Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Opening Day

There's a wonderful scene in the movie Field of Dreams where the character Terence Mann, played by the ridiculously mellifluous-voiced actor James Earl Jones, breaks off in something of a soliloquy about the nature of baseball, and not just the nature of baseball in an Iowa cornfield, either:

"... The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game; it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again..."

(see here)

Tomorrow marks another Opening Day in major league baseball and with it all the promise that a new season brings. I can't wait. Yes, the season is too long, the players are paid too much, the off-the-field distractions are too many, and yet...

I remember the first time I went to a major league baseball game. It was a night game in Philadelphia, in old Connie Mack Stadium, probably around 1965. I was stunned when we walked through the concourse to find our seats. The field, bathed in what must have been the light of 10 million candle watts, seemed unreal and magical, and I was hooked. Forever. I still get the same sense of awe whenever I walk into a major league ballpark.

So baseball connects me with my youth.

There is something alluring about a baseball field — its symmetry, its geometry and, despite all of its perfections, its quirkiness. Who knew that 90 feet was the perfect distance between bases, not too long, not too short? Who knew that 60 feet, six inches was the perfect distance between the pitching rubber and home plate? Who figures those things out?

Lexington's Holt-Moffitt Field has those same exact dimensions, but then it has that steep rising absurdity of a hill in left field that is in play and is a part of the game. It almost always confounds opponents. It's home-field advantage personified. It's a beautiful thing.

Baseball connects me with my dad.

I once read a critique of Field of Dreams that described it as a male weepy. True, true.

The movie came out in 1989, less than two years after my father died. I was still negotiating the pain of his death when we went to see it. I remember sitting in the theater with my wife, totally enjoying the flick, until the very end, when Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, meets his estranged, long dead dad on that magical field. "Hey dad?" croaks Costner. "Want to have a catch?"

(see here)

I fell apart. So did most of the folks in the theater, I think. Couldn't stop the waterworks.

I've seen this movie 1,218 times, and I break down every time this scene plays out. I know I'm going to break down. I plan for it. There are times when it actually feels good to break down. Dad taught me baseball. He taught me how to throw, how to hit, how to catch.

What is more compelling than a catch between a father and son? So this movie really scores with me.

There are tons of fun baseball movies: Bull Durham, Rhubarb, Pride of the Yankees, A League of Their Own, Eight Men Out, It Happens Every Spring... The list is nearly endless.

And, so, here is another Opening Day. Marking time once again.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


There's a New Year's tradition that my wife likes to keep — as I'm sure many of us do — of eating black-eyed peas, collard greens and some kind of pork product as a way of bringing good luck, and with it good wealth, your way for the next 365 days or so.

That particular meal and the tradition that goes with it, I believe, tends to be regional. Back home in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the good-luck banquet was sauerkraut, pork and potatoes.

Neither of these dinners makes my top 10 list of epicurean delights. Tradition forces me to eat this stuff.

Well, here it is, nearly the end of March, and we're still waiting for the promise of that meal — the southern version — to kick in.

Actually, I think I've been waiting something like 60 years for it to kick in, and so far, neither the collards nor the sauerkraut has done much more than to put a bad taste in my mouth.

I turned 60 years old last month, and within weeks of blowing out the candles, I learned my heart was in atrial fibrillation, and may be for the rest of my natural days. We recently got the five-figure (pre-insurance) hospital bill for my 30-hour stay, which in itself nearly put me back in the cardiovascular ward. Just the room for overnight observation was $1,500 on the itemized bill, which far outdistances any bed & breakfast we've ever stayed in. Yikes. On the other hand, no B&B I stayed in ever had a heart monitor or an I-V drip, so maybe it was appropriate, I don't know.

I recently took my car for its 100,000-mile servicing, and learned I'm due up for a new timing belt. That will be at least $500. Oh, and by the way, you need new brake pads ($200 plus) and a new power steering reservoir ($300 plus) to replace the leaky one now in your car.

This is not what a retired pensioner wants to hear.

Then, on Saturday morning, as we were getting ready to leave for a pancake fundraiser, Kim detected an odor in the house that smelled like burning plastic. I couldn't smell anything right off, but she said it was coming from near the circuit breaker. I opened it and one of the breakers — the one for the water heater — was uncomfortably warm.

We went under the house through the crawl space, and saw right off the pipe from the gas water heater was spraying H2O all over the place. I quickly turned off the water main with my handy-dandy plumber's key, which is pretty much the extent of my plumbing knowledge.

Getting a plumber on the weekend is usually next to impossible, but luckily, after two tries, we found one. He arrived within the hour, and fixed us up. He showed me a relay from the heater that apparently shorted out and melted when the spewing water and electricity tried to go out on a date together. I guess we're lucky the thing didn't catch fire — you know, because gas and fire don't mix particularly well, either.

