Sunday, May 28, 2017

We've got the power

This was an unusual power outage.

After an unusually heavy rainy Tuesday evening, the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink started blinking.

"Uh oh," said Kim, who was loading the dishwasher. "I think we need a new bulb." I flicked the light switch several times, which is how I test my lights, with nothing happening. I thought about checking the circuit breaker, but then, somewhat retroactively, everything else demanding electricity in the house quit.

Hmmm.

Then I did what everybody does in these situations: I went outside.

Slowly,  one by one, neighbors appeared from their doorways. "Is your power out, too?" we asked each other, with myself taking some comfort in knowing that it wasn't just me. It was all of us.

Until my neighbor from across the street pointed to one of the maple trees in my front yard. "You know one of your branches came down, right?"

Somewhere in this picture there is a fallen limb about to be let go...
 "Uh oh," I said to myself, looking up and seeing a rather large branch draped across the lines. Apparently, it wasn't all of us. It really was me.

"I'll call the city," said my neighbor.

A few minutes later, one of the city's cherry picker utility trucks appeared. I walked up a block to see how extensive the outage was, and it was everywhere. Even a stoplight at a nearby intersection was out. The grid was in complete disarray.

Meanwhile, a small crowd gathered in my front yard, looking at the fallen branch as a slight, unfinished rain continued to drizzle. I was feeling oddly guilty even though this was clearly out of my hands. But it was my tree.

Another utility truck appeared. The two drivers got out and held a discussion in the middle of the street. I thought one of them pointed at me, but maybe it was just my imagination. A third utility truck briefly appeared, then headed back up the road.

One of the drivers from the mid-street conference, who had the cherry picker on his truck, hopped in the bucket and raised himself up to the broken limb. He revved up a small chain saw and started carving the offending limb, taking care of that issue. Until then, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to get rid of that branch, but apparently, city taxes do the trick. Thank you, neighbors.

Still, there was no power. I suggested to Kim that we get in the car, drive around to see what other damage there was, stop at the store and get a few items, and maybe we'll be back on the grid by the time we return.

So we did all that. We were gone maybe 20 minutes, and as we headed back, I saw that the stoplight that was out earlier was now working.

"I think we're back on line," I said and saw lights glowing in my neighbors' windows.

I later found out that another branch had broken off from a tree several blocks away and apparently it was the culprit. The lines on my side of the street — where my limb had fallen — are telephone and cable lines, while those across the street are the power lines, with something like 75,000 volts coursing through them. The limb up the street had fallen on the power lines.

Many kudos to the city utility workers. The whole episode took about an hour, from my neighbor calling the city to the return of our power. The food in our freezer was not going to defrost. My ice cream was not going to melt. The beer was going to stay cold.

Life is good.




Sunday, May 21, 2017

Big burger at Big Rock

I was on The Great Burger Chase and didn't even know it.

I always thought I could make a pretty decent burger on my Lodge hibachi grill, when you came right down to it, but it turns out I wasn't even close.

When I was in a hurry, and didn't want to get out of my car, I thought Char's was always a good drive-thru choice. And the Garbage Burger at Terry's Sports Bar is a delicious meal in itself.

Then, about six months ago, my wife and I were in High Point and for no apparent reason other than the whim we rode in on, we walked into Tipsy'z Tavern, where I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. Mmmm. I thought I'd attained Nirvana.

I didn't know anything.

A few months ago, during one of our neighborhood porch parties, Lexington's Big Rock Tavern on National Boulevard was mentioned. It might have had something to do with Trivia Night or Karaoke Night, or where to go for great wings, I'm not sure. But Kim and I took a chance and walked in.

James "Koozie" Thomason knows his way around a kitchen.
 The last time we were in the building, it was called Avery's. And before that, it was Heritage House. And way before that, you could choose between 28 flavors of ice cream when it was a Howard Johnson's with the little weather vane and cupola on the roof. It was a place we've always known about, but was never really in our restaurant rotation.

But now it's Big Rock Tavern, where you can get a direct link to Burger Heaven.

The first time we went, I ordered a cheeseburger. It's always a good hint when the wait staff asks how I want the meat cooked because it indicates somebody in the kitchen actually cares. I like mine medium.

