Axe Man

Baseball sculpture, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA, 8 July 2017.

Ishmael Branch enters the hallway at Tucker High School where his home room is, and strides toward his locker. At fourteen, he’s already over six feet, taller than his uncle Brian at this point, though with his head and shoulders slumped, as usual, it’s not always easy to tell. Looking at him, one might imagine he’s a grunge rocker from Seattle in the early 90s, rather than a high school freshman in Tucker, Georgia in 2011, dressed in well-worn jeans, a flannel shirt tied at his waist, with a Neil Young T-shirt covering the remainder of his skinny frame. A backpack is slung over one shoulder, and he’s carrying an expensive Martin acoustic guitar in a hard case. His hair is styled in dreads and he’s wearing a thin mustache with a soul patch.

Halfway to his locker, he passes Midori Collins, leaning against her locker, intensely staring at her cell phone, texting. Without looking up or otherwise acknowledging Ishmael, she pushes away from the locker and falls into step with him as he passes. They continue, silent, down the hall. Midori is nearly a foot shorter than Ishmael, with black, frizzy hair and a deep olive complexion. Her facial features seem vaguely Japanese.

“Band practice after school?” Ishmael says.

“Hmm,” Midori says in an affirmative manner.

“If you’re up for vegetarian, Mom invited you over for dinner,” he goes on.

“Sounds good,” she says without looking up.

“Is that Jordan?” he says.

“Pics from the Cake show at Variety Playhouse,” she says.

They stop at his locker and he sets the guitar case down and swings his backpack off his shoulder and onto the ground.

“Got your English homework?” she says, still engrossed in her phone.

“Of course,” he says.

As he’s switching out the books in his bag, a group of guys, led by Jeff Chambers, a pitcher on the baseball team come around the corner. Seeing Ishmael, one of the guys says, “Hey, it’s the Axe Man.”

Since the case for the Martin is too large to fit in a locker, whenever Ishmael has it with him, he has to carry it around from class to class. This has prompted certain of his upper classmates to refer to him as “The Axe Man”, usually in a taunting manner.

“Hey Axe Man, you going to let me play your guitar?” Jeff says. The guys with him start to snicker.

“This guitar is worth more than that car you drive,” Ishmael says.

“Mommy buy it for you?” one of Jeff’s cohorts says.

“No,” Ishmael says. “A friend gave it to me for my birthday.”

Another of the guys plays an air guitar. “Look at me. I’m the Axe Man.”

Laughing , the group starts to move on. Ishmael calls after them. “Hey, Jeff, when are tryouts?”

“Why you asking about tryouts?” Jeff says. Holding up his right hand and fluttering his fingers. “You want to be like me, Axe Man?”

“So what? You throw a baseball,” Ishmael says. “I can throw a baseball.”

“Think so?” Jeff says. “Tryouts start Monday.”

Once the baseball players are gone, Midori says, “You’re really trying out for the baseball team?”

“Why not?” Ishmael says. “Brian says I can pitch.”

“Why would you want to be on the team with those assholes?” she asks.

“To show them I can,” he says.

The following Monday, Ishmael arrives at the field for tryouts. An assistant coach has one list for the returning players, and a sign-in sheet for newcomers. Ishmael arrives with his own glove, but without the guitar.

Jeff Chambers is standing near the dugout as Ishmael heads over to the area designated for infielders. He calls out, “Hey Axe Man, where’s your axe?”

“Today, I deal in strikes,” Ishmael says.

Coach Lloyd Murdoch introduces himself to the new players. He’s a man in his early forties, trim and well-built, wearing a cap, a team T-shirt, with a warmup jacket over it, that’s unzipped, with the sleeves pulled up. He gives a short talk about his team philosophy, then tells the players to take positions on the field. He points to Ishmael. “What are you here to try out for, son?”

“I’m not your son,” Ishmael says, which elicits a look of surprise from the coach. “I’m here to pitch.”

“All right, then,” the coach says, amused. “I see you brought your own glove.” He points to the mound. “Take the mound.”

As Ishmael walks to the mound, the coach puts on an umpire mask and moves behind the plate. He indicates the catcher. “Jerry’s your catcher.” He signals to a large guy with a bat, who’s approaching the plate. “Ron here’s our best hitter. Let’s see if you can get a few past him.”

