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Gwinnett, you've been hiding a grand arena

I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. I have been entertained in a variety of places by a variety of people. Andy Devine came to the Porterdale school auditorium and put on a show when I was in the third grade, and I saw Officer Don of the Popeye Club and the Duncan yo-yo guy in the same month at Covington's Strand Theater.

That's pretty high cotton for a 12-year-old linthead.

I never saw the Beatles live, but I did see Elvis Presley in 1973 at the Macon Auditorium. When I graduated from high school and matriculated at the University of Georgia, I got to see shows put on by a plethora of entertainers in the UGA coliseum/cattle barn - Chicago, James Taylor, Bob Hope, Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone.

Yeah, I know that you don't often see Bob Hope on the same list as Steppenwolf, but that's who I saw.

There were other concert venues in the area back then, of course. I saw Three Dog Night at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and the air was electric. My friends and I went to Lake Spivey to see Chicago put on an outdoor performance. There was an electrical glitch and the show didn't start until long after midnight. This was in the pre-cell phone days, of course, and Atlanta television stations were begging parents not to get mad at their kids for staying until the show was over. I think I got home about 4:30 a.m.

I will admit to seeing John Denver and Kenny Rogers in the old Omni, but I saw Willie Nelson there, too - which almost makes up for it.

I got to go backstage and meet Johnny Cash at the Fox Theater one night - with Lester Maddox, of all people, and I saw an older, balder James Taylor in the Hollywood Bowl. There are a few more names and locations I can add to the list - Willie, again, at the Tabernacle, and David Allen Coe at Billy Bob's in Ft. Worth, Jimmy Buffett at several locations, the Dixie Chicks in Birmingham (yeah, I know), Michael Jackson at the Charlotte Coliseum and Porter Wagoner at Dollywood.

There are others, of course - many others, but you get the idea. I like to be entertained and I have seen a lot of performers in a lot of venues but, until last Saturday, had never been to the Gwinnett Arena. (I almost wrote the "new" Gwinnett Arena until I realized that it has been in operation since 2003. It ain't really new anymore, is it?)

I don't know why I hadn't been. I guess that somewhere between Elvis and David Allen Coe, I just got old. You know how it is. It's a lot of trouble to come home from work on a Friday, when most concerts seem to take place, and scurry around to get ready to go out and then fight the crowds to get to the venue and find a place to park. Besides, I had heard horror stories about traffic tie-ups outside the arena when it first opened.

And, yes, I freely admit that I will spend all day on clogged roads on autumn Saturdays to sit elbow to elbow and cheek to jowl with 95,000 college football fans - but that's different. I am an old dog and set in my ways, and I just didn't think I wanted to learn a new trick, even if it did mean getting to see arena football, the circus, a basketball game or an A-list entertainer.

And then J.K. Murphy, publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post and one of the few newspaper men left with printer's ink still running though his veins, invited me to speak to a gathering that met in the shadow of the new (to me) facility. After getting a good look at the place, I was so impressed that I began to think I might want to explore the possibility of attending an event there and asked J.K. to keep his eye for some tickets when something showed up on the schedule that was about my speed.

Something did and J.K. did, and last Friday night I made my maiden voyage to the Gwinnett Arena. My lovely wife, Lisa, and I rushed home from Jekyll Island and raced a tornado-filled thunderstorm down Sugarloaf Parkway to try to see Jennifer Nettles - former Georgia 4-H'er from Douglas - and her band, Sugarland, perform.

The traffic was steady, but not awful - and probably wouldn't have been bad at all if we had arrived in the vicinity prior to the last minute. And surprises of surprises, parking was plentiful, even though the show was sold-out - and free! You'll never find free parking downtown.

The venue itself was first class, although I was immediately spoiled by the excellent seats J.K. had secured for me and the show - well, the show was spectacular. Jennifer Nettles was as full of energy as any performer I have seen in a long time.

I am hooked, in other words. The total experience was as positive as any I've had in a long, long time. If I may quote California's governator, I'll be back, as soon as I find another event I think I'd like.

Does anybody know if Andy Devine is scheduled to play the Arena at Gwinnett Center anytime soon?

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.