Sunday, April 23, 2017

Memory Lane

For some reason, I keep body surfing in a tsunami of nostalgia.

A couple of days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook friends when I came across an old black-and-white photo of something I thought I recognized.

It was a picture of Fountain Hill, Pa. And not just any picture, either. It was a shot of people building the borough playground. There were horse-drawn wagons, men with shovels, and, in the background, a fuzzy line of row homes. The picture was taken in 1928.

Constructing the playground in Fountain Hill, Pa., circa 1928.

I lived in Fountain Hill, sometime around 1955-59. It was a small community (pop. 3,500?) happily nestled in the ridges of South Mountain, just outside the shadow of Bethlehem, Pa. These were my formative years, when I was between 4 and 8 years old. We lived in one of those row homes where the street was lined with sycamores and chestnuts. The playground they built was directly across the street from us. Beaver Cleaver couldn't have done better.

Somehow, I had stumbled across a Fountain Hill Facebook page. There were pictures. There were discussions. There were videos. I had no choice. I had to join the site.

One of the pictures I found was of my Kindergarten class at Stevens School. There was Miss Rau, our teacher. We had milk and cookies between sessions of learning our ABC's, then we took naps on little rugs that we'd unroll. I think the naps were her idea so she could have a few minutes a day to herself, even though she told us that naps would help make us smarter and grow stronger. I think she probably needed our naps more than we did.

Miss Rau's Kindergarten. Am I the guy on the front row, extreme right?
 I'm not sure if that's me in the picture. Not 100 percent sure, anway. I look like me; my wife says it's me, but my brother says, Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to think. So I just don't know. I'll continue to say it's me until some Joe Blow says it's really him.

Notice that Miss Rau is standing directly behind me, probably for a reason. I'm scowling.

I was enjoying this.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I posted a picture of my father back when he was an English teacher at Fountain Hill High School and, Boom! the posts started flowing. Some people fondly recalled my dad as their teacher, as their mentor and as their friend. That really got to me.

Then one poster said she remembered me after all these years, confessed that she had a Stevens School crush on me and was sad when our family moved away to New Hampshire. I felt kind of bad about that. I didn't know any girl actually liked me that much. I hope I didn't break her heart. Hey, it wasn't my idea to go live in New Hampshire. I was only 8.

Anyway, my other brilliant thought was to tell my brother, David, about this page. So he quickly joined, too. He's three years younger than I am and his memories of the place are about as vivid as mine. He posted an era-correct B&W picture of kids playing box hockey — an incredibly favorite activity at the playground back then — and the posts suddenly started flying off the page as memories ignited.

Two things — the playground, and Stevens School — were the centers of our age of innocence back then. Dave and I talked about the responses that filled the discussion boards, most all of them hinting about the quality of life we had and the way the tight little community looked after its people. A lot of folks used the word "special" about their experience growing up there.

My wife, Kim, a lifelong resident of Lexington, grew up in the Erlanger neighborhood, which was also inclusive and had its own play area, ball field and swimming pool — not too unlike Fountain Hill. She, too, feels a sense of community when she talks about her childhood.

As my brother suggested, "Hey, growing up there made us who we are today."

Amen, and amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The end of an era

For the past 37 years, at least one person with my last name worked at Lexington State Bank/NewBridge Bank/Yadkin Bank/First National Bank.

That ended a week ago when my tenure as a part-time employee — who worked in the mailroom the past five-and-a-half years — finally ran its course, staggering down the stretch, looking somewhat dehydrated and nearly out of breath.

The first 31 years were filled by my wife, Kim. She spent most of that time as the assistant to both the CEO  and the bank president (it's now deemed improper to label somebody as a secretary, unless they work as the head of a government cabinet position), keeping the ship stable behind the scenes.

She was hired out of junior college and subsequently flourished as a reliable, intelligent and faithful employee for what many customers and clients pretty much remember as an exceptional community bank.

She recalls those years with fondness. She made several lifelong friendships there. To this day, LSB remains a part of her essential core. Thirty-one years.

But times change. In an era of mergers, LSB combined with Greensboro-based FNB Southeast in 2007 in what was said to be "a merger of equals." Well, equal assets, anyway. What became NewBridge Bank turned out to be something less than equal for former LSB employees. Some lost their jobs as a result of the merger. And, at least here in town, some felt the bank had lost some of its personal touch.

Kim lost her job when her position was eventually displaced. She was let go in a final round of dismissals across the bank's footprint. A few months later, I learned the bank was looking for part-time help in the mailroom. I'd already retired from The Dispatch, but I needed to help out financially at home while Kim looked for work. So I applied for the job. And somehow, I got it.

