A crossroads filling station, Harry’s, good cold beer

Loran Smith's picture

With the years cruising by, reminiscing commands a good portion of my time when I am moving about. Went back home recently and drove by a crossroads store that has succumbed into a state of disrepair. Abandoned long ago, it outlived its usefulness.

I recalled a time when it was a thriving place of business. A gathering place. People stopped for gas, pumping from one of those tanks where there was a glass globe on top. The gasoline churned about as the pump was engaged. If you like rap music, you have no idea what I am talking about.

Inside the store, men in bib overalls sat in a corner and small-talked as they chewed Browns Mule or Bull of the Woods. Many of their wives dipped snuff but were loath to disclose their addiction. Dipping snuff was a very private matter. Talking about snuff dipping was as taboo as talking about sex.

A dime would get you a small Coke and a pack of peanuts, a combination that was downright uplifting. Empty the peanuts into the Coke bottle and you enjoyed a fulfilling treat. If that old store and its characters came alive, I’d drive the two hours it takes to get there — at least weekly.

A prominent place in the Athens of yesteryear was Harry’s Restaurant in the Five Points section of town. It, too, has faded away. I think of Harry’s often. Recently, a member of the Harry Stevens family asked for a few thoughts about the restaurant for a cookbook they are producing. When I began to reminisce “on paper,” my emotions went over the top.

Harry’s Restaurant, when I got to know the place in the late fifties and early sixties, had good food. It was a short-order place where the beer was ice cold and the sandwiches tasty and filling. There was a quiet ambience that made you feel at home.

What it had, in addition to good food, was several characters. Two in particular bear prominence. Tom Philpot, who no-hit Georgia Tech on Grant Field in 1919, always came in and sat at the bar. He would order a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon and sipped his beer for almost an hour.

Then Philpot would saunter over to the booth in the northeast corner of the building, which was Dan Magill’s corner. The table was never reserved, but it was always open in the evening when Dan would entertain visiting sportswriters who had come to town to cover Georgia football practice. (I think Dan would have gone home without ordering if his booth had not been available.)

Dan would always introduce Tom, the former Bulldog pitcher, who swelled with pride when Dan would remind the writers about Tom’s great feat versus Tech. Every time Tom came to the table, Dan would remind the writers of Tom’s legendary performance. It became a ritual and a high point of an aging man’s life when he was remembered for his days of yore.

Dan Magill, the most unforgettable character for countless Athenians and Georgia aficionados, always ordered Schlitz and began his repartee with the visiting sportswriters with great insight and passion. It was a laugh a minute.

I loved being in Dan’s company. He always entertained us with his ribald humor and classic storytelling, a raconteur non pariel. When he picked up the check, there was one college kid, who aspired to be a sportswriter, who went home happy and fulfilled. There was serious conversation, but it was forever laced with levity and stimulating commentary.

The degree I would get from the University of Georgia, while appreciated and cherished, cannot compare to learning at the elbow of the Bulldogs’ “Socrates.” It all began in the Northeast corner booth at Harry’s Restaurant.

What I would give for a cold mug of Schlitz and a barbecue pork pig sandwich, Dan’s favorite. And, of course, the uplifting humor that came with the meal.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]