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. In fact, if you look at the finished carving, you may notice a large chip out of the bottom left corner. One day while outside on the farm, Dad looked up to see a large cloud of dust rising above the forest. He later learned that the dust had been kicked up when the stone in that corner gave way, creating the chip.
At the bottom of the farm property was a creek. During the hot, muggy summer, Dad and his friends frequently went there, hoes in hand, to kill all of the water moccasins around their swimming hole. After killing the snakes, they’d spend the afternoon swimming.
Dad told me this story as we drove to Stone Mountain. I raised an eyebrow. “But, Dad,” I asked, “how did you know you’d gotten them all?”
Dad grinned. He’d been much younger then.
Sadly, the Grand Country Life for Dad and his parents was not to be. Just days before their starter flock of 500 chickens reach maturity, kerosene heaters in the enormous coop started a fire that killed all of the birds and destroyed their new facilities. Nodding to fate, Grace and Ray sold the farm and headed back to the city with Dad in tow just nine or so months after they had moved to Stone Mountain.
During the trip, Dad and I searched the park and public roads that were in direct sight of the carved Confederate memorial, but we were unable to find any remnants of the old farm. Most likely the house was torn down and the ground was turned into parkland when the State of Georgia purchased the carved stone monolith and a large swath of land around it in 1950. That, or the farm is now a part of the sprawling Interstate system used to ferry the more than four million visitors in and out of the park each year.
For their new residence –– where Dad lived the longest and remembered most fondly –– Grace and Ray designed and had built a small, two bedroom/one bath home at No. 3 Sussex Road in Avondale Estates, GA. At the time, their place was on the very outskirts of the community and was almost completely surrounded by woods. Their closest neighbors were the Weingartners, their son Joe-Joe a friend of Dad’s.
Today, the community is alive with beautifully preserved old homes, the majority decorated with Halloween-scapes. Lazy lanes wind their ways around and while we didn’t see many during our brief visits, it was clear that after school and on weekends they would be heavily populated with kids on bicycles. The woods of Dad’s youth are gone, but to our tremendous delight, his house still stands! The home is a thing of beauty, with a lovely front yard, a charming stone façade with two large picture windows in the front, and an enormous, sprawling yard in back. The old wooden detached garage is still there, too, though a second bay has been added. We drove by Dad’s former house several times, but no one was home. Still, we stopped to look at it and take photographs each time.
Just before the trip, Dad had written a letter to the current resident asking if it might be possible to come by and take a look around. Wonderfully, the resident and current owner, a kind young gentleman from Thailand named Chad, had as much interest in meeting Dad and hearing the history of the house as Dad had in seeing it. He contacted us during the trip, invited us over, and gave us an hour-long tour. It was amazing!
The massive pine trees in the front yard that Dad remembered had been removed and there was extensive landscaping in both the front and the back. The garage had been renovated, a second bay had been added, and Dad’s old stable where he had once kept a horse named Pete and, later, a pony named Tony, had been turned into a garden room. The backyard had been cleaned up, the vines and undergrowth removed. Now it is parklike. There were fewer trees than when Dad was a boy, but the oldest and largest were there, healthy, still growing strong. In one area, Grace and Ray’s hand-built stone barbecue still sat witness to the passage of time, as did the crumbling foundation of the old tool shed that laid claim to the farthest reaches of their land. On the backside of the house, where the basement stairs and back patio had been there now stood a magnificent wooden deck with an outdoor kitchen, barbecue, and hot tub.
The house was also changed, yet very much the same. An expansive bathroom had been added to the back and a small washroom was put on one side. A few closets were removed to enlarge the living room, the dining room had been opened up, the kitchen was reshaped. Yet, the magnificent stone fireplace in the living room was there, operable. Other than fresh paint and newer furnishings, Dad’s bedroom remained virtually unchanged. The enclosed screen room where he usually came in and out of the house was still the same. The door to the basement and inner basement steps were where they had always been. The inset telephone stand still remained in the living room wall.
As Dad walked through the yard and the house, seeing again the landmarks and touchstones of his youth, he became tearful, choked up with memories of a happy childhood with his mother and Ray. They were not always easy times and Grace and Ray’s marriage eventually ended in divorce, but for the most part, Dad had been a happy and much loved boy growing up in an ideal setting for him to become the incredibly warm and caring man that he became.
