There are two things that I remember vividly about Memorial Day weekend 1979. One is that I had been bitten by either a black widow or a brown recluse spider earlier that week and my left elbow had swollen to double its normal size and turned a shiny bright pink color. Our family pediatrician, Dr. Sandberg, had to meet us at his office on a holiday weekend, which seemed like a big deal. Within a couple of days all of the epidermal tissue on my forearm had gone necrotic, turning jet black before withering then falling off in huge sections. The other thing that happened that weekend is that I saw my first naked man. Guess which one has had the most lasting impact.
He was white, sunburned, kinda tubby and was making “it” dance as he stood arms akimbo, legs askance whilst straddling a makeshift raft floating down the Chattahoochee River past where I stood on the banks of Powers Ferry Landing. My Mom, because she was gawking and squealing, didn’t cup her hands over my eyes fast enough for me to miss out on that first floppy wiener sighting.* Memorial Day weekend 1979 is forever etched into my visual recall. The good news is that moving forward, pretty much any future naked man that I would ever see was certain to be a stone cold fox on my mental comparison chart. The sad news is that I now traverse that very spot on the river several times a week and so Mr. Red Flabby Naked Man flashes across my mind’s eye every damn time I cross the “3rd bridge” that connects Rays on the River and the infamous Riverbend Apartments over Powers Ferry Landing.
See, back in the day there was a little thing in Atlanta called the Ramblin’ Raft Race. It was kind of a big deal that started out in either 1968 or 1969 as an end of the year social for Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at Georgia Tech. After a few years, word spread and pretty much the entire city turned out for it, either as a spectator, organizer or a participant. At it’s peak, about 300,000 people were actually in the river during the race; it was even covered by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News. Hell yeah, that’s how we used to do here.
The quality of rafts ran the gamut from basic inner tubes strung together like a Cuban refugee train, Huck Finn tribute floats, hollowed out VW Bugs and sunken rooflines to feats of naval engineering that were multi-level, carrying pianos, gazebos and giant sneakers. They may have mimicked Eastern Airlines planes, tiki huts or paid homage to grand paddle wheel or civil war boats. However, all rafts were equipped with a shit ton of weed and lots of ‘hooch. I seem to recall there also being a handful of hot air balloons in the air, the smell of bbq mingling with the other assumed smells and hearing a lot of Allman Brothers, Skynard, .38 Special and music that would later make up half of a Yacht Rock set list.
So, in doing the math…
hot sun + river water + crowd + the good shit + bad decisions = NAKED PEOPLE
Of course when all of those things come together, hilarity soon follows. Like the naked people who shouldn’t be and who didn’t use sunblock, because it may not have been invented yet. Because it was 1979. Or the countless drunks falling off of their rafts. Luckily, the Chattahoochee is fairly shallow and full of rocks for a body to wash up on. There was only actually 1 drowning ever associated with the race…and it happened the day before in 1980. However, those river bed conditions also lead to a lot of stuck floats, falling apart and overturned floats, and even the occasionally abandoned float, like the aforementioned piano.
Sadly, like all the coolest stuff from the 1970s, the Ramblin’ Raft Race had an end date of 1980. We can thank the square Carter brother, Jimmy, for that. In 1978 Jimmy signed a bill creating the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area which was the death knell for what could later be called the White Wet Freaknik. A lot of people falsely believe that the environmental impact the race had on the river played a part in its demise. Not true. Actually, the river was just fine, it was all of the spectators trampling the banks that posed the most damage. The AJC reported in 1980 that, “new management took over, and before long the feds were openly fretting about controlling the ‘thousands of beer-swilling, dope-smoking rafters’.” If Jimmy wasn’t amused by the
ways of his far cooler little brother Billy, he certainly wasn’t charmed by the patrons of the Ramblin’ Raft Race. I still think that just like Jimmy couldn’t be happy for and endorse the greatness that was his brother’s Billy Beer, he couldn’t allow his home state’s Ramblin’ Raft Race’s greatness to continue either.
*I have another floppy wiener on the river story from 1988 that involves ditching school and a Laura Ashley petticoat . It can be better told my my friend, Kiersten. She has sound effects. How many floppy wiener river stories do you have?