In April of 1982 I was working at New Garden Friends Meeting, and we had some great things going on in the ministry. Lots of students were attending, Donna Haynes and I were exploring all kinds of new programs and events, and we had just claimed (not won, but claimed!) victory at the annual North Carolina Yearly Meeting Field Day at Quaker Lake. It was in this atmosphere of success that I planned a quick trip to Atlanta to see a Braves games for myself and a few of our high school guys. It would be a most memorable weekend.
There were signs all along the way that this would be an unusual event. First of all, the Braves, pitiful for so long, had begun the season with 13 straight wins, a major league record. We would see their 14th game. Since there were 6 of us going, my car was not large enough, so I borrowed a station wagon from some parents of the youth, Loy and Connie Newby. As we left Greensboro and began the trek down I-85, we were excited and loud, a regular car full of regular young men. Somewhere in South Carolina we found a radio station that was doing a unique event. It was a song challenge. They would play 2 songs to battle each other, and then a third song while people called in their votes. This being WAY before cell phones, we couldn't vote, but it was fun to listen. The winning song would then be give another competitor and played again. After a few rounds of this, the AC/DC song Highway to Hell became the champion. And then it won again. And again. And again! We soon grew sick of the song (it finally lost to the Beatles!) but we realized then and there this trip had a theme, and it was not a good one! Entering Georgia, we stopped at a truck stop for gas and several of us decided to try a Nehi Peach Soda, which may have been the most disgusting thing I have ever tried to drink, and remember, I was a youth pastor and was used to disgusting things! But finally, we arrived in Atlanta.
After checking in at our hotel, a Ramada Inn (I think) across from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, we headed over for the game. It was exciting to be there when the crowd was actually thinking the Braves could win. We settled in and watched as the Braves lost for the first time that year. Bob Horner hit a home run for the Braves, but I missed it while standing in line for food. More signs- but we still didn't see them. As we left the game it was still light out, so we decided to walk up and visit the golden dome of the Georgia state capitol building which was just up the street.
I should tell you a little about the group. Marshall Ratledge, later to become a Quaker Lake legend himself; Danny and Darek Newby (whose parents loaned me the car), who were both black belts in some sort of martial arts; Jimmy Hale, a golfer; Bruce Reynolds, football player and track star; and myself made up our merry band. We were all dressed in classic preppy, and we headed into downtown Atlanta on foot absolutely clueless of what we were about to encounter. As we started down the sidewalk we had came to a group of young men who were standing on corner, and smiled as we came to them. One of them stepped out and asked if we had a match. None of us were smokers, but we felt in our pockets and acted disappointed that we could not help out. We then continued on. We saw the dome, and were not impressed, so we started back to the hotel, now walking the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. As we reached the bridge over I-20 and started across, we began to hear voices yelling. We looked across the street, and it was our friends who wanted a match. I could here one of them yelling "6 on 6! Come on, 6 on 6!" In my coolest leader voice I said to the guys "just ignore them and keep walking." Then the first glass beer bottle hit near us and shattered, and, still being cool, I said "pick up the pace." As more more bottles hit, and finally a plastic flask full of liquor, I very calmly shouted "RUN!!!!" As we sprinted up the slight hill towards a stop light where a policeman was directing traffic, three very interesting things were happening. They had come to our side of the street, but weren't really chasing us. We were sprinting, and I was in FRONT, meaning I was out-running our track star Bruce! And finally, as I counted heads, I kept getting 5, when there were in fact 6 of us! I looked back to see that Darek was not running. He was very calmly walking behind us. When we all reached the corner, we hurried to tell the police officer the whole story. He just starred at me. After lecturing me for walking downtown in the early evening in a city where gangs ruled, he then cut to the chase. "A match" he informed us, "is gang talk for a fight. When they were yelling 6 on 6 they were calling you out. When you walked by them and checked your pockets for a real match, they took that as a sign of disrespect. Now go back to your hotel and DO NOT leave it again tonight!" We did just that. After arriving in our rooms, we locked every lock we could find, and then began talking trash about how we could have beaten them...to ourselves, of course! We also began to question what good it was two have 2 black belts with us if they were not going to protect us. What could have been a real disaster turned into a memory I will never forget, and I suspect they won't either. I have been to Atlanta with groups many times since, and I never fail to tell the story of the night the 6 preppies almost got in a gang fight!
On the trip back we only had one major incident. We were filling the gas tank when the automatic shut off on the pump failed, and we pumped a few gallons of gas all over the car and the parking lot. All in all, we survived the "highway to hell" and lived to tell about it. And as with many other youth trips over the years, this shared history became a cornerstone of our relationships. And our relationships with each other lead to a better understanding of our relationship with God.
I suppose there should be a moral to this story, so here it is: NEVER drink Nehi Peach Soda!
Because of Jesus,