One Square Mile: Feather, Fin, and Fur Taxidermy Studio

taxiBeth Johnson believes that every life has a story. Among the nails, pins, knives, and other tools scattered about her workbench lies the colorful, limp-necked carcass of a parrot. Johnson doesn’t know the bird’s name, but she knows that it was a beloved pet for 22 years, that it died of natural causes, and according to the hand-written and blood-smudged ticket, the bereaved owner wants Johnson to give the animal in death what it rarely took in life—flight. That’s Johnson’s job, as she sees it. To, in a way, honor the creature’s existence. She knows that some people think taxidermy is inhumane or at the very least revolting. With the former, Johnson respectfully disagrees; with the latter . . . well . . . she admits it’s not for the squeamish. Today, as her coworker cleans deer skins with a paring knife, giving the air a sweet, gamey tinge, Johnson slices open the bird’s bright yellow belly, inserts a foam-and-wire form, and stitches birdy back up, skillfully concealing the seam beneath the feathers, which she preens with large tweezers. She began learning the craft 26 years ago when, as a fed-up schoolteacher, she answered a “help wanted” sign in the Lithonia yard of what she later learned was a taxidermist. There she practiced skinning and stuffing what seemed like every creature that once walked, crawled, swam, or flew. She also learned to be a storyteller. “Anyone can hang a deer head on the wall,” she says. She prides herself on researching an animal’s habitat and staging wildlife scenes. Her showroom is a library of vignettes, including a timber wolf leaping over a barbed-wire fence and a bear cub pawing at a beehive, complete with insect exoskeletons dotting the mammal’s snout. Of course, she’ll mount antlers and hog heads for hunters who just want a trophy. She also does pet cremations. But some clients, like this parrot’s owner, want something more. And so Johnson lovingly fluffs the bright blue tail feathers and spreads its lifeless wings.

This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine. 

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One Square Mile: Dixie Speedway

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In the pits, 73-year-old Nancy Roland, poker visor down and a Marlboro Light dangling from her lips, pushes an ice scraper across the hood of the race car, sweeping off chunks of orange clay. Thirteen-year-old Will Roland steps out from behind the trailer, zipping up his black-and-red fire suit. He slips on his helmet and climbs behind the wheel of the number 22 Roland Tire Crate Late Model. The engine roars to life—400 horsepower rattling 2,300 pounds of car and 95 pounds of driver. Mark Roland, Will’s father and crew chief, leans in to shout a few words of advice before sending his son onto the oval alongside men twice and even three times his age. Will raced quarter midgets—essentially souped up go-karts—from age five, but this is his first full year in late model, on the dirt where speeds approach 100 miles per hour. As the cars rev their engines for the qualifier, the PA booms: Wheel to wheel. Hub to hub. Doorpost to doorpost. Here we go! Will pulls away early, but he falters on the penultimate lap, coming in loose and high to turn two, leaving an opening for the surging number 87 to attempt a pass. The two cars come within inches of contact as they accelerate into the straightaway. Will holds him off, barely. Pacing at the fence, Nancy pulls a fresh cigarette from her red fanny pack. She remembers the wreck at Rome that retired her son, Will’s father. That nightmare recedes as her grandson takes the checkered flag. “He won! He won!” Back in the pits, Will removes his helmet and climbs out of the car, stepping over the glittering decal for Roland Tire, the family business back in Jasper that is his birthright should his NASCAR dreams fail to materialize. He needs to tell his dad that the track is getting slick and that they might want to attach the spoiler to the car before the next race. But not before getting a congratulatory kiss from his biggest fan.

This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine. 