When the burger arrived, I was shocked. It was a half-pounder. Huge. Flame-broiled. Lettuce. Tomato. Cheddar cheese. Onions. Mustard, no mayonnaise. Hot chips overflowing on the side. I'd found my express to Burger Heaven. Take me now, Lord.

No, wait. Let me finish this burger first.

Kim, meanwhile, had dutifully ordered the ribeye salad. The beef, she said, was incredibly tender. And tasty. And grilled just right.

We soon became late Saturday afternoon regulars. I couldn't get past the cheeseburgers. Kim has since tried the grilled chicken salad, and usually alternates with the ribeye, depending on what her diet suggests that day. It usually doesn't suggest the fried mushrooms, but, my goodness...

A half-pound cheeseburger or a grilled ribeye salad beckon...
 I had to know how this food showed up in Lexington. Chef! Bring me the chef! I have to talk to the chef!

A very large man walked over to the table. I thought he might be the bouncer because, you know, I'm such a rabble-rouser. But it turns out, he was the cook, James "Koozie" Thomason. I had to ask...

"How do you do it? Where did you go to culinary school?"

"I didn't," said Koozie. "I just always liked cooking. When I was 16, I worked in an Italian restaurant, and then did odd jobs for a while until I got here. Sean (Smith, the owner) and Carrie are good friends and they took a chance on me and here I am. This place is like home to me now."

I get it. Home cooking.

The kitchen is Koozie's domain. It's all his except for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — the slam nights — when he gets assistance. Mostly, said Koozie, "you work one order at a time and take it as it comes. It's all about time management in the kitchen."

Big Rock basically offers a modest menu, but that doesn't mean Koozie can't adjust.

"There are some customers who come in and tell me, 'Fix whatever you want,'" said Koozie, who's been making magic happen at Big Rock for about two years or so. Consequently, new food groups have shown up, like quesadillas and wraps (There's even a Koozie wrap). So there's some things that are not on the menu.

One of the keys for the restaurant's success (The place started life as a sports bar, and it still retains that theme with perhaps a dozen TV's decorating the place and a humble selection of craft and draught beers. But it's fair to say that it's a family restaurant, too, where people bring their kids for birthday parties) is the fresh food. The burgers are hand-pattied. The ribeyes are cut to order.

"We use nothing but fresh food," said Koozie. "Sean gets fresh stock every day. I don't know how he does it."

Sean, for his part, knows he has a gem in Koozie.

"He's a great cook, obviously," said Smith. "He's worked really hard being here. He started out washing dishes and just kinda worked his way up. He's pretty much self-taught. Some of our recipes are in-house stuff, but he's taken them and rolled with them and done a very, very good job with them.

"He's actually got his own line of wraps here and customers ask for them," added Smith. "We're very lucky to have him."

Meanwhile, Koozie keeps on keeping on. Is this his dream job?

"I don't know if it's my dream job," laughed Koozie, "but I am passionate about it. I put a lot of heart in my work. And thanks to the great customers, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it."

So do we.






Sunday, May 14, 2017

You can't always get what you want

My wife, Kim, has been wanting to see Loretta Lynn in concert for nearly forever.

Even as a little girl, Kim has had a desire to hear the iconic country singer in person.

And it looked like it could happen late last year. Lynn was scheduled to perform at The Alabama Theater in North Myrtle Beach last October. So Kim, who knew I wasn't a huge country music fan, asked me — with crocodile tears in her eyes — if it was OK to get tickets.

Let's back up for a minute. About 30 years ago, when I really didn't care for country music, we went to Nashville to visit my youngest brother, Scott, who was working as a nurse at Vanderbilt. Kim, naturally enough, wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry, having never been before and figuring this was probably a one-time opportunity.

OK, I said, thinking I could endure the Opry for two hours of twang and still make my wife happy. So we went.

And it turned out to be something of a life-changing event — for me. Although there were no big name stars that night, I readily came to appreciate the musicianship and the talent of the artists who were there. I came to appreciate Goo Goo Clusters and Martha White flour. It was incredible. Within weeks, I was listening to Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and Kathy Mattea, with a little Mary Chapin Carpenter thrown in for good measure.

