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The Brakes Burned all the Way Down Baxter Street

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Recollections of a legendary bar and its owner, a historic game and a mechanically compromised school bus.

University Of Georiga Bulldogs Football
An old school picture for an old school story.

Long before a generation of UGA students and fans came to know the Nowhere Bar, Sky’s Place and even the short-lived Uncle Billy’s (bar ribs to die for), there was a drinking establishment that used to exist on Broad Street, known to an entire generation of former Georgia students and locals alike. The long-gone Fifth Quarter was my very own version of “Cheers” back when I matriculated at Georgia from 1980 to 1985. It was located roughly where a bank now sits on the north side of Broad Street just before Hawthorne, and basically across the street from my former high school and college employer, the old Kroger (store 238), that sat in the parking lot down the hill next door to the ABC Package store.

Kroger used to pay me in cold, hard cash every Thursday, and the Fifth Quarter was almost directly across the street. This quirk of geography was hard to resist. Just a quick hop across 6 lanes of traffic and nirvana! Long-neck Buds were $1 (when they went up to $1.50, a near riot ensued until I realized that no one riots at the Fifth Quarter) and Monday Night Football night was also fifty cent hot dog night. I remember this vividly because I was sitting at the bar, watching the game while dispatching approximately my 3rd hot dog on a particular Monday night in December, 1980, when Howard Cosell announced to the world that John Lennon had been murdered. One of those, “where were you when” moments, I reckon.

Craig “Sky” Hertwig, at least in my mind, ran the best bar that ever existed, although I’m pretty certain that Sky wasn’t the original owner/founder of the Fifth Quarter, but he perfected it. This was a place where I truly felt comfortable as I was never into dance clubs (remember the old Mad Hatter?) or the like. I admit it took a lot of courage just to set foot in the place for the very first time. In the parking lot, there was a mix of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, pickup trucks and shiny new vehicles that some of the well-to-do college kids drove. Never judge a bar by its parking lot I suppose. I’m glad I didn’t.

Downtown Athens did not nearly have the same number of bars (what city does?) as it has today, although The Odyssey was a favorite of mine some years later. The original and 2nd iteration of the 40 Watt Club was the place to be if I wanted to witness history as the Athens music scene was exploding as soon-to-be-famous acts (either locally or nationally) seemed to perform in town on a weekly basis. I also tipped a few at the B&L Warehouse. I remember going to Tyrone’s about a week or two before it burned down and always enjoyed The Normaltown Flyers at Allen’s. I don’t care how dirty the grill was, I loved their hamburgers with the bowl of onions they’d supply. No truth to the rumor that the onions were marinated in formaldehyde. Next door to Allen’s was “Foxz.” I nearly got into a rumble there, but thought I should exercise caution and backed down as I sized up my adversary. She looked damned mean.

The Fifth Quarter, though, was my “hang.” It was my base to connect with friends, or just be myself and just blow off steam and the proximity to my employer made it convenient . I think anyone (who enjoys a drink) should experience a bar like this at least once in their life. The ‘Quarter eventually closed a few years later and a new bank went up in its place. That was a sad day. Why reminisce about something from 40 years ago? Because a recent “Old School Athens” Facebook page triggered something in me as I perused a bunch of collective memories from various contributors. Now, I’m waxing nostalgic all of a sudden. So, I put pen to paper...er...fingers to keyboard and here we are.

Sky used to call me “Poodle Head.” Never, ever did he call me Dave, or David. Back when I was still in High School, I was old enough to drink in his bar, at least briefly. I turned 18 in October, 1979 while still going to Oconee County High. The Drinking age went up to 19 on January 1, 1980. So, for two glorious months I played Asteroids (it was all the rage), shuffle board, pin ball and pool while enjoying adult beverages. I did remain a non-drinkin’ patron that lasted nearly 11 agonizing month until I turned 19, but did refine my pinball machine skills. Oh, and the “Poodle head” thing? I got a perm when I was 17. That, too, was all the rage back in the day. Mercifully, that particular fashion statement faded, although it did morph into The Mullet and seemed to gain traction in Gainesville, Florida and vicinity. I sure as hell never sported that particular style. Anyway, Sky got a ton of my hard-earned Kroger money, for sure. And I have absolutely no regrets.

