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1996 — A United America — By Tommy Purser

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics set to open this week after a year of COVID delay, my mind has been wandering back to 25 years ago — July 13, 1996.
If I had to come up with the top 10 experiences I’ve had in my 73 years, carrying the Olympic Torch during the prelude to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games would rank among the top.
The flame didn’t pass through Hazlehurst — Douglas and Vidalia/Lyons was as close as it got. My short-lived honor came in Eastman. The next week, I penned a column about my experience and this week, 25 years later with the Olympic flame now coursing its way through Japan, seems like a good time to share that column.
Here it is:
In the days leading up to my July 13 date to participate in the Coca Cola Company’s Olympic Torch Relay, my excitement began to build slowly.
The butterflies began fluttering in my stomach as I drove into Eastman. It was almost an hour and a half before the flame was to arrive in the outskirts of Eastman. Yet, already, the crowds had begun forming. Flags and banners were everywhere. Small groups gathered on lawns and sidewalks, many dressed in patriotic garb and many carrying signs welcoming the flame to their city. It was a festive atmosphere that would become even more festive as the day progressed.
Eleven of us torchbearers gathered in the minibus where two young Torch Relay workers gave us a brief orientation. Both had been with the relay since the flame first reached American soil at Los Angeles some 79 days ago. They explained how both of them had been changed — inside — by the experience. By being able to see an unending chain of American enthusiasm and excitement from coast to coast. Everywhere, Americans were proud to be Americans. And now, it was Eastman’s turn.
They went over the mechanics of the torch. How we should light it, how we should carry it, what would happen if we dropped it, how the flame would be extinguished. We were cautioned that the flame was, indeed, hot. They also collected the $275 fee necessary for each of us to purchase our own torches to take home.
It was our moment, they explained. We could walk. We could jog. We could run. We could “highfive” with the crowd. We could wave. We could do just about anything we wanted to, except crawl on our hands and knees.
“Just smile, smile, smile, guys,” Sarah said with an enthusiastic grin. “And have a good time. This is your moment.”
Shortly before 4:00, the minibus made its way to the outskirts of Eastman where the flame would enter by bicycle. There we dropped off George Lindsey of Rentz. George had been quiet on the bus. I sensed that he may have been the most nervous of our group.
As the torch got close to Eastman, the minibus resumed its journey along the route, next dropping off Carolyn Kagan, a teacher from Hawkinsville who had been nominated for the honor by her students. Carolyn was beside herself with excitement Laughing and waving and jumping around like a school girl. She had huge entourage of friends, relatives and students lining the street to root for her.
Next off the bus was the senior citizen of our group, Chester Saunders. Everyone from Eastman seemed to know the likable old gentleman as simply “Chester.” He had been nominated by his wife to be a torchbearer. “You must have been a good husband, Chester — that day, anyway,” Sarah said with a grin. I got the sense that folks all over Eastman were tickled to death that Chester had made the cut
Next off was a nervous Andrea Sammons McCranie. While Andrea lives in Eastman now, I had known her since she was a teenager living in Lumber City and working as a substitute organist at Hazlehurst First United Methodist. The daughter of Gene and Sue Sammons of Lumber City, she is the niece of Larry and Linda Brewer of Hazlehurst and has lots of friends in Jeff Davis County.
Andrea had spent much of the previous hour worrying about falling, tripping, stumbling, giving out of breath, making a wrong turm, burning herself or burning someone else.
As we reached Dodge County High School, where special ceremonies were to be held, high school student Donya Joiner got off the bus to go into the stadium. She was to be on the speakers platform when Andrea arrived and would take the flame from Andrea after the ceremony and take it out of the stadium to continue its journey.
The bus parked outside the stadium where the six of us remaining torchbearers waited for the ceremonies there to be completed.
Stretching our legs outside the bus, people began to come up to us, asking for photographs, pushing children in front of us for photos. The children, confused by all the attention we were drawing, looked at us as though we were some kind of aliens. They stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the torches we each held in our hands.
