Sunday, December 29, 2013

Movie house ettiquette

Kim and I had just settled into our seats, she with the ginormous bucket of buttered popcorn and me with the gigantic cup of Diet Coke, both of which we would share with each other.

It served as our $12 lunch for our noontime matinee of "Saving Mr. Banks," the Disney picture about Walt Disney's beleaguered effort to coax author P.L. Travers to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins character.

I was looking forward to the flick because I am a child of the '50s. Which makes me a child of the television era. Which makes me a child of (well, in a manner of speaking...) Disney. A Mouseketeer, if you must.

The theater was quickly filling up and it was evident that while the flick was heading into its third week of first run, it was still going to draw a crowd. Seats would be at a premium.

Kim and I had gotten aisle seats because I am a man in my 60s and occasionally need a quick exit for the men's room, especially after slurping on gigantic Cokes. Kim, actually, was in the aisle seat, while I was in the seat next to her. Three vacant seats followed down the row we were in.

My only fear was that those three tempting empties would be filled with a couple of preteen screaming meemies who had no interest in the movie. That does happen sometimes.

So imagine my relief when three elderly women (I say "elderly" even though I think they were probably close to my own age. "Elderly" is a distinction I haven't quite conceded for myself just yet) excused themselves and entered our aisle while coming attractions were on the screen.

My relief, however, was ephemeral.

The third woman in line — the one who would sit next to me on my right for the next two hours — tried to make herself friendly by pointing into our bucket of popcorn so suddenly that I thought she was actually going to grab a handful of the stuff. "Ohh, that looks good," she said. "Is it?"

I immediately went into De Niro mode. "You talkin' to me?" I said to myself. "You talkin' to me?" In retrospect, I wish I had said it to her. Instead, I replied, "Yes, it is," and hoped that was that. End of conversation. Forever.

I looked at Kim with eyes that said "Uh oh." Kim looked petrified. At least she was in the aisle seat.

Moments later, when the opening scene flickered on the screen, this woman reached into her hand bag and pulled out her ... knitting. I kid you not. Knitting needles began stitching socks or a scarf or a hat or something right before my very eyes.

While she was knitting away, whenever part of the score from Mary Poppins came on the screen, she would start humming the tune or, if she remembered the lyrics, she would sing along. Not loudly. Not so that Kim could hear her. Just me. "Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim chim cheroo..."

"She's singing along," I whispered to Kim, who looked like she needed some Pepto.

Or, whenever something dramatic happened on the screen (the movie is mostly dialogue driven, but there are moments in Travers' life with an alcoholic father, seen in flashbacks, that promise drama), this woman would utter "Oh, my" or "Oh, dear" or "Oh, no," under her breath. I got some kind of audible editorial comment from her pretty much for the duration.

I figured I was being punished for not offering her my popcorn. Meanwhile, her knitting needles just kept purling away. At one point I was wondering if I should take the needles and stuff them down her throat while knitting a cozy around her larynx, or, perhaps more kindly, jam them into my ears. For relief.

Instead, I tried to stay focused. In the end, I think I enjoyed the movie. I might have to see it again, though. On TV.

I understand we live in a world that takes all kinds. Somebody out there no doubt considers me weird and off my balance. And in a crowded movie theater, it's all up for grabs anyway. You never know what you're gonna get.

But, sheesh, knitting at the movies while humming along with the soundtrack? Jiminy Cricket, I can't make this stuff up. I doubt if Disney could.








Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mary Lou, Chad: In memorium

 I like to think of a neighborhood as a community within a community.

We share our neighbors' joys, their triumphs, their concerns. We share lawnmowers and garden hoses, shovels and rakes. We share recipes and we share burdens. And when the time comes, we share grief.

Our neighborhood took an unlikely, unfair and unbelievable hit in the past week.

In just a matter of days, two houses, sitting side by side, just across the street from our own, found themselves in mourning amidst the incongruous aura of Christmas lights and candles.

Last Thursday, my neighbor Mary Lou Bell simply could no longer wage her extended battle with cancer. She was just 64. When I learned she had passed away at the Hinkle Hospice House a wave of sadness swept over me. I immediately thought of several conversations we had. She was a teacher, and we talked about education. She was a Renaissance woman, and we talked about art and language. She was a woman of her time and other times, so we talked about history.

Sometimes we would talk on the sidewalk in front of her house. Sometimes we'd talk on her porch, where every once in while a small knot of her friends would appear with a bottle of wine and a bundle of laughter.

My God, how she liked to laugh. I can still hear her even now.

She sometimes brought a different perspective into the conversation and maybe that's what made her unique, at least, to my mind. But she was almost always effervescent and involved. Bubbly. She was an essential personality in the neighborhood.

So we went to Mary Lou's visitation on Sunday afternoon, literally just hours after we learned that Chad Kirkendall could no longer maintain his incredible battle with a cancer so rare it defies odds. Chad was only 40, and that doesn't make any sense at all. Sadly, he leaves behind a young family, including 3-year-old twin daughters.

Chad's sister, Kristi Thornhill, lives directly across the street from us. She's Mary Lou's next-door neighbor.

There's not much for me to document here about Chad, because it seems the entire town knew him and of his plight. That's because Facebook, and perhaps other social media of which I'm not aware, kept us informed at nearly every turn. I'm not kidding: the Prayers for Chad Kirkendall page gathered more than 5,100 "likes," which represents somewhere between a quarter to a third of the population of Lexington.

Which to me means that the community became the neighborhood. Imagine that.

Rev. Ray Howell, in his blog, wrote a perfectly wonderful tribute to Chad (see here).

The one thing that stayed with you through all of this, it seems, was Chad's incandescent smile, which was both a reflection of his courage as well as his determination — or was it defiance? — in the face of this god-awful adversity. You can see it in picture after picture on Facebook and you wonder from where it came.

But then we really do know, don't we?

So the neighborhood steps in a little closer to wrap its warmth, its protection, its love around these families, with whom we gladly share.








Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas is coming

One of the best Christmases I ever had as a child occurred when I was 8 years old.

When you think about it, 8 is probably the perfect childhood age. It's a time when you are becoming aware of the world around you. Memories are created and begin to stick; memories of friendship and family and customs take shape and never leave. You still believe in Santa Claus. It's a great time.

When I was 8, it was 1959 and we'd just moved from Fountain Hill, PA., to Portsmouth, NH, thus beginning my love affair with New England. Dad was working for the American Red Cross and was stationed at Pease Air Force base, which is another story in itself but we'll just keep that one on the shelf for now.

Anyway, we'd moved sometime in September or October. I got to experience my first autumn in New England and it made such an impact on me then that when I got married 21 years later, in October, to a girl from North Carolina, we took our honeymoon to New England.

That's another story, too. For later.

But in late 1959, Christmas was rapidly approaching. Yes, it was a Christmas without the amazingly decorated Hill-to-Hill Bridge (a first for us), but there was adventure in it, too, because we were in a different place.

I think this gave my parents some concern. My brother, David, and I were busy making new friends in a new place, so it could have been a traumatic holiday if we were not ushered through it just right.

But it was never traumatic.

When Christmas morning arrived, my folks had overcompensated for their fears with a cornucopia of Christmas gifts for us, and Dave and I tore into them with delight. Ribbons and wrapping paper were everywhere. Toys were everywhere. And just when I thought we were done, my Wehrle grandparents were on hand with even more gifts.

Dad: "No, son, open this one first. Let me help."
Dad puts our toys through a test drive. Yeah, right.
My memory now may skew this vision somewhat, but not by much, I think, because I have photographic evidence of this surplus. Here are a couple of pictures of my dad (who was closing in on 30) directing us to which gifts to open — so that HE can play with them. It occurs to me now that he may have been the one suffering from the trauma of moving. I don't know.