One regret that I do have in life is that I didn’t visit Sky for over 25 years prior to his passing in 2012. I had moved to Texas after graduation, then to Alabama, then North Carolina and eventually south Florida where I remain. I guess I figured that Sky would just live forever because he seemed larger than life, both literally and figuratively. Everyone who knew Sky regarded him as a friend. How could you not? But in those days, Sky actually looked after me. He knew my older sister and they were friends. Sky probably realized I was a bit of a pin-head and needed watching over, so he genuinely came across as “big brotherly,” with all the barbs and teases that any diligent “big brother” would throw your way. I remember playing pool against some random dude and having a modicum of success, for a buck a game. Big money, right? As I was winning, I was talking a bit too much “smack” and the guy was getting a bit tweaked and mumbled an outright threat to do me bodily harm. Sky overheard this, walked over to the table, put his massive hand around the back of my neck and simply said, “how’s it goin’, little brother?” while smiling at the other guy. I got paid as loser left the bar.

Sky used to drive a blue and white two-toned Chevy S-10 pickup back then. It seemed way too small for him and definitely had some worn shocks on the drivers side with a perceptible lean, but whenever I saw it in the parking lot of the bar, I knew there was a friend inside.

I was Poodle Head long before “DavetheDawg.” I can’t imagine why?
DTD Industries, LLC

The Fifth Quarter had a jukebox that had about 40 or 50 songs on a loop, unless you actually wanted to pay to hear a selection immediately. Only the “newbies” would actually put money into the machine. Sooner or later, you’d hear every song in its repertoire if you were patient. Crackly speakers were piped to the outside of the bar’s front deck, so upon walking into the establishment you might hear Waylon Jennings’ Let’s go to Luchenback, Texas, Kim Carnes’ Betty Davis Eyes, or Jefferson Starship’s Jane. The regular music rotation was about as varied - albeit somewhat limited - as the clientele. A musical certainty on any given night was that you would hear David Allan Coe’s most famous standard at least once. It was your by-God-given, civic beer drankin’ duty to sing this phrase with the passion that the song deserved:

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got run over by a damned old train

The late-great John Prine co-wrote this tune (uncredited) along with the late Steve Goodman. Back when men were men and music was real.

If you didn’t belt this last verse out, there’s something wrong with your DNA and ‘Merican loyalties.

I remember a particular snow storm was developing and headed toward north Georgia (the winter of ‘83, I believe). WSB-TV’s meteorologist Johnny Beckman, who inspired me to follow a similar career path, was warning people of the approaching situation and that station actually ran “Snow Jam” movies all night to keep people entertained. I made a few calls just before leaving work to ask some friends to meet me at the ‘Quarter. If we were going to be snowbound, I didn’t want to be stuck in my east Athens rental. If Kroger called needing me to work, how could I answer the phone if I wasn’t home? I wanted to be in a bar. This bar. I think the bar game “quarters” was invented right then and there on that particular occasion. I’m gonna take credit for it anyway.

During football season, the bar would open early for home games. Back then, the kickoff was always at 1:30 PM and games were rarely televised. By 4 P.M., you were filing out of Sanford Stadium, usually basking in glorious victory. The first night game ever was the ‘82 opener vs. Clemson on Labor Day. It was so unbelievably hot that evening. It was hotter than hell. It was Macon hot, which was actually described in the original draft of Dante’s Inferno, but he left that reference out because he didn’t want to scare anyone especially his publisher.

The best blocked punt in Georgia history happened that night. (The second best blocked punt in UGA history came in ‘85 against ‘Bama. But we gave up the lead and lost late. We should’ve won that game).

Queue it to 1:28. “Dale Carver blocked it...Stan Dooley caught it on the 1 and they wrestled him in there!”

That game also conjured up some other memories. Not the game itself, but the method of transportation which deserves its own thoughts.

The Fifth Quarter used to run these two old Chevy-powered school buses. Small-block V-8’s with 3-speed manual transmission (1 reverse gear, 1 stripped gear, and maybe 1st and 3rd). They were certainly mid-to-late 60’s models, probably procured from some surplus school board and could have been from anywhere in America. I’m assuming Sky bought these old buses and had them painted official Georgia Bulldog Red (RGB 186, 47, 12) with the “Fifth Quarter” logo carefully stenciled on all sides and some other catchy phrases embossed in white, like “How ‘Bout Them Dawgs,” and “Look What’s Comin’ Down the Tracks!” One of the buses died of unnatural causes at some point during the ‘81 season (if memory serves) on the way to the stadium, so the bar was down to a single bus for the remainder of its existence. Legend has it that one of the Fifth Quarter buses made it back from Lexington, Kentucky a year or two earlier with the help of a chicken bone from someone’s lunch that was fashioned to replace a broken carburetor butterfly linkage. That’s another story from another day. Point is, none of these buses were pristine. More on the surviving bus in a bit...