“No problem,” Ishmael says. He takes some signals from the catcher, then goes into his wind up, and releases the ball. The batter swings, but the only sound is the pop of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, followed by the catcher howling as he rips off the glove and grabs his hand.

“Damn!” he screams. “Put some heat on that one.”

The coach takes off the mask and walks over and picks up the ball. He shakes his head. “Right down the middle, Ron. You couldn’t hit that?”

“Hit what?” Ron says.

Coach Murdoch picks up the mitt and places it on his hand. “Take five Jerry. Go ice that hand.” He tosses the ball back to Ishmael. “Let’s see you do that again.”

He crouches down, and nods to the batter, who returns to the plate. Ishmael winds up and delivers several more fast balls. The best Ron can manage is a foul tip and one line drive straight back to the pitcher, which Ishmael handles easily. This time, the coach says, as he throws the ball back, “You got speed, no doubt about it. How’s your finesse?”

This time, Ishmael’s pitch is slower, but wobbles erratically in the air and curves away from the batter.

The coach dives sideways to make the catch then stands with the ball in his glove. “Where’d you learn to throw a knuckleball?”

Ishmael shrugs. “My uncle took me to a clinic with Joe Neikro once.”

“Just once?” the coach says.

He has Ishmael throw a few more, including a slow curve, a change up, and a slider. Afterward, the coach asks, “Are you as serious about baseball as I hear you are about playing your guitar?”

“Yes, sir,” Ishmael says.

“Welcome to the team,” the coach says.

As Ishmael walks off the field, Jeff Chambers says, “Good arm, Axe Man. You’re going have to show me that knuckleball sometime.”

Ishmael nods with a smile. “Maybe, someday.”

Bizarro Atlanta, Summer of 1996

World Athlete's Monument

Midtown Atlanta, with The World Athletes Monument in the foreground, 4 September 2009.

“The world is coming to Atlanta!”
—Ad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

For seventeen days in the summer of 1996, Atlanta entered the Bizarro World, where the downtown connector was clear, MARTA was packed, and the world stopped by for a visit. Less than a year before, Atlanta had been thrilled when the Braves brought home their first and only World Series pennant since coming to town, so spirits were high as ’96 dawned. Atlanta had worked hard to get the Olympics, under the watchful eye of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG as it was more commonly known. They were responsible for everything from seeing that the city was ready for the influx of international athletes and spectators, to giving the Atlanta Games the worst mascot in the entire history of sports in the form of Whatizit, or Izzy, the blue blob in sneakers which had absolutely nothing to do with the city’s past, present or future. The Paralympics, held a month or so afterward in the same venues, got it right with their mascot, Blaze, which was based on Atlanta’s symbol, the Phoenix.

Whatizit, or Izzy

Whatizit or Izzy, the much-maligned mascot of the ’96 Games. Really, ACOG?

At the time of the Olympics, I was serving as Membership Vice President for the Atlanta Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, to which I had been elected a few months earlier. Like everyone else, our activities were somewhat hampered by events around town so most of us contented ourselves with accomplishing what we could while taking in as much of the Olympics as possible. Apparently, I tried to get a job working concessions at one of the venues, as I have an ID badge from Aramark. I remember going somewhere to get the ID but don’t recall why I didn’t follow through on the job. It’s possible it was a volunteer fundraising opportunity for the Jaycees — where we worked and the organization got paid — that didn’t work out.

GML Olympic concession badge

My ID badge for Olympic concession work which was never used.

Authorities had been warning residents of potential traffic problems for months so the terrifying specter of twenty-four hour gridlock haunted the waking hours of most commuters, sending them to seek out suburban park and ride lots to hook up with public transport while the Games were in progress. This brought about a completely different reality than the one foretold, as suburbanites, frightened into not driving, crowded onto MARTA, leaving the highways far less crammed. I lived in East Point at the time and had to commute through town to North Druid Hills for work. To say I was pleasantly surprised to encounter rush hour traffic in downtown Atlanta that was moving fifty-five to sixty miles an hour is putting it mildly. Driving through town I passed the Olympic Stadium every morning and evening, making it one of the few times I’ve driven in town as an adult where I actually enjoyed the trip.