(Make sure to notice all of the gifts still to be opened, including the stocking stuffers. Yikes.)

What I do remember is that it was a pretty good day. We were surrounded by gifts, good food and extended family. It may even have snowed. I'm not sure about that, but I do remember snow that drifted as high as the second story of our three-story duplex. I just can't be certain if it was on Christmas or sometime else during the winter. It seems like we had snow all winter long.

We were in Portsmouth for less than a year, but it turned out to be some of the most memorable months of my life.

Because it's great to be 8 years old with all of your potential memories still in front of you. Because now, it's just as great to look back.

Merry Christmas, my friends.




Sunday, December 15, 2013

UR Road Trip!!!

Let me tell you a tale of sumptuous serendipity.

Despite a forecast warning of a possible wintry mix, Kim and I decided the weather prediction was just marginal enough for us to make the two-hour trip to Roanoke, VA, on Saturday to take in an evening performance of the Asheville-based Americana trio Underhill Rose at the quirky Kirk Avenue Music Hall.

Road trip!

This was going to be the seventh time we've seen them in just over a year. In fact, we've seen them five times since June. We have both of their CDs and a couple of their T-shirts. We are clearly out of control. But apparently there is no sanity in unbridled fandom.

From left, Molly, Kim, the world's luckiest man, Eleanor and Salley.
 The weather mostly held, save for a spot of rain now and then. Fortunately, no ice or snow or wintry mix fell on us as we drove up twisty Route 220. We arrived in Roanoke at mid-day, checked into our hotel room, then chilled for a bit before heading downtown to Martin's Bar and Grill, located just two blocks from the music hall.

Kim had wanted to go to Martin's because her maiden name is Martin. Hey, if there's a Wehrle Bar and Grill somewhere, I'm going. It's not that weird. I think.

Anyway, Kim saw there was chicken pot pie on the menu, so that's what we ordered. I became a chicken pie aficionado from the moment I married my Martin 33 years ago, and learned she could make this comfort cuisine with her eyes closed. People have gotten married for lesser things.

About two thirds of the way through the meal I just happened to look up and saw a handful of customers walk in. One of them looked remarkably like Underhill Rose upright bassist Salley Williamson, but I wasn't sure because she was dressed for the cold weather with knit cap, scarf and jacket. In fact, they all were.

Then I saw the other two women behind her. My brain clicked just long enough to confirm recognition before it froze. Oh my God, I thought. It's them.

"Oh my God," I said, choking on my chicken pie. "Oh my God."

There are two variations of what happened next in this story. In Kim's version (she had her back to the women and couldn't see them), I stood up on our table, took off my shirt and waved it vigorously over my head, all while tap dancing around my pot pie while trying to get their attention. "Stop making a spectacle of yourself," she claims to have told me.

In my version, I simply sat in my booth seat, raised my arms over my head and crossed them once or twice, like I was hailing a taxi or something. "Stop making a spectacle of yourself," I thought I heard her say.

My heart was racing. The hostess was bringing them to the table next to ours.

Serendipity.

They recognized us just before they were seated and stopped at our table to say a word or two, each beaming their infectious smiles. I thought I might need a defibrillator.

As they were seated I tried to pay them no attention to let them have their space, but I couldn't resist. While Kim excused herself for a moment, and while the girls were waiting for their order to arrive, I ambled over to their table. Molly, the guitar player, thanked us for making the trip to Roanoke. They're just completing an intense two-week tour of the northeast and I commented that they must be exhausted. Eleanor, the banjo player, more or less agreed, but noted there were a few weeks ahead during the holidays for them to rest up and recharge.

Salley indicated they are working on new songs and there appear to be plans for another Kickstarter campaign for their next CD, just as it was for "Something Real," their second effort.

We talked for a bit more, then I wished them a good show and left, since I knew their order was coming.

Everything after that was a blur.

                                                                         …

Oh, yeah. The show.

The Kirk Avenue Music Hall is about as wide as two bowling lanes and about as deep as a bowling alley. In other words, it's a very narrow but intimate venue. It seats maybe 60 people but it provides very good acoustics.

The Grahams, a husband and wife team out of Nashville, warmed up the audience, then Underhill Rose followed with perhaps a 15-song set. By now, Kim and I are familiar with their tunes and the stories behind them, and we thought the girls sounded as good as ever. They still sound new and refreshing to us.

Afterwards, they mingled with their fans, engaging as ever.

I'm not a music critic, but I know what I like when I hear it. I don't know a thing about chord progressions, clawhammer style picking, bridges or harmonies.

I just know that they're good. They're very, very good.

And I would give them the shirt off my back.




Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bridging Christmas memories

Nostalgia can strike without warning and sometimes it's funny what kind of warm, fuzzy memories resurface from long-locked and forgotten time vaults.

Christmas can be especially notorious for nostalgia: The smell of Moravian sugar cakes rising in the oven, a certain carol, a certain card, a special toy can all carry incredible powers of memory resurrection.

For me, it's a bridge.

The Hill-to-Hill Bridge, to be exact.

Huh?

The Hill-to-Hill Bridge spans the Lehigh River and connects Bethlehem, PA, with South Bethlehem. (The bridge also spans the Lehigh-Delaware Canal and, in its heyday, about 15 railroad tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was headquartered in Bethlehem. The railroad was the primary transportation artery for bustling Bethlehem Steel, whose blast furnaces sat below and within walking distance of the bridge).

This linen postcard shows how the bridge was lit. What, no traffic?
 The bridge itself was somewhat unique. It had concrete arches over the river and canal and supporting steel trestles over the railroad.

On top of that, it had something like six or seven feeder ramps, which made it possible for traffic to cross the multiple railroad tracks below without stopping for trains, which otherwise would have been nearly impossible for the unwary driver.

Even more uniquely, the bridge formed a "T" across the north side of the river, with the right branch taking you directly to downtown Bethlehem.

I was a kid living in next door Fountain Hill, a quaint bedroom community for Bethlehem before there were bedroom communities. Whenever we went to Bethlehem to visit the Kessler grandparents, we'd use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. It was magnificent. It was an adventure. I was always in awe of Bethlehem Steel and the railroads. And, even as a kid, I think I appreciated the uniqueness of the bridge itself, which was built in 1921-24 and hailed an engineering marvel in its day.

The Christmas tree, with Central Moravian Church in the background.
Now throw Christmas into the mix.

Bethlehem, founded by Moravians in the 1740s, styles itself as "Christmas City USA." Christmas is everywhere. Moravian stars are everywhere. Bethlehem is the first city I can remember when residents willingly gave up their colored Christmas lights to put white candles in their windows. It was awesome.

The bridge, of course, was a canvas just waiting for its art. Consequently, the bridge was covered with Christmas lights from one end to another. At the "T"  and in the line of traffic — there was a huge Christmas tree (made up of smaller trees, I think) that was lighted. When you're a kid, this is incredible stuff. It's beyond incredible.

Modern Downtown Bethlehem, with the star on top of South Mountain.
To top all of this off, the bridge lies at the foot of South Mountain. Perfect. The mountain was just the platform Bethlehem needed for its famous 80-foot electric star. I never could quite figure out what I wanted to see the most — the bridge or the star.

Fortunately, I got to see both. It was like my head was on a swivel — looking at the lights, looking at the trains, looking at the star, looking at the steelyard. I guess Dad was looking at traffic.

Naturally, it couldn't last. Bethlehem Steel, which provided materials for the Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1930s, couldn't compete with overseas interests and closed its furnaces. The place now features a casino (which had originally been intended for Gettysburg.) The bridge underwent renovations and lost its "T" intersection when Rte. 378 came through from the north. A Christmas tree now stands out of the traffic on a sidewalk area. The branch of the "T" going into Bethlehem is now one way, which still gives you a great view of Central Moravian Church, the grand dame of all Moravian churches, featuring its signature bell tower.