On the day of the Clemson game, the bar was absolutely packed. People arrived early and often throughout the day. As you can imagine, folks were fully saturated with anything and everything alcohol related that Sky had provisioned behind the bar, and the outside decks were open and the kegs of beer were flowing. In fact, I was pressed into service to pour beer from the tapped kegs that were mostly floating in semi-ice filled Rubbermaid trash cans. David Allan Coe never sounded better through the outside blown speakers, the beer never tasted so good and the entire vibe in Athens as people were rolling westbound into town down Broad Street was just incredible. Sky had the sole remaining bus parked in front of the bar, parallel to the highway, and when people driving into town saw the old bus, they began honking and whoopin’ and cheering and it was just the best thing ever. If you were driving into town from Atlanta and your excitement level wasn’t appropriate for the occasion, by the time you passed the Fifth Quarter and saw the party and the big red bus, it surely went up a notch - as did your heartbeat. I really miss this.

So, as the afternoon began to slowly fade into dusk and the game time inexorably approached, which seemed to take forever as the anticipation was growing throughout the summer and during the week, thoughts began to turn on how we’d actually fare on this night of nights. Clemson was the defending National Champions; we won it in ‘80. This was a big-time game on ABC to be nationally televised, on Labor Day night! Remember, Herschel had a broken thumb and was sporting a hard cast; not a 3-D printed graphite, latex and Flex Seal wonderment of modern technology that we have today like the one Sony Michel wore a few season ago after his ATV accident. Nah, this was a goddam plaster/concrete forearm battering-ram of a club that forced #34 to carry the ball in his wrong hand. I remember thinking that Herschel was going to fumble at some point, although he lost very few during his career. He did fumble a few times the year before...at Clemson. Bad omen, perhaps? How do I remember this? I swear I have no idea if I left the coffee pot on just now, but I remember obscure stats from 41 years ago. The mind is a very strange thing. Aging is funny that way.

As the traffic began to lighten up as the kickoff hour approached, those who were riding the bus to the game were summoned on board. The Fifth Quarter bus always waited until the Atlanta Highway traffic trickled down before it departed the bar. It was first-come, first-served, so if you wanted a seat, you’d better be ready to go! That particular night, the big old red bus was packed. Folks were standing in the aisle. The driver, a Fifth Quarter regular named T-Bird (I never knew his first name) cranked up the beast and we slowly pulled out of the grass-less front yard in front of the bar onto Broad Street in a sweeping arc of a curve to begin the trek to Sanford Stadium. Right away, we turned right onto Alps Road off of Broad.

“Everybody lean to the right!” someone yelled from the back because the bus was literally in danger of tipping over on its left side as we took the right hand turn. It needed a counter balance. These were the first moments of mild terror. There was more to come. We hadn’t gone a 12 mile before we’ve got to navigate another turn, this time onto Baxter Street.

“Everybody lean to the left!” This time, a left hand turn could have us tipped right over on the right hand side. The fact that St. Mary’s hospital is just down the road was of no comfort. We navigated that like we had done many times before, but the bus was never this full of liquored up Georgia fans like it was on this day.

You could already smell the burning asbestos, and the clutch plate made a high-pitched whine as the RPM’s increased once the bus began to ascend Baxter Street. Although a gradual slope, it was not an easy climb for that old rig. That part of the trip was relatively uneventful as we approached Clarke Central High School just before Milledge Avenue.

By now, you began to see throngs of people on foot, decked out in their Red ‘n Black, walking towards the game. As the bus began to travel beyond Milledge, the cheers from the crowd began to ramp up because every soul on the bus were yelling, “Goooooooooooooooooooo Dawwwwwwwwwggggggggggggssssssssssss!” at the top of their lungs and folks were yelling right back. You’d have to be a statue or Clemson fan to not get wrapped up in that. We were like temporary rock stars and everyone just smiled and just went bananas. A few probably muttered under their breathe, “I’m glad I’m not riding on that thing!”

Now, we’re descending Baxter Street and the smell of clutch and brake pad is beginning to actually replace the smell of Budweiser, Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey. Things are about to get interesting.

By now, we’re beginning the long descent down Baxter hill. Thankfully, we are virtually the only vehicle on the road because it’s only about 45 minutes before kickoff and I’m beginning to think that if we had to stop, could we?

The bus is really rolling now, the engine and high-pitched squeal of the transmission has briefly quieted because we’re in neutral. T-Bird is on the brakes a bit more as we roll past Church Street. There are more people now on the sidewalks headed toward the bottom of the hill and the stadium. Our cheering gets louder and all those Dawg fans’ whooping and hollering does, too.