To finance the building of Centennial Park, ACOG sold bricks where one could have his or her name imprinted. I purchased one in memory of my father, who died in April, 1995. The brick is located in Section 63, making it easier for me to remember where it is, as that’s the year I was born. Right next to my father’s brick is one commemorating Jim Morrison.

Brick at Centennial Olympic Park in memory of my father.

The relationship between city government, ACOG, and the International Olympic Committee was often tense. A number of construction projects were being finished just as Olympic officials started arriving and news reports were full of stories about haughty officials or their families demanding special treatment or otherwise being rude. Other countries’ delegations complained about the rampant patriotism on display at venues, particularly the indoor gymnastics events, where deafening chants of “USA, USA!” made it difficult for athletes to concentrate. Despite all the hiccups, the mood around Atlanta was festive and lighthearted as everyone looked forward to the best Games ever.

All that changed on the evening of 27 July when a bomb went off in Centennial Park, killing or contributing to the deaths of two people and injuring a hundred and eleven. The death toll would have been much higher, had it not been for the actions of a sharp-eyed security guard named Richard Jewell. While 911 operators argued over the address of Centennial Park after receiving an anonymous bomb threat, Jewell spotted a suspicious backpack, notified his superiors and began evacuating the area. His reward for what may have been the most remarkable achievement of his career was to be crucified in the press after an overzealous FBI leaked his name as a suspect. While he won a court case against the news network and was eventually vindicated with the arrest and conviction of Eric Rudolph some years later, it’s doubtful his reputation ever fully recovered. He died on 29 August 2007 at age forty-four.

The morning after the attack, I had a ticket to see Olympic tennis at Stone Mountain. I woke up, dressed, and hopped on MARTA without turning on the television, and did not learn of the details of the bombing until I arrived at Kensington station and saw the front page of the Journal/Constitution. I had been hearing rumblings along the way of beefed up security, due to an incident, but didn’t know the full extent of it until I saw the paper. In addition to that one morning of tennis which stretched into the late afternoon due to several lengthy rain delays, and which featured Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, other events I attended included one night of track and field at Olympic Stadium, and one afternoon when I drove to Athens to see the finals of rhythmic gymnastics. I had been invited by a colleague to see the first match-up of the US versus Cuba in baseball, but we failed to hook up at the venue and since he had the tickets, I couldn’t get in.

Before the Games began, I managed to see the torch relay at three separate locations around town but only specifically recall two of them, once on Roswell Road one evening with some friends, and once on Clifton Road in the afternoon, in front of the CDC, where I was working. Someone who worked on my floor was one of the torch bearers and I was able to have a picture taken with the torch. I believe the third was on Peachtree Street close to the intersection of West Peachtree, near where the Jaycees had their offices. This one was by chance, as I’d gone to the location for another purpose and just happened to find myself in close proximity to the relay.

GML with the Olympic torch

Me, posing with the Olympic torch following the relay; July, 1996. Photographer unknown.

One of the enduring landmarks from the Games is the statue in Midtown entitled The World Athletes Monument but which I’ve always called The Statue of Five Naked Guys Holding Up the Globe that Prince Charles Gave Us During the Olympics. A few years later, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the statue became the focal point in town for remembrances of her, which is ironic considering she and Charles had been divorced for a number of years by that point. There were numerous other arts projects, part of the Cultural Olympiad which coincided with the Games. Plays were written and performed, statues erected, giant murals were painted, many of which were painted over in the intervening years or demolished when the buildings on which they were painted were torn down to make room for something else. There are, still, a few remnants of the Games around, Centennial Park and Turner Field the most visible, but many of the venues were broken down, packed up and shipped elsewhere once the Paralympics were over.

The Atlanta Jaycees had a membership meet and greet scheduled for Lulu’s Bait Shack in Buckhead for the Tuesday after the Olympics closed and it evolved into our “Farewell to the World” party. I recall that Tuesday evening in Buckhead as being packed like a Friday or Saturday, as residents who’d had to stay home to avoid the traffic and hassles of having the Games in town turned out to let off steam once they were gone. A festive atmosphere was evident as we reveled in the fact that we’d survived it all. It must have been reminiscent of how folks reacted when Sherman packed up and headed off to Savannah in 1864, notwithstanding the fact that for us, most of the city was still intact which was one thing for which we were all grateful.