The nostalgia hits hard, and willingly I take it with a grateful smile.

By the way, one of the best parts about leaving the Kessler grandparents after one of those holiday feasts was that we had to go back home — back over the bridge.









Sunday, December 1, 2013

Giving Black Thursday the boot

The plan was to go to Belk's Thursday evening.

Kim was casually interested in a pair of cowgirl boots and Belk's was advertising its Black Thursday sale where you could buy a pair of boots for $19.95. The sale began at 8 p.m. and lasted until 1 p.m. the next day.

So we left at 7:45 p.m., thinking, hey, this is the Belk's in Lexington. It won't be that busy. Anyway, everybody will be at Walmart, right? Plus, we'd never done Black Thursday (or Black Friday) shopping before. We tend to shop out of catalogues, so the experience of shopping in a crowd might be enlightening. Maybe.

I can't believe how naive we are, even at our advanced ages.

When I turned down the entrance road to the mall, the parking lot in front of Belk's was jam-packed. It looked like a Jerry Hunt used car lot. The place was top heavy with cars. Cars as far as you could see. Never in my life in Lexington had I seen the Belk's parking lot that filled before. I thought a football game had broken out.

Uh-oh. This isn't good.

I thought, well, maybe we can still go, but as we kept driving closer to Belk's, we saw a gigantic line of people waiting to get in the store. It still wasn't quite 8 p.m. yet, and the line waiting to get in snaked its way from the front entrance doors and around the building until people were standing in the service road. Hundreds of people, patiently waiting to get into Belk's.

It was incredible. Why do people put themselves through this? I turned to Kim.

"Let's get out of here," she said, and so we did.

We actually tried again the next day, getting to Belk's around 10 a.m. or so, but, of course, everything had been picked over by then even though the place was less frantic. Kim couldn't find her size in the style she was interested in, having tried on a pair a half-size too large and another pair a half-size too small. But neither felt comfortable to her. Plus, they weren't even leather to begin with.

"Let's get out of here," she said, and so we did.

So Kim is bootless still. Hmm. Her birthday is coming up in February. Maybe, just maybe...

Friday, November 22, 2013

My day 50 years ago

There's a ton of retrospectives going on right now. Each, for better or worse, is a momentary slice of history frozen in time. And memory.

Time is indelible. Memory a little less so. Both can be profoundly personal.

So what was I doing 50 years ago today — which also happened to be a Friday?

I was 12 years old in 1963, caught in the throes of the seventh grade. Just three months earlier, I'd made my debut at Nitschmann Junior High School, which was a big deal. It meant I was an incredibly naive pre-adult. I was being taught sex education in a class conducted by a phys ed instructor who was so crude he'd probably be decertified, if not actually incarcerated, in today's world. But I think we thought he was funny back then.

The seventh grade was our first introduction to assembly-line education. As students, we'd actually go to different classrooms for different subjects instead of staying in the same room with the same teacher all day long. Bells rang every 45 minutes or so (the outer limit of our attention spans, no doubt) to announce the next class change.

On this particular Friday, in mid-afternoon, we were in home room. The weekend was nearly upon us — heck, the holiday season was almost here, which in Bethlehem, Pa., (the Moravian community's self-style "Christmas City") is huge — so we weren't paying much attention to anything else other than going home. Dismissal was about an hour away.

Then came an announcement over the PA system. This in itself wasn't unusual. We'd get PA reminders for the coming week on Friday's — but this one was decidedly different. We were asked to bow our heads in prayer for the president, who'd been shot. School was over for the day.

And that was all.

In retrospect, I guess at that point in the day, that's about all anybody knew. The 24/7 news cycle was still decades away, but I remember wanting to know more.

I lived about two miles from school, and walked it each and every day. It was not as tough as you might think. The neighborhoods protected their children in those days. I could use a sidewalk the entire distance, from my front door to the school entrance (although sometimes we'd cut through yards, or use alleys and, occasionally, lived dangerously by walking the trunk railroad line to the Durkee's spice plant, which always smelled deliciously of cinnamon. It was next door to Nitschmann, across the athletic field.)

I ran home. I might have stopped once or twice to catch my breath, but I had to know what was happening. Even as a 12-year-old, I could sense something enormous was unfolding. A government — our government — was in trauma. We couldn't know it then, of course — we still had to live it —but our national contentment, our innocence, our expectations were about to change.

But on that day, I was electrified. I was glued to the black-and-white Philco as history paraded itself before us, and I was mesmerized.

What is hard to comprehend now is that this happened 50 years ago. It hardly qualifies as recent history anymore. Now, as I watch the events unfold, I want to reach out and warn the Kennedys. I want to stop time. "Don't go, don't go," I shout to myself, and it has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with saving a life.

And I fail every time. How could it be any different? In the moment, I'll always be 12 years old.







Sunday, November 17, 2013

In step

When I was a schoolboy living in Fountain Hill, Pa., one of the great anticipations of my life was the village's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.

At least, I think it was Thanksgiving. My memory shifts like sand in the tide on this one. It could have been a Halloween parade, although I don't think so because I'm pretty sure Santa Claus was involved somewhere near the parade's denouement. Santa usually doesn't appear at Halloween parties. He didn't used to, anyway, although it doesn't really matter. Right now, the parade's the thing.

Like all parades, it featured beauty queens riding in open convertibles, marching bands, local dignitaries, fire trucks, policemen, Kiwanians and Odd Fellows. Streetside vendors, even back in the 1950s, sold instantly breakable toys, popcorn and cotton candy to squalling children. I might have been one of them.

Every so often, a color guard would appear and maybe a JROTC squad. Back when I was 5 and 6 years old, I might have thought the JROTC were real soldiers because, you know, they carried wooden rifles. I remember wanting one of those rifles, which I guess were really triggerless facsimile rifles not meant for the shooting range. It amazed me that majorettes carried rifles, too, and they could twirl them with ease high into the air — and then catch them in mid-twirl, like they were batons.

That still amazes me, actually.

Anyway, those parades came in my formative years and I've been enamored by parades ever since. Somehow, the parade gene has been injected into my DNA.

You have to admit, there is a certain rhythm and beat to a parade, no doubt set and maintained by each passing marching band's drum corps. So when this year's Veterans' Day parade came marching through town, I was there. Happily.

I applauded the grand marshal, the school and chapter queens, the fire trucks and police cars. I might have even waved at a local politician or two (not sure).

But I do have one complaint. Keep in mind this is not a complaint borne of disdain or anger. It's simply a complaint borne of observation: why can't the JROTC units march in cadence?

There were several JROTCs in the parade, and basically each member of each unit was marching to his own drummer. What the heck? High school bands were marching in near-perfect cadence — left, right, left, right, you had a good home but you left, you're right — as were color guards, police officers and anyone else who could keep time to the beat. But the JROTC units were strolling along at a social pace as if they were getting ready to feed the ducks at City Lake. And I wasn't the only one who noticed this.

If anybody should be marching in perfect cadence, shouldn't it be the JROTC? Where's the pride? Where's the precision? If they don't teach anything else in JROTC, shouldn't they at least teach marching?

The Christmas Parade is approaching fast. There's still time.



Sunday, November 10, 2013

Underhill Rose redux

Ten days ago I received an email from The Dispatch telling me that I had some postage from Underhill Rose.

What? C'mon. I'd retired from The Dispatch seven years ago. How could Underhill Rose even locate me, much less send me mail? More curiously, why would they even attempt to find me?

"Our publicist looked it up," said Eleanor Underhill, one third of the trio from Asheville that performs mostly their own originally composed Americana, with Eleanor on the banjo and harmonica, Molly Rose on the guitar and Salley Williamson on the upright bass.

