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Celebrating St. Patrick's in Savannah

March 17, 1999

SAVANNAH, Ga. - When you're playing word association, "East Georgia" and "St. Patrick's Day" don't exactly leap out at you any more than "NASCAR" and "Tribeca."

At least I wouldn't have connected the two. All I was looking for was the Savannah of "Midnight in the Garden of Good an Evil" - the squares, the azaleas, the fountains, the architecture, the wrought iron, the cross-dressing maniacs.

My first clue that something was up came when the buses full of seniors began to pull into the hotel. The seniors of northern colleges, as well as seniors of the 5 p.m. dinner and evenings at the cocktail lounge with the big screen TV tuned in to the Weather Channel.

This mix of old and young was a volatile brew - at least the hotel thought so, judging from the number of security guards posted outside.

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A waitress cryptically told me that it would be wise to see the riverfront by day, then skeedaddle before "it" starts.

The second clue came the next morning when I noticed that all of Savannah's elegant old fountains were running green and they seemed to be preparing for a crowd of some kind.

Vendors were selling T-Shirts boasting of the "Million Mick March" and folks on the streetcorners were handing out strings of green beads. I walked past a beautiful old church (Our Lady of No Public Restrooms) and down to the riverfront where the really big doings were shaping up.

Fortunately, I ran into Susan Saseen, one of Savannah's best artists, who explained that the town has one of the biggest, weeklong St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the country and they were expecting upwards of 300,000 partiers by midweek.

"But I came here to see cross-dressing maniacs," I started to say - until I looked into the street and saw a cast of characters that by contrast would put cross-dressing maniacs in a category with no more charisma than the guy on the Quaker Oats box.

In the window of Fiddler's restaurant was a sign that said "Fiddler's Now Open for Eatin and Drinkin." With the word "Eatin" scratched out. It was like an indignant Kent Brockman said: "Drinking, violence, destruction of property - is this what we are supposed to think of when we remember the Irish?"

I had two strikes against me seeing as how 1.) I wasn't wearing green and 2.) I didn't care to dance. I bought a string of green beads in hopes of looking more "with it," but the college girls in green hats and green sunglasses still came up trying to dance while casting knowing glances back to their friends in the manner of "watch me make a fool out of the stiff old coot in the blue oxford shirt." But I wasn't buying. "Get away from me," I hissed. "I know your game; Twenty years ago I used to do this to middle-aged women. And 20 years from now someone will do it to you."

Even the children were involved. A truancy of kids came up to me and started a conversation while dangling their yo-yos on the surface of a reflecting pool to precipitate rooster tails of green spray. They wanted to know if the fountains were actually filled with green beer.

One of them, not more than 9, came up and announced that he was "celebrating St. Pat-rick's Day."

Then he went on: "St. Patrick, he used to live around here someplace. Somebody tried to kill him once. They got a knife and tried to push him in the river."

In the interest of accuracy, I should mention that one of the older kids seemed to take strong issue with the youngster's statements of fact. I only pass this along to alert you that there are two sides to this story, so you'll just have to make up your own mind based on the evidence presented.

I tend to believe the kid. Especially if the perpetrator were a visionary and could see what madness St. Patrick might inspire - pushing him in the drink at that point might have seemed the most logical solution.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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