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MISSION POSSIBLE // THE RIGHT ONE, BABY

Mr. Stegall thought it couldn't be done.

"No way, man. That's Coke Country," he said. "You can't smuggle a Pepsi into Centennial Park."

Bet I can. Bet you can't. Bet I can. Bet you can't.

"All right then, you just take that Pepsi and if you can sneak it in, you don't have to pay for it," he said. "But if you get caught, you owe me a dollar."

The proprietor of Stegall's Food Store wondered whether there would be repercussions if my mission was compromised and the authorities learned that he had supplied me with the contraband for this foray into enemy territory.

"Coca-Cola owns this town," he said. "They won't be happy."

What would happen if I got caught with an illegal Pepsi? Would they drag me off in handcuffs and confiscate my soft drink? Perhaps even haul me before a kangaroo court and ship me off to the Georgia gulag?

Everybody knows Coca-Cola controls this city with a Stalinesque efficiency. Any attempted breach of soda security surely would be dealt with harshly.

Capture would undoubtedly prove embarrassing for my superiors, who issued explicit orders that I avoid arrest at all costs. Incarceration surely would be met with calls for plausible denial.

The Centennial Olympic Park House rules clearly prohibited such items as Frisbees, skateboards, flags of non-participating nations and beverages not purchased on the premises.

The security teams, however, are notably lax on the prohibition of foreign beverages, especially when the soft drink in question bears the trademark red-and-white label of the sugar-water giant, which owns just about everything within a 10-mile radius.

Still, why would I put my career and country at such risk? Two words: Ray Charles.

The man Julian Bond called "the bishop of Atlanta" was to play a free concert on the Olympic Village stage.

Everybody who watched the Opening Ceremonies must have wondered why Gladys Knight sang Georgia on My Mind instead of the Albany native who is most often associated with the tune. Why? Two words: Coca-Cola.

Word on the street is that the all-powerful, Atlanta-based soft-drink company didn't want the spokesman for rival Pepsi ("You've got the right one, baby. Uh-huh!") to perform in front of millions of people around the world.

Coke categorically denied the story, but the rumor refused to die as thousands of people lined up outside Centennial Park Thursday evening for the chance to hear Sir Charles give a concert for free.

Security was tight and it took a half-hour to make it through the gantlet of guards to the gate. I agonized over how I would get the package through the checkpoint.

Conceal it and plead ignorance if discovered? Or be bold and charge straight ahead like Tennyson's noble 500? In the end, I chose the latter.

Pepsi in one hand, cellular phone in the other, I stepped up to the plate.

"Open your bag. Turn on your phone. Go ahead," the guard said. I was through.

But it was too easy. Unsatisfied with my subterfuge, I needed to make a statement. So I walked to Centennial Plaza, where the ground is covered with more than 200,000 commemorative bricks. For $35 you can buy one engraved with your name, alma mater or any other message you want to share with the world.

"Can I write anything I want?" I asked the woman behind the counter.

She nodded. I paid the money and she handed me an order form. I filled it out and she read it aloud.

"Ray Charles, Pepsi, Uh-huh!"

Some day in the not-too-distant future, when Coca-Cola has its own spy satellite (if it doesn't already), the corporation's chief executive officer will review the daily intelligence data and realize that censorship is an exercise in futility.

"Hey, I just bought Ray Charles his very own brick," I told two soul music fans standing beside me.

"Way to go," Atlantan Sean Allen said.

"Cool," his friend Dave Spamp agreed. "That'll show 'em."

Then the master's band took the stage. It warmed up the crowd, and Charles entered wearing a smile that could bring peace to the Middle East.

After two or three songs, he played the tune everybody was waiting for. People screamed, hands in the air, as the soft refrain of Georgia filtered through the park. If not for the Coke signs everywhere, you might have thought you'd taken a wrong turn and wound up in St. Peter's Square watching the pope address the faithful.

For more than an hour, Charles held them captive. The tragedy of the previous week was forgotten. The Bishop offered salvation. And unlike the soft drinks for sale everywhere, redemption was free.

But it was all over too quickly. They whisked Charles off the stage, and people started chanting, "Bring back Ray."

They tried to appease the mob by showing a clip of Michael Johnson's record-breaking gold-medal run.

The crowd started chanting, "U-S-A." But it never quite drowned out "Bring back Ray."

Finally, when it was clear that Charles would not return, people began to filter out.

But the mood had changed. He'd had a calming effect, sort of like moonlight through the pines.

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