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They played the All-Star Game that night. By eight the next morning the temperature was climbing up toward the 80s, making it impossible to sleep late. I walked on over to Uncle Arbria's house. We sat on the porch talking about the game, the players, the National League, the American League. He talked proudly of the National League victory the preceding night. Don Sutton of the Dodgers had pitched three innings of shutout ball, and was named Most Valuable Player. Now that the Braves were out of the race, he was pulling for the Dodgers. He had been a devoted baseball fan since 1919, and he drove to Atlanta almost every night the Braves were at home. The management let him in free and allowed him to sit with the grounds crew. He had met most of the National League players. Some were quieter and more reserved than others, he said, but all in all they were a real friendly bunch of men. He wouldn't want to have to say who was his favorite—there were just too many fine men in baseball today. Mr. Luman Harris, the manager of the Braves in 1971 and '72, for instance. Don Sutton and he got along pretty well, too. The Dodger cap he wears was a present from Don, who was also a Southerner, a really courteous gentleman. My uncle met Don's parents when they came to Atlanta. Really nice people, the Sutton family. Some of the Dodgers might think he showed favoritism toward Don, but he liked them all. The Dodgers were partial to his peach "punch." He brought a jug to the clubhouse whenever they came to town. They claimed it helped them relax. The Braves, too...you couldn't forget the Braves. He'd known Mr. Luman Harris for years—back when Harris was with the Atlanta Crackers. He named some more Braves. Like he said, the National League had a fine bunch of men.
He noticed his watch. It was almost a quarter to eleven. "As soon as I wash my hands and put on another shirt we'll drive over to Decatur. I'd like to catch Mr. Venable before he goes to dinner."
"Have you called him?"
"Nope. Don't need to. He's not that kind of man. Never has been. Anybody can just walk in his office, and he'll be glad to talk to them. He's not like a lot of these other fellows."
The temperature was making its way up through the 90s. All of the energy seeped out of you as soon as you stepped outside. We got into Uncle Arbria's bright-orange VW Squareback. He had put on his blue and white Braves cap. The hot asphalt roads ran through deep, green forests of pine. We passed abandoned wooden shacks; old, gray churches made from the rock of Stone Mountain; new, redbrick, ranch-style houses; roadside markets displaying striped Georgia watermelons and piles of corn and squash. The scenery changed as we came to Decatur. A few old buildings could still be seen, but Decatur could be set almost anywhere. There were supermarkets and modern office buildings, fast-food restaurants, boutiques, traffic congestion. Residents point to these symbols of progress with considerable pride. They can no longer be said to be backward and hickish.
It occurred to Uncle Arbria that Mr. Venable also had an office in Atlanta. "Now, if he's in Atlanta, or didn't come in, stayed at home," he mused, "maybe we could stop by his house. We'll just have to see." It was too hot and humid to feel a letdown. "If we don't get to see him, we don't get to see him," I said. "No big thing." Anyway, what did I have to say to the Imperial Wizard that wouldn't get my uncle run out of town? At best, it would be awkward. The Imperial Wizard and I would both be tense and uncomfortable. We would each know exactly where we stood in the other's eyes, and we would know that we shared no common ground—unless he were a baseball fan. Perhaps he would incorrectly suspect my uncle of some sort of duplicity, suspect that he was being made a fool of, mocked, insulted. I would if I were he. I mean, really, it would most certainly be difficult for him to believe that I, a black sociologist, just dropped by for no particular purpose—for a friendly chat. It was just as well that we most likely would not find him in today.
James Venable's office was in the Masonic Temple across the street from the old De Kalb County Courthouse. A presentable young man sat behind a desk in a small, airconditioned reception room. He greeted us with a big, cordial smile and a handshake. He answered my uncle in the soft, respectful tone of voice that well-mannered Southerners use with older people.
"Yes, sir, he's in, but he's with somebody now." He looked over at two young women in their late teens sitting shyly by the door that led into Mr. Venable's office. His voice carried an apology, "These young ladies were here first, but he can see y'all after them. Y'all have a seat."
My uncle usually strives to break down formalities. He doesn't like to sit and wait for long. "We ain't here on business," he said, chuckling. "Won't take but a minute of Mr. Venable's valuable time. He and I were boys together. We played, swam, fished, stole watermelons, got into a lot of devilment together. My nephew here is visiting me from California and he's heard me talk so much about Mr. Venable, about what a fine man he is, he just had to have me bring him here to meet him. We won't take but a minute. I know what a busy man he is."