A Wehrle was still at the bank. Go figure. Well, yeah, I worked in the basement, where the mailroom was located, and no one could find me without a map and GPS. But I contributed, and I made some good friends. It was the perfect job for a retired guy. It probably helped that Kim had paved the way before me.

Anyway, NewBridge managed to keep Lexington as its operation center and the bank remained a vital part of the community. Well, at least until 2015, when it was purchased by Raleigh-based Yadkin Financial Corp.

Here we go again.

That seemed to be the end of the merger-go-round, but, no. Within months, it seemed, we found out we were purchased by Pittsburgh-based First National Bank, a megabank.

The acquisition happened so fast, Yadkin Bank never got its signage on the building. Much of the stationery still had "NewBridge Bank" on it. Log-ins still referred to NewBridge, and courier bags from the branches still carried the NewBridge logo.

But it all ended last week. The once-thriving five-story building is now a first-floor operation only. Nearly 200 employees who once worked in the Lexington Main building have been whittled down to about 30 or so.

And for my wife and myself, well, an era comes to an end. A Wehrle has worked at the bank for our entire married lives together.

Not anymore.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Party time

Less than 24 hours from now, music is going to fill the air in Lexington.

And there's going to be about 1,000 people on hand — maybe more — to listen to six acts perform over 11 hours at the brand-new Breeden Insurance Amphitheater, located between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue just south of Main Street.

Workers put the final touches on the Breeden Amphitheater Friday.
 The scheduled performers include the nationally known Gin Blossoms, and Edwin McCain, the Lilly Brothers, On The Border (an Eagles tribute band), The Steppin' Stones and Holy Ghost Tent Revival.

The place is going to be rockin'.

And maybe, in part, you can thank city manager Alan Carson for that.

The primary purpose of the event, said Carson, is to draw attention to Lexington, and just as significantly, to the potential of the Depot District, which seeks a long-range plan for the development of the old Lexington Brands Furniture property, including an Amtrak stop.

The city purchased the property for just over $1 million back in 2006. Back then, many doubters wondered why.

But the vision of a decade ago is slowly coming into focus. A popular farmers' market took hold in the nearby freight depot several years ago, more or less getting people used to the idea of seeing something besides abandoned buildings where a thriving industry once stood.

Bull City Ciderworks arrived with some fanfare in 2015, rented a building for its brewery, and now recently bought the property, thus putting it on the city's tax rolls.

And now the amphitheater, to which Mark and Jill Breeden of Breeden Insurance gifted $200,000 toward its construction. The amphitheater, of course, could likely be a draw for future events.

Suddenly, that million-dollar purchase of some forlorn old buildings might just be the steal of the century.

As of Friday morning, Carson said there have been more than 800 tickets pre-sold, with more than 65 percent of those sales coming from outside of Lexington. No, wait. Outside of Davidson County. No, wait. Outside of the Piedmont.

"It's amazing," said Carson. "We're getting people from all over, including places from as far away as California and Minnesota. I don't know if they're family members of the bands, or what. But it's good."

Carson said there's no way the event will make money this year. Most inaugural events hardly ever do. But the primary benefit that will come — is coming — is an outsider learning a little bit more about Lexington.

"Maybe a developer or an investor will come to the concerts, look around, see what Lexington has to offer, see where we're going, and maybe looks into buying property here," said Carson. "Who knows? But it's exciting to think about."

Depending on how things go tomorrow — and it looks promising, with a sunny day and temperatures expected in the mid-60s — the music fest could be an annual event.

So far, it seems to be hitting the right notes.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My right foot

About a year ago, Kim was walking down our back porch steps. The wooden steps were wet, and she was wearing her well-worn and slick-soled Crocs, which probably best explains how she ended up on her bottom before she reached bottom. Thump, thump, thump...

The offending steps...
 I wasn't home and she told me about it later. She wasn't hurt in the fall — just sore — but it could have been considerably worse. We were lucky.

"Be careful," she tells me to this day, every time I go out the back door.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I thought about all of this while I was in the middle of my own slippage down the porch steps earlier this past week. It had been raining, and I was wearing my own worn out Crocs while taking out the garbage early Monday morning.

Surprise. My foot slipped out from under me...

I have noticed this peculiar phenomenon that occurs when you are in the process of having an uncontrollable accident — time goes into slow motion. Thoughts go through your head with lightning speed — maybe even faster than that.

So anyway, while still in the process of falling, I swear I was thinking, "This is what happened to Kim. I hope this doesn't hurt..."