Inside the packet was a CD release of their brand-new holiday single "One Time a Year." Also included was a Christmas card with a homey picture of the girls in grandma-ish holiday sweaters, and inside the card was a hand-written note addressed to "Bruce and Kim" thanking us for our support.

To be remembered like that is astounding enough, but it gets better. Kim and I were already looking forward to their performance at High Rock Outfitters on Saturday, but a few days ago I got a phone call from my friend Lee Jessup, reminding me of the annual pig pickin' coming up in Gene Klump's backwoods lot on the same day.

"Are you coming?" asked Lee. Well, of course I was. I'm a retired sports writer. We never turn down free food.

"By the way," said Lee, "we booked a little entertainment this year. Underhill Rose will be there."

I thought I heard him say Underhill Rose was going to be there.

"What? What?" I croaked. "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," said Lee. "Will you and Kim be there?"

"Of course we will. I've got to go now, Lee. I'm about to pee in my pants. Bye."

This was one of the most anticipated Saturdays of my life. The weather broke cold but sunny. We got there a few minutes before the girls did, and when they arrived in their SUV packed to overflowing with equipment, I offered to help lug stuff. So I was given the assignment of carrying Molly's guitar to the porch of a little bungalow where they were going to perform.

This means now I'm not only a groupie, but a roadie as well.

Within minutes, they were performing in the fading November sunlight.

Molly, Salley and Eleanor give us a sample of what music is like in heaven.
Pause for interlude: This whole scene is oddly remarkable and serenely surreal. Underhill Rose released their "Something Real" CD in June where it eventually peaked at No. 18 in the Americana Music Association chart (a chart that includes the likes of Willie Nelson, John Fogerty, Mavis Staples, Paul McCartney and many other recognizable artists. It's still in the top 100 on the charts as we speak, where it has been for 23 straight weeks). And now they were performing in Gene Klump's corn field.

They played until the sun went down and it got cold enough to hurt your fingers strumming string instruments. They joined the circle of friends at the toasty campfire, where they enjoyed barbecue, desserts and conversation.

I asked Salley if the three of them still have fulltime jobs, and they do. She and Eleanor are certified teachers, and Molly works for a health supplement outfit. They perform mostly on weekends, ("We're still weekend warriors," said Salley) traveling to gigs across the southeast.

"When do you practice?"

"We practice every Wednesday," said Salley. "We just go to one of our houses and get together."

Oh my gosh. "How do you do it?" I asked, marveling at the ridiculous schedule they keep.

"I don't know," she said, and I believe her. They're just young, I guess.

A little while later, the trio was at High Rock Outfitters for another performance. This time they were basking in a warm, cozy ambiance in front of about 50 of their dedicated fans. It was also their first ever live performance of "One Time a Year."

Pause for interlude: I know I keep saying they're getting better and better each time we see them, but it's no stretch. Their harmonies, for which they are drawing critical acclaim, seem to be tighter and more precise than ever. They really, really appeared to be relaxed on stage, where they had an instantly comfortable rapport with the audience. They say High Rock Outfitters is one of their all-time favorite venues, and it shows.

They performed for nearly two hours, then afterward mingled with the patrons. They repeated only a handful of songs from earlier in the day, indicating their songbook of covers and originals is extensive and thorough.

My own pause for interlude: Kim and I are convinced that Molly, Salley and Eleanor are the genuine article. They are not only musically talented and modelishly attractive, but I also believe them to be sincere and dedicated to their craft and honest to their fans and to themselves.

I didn't have any real requests for them this time, and yet, I still have one request of them — please, please, please never change who you are.












Sunday, November 3, 2013

The car from hell

My car needed some warranty work done last week.

Because it's still under warranty, I take it to the dealership in Winston-Salem. This particular job included fixing the timing on the windshield wipers (which would wipe first and spray later), and fixing the express window on the driver's side (the window would, on occasion and on its own, roll back down to reopen after rolling to the top to close).

I had to wait a few days as a part that was ordered arrived, but when I made my appointment, I made arrangements for a courtesy car since all of this service was happening out of town.

I like courtesy cars. They are, almost always, current model year vehicles with just a handful of miles on them. They smell new. Courtesy cars give me an opportunity to test drive other vehicles that I might want to consider buying sometime in the future.

On this particular day — Halloween Eve — all of that changed.

The dealership, apparently, was swamped with customers and its fleet of courtesy cars was close to depleted. So when it came to my turn, the loaner waiting for me was a 13-year-old vehicle with 134,000 miles on it.

The ignition key was actually a real, old-timey key without a hint of remoteness. The interior smelled suspiciously of grade 87 octane fuel. Lawnmower gas, as my father-in-law liked to say.

Whoa. The worst was yet to come. When the service rep filled out what would serve as my license/registration paper, he wrote down the serial number. "Oh, lookit this..." he said with surprising nonchalance while writing down the numerals, "6-6-6..."

You've got to be kidding me. The day before Halloween and I get the AntiChrist's own car?

I had no choice. I hopped in, belted up, started the ignition and headed home. The car rattled the whole way. It pulled a little to the right. At least the radio was working. I turned up NPR even louder to drown out the mysterious rattles.

But everything worked out in the end. My wife told me to cool it — the loaner was actually six years newer than her own car — so it could be worse. And why do I need a new car for a loaner anyway?

I suppose she's right. I just hope the next time I need a courtesy car, it's closer to Christmas than Halloween.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lexington Historic District, Part V

For some reason I can't quite grasp, I've been doing an unusual amount of public speaking lately. At least, it's unusual for me.

Two weeks ago, I was standing in front of an audience of about 150 people, nervously thanking them for my induction into the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame.

Last night, I was standing in front of 80 or so neighbors, one of about 25 speakers at the Lexington City Council meeting who were allotted approximately three minutes each to voice their views on a proposed historic district.

I am not a public speaker by choice. In fact, my preferred tool of conviction is the pen. But sometimes public speaking just cannot be avoided. I was obligated to speak at the Hall of Fame, and I was compelled to speak in the council chambers. I think I used up two of my three minutes there, which was good because the lawyers making presentations before council used up the rest of everybody else's unused allotted time.

My wife, Kim, also stood at the podium. She's generally a soft-spoken person who does not like the spotlight, but she knows how to speak her mind when the need arises. She did great. Somebody called us the Wehrle tag team.

This was the critical mass moment. After nearly 10 years of historic commission meetings, presentations and debate, council was finally going to vote on the planning board's recommendation to approve an amendment to the zoning ordinance to create an historic overlay district.

After nearly three more hours of civil debate and strong-willed opinions, the district finally was approved by a 7-1 vote of council.

Hallelujah.

This is what I had been hoping for. My argument, presented here previously in my blog (see here) and again last night before council, was that an historic district will provide protection from inappropriate development (say, a neighbor converting his now historic house into a B&B or into an apartment building) to the nearly 100-year-old homes that define Lexington's past as well as our current quality of life.

What I left unspoken was that I think an historic district completely complements the neighboring Uptown Lexington district, which in itself will conjoin with the planned Depot district. It's all forward seeking vision, and it's all interconnected.

Now that an historic district has been approved, and I am excited about it, I just hope my expectations are not dashed. A lot can still go wrong. The opposition made some valid points concerning property rights and added bureaucracy. I hope the historic commission makes wise and fair decisions and judgments because that's the only way it will really work.

But for now, I'm content that the big picture is looking good for the city and its residents.

And, hopefully, now I can take a break from my speaking engagements.








Sunday, October 27, 2013

Festival of festivals

This week's Dispatch poll asked readers "How many Barbecue Festivals have you attended?" The choices were incremental, ranging from none (a shocking 17 percent said they have never been to one. I'm guessing my brothers in Iowa and Alaska were respondents) to 30.