I had broadened my horizons. Duets with Patty Loveless and Vince Gill could make me cry. We went to see Martina in concert in Roanoke and the opening act was a relatively unknown child performer named LeAnn Rimes, who majestically sang "Blue." I once scored front-row seats for Alison Krauss and Union Station in Greensboro.

Fast forward to now.

So, sure. Go ahead and order tickets for Loretta Lynn. But do it now, because she's like in her mid-80s (85, actually). I heard that Loretta still put on a good show, that she mostly sat when she sang and told lots of stories. I can always listen to a good storyteller, especially from a Hall of Famer.

Kim bought the tickets. All we had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait.

October came, and so did Hurricane Matthew, who arrived about the same time as the scheduled show, which had to be postponed. Oddly enough, Kim and I both have it in our heads that the October show was actually a rescheduling from a previous booking, although we're not quite sure. But we think so.

Anyway, the rescheduled date was for February of this year, falling on the same weekend that we had reserved for a trip to Asheville. But, hey, this was Loretta, and she wasn't getting any younger. We made our plans.

But, then, that show was postponed because it was Grammy Awards weekend and Loretta had to be there. So she was rescheduled again, this time for two weeks ago.

We quickly rearranged our own schedules to see her in concert. Then, on the day we were to leave for the coast, I got an email from some friends who were going to the show as well, and were already at the beach. The email was only four words: "She fell. Show cancelled."

We left for the beach anyway just to get away. But we did stop at the Alabama Theater to find out about their refund policy. It turns out that Loretta had suffered a slight stroke, but fortunately, she's on the mend. Everybody is optimistic the show will go on at a future date. We're holding on to our tickets.

I don't know if there's a life lesson in here, or what. Three postponements — maybe four — seems to be bucking the odds. Life is strange. There are no promises. You can't always get what you want.






Wednesday, May 3, 2017

All steamed up

A couple of weeks ago my wife, Kim, and I were driving through nearby Spencer, past the North Carolina Transportation Museum, when something caught my eye.

Usually, it's a train engine of some kind that gets my attention. Locomotives have performed that sort of magic on me for about 60 years or so, and don't I know it. Sometimes I go out of my way to drive through Spencer just to see what's up. I mean, geez, you never know when Thomas the Tank Engine will be there.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The now familiar Class J No. 611 makes a run for it.
 This time, it worked. There on the tracks, chugging away, belching coal smoke and steam, was a pugnacious little engine I'd never seen before. Written on the water tank that sat like a saddle on top of the boiler (thus, a "saddle tank" engine) were the words "Lehigh Valley Coal Co." and underneath, in smaller print, "Hazelton Shaft Colliery."

"Holy smokes," I thought to myself. "What's that doing here?"

I grew up in the Lehigh Valley: Allentown. Bethlehem. Fountain Hill. My interest was piqued, as they say. I kind of thought the engine might have worked the sprawling Bethlehem Steel yards.

Logically, I figured the engine was in the Spencer Shops for some restoration work. But, no. As I later found out, "Sadie" (as she is known by) was in town for the 100 Years of Steam event that was held this past weekend. The engine was part of a three-train display that also featured the Civil War era "Texas" and the iconic bullet-nosed, art deco Class J No. 611, headquartered in Roanoke, Va.

The "Texas" is a wonderful piece of history, and beautiful in its own right.
 We'd seen the 611 before, two years ago when she completed her restoration at the Spencer Shops. A big deal was made about her return to Roanoke and many of us figured we might not ever see her again after her highly celebrated departure.

But now she makes fairly regular excursions between Spencer and Roanoke, and so every once in a while, you can hear her singularly plaintive steam whistle as she Dopplers her way through Lexington.

I also had some interest in the "Texas," which Kim and I had seen years ago in the Atlanta History Center where it is on permanent static display. The engine is part of Civil War lore, one of several involved in the Great Locomotive Chase through the hinterlands of Georgia in 1862. It was the "Texas," running in reverse, that finally caught up to the "General," which had been commandeered by Yankees on a raiding party.

I was surprised by how small the "Texas" was compared to her more modern cousins at the Spencer Shops, where she'd spent the past year or so undergoing her own restoration before heading back to Atlanta.