My right foot has become a canvas for modern art...
 I'm not quite sure what happened next. I think I tried to catch myself, but with both hands loaded with recyclables, there wasn't much I could do. I ended up on my ass, with my right leg bent awkwardly behind me. On the steps.

I didn't hear anything snap. I didn't feel anything tear. I stayed where I was for a moment, waiting for the pain to announce itself. I looked around to make sure my neighbors hadn't seen any of this. Kim was getting ready for work. I slowly started to unfold myself, limb by limb. The only thing that was starting to hurt was where I skinned my wrist, heel and knee. But no blood.

Nothing broken.

That was close.

But later in the day, several toes on my right foot were starting to swell, then turn black and blue. I went to work anyway, but early on, I had to take my shoes off because of the swelling. Apparently, I jammed several phalanges when I landed, in the way a basketball player might jam a finger miscatching a basketball. I showed a couple co-workers my mostly purple toes, because, you know, it was turning into a pretty good war story by now and I relish undeserved sympathy.

When I finally got home, I applied ice.

I felt better the next day. And the next. By the end of the week, most of the discoloration had gone. No doctor required.

Life has returned to normal speed.

We were lucky. Again.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Changing times

Some things I think I think:

After this week's health care fiasco, maybe Washington DC should focus less on the art of the deal and more on the art of the compromise.

I know, I know. I may be picking nits here in my definitions of "deal" and "compromise."

To  me, deals are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Deals occasionally rely on deceit, bullying and chicanery and sometimes end in a handshake where somebody still feels taken advantage of. Kind of like buying a car.

In my definition, compromises are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Compromises generally involve adult give-and-take discussion to reach a common ground that end in a handshake and where both sides feel reasonably comfortable with the outcome. Kind of like a marriage.

My definitions of a deal and a compromise are separated by nuance. But what nuance...

Didn't government once work that way? Or was that just in a Jimmy Stewart movie I once saw?

•  •  •

President Trump suggested that with the demise of the Republican health care bill on Friday, the Democrats now completely and totally own health care.

But I don't think that's necessarily true.

The Affordable Care Act, with all of its flaws (which I believe could be cured with government by compromise), is still the law of the land. It rests under the purview of Dr. Tom Price, the newly-installed head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Which puts both Trump and Price in politically delicate moral dilemmas. Do they actively try to undermine the ACA along party lines and hope for its eventual collapse, or do they work to make the ACA succeed for the benefit of the people by whom they were elected? Both have taken oaths to faithfully uphold the Constitution (and, thus, the laws of the land).

Stay tuned.

•  •  •

We were in Salisbury Saturday to run a few errands.

While we were there, we made a visit to West End Plaza because that's where K&W is, and we really like the food there — and, for me, especially the chicken pie.

But afterwards, we made a quick stop at the nearby Dollar Tree for a couple of items. That's when it hit me — the once thriving West End Plaza (which one time offered a Belks, bookstores, candy stores, specialty shops, etc) has been reduced to just a couple of stores, of which the Dollar Tree apparently is now the anchor business (if you don't count the stand-alone K&W). Not even the empty Big Lots, sitting next door, could survive the shifting (socio-economic) times.

It kind of reminded me of the suggestion that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, only the arthropods will survive. Or something like that.

•  •  •

I heard the powerful hum of a four-engine prop airplane above me the other day and glanced up to see what it was. I was hoping for a B-17 or a B-24, but what I ended up with was a DC-6 instead.

I didn't know it at the time, of course. While I was straining to look at the plane lumbering through the sky, I noticed that it was heading in the direction of the Davidson County airport, so I hopped in my car and raced out to the field.

The plane wasn't there, but I asked the person behind the desk if he saw what I saw about 15 minutes ago.

"That was a DC-6," he said. "I flew in one of those about 50 years ago."


This resembles the plane I saw flying above me on Friday.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The arts

Last weekend we were sitting in the audience in the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania, patiently waiting for what we knew would be a wonderful Americana performance by Lexington's Snyder Family Band.

Before the show began, and as a sidebar to the introduction of the group to the audience, a member of the Muddy Creek staff took the stage to welcome us.

He then, somewhat surprisingly, encouraged us to support the smaller music venues (like Muddy Creek, which might seat 100 people if they can find a few more folding chairs) because, in his estimation, the small venues are where you can find the roots arts, as opposed, to say, the glitzy coliseum experiences that can cost upwards of $400 a ticket (or more).