From his childhood house, Dad drove directly to the Avondale Swim and Tennis Club, virtually unchanged since he was a pool lifeguard at the ripe old age of fifteen or sixteen. The park next door was very much the same as he’d left it, too, right down to the baseball diamond tucked along the edge. Just up the hill from the park was the corner of Dartmouth and Clarendon Roads, the same corner upon which he stood with Joan Woods and shared his first romantic kiss.
Dad drove by other friends’ homes. “That’s where Dougald Morcock lived,” he said, pointing to a house. Dougald was a year older than Dad and taught him how to drive. “There’s where Patsy Wilson lived.” Patsy, he explained, was the girl that everyone wanted to know. He recognized the home of George David Sanders, the first Jewish boy he ever knew.
He drove by the Avondale lake, recalling that his horse Pete had once bolted, and galloped helter-skelter through the community, finally slipping on the muddy lakeshore. They sold him after that and bought Tony, the gentle pony Dad occasionally rode to Avondale Estates Elementary School.
One morning, Dad took to me see the Cyclorama, a kind of theater-in-the-round displaying the largest painting in the world. At 358 by 42 feet, and weighing 9,000 pounds, the painting depicts in panorama the civil war Battle of Atlanta. During the Great Depression, artists with the WPA constructed a diorama, (or three dimensional depiction) making the entire scene appear alive. In the center is a revolving stage. As it turns, lights highlight areas of the painting and diorama while a recorded voice over tells the story of the painting and the battle. It must have been the equivalent of a ‘blockbuster movie’ when Dad was a boy. It’s still impressive today.
In what turned out to be one of the most emotional moments of the trip, Dad tried to find the church that Grace and Ray and he had attended, the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Alas, it, too, was gone. Sad as that was, that was not what brought tears to Dad’s eye. What moved Dad so much was that he found the church listed in the telephone book and called the number. Someone with the church explained that the church had grown so much they had moved to a much larger one in Dunwoody. Dad said, “When I attended 70 years ago, the congregation was several hundred. May I ask what it is now?” The person on the other end of the line said, “It’s just over 18-thousand.” Dad wept.
The most emotional moment of the trip came on our last full day in Atlanta. We had driven to all of the places Dad had wanted to see, tried to find or did find specific sight. On this morning, we were just tooling through the downtown area as various memories popped into Dad’s mind. A cafeteria where he used to go with his mother. Several stores they often visited. As we were driving down Peachtree Avenue, I spotted an old theater marquee. It said “Fox” on it. I pointed up. “Dad, do you remember that?’
Dad glanced up and was immediately overcome with emotion. Tears streamed down his cheeks, his breath was halting. He choked out words. “That’s the Fox Theatre!” he said between breaths. He pulled over to the side of the road and collected himself. Then he explained that on Saturdays, he and his friends would pay a nickel to take the bus or streetcar from Avondale Estates to the Fox Theater, then pay twenty cents to watch cartoons and Captain Midnight movies. He’d forgotten all about those happy trips, but seeing the Fox marquee had brought them back.
There are moments in all of our childhoods that crystallize into emotional diamonds buried in shallow burrows in our hearts. For Dad, the Fox Theater was one. It encapsulated all of the joy of his childhood, the carefree adventures that slowly led him into adulthood with the people that would help shape the man he has become.
We drove around to the theater, parked, and as luck would have it, met up with a tour group just preparing to take a guided exploration of the theater. If you’re ever in Atlanta, I heartily recommend that you take it. It is a magnificent structure, filled with amazing artwork. It seats just shy of 5,000 persons, boasts the largest cantilever balcony in the world, and at 70 feet by 40 feet, had the largest movie screen in the world. While it’s movie coverage is limited to their Summer Movie Festival, it has an excellent stage and offers many live concerts, theatrical productions, and performances.
I bid farewell to Dad a couple of hours ago. By now, his plane has landed in Sarasota and he is reunited with his wife and beloved Cats. My plane leaves for Missouri in another couple of hours. Time to kick back and reflect on this amazing trip. On how Dad became my father and how I became me. While I never lived in Avondale Estates, I lived with Dad and have been shaped by who he is. I am no less touched by his happy youth than he is.