By noontime, the Barbecue Festival crowd was enormous.
This year, of course, was the 30th annual Festival, and I happily became one of the 5 percent to check "30." Many of those years I had to go because I was covering events like the Hawg Run (held on Festival morning back in the day) for The Dispatch. I suppose the bulk of the five percent were also long-time Dispatch employees.

But I also wanted to be there. Every year. It's a neat thing.

With perfectly clear, crisp October weather in the air, with former Lexington resident and "Pawn Stars" patriarch Richard "The Old Man" Harrison on stage and with wildly popular singer Darius Rucker heading up the New Country Q 104.1 Q-Jam (get it? 'Cue Jam?), I knew the crowd would be outrageous.

For the past five years or so, former Dispatch publisher Joe Sink, Festival co-founder, lifetime Honorary Chairman and official crowd counter for publication, has figured the attendance to be around 200,000, appropriately reflecting the growth and popularity of his child. Most people chuckle and mumble, "Yeah, right" when Sink gives his apparently outlandish estimates, but I happen to think he's been pretty much on the money each Festival.

Now, for the first time, Lexington Mayor Newell Clark estimated the floating day-long crowd to have been 200,000, giving government sanction to Sink's figures. In fact, if Joe declares this year's crowd to have been 210,000, I'd find it to be a reasonable estimate.

The crowd on the Square for the Q-Jam was gigantic. (Click pic to enlarge)
Once again, my wife, Kim, and I got an early start, hitting the vendor tents around 8 a.m., and already the people were filling the streets.

By 10:30, I'd purchased my traditional barbecue sandwich for my traditional Festival brunch. The barbecue itself is usually a conglomeration of the five participating restaurants, and some local epicureans think it's not worth the $5 for what they consider to be the bland offering they get. They say it's not restaurant quality.

They miss the point. First off, by my taste buds, the barbecue actually has been pretty decent the past few years. But beyond that, on this particular day, you're not buying the 'cue because you like a certain restaurant. You're buying it because it's the Festival. It's part of the celebration. You're there, and it's now. That's the point. That's the whole point.

Meanwhile, the crowd was growing. And when the long anticipated Q-Jam began in the Square, well, forget it. You weren't going anywhere. People who reached the Square during the jam diverted to either of the two back alleys to get any movement at all. I'd never seen anything like it before.

By 4 p.m. — after nearly eight hours of shopping, perusing, walking, resting, wine-tasting and commiserating — we made our way back home, exhausted and satisfied.

Am I crazy? Maybe.

But I'm already looking forward to the 31st annual Barbecue Festival.




Thursday, October 24, 2013

Barbecue Sandscapes

Imagine turning a passion for playing in the sand into your life's profession.

That's pretty much what Greg Glenn and his wife, Brandi, have done.

Brandi (left) and Greg Glenn work on this year's sand sculpture.
The Glenns are the people you can watch right now, right here in Lexington, turning a mishmash mountain of sand into an impossible work of art. They are the sand sculptors from San Luis Obispo, California, who annually come a week or so before the Barbecue Festival and create those much-looked-forward-to masterpieces on the lawn in front of the former (logically enough, it would seem) Arts Center building on South Main Street.

"Greg does the heavy lifting," said Brandi, "and I do the detail work."

All this magic began nearly 30 years ago when Greg, a land surveyor by trade and training, was messing around in the sand on the California beaches, and before long, started entering competitions.

Did he ever. His talent soon attracted enough attention to where people would actually pay him for his creations. A festival here, a sporting event there, and before he knew it, he had quit his real job in 1991 to create Sandscapes, a business where they manage several teams of sculptors to travel across the country and go play in the sand (See here).

Greg Glenn works on the sand sculpture this this year's Barbecue Festival.
Along the way, he ended up winning 14 World Sand Sculpting Champ-ionships before retiring from competition about 10 years ago.

Brandi, an arts enthusiast in her own right, met Greg in 1987 and came on board with the new business. By 1997, they were married and working on projects together.

The Barbecue Festival is pretty much an annual event for them, and one they savor. This is about the 14th year their business has participated in the Festival.

"Lexington is one of our favorite places," said Brandi, who said that she and her husband have been cutting back working on jobs themselves as they get older. "The people here are really nice. We like the weather. The people who run the Festival are just top-notch and it's classy.

"And the Festival itself is just a blast," said Brandi. "It's a lot of fun."

The Glenns, who are staying at the hotel at Vineyards Crossing while they're here, began this year's sculpture on Sunday. They will continue working right up until Saturday morning, putting in the final touches as 200,000 or so people mill around.

"That way we're still here while people can ask us questions and see how we do things," said Greg. "I don't mind working in front of a crowd. We do it all the time. It's been the same questions (including my own, it seems) for the last 20 years. We just carve and answer the questions as they come."

One of the questions I had was how do they get the sand to hold together so well. I mean, the sculpture is usually still standing two weeks after the Festival. How does that happen?

"The sand is compacted in layers," explained Greg. "We use construction compactors, lots of water, and the sand is rammed into these forms. Then we remove the forms and you sculpt into the block of sand. It's just very, very densely compacted sand.

"If we see rain coming we'll spray it with a sealer, which doesn't really stop erosion, but it does slow it down," said Greg. "But a really good rain will have its way with it."

The good news is: no rain in the forecast this year.

Clearly, this is not a profession — or a passion — built on shifting sand.








Tuesday, October 22, 2013

...one more thing

Shortly after I wrote my latest blog Sunday about being inducted into the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame, I received an email from my friend and colleague, Chad Killebrew, that included a video attachment of me making my acceptance speech.

See my speech here.

My sincere thanks to Chad. I never once in my life expected to be found on YouTube.

I'm posting this video here for two reasons: some of my friends and family who could not attend the induction ceremony (I have one brother in Iowa and another in Alaska) would like to see it; and the Internet is a great place for me to archive stuff.

A couple of days have passed by since the induction. I try not to think about it too much, but I'm still receiving many congrats from friends and co-workers, all of which are much appreciated and yet remains astounding to me.

Basically, I feel like all I did was try to do my job the best that I could for 30 years. So I am humbled and grateful for this honor.

Thank you all very much.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hall of Fame moment

Back in the first grade, I remember feeling compelled by some inner voice to stand in front of my classmates and give them a heartfelt speech about sidewalk safety while walking to school.

The speech, as I recall, was all off the cuff — no notes, prompts or cues of any kind.

It could have been a watershed moment for me. Now that I think about it, I might have been this close to becoming a speechifying politician had fate tricked me into thinking on that particular day that I actually might be good at baring my soul in front of strangers.

As life turned out, I didn't give another speech until 13 years later, when I took a public speaking class in college. For my final grade, I recited a poem that I had written. A lot of good that class did me because I didn't speak in front of an audience again for another 35 years or so.

Mementos of a long career. (Photos by Donnie Roberts)
Then came last night. I was being inducted into the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame, a singular honor for me and the unexpected capstone to my 30-year career as a sports writer for The Dispatch, and I had to find a way to say thank you.

Suddenly, all those notes, prompts and cues that I had abandoned as a first grader were imperative now. So I wrote myself a script and practiced it a few times. It clocked in at just under three minutes, essential on a night when the 145 or so folks in attendance were probably itching to rush home and watch the Florida State-Clemson football game.

There's not a lot I remember after reaching the podium. Familiar faces that I had socialized with just moments before suddenly turned into complete strangers. I was standing in a tunnel and time stood still. When I did start talking, the mic made my voice sound like somebody else's. "Pro-JECT, pro-JECT", I kept telling myself, recalling the only lesson I could remember from my ancient public speaking class.

I thanked my newspaper colleagues. I thanked my wife. I expressed my sincere amazement at the incredible honor I was receiving. But I got through it. My friends, who somehow rematerialized from the land of total strangers, said I did a nice job and I was grateful for that.