Well, this gets complicated in a hurry. But I see his point. I love the intimacy of a small venue, where I can sit 10 feet away from a relatively unknown artist who is every bit as talented as (let's say) Paul McCartney or Stevie Nicks, and pay $15 for the show.

But I also figure the McCartneys' and the Nicks' have paid their dues and who fortuitously (for them) hit the lottery. Even in the big time, their craft is still their art. And vice versa.

I was thinking of all this when the Trump administration revealed its proposed "hard-power" budget on Wednesday, which would strip all funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public media (like NPR's popular "A Prairie Home Companion" or Public Broadcasting's "Downton Abbey").

I'm not sure I understand why even go in this direction. The arts and humanities represent such a minuscule portion of the budget that cutting them is not going to impact the national debt. Public broadcasting gets $445 million in annual funding, while the NEA and NEH receive $145 million from the $4 trillion federal budget.

Conversely, continued funding of these agencies, I believe, enriches us all.

But cutting their funding, to me, represents more of an administration philosophy. And in this case, it's hurtful. And souless. It's why I believe — hope — Congress will take its own carving knife to the proposed budget.

I suspect that stripping funding from the arts and humanities would reduce things like program grants, artist workshops, cultural preservation programs and the like — the very things that fuel our individual expression, voice and identity.

While the arts and humanities may not generate (at least, on the surface) the same importance in the budget as national defense or infrastructure, it's my belief they are important nonetheless. If we ourselves don't happen to be artists, it's still likely that we are consumers of the arts and humanities.

And the arts and humanities are still us.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Snyder Family Band, again

Turns out, when I wrote a blog about the Snyder Family Band last October after their performance in the Barbecue Festival, I had no clue what I was talking about (See here).

Well, I sort of did. I know what my ear likes when it listens to music. It's just that my education about the Lexington-based (or, more precisely, Tyro-based) Snyders wasn't complete.

That's because, during the Festival, we saw them perform on an outdoor stage on a chilly, blustery, wind-blown morning. Then, later that day, they performed again in the cavernous Smith Civic Center. Both times, I was impressed by their talent, but I somehow wanted more.

Last night, all that changed. Kim and I saw them again, this time in the intimate (maybe 100 seats) and acoustically perfect Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania. The place is an old Moravian grist mill with wooden beams, floors and walls, and it's as unique a listening room as you'll ever find.

And it was perfect for The Snyder Family Band ("Snyder with a 'Y'", as they like to say), which really requires up close and personal attention for full effect.

Their genre is Americana, which is probably not for everybody, so their audience is mostly target specific. Samantha, 18, plays fiddle and rhythm guitar (not at the same time), while her brother, Zeb, 21, plays lead guitar like his fingers are going to spontaneously combust. Bud, their father (no age given) plays the upright bass. And then there's show-stealing little brother, Owen, 11, who wears out the banjo for a couple of crowd-pleasing tunes. Owen brings the adorable factor to the stage.

So here was the continuation of my education. Samantha, when you listen closely, has a timbre to her voice that makes her sound very similar to virtuoso Alison Krauss — an artist from whom Samantha says she draws inspiration. She told me she's heard that comparison with Krauss from others, so it's not just me swimming in awe here.

Samantha picked up the fiddle when she was three years old and hasn't put it down since. She's also a gifted song writer and lyricist, so take that. Oh, yeah. And stage presence. Her wit is quick and her personality shines every time she smiles. Which is often.

Zeb also started playing young, picking up the guitar when he was around seven or eight. Then he picked up a banjo. And then a mandolin. If it has strings, he'll play it.

I don't know who taught him finger work (or finger craft, in his case), but watching him bring a guitar to its senses is simply mouth dropping. In all my years of concert going, I think he's one of the best guitar artists I've ever seen. Period. Several times during the show his solos evoked ovations, so again, it's not just me.

Then there's Bud. The story told last night is that Bud and his wife, Laine, home-school their children. In order to round out the kids' education they were encouraged by their parents to explore music, and when it turned out that Zeb and Samantha sounded pretty good together, they started doing local gigs.

"But I thought our sound needed depth," Zeb told the audience, "so we asked Dad if he'd play the upright. He said 'No.'"

Then, as a Christmas gift, Bud was given an upright. Zeb, naturally enough, taught Bud bass basics, and now the family band is where it is, making great music, and still evolving.

Bud told the audience that forming a band was never really a set goal, that it just happened on its own. Shared DNA can do that sometimes. "We love to play music, we have fun with it, and to do it with my children is unbelievable."

It could be that I still don't know what I'm talking about when I write about the Snyders. But that's OK. I'll just keep going back for more education.