Saddle tank owner John Gramling gives me a lesson in engineering.
But it was "Sadie" that really interested me. I asked if there was any literature on her and was told, even better, that the owner, John Gramling, was on site. He might even be operating the engine.

And that's where we found him, making a water stop.

Gramling and his son, Barney, are basically a two-man saddle tank restoration team. They operate out of a barn on the family property in Ashley, Ind., and had restored one saddle tank engine before finding No. 126 in a scrap yard in Carbondale, Pa., in 2001. They came looking for parts and instead bought the engine for $4,500.

It only took the Gramlings 10 years to get "Sadie" back on track, as it were.

"It's a lot of work," understated Gramling, a carpenter by trade who once did a little teaching in addition to running the family farm before devoting full time to restoration work in 1985. "But it's also very rewarding. We travel a large part of the country, give rides, maybe offer a little education."

No. 126, as it turned out, never left the coal yards.

The Gramlings now have a stable of four engines.

"Yeah, well," sighed Gramling. "We bought the fourth one in a rage of stupidity, I guess. It's really gotten out of hand.

"We research the renovation work on our own," said Gramling. "The one thing I've learned from all of this is when someone offers you advice about these engines, it's probably best not to take it," he smiled.



Trains were in operation all over the Spencer yard, it seemed. I thought that was a curious thing, given that there were a ton of pedestrians on the grounds. Generally speaking, masses of iron and steel moving with the force of momentum don't usually play well together with flesh and bones, but somehow, the Transportation Museum makes it work.

And it occurred to me what an incredibly wonderful resource this place is: Turntable. Roundhouse. Active workshop. Museum. We're lucky to have something like this so close to home.

Just a train whistle away.






Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underhill Rose Live

As much as I enjoy listening to Underhill Rose on my CD player — I've got three of their discs running on a continuous loop in my car — there's nothing better than listening to them sing their mesmerizing harmonies in a live performance.

And, preferably, to hear them in a place like High Rock Outfitters. Spending two hours or so listening to them perform is like taking a break from the noise, from the crush, from the smog that sometimes clouds around us.

It's like taking a breath of fresh air. Mountain air.

So last night, at HRO, I got the best of all possible worlds.

 There they were, three seriously talented women from Asheville (guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjoist Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson) once again singing their songs in one of their favorite venues, promoting their latest CD, "Underhill Rose Live."

I've been waiting patiently for this moment. While their three previous CDs are accomplished products, they are also studio productions that give us a sound you don't quite get on the stage.

The stage, of course, is less cluttered. The sound from mouth to ear, from instrument to ear, offers us a better sense of the truth, I believe, when not enhanced by studio gadgetry. We are there. It's electric. It's acoustic.

That's what I like about live recordings. It helps put me back in my front row seat, where I want to be. Interestingly enough, several of the tunes in this album were recorded at HRO last September. I was there. Perhaps you can hear me applauding.

You can find most of the songs in this 15-tune collection in their previously released CDs, but one of the joys, for me anyway, are the songs not found on any of their other albums. Their covers of "Bette Davis Eyes," "Trouble in Mind," "In Color," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and "Long Monday" are, in my opinion, some of the best tracks on the CD.

Just listen: Molly deliciously delivers a particularly soulful rendition of "Bette Davis Eyes;" Salley is full of fun — wait, did she just wink at us? — in "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and Eleanor's wistful serenade in "Long Monday" artfully turns John Prine's plaintive lyrics into a moving picture show.

They might have included another one. Last night, on stage, they offered us "Ode to Billie Joe," and it was absolutely stunning, what with Molly's moody, understated vocals recalling the story line. New life to an old favorite. Very nice.

You'll find Underhill Rose's ear-pleasing harmonies and crisp musicianship everywhere on this album, tune after tune, clearly defining what their stage show is all about. Simply slip the CD into the player and you've paid the price of admission.

Underhill Rose is about to embark on its third British Isles tour in June, so it may be autumn, or later, before we see them again. That's why I'm going to my car right now and adding this latest release to my unending loop.

(See "Ode to Billie Joe" video at 7:45, but enjoy four Underhill Rose tunes at HRO here: Thanks to Franklin Bell for this.)








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.
 OMG.

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.