I applaud my wife, Kim, for her incomparable support in my career.
I was particularly pleased to be inducted with this class. I consider West Davidson's Charles Elmore and Central Davidson's Gene Poindexter (both of whom were coaches and athletic directors) to be friends of mine, and our separate careers virtually began and ended together, to curiously criss-cross and interconnect over the canvas of space and time. County athletic director Phil Rapp seemed to be at every game I covered. Anna Coleman Hayes, an exceptional tennis player in her day, is practically a next-door neighbor. South Davidson coach Mike Crowell, inducted posthumously, left us way too soon. I didn't know him well, but he always made me feel comfortable.

 And so ended a special night, and my thanks to all.

I'm speechless.

        The entire Class of 2013 Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame.



Friday, October 18, 2013

Whirlwind tour

What is it that's so alluring about horse-and-carriage rides?

Is it the throwback to a bygone era? The romance? The aroma? (It's so...so...equine).

Kim and I just got back from an extended four-day weekend where we toured the length of the South Carolina coast, starting in Beaufort and ending in Cherry Grove, covering about 700 miles in perhaps 96 hours. As hectic as that sounds, it was actually quite refreshing.

At any rate, the primary focus of the tour was our 18 hours or so in Beaufort. This was perhaps the sixth trip to this quaint little town for Kim and me. We occasionally make this pilgrimage primarily for the horse-drawn carriage ghost tour, held every October through the town's historic district.

And it's not just any ghost tour. The evening ride takes about 45 minutes and makes various stops along the way, where actors dressed as pirates, belles, beaus, trolls, spirits or Civil War soldiers dramatically tell their tales. Sometimes they'll leap out unexpectedly from behind bushes or trees or bridge culverts, with just enough actor's flourish to scare the bejeezus out of you. (See here for a brief slideshow from last year's event).

The whole thing is embedded in the backdrop of wonderful 200-year-old houses framed by stately old trees ladened with Spanish moss. On this particular night, our spooky little tour was lit by a half-moon hanging high in the clear night sky.

It's really quite well done. This year, we took another couple — Jay and Melissa — with us to enjoy the experience. I think they did.

 The best thing is that all proceeds benefit the Child Abuse Prevention Association of Beaufort.

A view of the cramped crew space (and propeller hand crank) of the Hunley.
 The next day, we were off to North Charleston to take a gander at the H.L. Hunley, a Con- federate Civil War submarine raised from the bottom of Charleston harbor in 2000. The Hunley is currently available for weekend viewing (preserved, as it is, in a fresh-water tank) by an oragnization called the Friends of the Hunley, a volunteer organization.

The Hunley was the first submarine in naval military history to attack and sink a foe, in this case the U.S.S. Housatonic in February 1864. However, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were also lost in the attack.

Even if you have little interest in the Civil War, this is a nice little stop. Because it's considered to be a working laboratory, it's unusual, if nothing else.

As we made our way to Cherry Grove, we took a lunch stop in Georgetown. Jay and Melissa had never been. As we tried to find a place to park, we were astounded by the debris on a block of Front Street. It turns out that eight businesses were destroyed by a fire that swept through the common attic shared by the buildings involved. (See here).

This happened maybe three weeks ago. It's a nod to Georgetown's civic pride and sensibility that reconstruction, true to historic guidelines, is already underway.

It was a heckuva trip.

Now I need a vacation.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

All squared away

I always thought the Square in Lexington to be one of the city's most attractive and distinctive attributes.

There is, of course, the Old Court House that dominates the visual landscape. Its Greek Revival style of architecture (1858) predates the Civil War by several years (1861-65) and is certainly an historic landmark not only within the city limits, but within Davidson County as well.

There is also the statue of the Confederate soldier in the southwest quadrant, and across Center Street, in the two opposing quadrants, there are historical markers and memorials surrounded by tasteful landscaping. The southeast quadrant, in fact, boasts a terrific flagpole that catches my eye just about every day.

There's a lot going on in the Square right now.

Now you see the Old Court House...
...now you don't. At least, for now.
The Old Court House is currently enveloped by a shroud that makes it look like it's part of a David Copperfield illusion. The building is currently undergoing a $600,000 external repair and restoration project. I imagine the shroud is in place to contain any paint, dirt and debris from falling onto pedestrians and vehicles as they pass by. When the project is completed and the shroud is finally removed, I suspect it will be something like opening a Christmas present. I can't wait.


While the Old Court House was going under wraps, the North Carolina Department of Transportation decided it would install (stamped) brick crosswalks at the Square. The project was aided, in part, by local contractors and, well, it looks pretty good to my eye. To my mind, anything that adds to Lexington's visuals is potential for bringing more visitors — and more consumer dollars — into town.

But, as you might guess, there has been some opposition to both projects. Some opponents have suggested the money used to restore the Old Court House could be better used elsewhere, and particularly to care for the homeless. I will argue that preserving heritage and culture are just as important as providing for the less fortunate (usually a task reserved for the church and/or nonprofit charitable organizations rather than tax payers) and probably, in the long run, less costly with more bang for the buck.

Don't trip over the crosswalk when the light turns green...
 As for the crosswalk, one opponent, in a  letter to the editor to The Dispatch, basically wondered if NCDOT would be held liable if somebody tripped over the perfectly flat crosswalk. I'm guessing that the odds of being hit by a foul ball at Holt-Moffitt Field during football season are greater than tripping over a stamped crosswalk, but I suppose you never really know.

In the meantime, keep the progress coming. It's looking pretty good.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paying for the product

Starting on Tuesday, you'll have to pay $9.95 per month to read The Dispatch online, unless you already subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper. Then you get the digital Dispatch for free as a part of your subscription.

Up until Tuesday, readers — whether they were print subscribers or not — had perhaps nearly 10 years of free access to the online paper, which probably reinforced their supposed sense of entitlement about getting a source of their news for no cost. Consequently, some readers stopped subscribing to the printed Dispatch exactly because they could get their news for free online.

That's not particularly good business sense if you happen to be a business. How long would the Candy Factory last if it gave away its raisin clusters for free?

By charging a fee for its online edition, The Dispatch is joining many other print publications across the country in charging for their product. This has become a necessity brought on, ironically enough, by the Internet. The Internet not only serves as a conduit for carrying news, but also for generating news — sometimes by creditable sources, other times by not so creditable sources. And this conundrum is with what newspapers have been competing, and consequently digital journalism has put print journalism in a tilt toward decline.

Imagine that. Charging for a product, like it was gasoline. Charging for a service (the distribution of information), like it was medical care. Isn't that the nature of capitalism? Isn't that free enterprise? Isn't that the American system?

When word broke two weeks ago that The Dispatch (an annual North Carolina Press Association award-winning publication, by the way) would be charging for its services, much reader reaction — predictably — was mostly negative. Some wanted to know why online advertising wasn't paying for the service, and why not increase those advertising rates? Some suggested they could get their local news from other sources. It went on and on.

The way I'm figuring it, the digital Dispatch, at $9.95 per month, comes down to about 47 cents per day (based on 21 print days per month). That's still cheaper than the print edition. Plus, the online paper offers videos, photo galleries, an instant archive to past stories, reader forums, links to other sources and an opportunity for immediate reader comments to each story.

Some readers were confusing paying for the online Dispatch with paying for the Internet. That's so far out into left field I don't even know how to react to that.

I'm not a businessman, but I think I remember hearing that online advertising generates perhaps 10 percent of a newspaper's income. That's unsustainable if the paper wants to stay in business. And how long do you think advertisers will remain online if their rates increase?

Some readers said they would turn to other news sources, like neighboring newspapers or television stations. Good luck with that. Out of town sources can't come near to providing the local coverage as the local paper can, if for no other reason than they either cannot afford the on-site resources that are needed or are unwilling to pay (there's that word again) for maintaining branch offices. Out of town sources tend to be incomplete and cursory at best. I guarantee you will not be as fully informed about Lexington if you go out of town for your news.

