February 1, 1998

The Great Speckled Bird

One of the hazards of starting a newspaper in your home town is that you cannot escape some of the mishaps of your youth. About once a year I get a nice note from Buckhead resident Helen Sterne saying she is enjoying our newspaper, but she always closes with: “It certainly is a lot better than The Great Speckled Bird!”

In the late 1960s Atlanta was no Haight-Ashbury, but long before bankers and lawyers were walking the streets of Midtown, the area along Peachtree between 8th and 14th streets was known as “The Strip.” The sidewalks and alleys were full of long-haired, blue-jeaned, tie-dyed “hippies” offering all kinds of illegal substances and alternative lifestyles. It made today’s Little Five Points look like Phipps Plaza. On any given Friday night, parents would drive us through The Strip on the way back from dinner at the Piedmont Driving Club or Capital City Club, lock the doors and warn us of the dangers of this part of town.

So naturally, with 13-year-old curiosity, we would get up the next morning, tell our parents we were going to play tennis, and sneak out with our Jimi Hendrix T-shirts to “expand our minds” or to try to “find ourselves” amidst the record stores, head shops, and clothing boutiques on The Strip. One of the required souvenirs was to get the latest issue of The Great Speckled Bird. It was full of the latest inside reports on college students going on strike and closing down campuses, about battles with police in the streets of Chicago, about counterculture political parties, civil rights demonstrations, wild concerts, dangerous drugs and a movement older people feared most, a concept foreign to us – something called Free Sex.

One day, I noticed an ad promoting an opportunity to make money: buy 50 copies of The Bird for 15¢ each and sell them for 35¢. My first newspaper entrepreneurial thought stirred. I could get rich! I bought 50 copies and the next day, took 25 to my school, Westminster. I could stimulate intellectual thinking and make a tidy profit. Only one problem: students didn’t want to buy The Bird from a freckly-faced eighth grader.

Next idea: sell them to my neighbors. So I wandered up my street and stopped at the Sterne household. Mrs. Sterne answered the door. As I made my sales pitch, a look of horror crossed her face. She was the matriarch of a household containing her husband, the president of Trust Company Bank, and two Catholic schoolgirls. A household I was threatening to poison with radical, seditious journalism. Trying to fill the silence, I mumbled something about selling them at school. Well, when the story got around, I was selling them for the profit of Westminster.

Two days later, I’m dozing in chemistry lab and the principal walks in, grabs me and says I am being summoned to Dr. Pressly’s office. Dr. Pressly, the school’s founder, was a man who was so polished, so patrician, but so powerful that I must have done something really great to be going to see him.
He asked if I was telling people I was selling The Bird for the benefit of Westminster. I turned bright red and quickly said no. He said some board members had gotten confusing information and were calling him, greatly concerned. Graciously, he let the conversation drop there.

But others didn’t. Apparently, at that very moment my father was at Peachtree Golf Club, involved in a shouting match with a legendary school board member, Mr. Warren, about my disparaging the good name of the school.

All this because I was trying to make 20¢ a copy. I think I sold only about 12 of those papers. I wish I still had the rest. I could probably sell them for a lot more now.

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