Soon, we were herded back onto the bus to continue our journey. DeCinces Edwards, a young high school student, was next off. He was greeted by dozens of his family and friends carrying posters with DeCinces’ photo and congratulatory messages. They clapped and cheered as he stepped off the bus, a nervous and embarrassed look on the youngster’s face.
Next off was Charlotte Coffee, DeCinces’ schoolmate at Dodge County High. A personable young lady, Charlotte works part time at The Dodge County News. She would pass the flame to me. I saw the irony: a young newspaper person passing the flame to an old newspaper person,
I was next, I stepped off the bus and suddenly I was the center of attention. Hundreds of people lining the streets stared at me. Cameras snapped everywhere. Having several hundred pairs of eyes staring at me left me unnerved.
Looking for something to do, I spotted four little girls, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, sitting on the hood of a car at the edge of the street. I walked over to them and stuck out the torch. “Would you like to hold it?” I asked. Suddenly, mothers with cameras leaped out of nowhere.
Then I heard a commotion up the road a distance and turned to see a tired-looking Charlotte Coffee jogging my way. A virtual army of motorcycle escorts, escorts on foot, campers, and BMW police cars, moved slowly along with her. Out of nowhere, an official stepped up to me, took my torch, turned a knob at the base and propane gas began hissing its way out of the top. He handed it back to me and wished me good luck.
As I watched Charlotte jog the remaining 50 yards to me, a rush of excitement sent chill bumps along my back and up my neck. Within seconds Charlotte and I met in the middle of the street. She touched her torch to mine, and suddenly I had in my possession the flame that had traveled from Athens, Greece, crossed the ocean to America, and traversed this country’s mountains and plains, cities and rural communities, affluent and poor areas, north and south, east and west.
It had seen along the way people from every walk of life. Evoked clapping and cheers, smiles and waves. Even moved people to tears. It had been carried by the famous and the not so famous. Ten thousand people of all colors, all backgrounds. The physically impaired and the physically fit.
As I turned to jog up the street, my eyes scanned the dozens of people lining the streets. Most were strangers. They clapped, waved, smiled and cheered. A young man to my left cupped his hands beside his mouth, leaned over into the street and yelled at the top of his lungs, “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!”
As I made a left turn toward Eastman’s main street, there were more faces, more applause, more waves and more cheers. The commotion wasn’t for me. It was for the flame and what it symbolized. What it meant, personally, to each person along the route. It was for being American and proud of it
As I approached Eastman City Hall, I spotted the group from Hazlehurst that had gathered to view the flame. I saw friends and co-workers. My mother and sister. My children, Laura, Tommy Jr., and Anna. But I couldn’t find the face I was looking for more.
Then I spotted her — her face hidden behind a camera. As she snapped the photograph, she pulled the camera away from her face, raised a hand high into the air and began waving and cheering. A huge smile spread across her face, and tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks. No, her cheers and tears weren’t for the flame. She was proud of her husband.
Within seconds I was past city hall and turning onto West Main Street, where the crowd was even bigger.
The rest of the trip is somewhat of a blur. I remember that I had begun to tire. Sweat was running down my forehead and into my eyes. My arms were weary from holding the torch over my head. I recall stumbling slightly as my weary legs failed to lift my feet over a small bump in the road. Had the bump been a quarter of an inch higher, I would have sprawled onto the pavement.
Before I knew it, the next torchbearer, Annette Barden, a retired educator from Eastman, was in front of me sporting just about the biggest, most excited grin I had ever seen. I stopped in the middle of the street to pass the flame to her. She stuck up her free hand for a “high five,” turned away from me and disappeared into the distance.
An official came up behind me and asked me to step to the side of the road. Another turned off the flame, and helped me purge the torch of the remaining gas.
All too quickly, it was done.

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