Television? The other night I was watching a telecast of a local news story — just one Lexington story in a half-hour broadcast — that credited The Dispatch as its source. Oh my. So some people are willing to give up The Dispatch to have somebody from out of town read them a few Teleprompter lines from a single story that came from The Dispatch? That logic eludes me.

I'm not really surprised by most of the reader reaction to charging a fee for digital news. This type of expressed dissatisfaction also happened whenever the paper increased its rates for the print edition.

I guess it's a way for those in the business to gauge just how much the readers appreciate the paper after all.

Here is a video that illustrates everything:



(Full disclosure: I was employed by The Dispatch for 30 years as a sports writer and sports editor before retiring in 2006. It has always been my feeling — and still is — that The Dispatch is one of the best small-town newspapers in the state.)







Sunday, September 22, 2013

Paving the way

Sometimes you don't know that a life event is lurking until it hits you square on the head.

But the time had come — we needed to pave our gravel driveway.

Yes, I know what you're thinking: paving a driveway is NOT a life event. Yeah, well, just don't tell that to my bank account.

But we'd grown tired of having to remove stones that had gotten caught in the brake calipers of my car on more than one occasion. We were tired of pulling weeds from the gravel or even walking on stones that would shift under your feet.

It was time.

So we found a contractor, Tim Walser, and took the plunge. Herewith is a photo essay of our journey:

Here is our old weed-and-gravel driveway that is desperately in need of resurfacing.
Contractor Tim Walser grades the driveway with his trusty Bobcat. I want one.
Wooden forms define the boundary where the concrete will be poured.
A massive cement mixer somehow negotiates the narrow driveway. Whew.
Walser smooths out the concrete as it chutes into the driveway.
The finished product. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?
The whole process took two full work days — and about three truckloads of concrete — to complete. I was petrified that friends and neighbors would want to put their initials in the drying concrete (a proven primal urge, apparently contained in our DNA as I understand it), or that a stray animal might want to leave a paw print or some other memento behind, but it never happened.

On the other hand, if you ever want to draw a crowd, get a cement mixer to come to your house. Little knots of onlookers sometimes gathered in the course of the day to check out what the Wehrles were doing, and that was fine. It was a social happening. I think there must be something fascinating about concrete trucks that bring people together — cementing bonds, as it were.

Anyway, I still can't put a car on it for a couple more days as the concrete cures, and there'll be a little landscaping and reseeding of grass in our future, but we're getting close.

It was time.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

(Her) Class reunion

High school class reunions are usually hard on spouses.

Kim has been to a few of mine. They always require a 500-mile trip to Pennsylvania, which is hard enough right off the bat. It also means she has no familiar faces to connect with during the actual reunion, so she has to call on her sincere Southern charm and make new friends with my old friends.

The last one she went to — my 40th — involved putting up with a Vietnam vet who may have tangled a little too much with some Agent Orange and couldn't stop talking her ear off about it. I made a couple of feeble attempts to rescue her in the course of the night, but the only real solution was to leave. Which we did, but only after several hours of war stories about Khe Sanh, My Lai, Tet, and Huey helicopter gunships had slipped by.

You know, the usual class reunion fare.

Last night, we went to Kim's 35th class reunion, of which she is a proud member of the Lexington Senior High School Class of 1978. We probably didn't have to drive more than five miles to get there.

Not a bad class reunion as class reunions go. (Click on picture to enlarge)

Kim was immediately in her element, social butterflying her way from one cluster of classmates to the next, catching up and renewing contacts. It was actually kind of neat to watch. Kim tells me how shy and reserved she was in high school, but over the years she's blossomed into a virtual class resource center. People actually seek her out. She has a memory for memories and a gentle touch for enhancing them.

As her spouse, I'm in an unique situation. Because I live in a small town, and I was the local newspaper's sportswriter for 30 years, I probably know almost as many of her friends as she does. I also know many of the spouses of her friends, so when she was off reminiscing with a girlfriend or two, I'd be chatting it up about the Alabama-Texas A&M game with their husbands.

Somewhat surprisingly, the chick talk that I overheard last night wasn't so much about men as it was about menopause. I am serious. These are women in their early 50s and, for the most part, they've been gobsmacked by life's changes. Even Kim occasionally would point out one of her friends in the room who might be fanning her face, saying, "She's having a hot flash..."

I casually mentioned the M-word to one of her friends, suggesting it could be the theme of this particular reunion, and she politely answered by saying "Men just have no idea..." Well, she might be right, but I doubt if women really do, either. I hear a lot of "What's going on with me?" at home.

Anyway,  the best story of the evening came from a spouse who told me that he solved the night sweats problem by their switching places in bed — she now sleeps directly under the ceiling air conditioning vent, and their life is good again.

I laughed out loud when he told me that. It was so simple it was brilliant. All problems should be so easy to figure.

Next year will be my 45th class reunion (I'm nine years older than Kim). That means another weekend trip to Pennsylvania. Most of the men in my class will be around 63 years old, talking about their knee replacement surgeries, heart medications and low T.

I just hope it's not a hard night for Kim.




Saturday, September 7, 2013

Parking with Underhill Rose

OK, OK, I know what you're thinking: Not another blog about Underhill Rose.

Sorry. But yes.

Kim and I made the trek to Greensboro last night because Underhill Rose, a trio of talented women from Asheville who perform mostly original Americana backed by a guitar, banjo and upright bass, were on hand at Center City Park for the last First Friday (of the month) event of the summer.

I don't know if it was the venue, the sound system, the perfect weather, or what, but Kim and I both thought the group sounded better than ever. This was the fourth time we've seen them, which might officially make us groupies by now. I don't know how Underhill Rose feels about silver hairs as their groupies, but I guess they're stuck with us.

The last time we saw them was about four months ago, when they appeared at High Rock Outfitters at the Square on Main Street. We thought they were great then, but I think they've gotten even better now.

They've just come off a "western" tour where they drove (they drive to all their gigs) to Montana (where bassist and South Carolina native Salley Williamson has connections) to bring their brand of mountain music to the prairie dogs, buffaloes and other citizens of the Great Plains.

We found seats right up front and Kim and I wondered if Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley would recognize us. We shared kind of a personal moment with them back in June at HRO when we got there way too early and it was just the five of us. Then, during their performance, they surprised and humbled me by singing Bob Dylan's Wagon Wheel, which I had sheepishly requested in a Facebook email.

Aw, shucks y'all.

But that was four months and thousands of miles ago.

Anyway, halfway through last night's 75-minute set, Molly made mention of how great it was to be back in the South, and especially North Carolina, and playing for their fans in places like Greensboro and Lexington. Kim and I took that to be a clue they'd seen us. Together, we raised our arms and shook our fists like Arsenio Hall when she mentioned Lexington. Woo hoo.

It got even better.

After their performance, while Eleanor and Salley packed up their equipment, we met Molly at the souvenir tent. She recognized us right off and we had a great 10-minute chat with her. Yes, they drive to all their tour dates; yes, sometimes they sing together while traveling in their vehicle; yes, they feel like their vocal harmonies are getting tighter and tighter; yes, their confidence is building, and it's a very subtle thing that's happening but they're aware of it.

Then, to seal the deal, Molly said they pondered whether or not to sing Wagon Wheel last night. They never did, but if they had, I probably would have had to run to the men's room and missed everything.

I never got to talk with Eleanor, although I think Kim did. For all I know, Eleanor might think we're just a couple of stray cats who show up every now and then for a saucer of milk. Maybe we are.