By the time we pass Brumby Hall, T-Bird is literally standing on the brakes and you can smell them burn. I mean, he’s upright, and down shifting at the same time.

By the time we reach Russell Hall, the throngs of Georgia fans are now really into it because here comes the Fifth Quarter Bus and it is loud, full of drunks, and someone hits a button and “Glory, Glory!” begins to play through the horn system. We are rock stars! From the sidewalk, that bus looks great; sounds great. From inside, it’s increasingly becoming unnerving.

I’m up front looking out a window and swear I can see a faint glimpse of gray, acrid smoke from the front wheels. This is probably what Chernobyl smelled like. The engine is really protesting like a high pitched banshee now and I’m thinking, if we survive this (just gotta get to the bottom of the hill), there’s no way this bus is making it back to the bar.

We’re past Russell Hall now and the folks sitting in the back where the beer is kept are seem oblivious to our dilemma of Newtonian physics and ancient Detroit engineering. Anyone up front can see and smell and hear everything as the old V-8 is now screaming in a low gear while the shimmy from the brakes is probably setting off a Richter scale somewhere in the Geology/Geography building on campus.

We’re now beyond Russell and I’m convinced the brakes have failed. The bus stops shimmying and is now literally lurching a few feet at a time as the brakes grab some, then let go. Up ahead, is Lumpkin Street and the confluence of pavement, curb and people is slightly in the way. T-Bird is laying on the horn at this point as the bus is in a semi-controlled deceleration, but we have to stop soon and the issue is in doubt. Everyone in Georgia gear is cheering us on and some are even whacking the side of the bus with their hands, seat cushions, purses, whatever. Don’t they know they’re about to be witness to a great calamity that will be made into a documentary one day?

The smell, at least up front, is literally burning my nostrils as the brake pads have surely melted away and what’s left of the clutch is probably up the hill by Guthrie’s. I don’t think we are going to stop, until we do. “Stop” is actually a liberal term. We have slowed enough to mitigate my panic as we take the left turn onto Lumpkin...horn blaring...”Glory, Glory!” and a good helping of “How ‘bout them Dawgs!” from all on-board.

“Everybody lean to the left!” as the faster-than-comfortable turn onto Lumpkin needed more counter-balance for the short trip up to Baldwin Street and the our eventual parking spot, reserved in advance, somewhere near the Journalism School.

When we finally arrive and disembark, I feel like I want to kiss the ground, but don’t want to be seen as “that guy” who had no faith in our safe arrival. I could tell by the look on T-Bird’s face that this might have been a miracle journey after all. “I hope we make it back now. We’re going via 5-Points. Not as many hills.” That’s all I needed to hear. Maybe I would ride the bus back “home” after all.

Relief. I (we) survived. There’s a feeling of accomplishment after going through something like that. Sorta’ like when you rode “The Great American Scream Machine” at Six Flags for the very first time as a little kid. You feel like you can do anything. Invincible. Now, all that’s left is to find my seat and watch Georgia kick Clemson’s ass.

So, we all went our separate ways towards the stadium to find our seats and witness a defensive struggle that had its share of big plays and physicality. It was really a helluva game. Herschel played sparingly and was a decoy for any time he actually appeared. Tron Jackson scored on a perfectly timed end-around, but holding negated it. I’m pretty sure Penn Wagers threw the flag; could be wrong. In the end, our special teams saved the day, and the defense intercepted Athens native Homer Jordan a couple of times on the night and kept Clemson from doing anything for the entire 2nd half.

The ‘82 team would play for the National Championship and nearly win it. We just couldn’t stop Penn State’s running back consistently enough, and one big pass play did us in late in the game, but that was a helluva year, and the first game of the season was a helluva memory.

I didn’t take the bus back to the bar that night. I rode that bus just one more time, on the way to the ‘83 Auburn game. As we turned right onto Alps Road from Broad Street (everybody lean to the right!), a lady pulled right out in front of us and we hit her. Not much damage, and no one was hurt but I recall someone (maybe Sky?) getting out of the bus to deal with the aftermath and to take care of the police report. Once the cop showed up, we went on our way to the stadium. Auburn beat us that day. This wreck was a bad omen.

Looking back, the Labor Day night of 1982 was something to remember. The first night game, national television hype, an all-day party at my most favorite watering hole ever and a great Georgia victory. And a short, if not terrifying, bus trip that has never left me. That was the evening the brakes burned all the way down Baxter Street.

Never graduate.

Go Dawgs!