One Square Mile: Frolona Farm

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Josh Davis is a farmer. His life is moving things from place to place: Hay from field to barn. Feed from barn to pasture. Cattle and hogs from pasture to slaughter to CSA or wholesale. This morning his maroon Dodge Ram crunches up the steep gravel drive, carrying his 15-month-old daughter, Ona—bleary blue eyes, tousled blonde hair, and one orange moccasin missing from a plump foot—to the remote white clapboard farmhouse with the tin roof where his sister waits to babysit. His wife is out of town on business, leaving Davis to tend to the livestock and the land. Davis’s great-great-great-grandfather, a subsistence farmer, won claim to this clay in the Creek Land Lottery in the 1830s. His descendants built the house in 1890. Davis’s childhood bedroom was upstairs, with a picture window overlooking 1,500 verdant acres specked with timber, pigs, and cows. All he saw back then was emptiness. “I left immediately after high school with no intention of ever coming back,” he says. He fled to college, got an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Louisville, but became disillusioned with academia. Got a marketing job that he lost in the Great Recession, and reluctantly came home in 2009. He found local markets hungry for grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. He discovered a tether he didn’t realize was there. “There’s something about being here and working this land,” he says, walking among the herd of cows who’ve come lowing for food. “Besides, if it’s not me, no one else will do this.” As soon as Ona is old enough, she’ll be bouncing beside him in the farm truck, bounding over this red earth, calling pigs and feeding cattle. “I don’t see how she couldn’t get a love for this place,” he says, knowing full well that when the time comes, she’ll move wherever she wants.

This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine.

 

Mike Tokars: What happened to the boy who witnessed his mother’s murder?

tokarsMike Tokars was four years old on November 29, 1992. Yet he remembers the events of that night clearly, and he recounts them with an almost unsettling calm.

He recalls waking up in the back of his mother’s 4Runner, which was in the garage of the family’s East Cobb home. A strange man emerged from the house with a sawed-off shotgun. The stranger kicked the family’s Springer Spaniel, Jake; jumped into the backseat beside Mike; and ordered Mike’s mother, Sara Tokars, to drive to a vacant residential development about a half mile away, where she pulled over. Then a gunshot. The stranger fled. From the passenger seat, Mike’s six-year-old brother, Rick, leaned over and turned off the ignition. Seeing their mother slumped over the steering wheel, Rick told Mike they had to go for help. But Mike sensed she was dead. The two boys ran about a hundred yards through the dark, through bushes with thorns that cut them, their blood mixing with that of their mother. The next morning, over a breakfast of their uncle’s waffles, the two boys kept saying: If only Dad had been there with his gun.

The brothers moved in with their maternal grandparents in coastal Bradenton, Florida. Their father, Fred Tokars—a high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney—would call and occasionally visit. He phoned on Mike’s sixth birthday, but when Mike tried to pass the phone to his brother, Rick refused. They both knew their father had been arrested, but Rick knew the implications. Back in Atlanta, Fred Tokars was charged with hiring the stranger, Curtis Rower, to kill Sara in an attempt to cover up his secret life of drug trafficking and money laundering. Mike never spoke to his father again. “At that point, he was no longer a good guy in my eyes,” says Mike.

Fred Tokars’s 1997 trial and conviction was broadcast nationally on Court TV. Mike did not attend. Family and friends shielded the boys, but “sometimes it would come up,” says Mike. “And when it didn’t, I knew that they knew.” Eventually public memory of the tragedy faded. “As we got older, we had more control over who knew,” says Mike. “I was always open about it with my close friends. I wanted to explain—talking about my parents made me feel like a normal person.” Mike says that wasn’t the case with his brother, who was much more guarded. “I can’t remember a single instance of us talking about it,” says Mike. “We didn’t need to.” On the 10th anniversary of their mother’s murder, Mike tried to broach the topic; Rick cut him off, and the two went surfing.

Rick went to college in San Diego and is now an avid surfer and traveler. Mike stayed closer to home, attending Tallahassee Community College and then the University of South Florida, where he majored in history and English literature. But he devoted more time and energy to touring the South by van and playing guitar in punk rock and ska bands. Reading “The Rum Diary” by Hunter S. Thompson inspired him to become a reporter and writer, so he moved to New York, where he interned and freelanced. On a whim, he applied to the Master of Journalism program at Columbia University and was shocked to be accepted. He plans to graduate this spring.

Reporters occasionally contact Mike about his parents; from inside prison his father has become a prolific prosecution witness, having helped solve six murders. Mike says his experience gives him insight into and empathy for the people he writes about who have suffered loss. More than anything, facing evil at such an early age has shaped the way he has approached his own life. “I don’t take anything for granted, don’t expect to be comfortable or safe,” he says. That’s not necessarily negative, he explains, using a surfing analogy: “When you’re in the water, you always worry that there’s a shark. But there’s a calmness when you actually spot a fin—you know the evil is there.”

—30—

Published in the March 2015 issue of Atlanta