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Looking for something you need can have enlightening results

You can shake some thoughts and images out of your head. And some you can't.

My earliest experiences with reporting the tragedies that visit our communities convinced me that only very strong people can survive in the professions that address those situations. Decades later, when the names of hundreds of former co-workers escape me, I still can recite the names of strangers I never met. Strangers whose stories ended suddenly.

It is difficult enough to pursue the written element of those stories, to find and to interview the survivors whose lives are touched, changed or emptied by those events.

That was part of my mission Saturday, when I wandered across county lines to Mitchell, Ga. The bluegrass show at the old depot is known to attract folks from the communities touched by the events of the week past.

Perhaps, I thought, I might find what I needed. I might find someone who could help tell another stranger's unfinished story.

My wife, the most patient person on this side of heaven, went with me that evening. Or perhaps we went there together. When a reporter spends five sometimes stressful nights a week in the public theater, it's nice to find attractions that are both professional and social.

The Palmetto Pickers already were warming up as we arrived in Mitchell. David Smith was singing on the front steps of the depot.

Dean and Brenda Hilson of Thomson had taken a back row in their canvas seats. Hilson, who is retired and a regular volunteer at the By His Hands soup kitchen in Thomson, nodded and mentioned that he grew up just a block from that depot. He said the trains had stopped running before his time, but he enjoys getting back to the depot and the bluegrass.

William Norris said he still lives "right over there" from the depot. He said he comes to the depot for the music "every time they have it," which is the first Saturday of every month, April to October.

Smith continued his solo performance as the crowd grew.

Etta Wilcher helped serve hot dogs, hamburgers and other sandwiches. The price was just a donation. The jar was stuffed with generosity.

She saw the camera. She asked my name. She asked me to help thank everyone for coming, and to help invite them back again in April.

She said she and her late husband, William, and some friends picked up the idea for the bluegrass sessions about 10 years ago while visiting Tallulah Gorge State Park. That other couple is Scott and Glenda Lamb. Wilcher said Scott Lamb is the mayor. Glenda Lamb was master of ceremonies for the evening.

Wilcher said the railroad that laid tracks in Mitchell was the Augusta, Gibson & Sandersville. Deep into the Great Depression, the line had become the Augusta & Southern, she said.

"In 1935 they tore up the tracks," she said. "I was 2 years old then."

"No one will do the math," I told her. She smiled.

A bit of a chill heralded both evening and autumn.

Above the leaves and depot lights, stars watched the people who watched the tiny stage.

The Palmetto Pickers took the stage.

To my left, Jane voiced Over in the Glory Land in unison with the traveling musicians. Her career in church music had served more formal settings in much larger cities. But she was at ease in that moment.

My notebook and camera were in the grass by the time I heard In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

And by the time Rocky Top filled the park, I was no longer half reporter and half spectator. I was just husband.

And then Glenda Lamb took the microphone one last time. "We're gonna cut it short tonight because it's cold and we've got skeeters," she said.

And come back in April, she added.

We scurried to the car and sang halfway home.

I had gone to Mitchell because I needed something and because I thought I might find it at that old depot. And I did.

Web posted on Thursday, October 06, 2011

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