A few minutes later I bumped into Salley, and she said "Hi, Bruce, how are you doing?" OK, now I'm officially floored. She remembered my name. With all the traveling, all the performances, all the people they meet, how does that happen?

I know, I know. I sound like I'm star struck, although I'm not sure I'm willing to admit to that just yet. I feel like we're just good acquaintances right now and I'm really pulling for them to make it big.

Guess what? They're scheduled to return to High Rock Outfitters on Nov. 9 — a cozy place where they say they really like to perform. Guess what? It's a good bet that I'm going to write a blog about it.








Monday, September 2, 2013

Getting flagged

We needed a new American flag. The old one had become seriously faded as well as detached from its cloth clip grip, which meant it kept sliding down the pole attached to the pillar on our front porch.

Kim said if we waited until Labor Day, we could buy a new flag at half price at Fox Discount Gifts on South Main Street.

Sounded like a plan to me. All we had to do was be at Fox's at 7 a.m., since that's when the half-price sale began and lasted for just two hours, after which the half-price sale morphed into a less spectacular 40 percent sale.

My new flag was worth fighting off the half-price sale shoppers.
 It also meant one of us had to get up at 5 a.m. to shower and dress on a day when you could otherwise sleep in, but never mind. I get up early anyway, so I went first, and then Kim a little later. By 6:45, we were in the car and on our way to Fox's, which probably took us all of five minutes.

As we neared the otherwise unassuming store, the sight in front of me took my breath away. A large, mostly estrogen dominated crowd, had already clustered at the front door. In moments, an orderly line of about 50 people snaked around to the far side of the building.

Kim and I quickly went to the back of the line as cars continued to pour into the jammed-packed parking lot. A woman several places in line ahead of us had a list of what she needed written on legal-sized paper.

What had I gotten into?

Kim and I had gone to Fox's several days earlier to scout out the flag that I was interested in. I found the one I wanted and hid it in the middle of a rack of flags, hoping that nobody would find it until Monday. Nobody did. As soon as we got into the store, we made a bee-line for the flags. I found the one that I had stashed away two days ago and snapped it up, and made my way back to the cashier.

Just five minutes after the door had opened, the aisles were already packed shoulder to shoulder. As I excused my way past one woman, she looked at me and asked, "Is that all you're getting? Just one flag?"

I'm guessing her's was a rhetorical question because I didn't answer her. But I tried to process her logic as I stepped up to the counter. Well, yes, one flag is all I needed. I didn't needed plastic flowers, garden flags, Christmas lights, knic-knacs, gnomes, stencils or decorative lighthouses. I'm thinking she was thinking, hey, this is a half-price sale, you need to buy everything you can carry.

Hmm.

Anyway, I got to the cashier and made my purchase. We were probably Nos. 58 and 59 going into the store, but I think we were No. 1 getting out.

That suited me just fine. I got my flag, saved $13.50, and had breakfast at Cracker Barrel by 7:30. What could be better than that?






Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fare thee well, my friend

The first indication I had that anything might be wrong was Friday morning when I was directed to the story in The Salisbury Post that its long-time sports editor (and my friend), Ronnie Gallagher, had died unexpectedly at the age of 57.

Ronnie Gallagher
 It was shocking news.

The story noted that Gallagher had had a mild heart attack a week or so earlier. That, too, was a surprise to me. Ronnie always appeared to be so... so... fit.

The story also said that Gallagher had complained of stomach pains Friday morning before going to the hospital, where he eventually passed away.

I thought that sounded a bit unusual until a friend of mine suggested that severe nausea can be a sign of a heart attack. That information was almost consoling to me — Ronnie always had a big heart: a big heart for sports and sports writing, a big heart for his friends, and a big heart for his family. So maybe, just maybe, his heart simply wore out. Anyway, that's how I want to see it.

I met Ronnie probably in 1976. I'm guessing he was a few years fresh out of North Davidson Senior High School (the family house abutted the school property) and he was already covering games for The Dispatch as a stringer. I was a newly-hired sports writer at the newspaper back then, and I could tell right off there was something a little different about Ronnie: he was soooo into the games, more than even most sports writers, it seemed. He knew all the rules; he knew all of the players; he knew all of the coaches; heck, he probably knew most of the referees and most of the fans in the stands.

His enthusiasm for sports was clearly — and refreshingly — unjaded.

Over the course of time, I discovered he also had developed encyclopedic knowledge of sports, and especially local sports. He could tell you who did what on what day eight years ago, when that player went 3-for-4 and tore his uniform sliding into home plate during a high school playoff game on an overcast day in a season where he hit .422 and drove in 38 runs.

Ronnie may have gotten a career-making break in the early 1980s when The Dispatch created a sister publication called The North Davidson Dispatch (NDD). It was a weekly — it came out every Wednesday — and Ronnie was its sole sports editor/sports writer.

But Ronnie took the job and ran with it. He consistently filled six or eight wide open pages with everything North Davidson. If the Knights had played Tiddly Winks and Pick-Up Sticks as varsity sports, or even as junior varsity sports, Ronnie would have covered them. This is where, I think, Ronnie's earliest concept of what a sports section should look like first developed. It would serve him well later on.

The NDD lasted about two years. Shortly thereafter, in 1986, Ronnie became the sports editor/sports writer for another weekly, The Davie County Enterprise. Taking the foundation he created with the NDD, he singlehandedly turned The Enterprise's sports section into an award-winning publication — something in which he justifiably took great pride.

By 1995 he was working at The Post, and two years later, he was The Post's sports editor. The cream always rises, you know. Once again, he brought his concept of total sports coverage to yet another publication and made it something special. I like to think you can trace those roots back to The Dispatch.

To my way of thinking, Ronnie's writing matured as he did. Winning press awards is a very subjective thing, but it's about the only measurement we have in the business (other than unheard of merit raises or bonuses) to gauge a writer's worth. Ronnie ended up winning 14 North Carolina Press Association awards for The Enterprise, and 20 more for The Post, which is astounding when you consider that in this world of specialized education, Ronnie never went to college. That just doesn't happen anymore. Heck, you can't even get hired anymore without a degree. His was the School of Hard Knocks, and he made it look easy. He was unabashedly proud of that accomplishment, too, and it's well that he was.

So now I sit back and reminisce about an old friend way before I want to. In later years, we'd occasionally bump into each other while covering the same event, and we'd sit and chat for a bit and catch up. But it was all too infrequent.

It's still going to take a little time to process this loss. I hope I have the heart for it. So for now, at least, fare thee well, my friend. Fare thee well.


(Here's a sample of Ronnie at work with one of his Roamin' Rowan videos.)



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Old Courthouse — Part II

I wish I'd found the following two videos a couple of days ago when I first wrote my blog about Davidson County allocating money — more than $600,000 — to refurbish the exterior of the Old Courthouse. This story first appeared in The Dispatch several weeks ago and my blog was in response to some of the criticism the county's action has generated among several Dispatch readers.

Some of the criticism, I felt, showed a stunning disregard not only for the appreciation of historic architecture, but for history itself.

Both videos eloquently express the way I feel — more than I could myself — about preserving and/or renovating historic structures.

The first clip was taken from CBS Sunday Morning and the pertinent segment is entitled "Buildings: What's New is Old."

Pay attention to what Vanity Fair architect critic Paul Goldberger has to say near the end of the clip: "Historical architecture is part of our culture, just the way art, music and literature are part of our culture. Architecture is the only one (of those three) that's around us all the time, every day. It does its magic on us every day."

See here.

Amen, brother.

The second clip is a "local" piece by MyFOX 8, showing some of the historic buildings that stand majestically in Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem.

See here.

One critic wrote about the Old Court House, "Paint a picture and let's move on," more or less implying the building had outlived its function, if not its form, and who would miss it anyway if it ever fell in on itself?

Which left me to wonder, Why paint a picture when the story is standing right in front of us?