July 31, 1996
America kicked pagan butt
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD -- At The Olympics
ATLANTA -- If we assume that the person who planted the pipe bomb in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park is not of terribly sound mind, then it is almost inconceivable that he wasn't back there yesterday when the park was formally re-opened, because every other wacko, wingnut and wanker in America surely was.
What may have seemed on television a sombre and respectful morning memorial for the victims of the bombing (and it may have appeared that way because while I saw Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel of The Today Show blithely trampling the sacred grounds closest to the bombing site, and even watched Couric chirpily signing autographs, TV viewers would have seen only their sorrowful faces and heard only reverence in their sad voices) was in truth a veritable festival of excess, bad taste, madness and, that special Southern touch, Jesus.
As Craig Calloway of nearby Chamblee shrieked as the park gates were opened sharp at 8 a.m., this in between forlorn ramblings about the Mekong Delta and pose-striking for the TV cameras, wherein he would roll up his right sleeve and place a single red rose next to his "Misfit" tattoo, "We are kicking pagan butt today!"
Beside him, eyes shut, arms raised in the air, singing one of a series of endless and morbidly out-of-tune hymns they would inflict upon the throng for the next two hours, were some of the 5,000-plus members of Youth With A Mission group.
This is an international, evangelical, non-profit organization whose members, mostly teenagers, invaded the streets of Atlanta in early July, and who all but hijacked the proceedings yesterday, or would have if they had not already been hijacked by American television, which by now has so thoroughly trained the ordinary man that though he will still speak to the lowly print reporter, he actually saves his best stuff for TV.
They made, in any case, for a frightful, if symbiotic, combination, the cameras and the teenage Bible-thumpers.
The cameras needed something to film; the kids needed an audience. Within 15 minutes, everywhere you went there were knots of zealotettes on the ground, weeping to Jesus, speaking in tongues, fainting in ecstacy, or just sitting, flowers in hand, heads bent in supposed sorrow, while above and around them, the cameras zoomed in on the pretty scene.
It was about as real as Demi Moore's fabled hooters, but, as with the hooters, it didn't much matter in the scheme of things.
Roving about, Bibles in hand, praising the Lord aloud, were the Youth With A Mission coaches, or whatever they're called, and a sprinkling of rogue preachers, like the big fellow wearing the T-shirt which read "Jesus Saves" on the front and "Satan Sucks" on the back, whose gig seemed to be the laying on of hands, his that is, on other people's foreheads.
Calloway's early judgment to the contrary, the pagans won at least a few rounds yesterday, notably when the vast crowd pressing in on the bombing site, now protected by aluminum sheet metal fencing, would periodically let out either a whoop of joy, as when Gumbel was first spotted, or start chanting, "USA! USA! USA!", as when the American women's basketball team showed up.
Still and all, something saved the day, and what it was was the uncanny ability of Americans to make the breathtaking grand stroke (as in having Muhammad Ali with shaking hands light the Olympic torch, thus forcing hundreds of sportswriters who had been joyfully slamming the ceremonies to rewrite), the optimism that permeates this nation, and the honesty of those in the crowd who were not obvious fruitcakes.
One such was Leslie Heinz, a 30-year-old pediatric occupational therapist from Lexington, Ky., who was at the park when the bomb exploded.
She had been sitting with her brother, Steve, on a bench about 50 feet away from the base of the NBC sound tower where the bomber had left his knapsack. The impact knocked her off the bench, shrapnel shattered her scapula and just missed slicing her carotid artery, and she spent three days in hospital. She is still bruised about the face, her right arm sore and in a sling.
A tiny blonde, with baby-sized hands and feet, she returned to the park because she wanted to pay her respects to the victims, to seek those who helped her the night of the blast, and, as her mother Marshall said, "to come to grips with it, to combat fear."
At the request of a Japanese TV crew, Heinz, walking gingerly, led a group of reporters to the very bench where she'd been sitting, and allowed the crew to film her there.
About then, the formal program began and, suddenly, Wynton Marsalis was there on stage, blowing a moving version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee, and Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and co-chair of these Games, was telling the crowd, "We're here to proclaim a victory, not to wallow in tragedy."
Well, truth be told, they had collectively barely dipped a toe in the grief pool, let alone done any wallowing, and AT&T executive George Burnett was mentioned by name before Alice Hawthorne, the woman who died as a direct result of the blast, and the silence invoked by Games' boss Billy Payne lasted about as long as it takes Donovan Bailey to run the 100 metres.
Over in a corner, an elderly black man sat grinning happily. He was Franklin Beckwith, 74, of Miami, Fla., and he came to Atlanta on a trip paid for by his children. Asked why the smile, he said, "It was such a warm re-opening. It made me feel like there was peace in the world again."
Only an American could have said that.
Only an American could make you believe it.
Yesterday morning, America kicked butt at Centennial Park, specifically the bomber's pagan butt. What else needs to be said?