I'm expecting a three-figure bill for this event, too, but who knows?

My real quandary here is trying to figure out if we had good luck because the house didn't blow to smithereens, or bad luck because, well, it's another unexpected bill piling on.

I know, I know. Quit complaining. Be grateful we don't live near tsunami zones, earthquake fault lines or nuclear reactors.

But everybody's troubles are all relative, I reckon, and we all have them. And we all deal with them.

I only wonder if this New Year's I can't enjoy a lucky cheeseburger and fries just this once?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Walking through history — addendum to Part IV

I didn't expect to revisit this series so soon, but sometimes extraordinary fortune comes at the most unexpected moments, in the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected people.

I'd been curious about Albert M. Hunter, whose gravestone I'd visited on my blogging tour of Lexington City Cemetery (see here). Hunter, who was born in Gettysburg, Pa., was a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War, but sometime during his postwar lifetime, he'd come to Lexington, NC, to live and prosper.

He died in 1911 at the age of 78.

I wondered how a Yankee soldier came to be buried in a southern cemetery.

So today, I went to the genealogical section of the Davidson County Library, and with the help of a volunteer worker there, found a short obituary of Hunter that was printed in The Dispatch. In part, the obit noted that he'd come to Lexington 23 years earlier (in 1888) and had been a respected member of the community. High praise for a Yankee. It didn't say why he came to Lexington or what he did for a living.

But it added he was a member of Lexington's Presbyterian Church and that he lived four miles out of town on Linwood Road. The volunteer also offered that she knew of a Nancy Hunter somebody who still lived at the homestead site, but couldn't remember her married name.

Well, I thought, at least there's a living relative around here somewhere. I'll find out something sometime, sooner or later.

It turned out to be sooner. Less than an hour later, I ran into my friend Lee Jessup at the Black Chicken Coffee Shop. Lee said he had enjoyed my series on the cemetery, and I mentioned to him that I'd taken a few steps closer to finding out just who Albert M. Hunter was with the help of a librarian, who'd given me the name of a Nancy Hunter somebody.

Lee said he knew who she was, giving me her married name and thus filling in the blank. My world of six degrees of separation, which constantly gets smaller, shrank to maybe three degrees on this one. "Son," he said to me in his uniquely Jessup fashion, "Nancy loves to talk. She can help you. You're only a phone call away."

I made that phone call as fast as I could. What happened next can only be described as astounding. We talked for at least a half hour, maybe longer. I told her that I was a Civil War buff and that I found the gravestone of Albert M. Hunter and...

"Oh, he's my great grandfather," said Nancy, pretty much recounting his Civil War story that I described in Part IV.

But I was impatient for more.

"What brought him to North Carolina?" I asked, not at all trying to suppress the journalist in me.

Nancy was a little fuzzy on this part, but mentioned something about a knee injury Albert had suffered and was advised to go south.

"I'm not sure why he settled in Lexington," said Nancy, a retired school teacher. "But it's clear he liked the lay of the land here. It's very similar to where he came from in Pennsylvania. It's amazing how much alike the land is."

Albert built a house on the land he bought, a house that no longer exists but the very one in which Nancy was born 72 years ago. Trees planted by Albert still dot the landscape.

"What did he do for a living?" I asked.

"He was a farmer," said Nancy. "He grew corn and grains. Later, the family had cows and sold milk to Coble Dairy."

She said she was familiar with the story that he was a banker in Gettysburg before the war, but isn't sure whether to believe it or not. "I can't find anything in his personal items about that," she said.

"How is it that he has a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) marker at his grave site?" I asked. "That's a little unusual for a southern cemetery."

"I don't know the answer to that," said Nancy. "But I know he was a member of some organization (probably a local GAR post in Pennsylvania or Maryland. His unit, Cole's Cavalry, was from Emmitsburg, Md., which is just a spit in the wind from Gettysburg) and paid dues. Maybe that's how he got the marker."

I was entirely enchanted with this woman, who trusted me enough to tell a total stranger about a piece of her family history. She's invited me to come to her house in a few days, once she's assembled all of Albert's memorabilia, to have a look-see for myself.

I can't wait.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Walking through history — Conclusion

I think we're about ready to wrap up the mini-tour through historic Lexington City Cemetery.

But I do have one more stop to make and then add an observation or two.

The last marker I want to acknowledge belongs to Cicero F. Lowe and, like the others I've mentioned  in my previous posts, I came across his quite by accident. Several years ago, I just happened to look in the direction of his obelisk, and there he was.

So just who is Cicero F. Lowe anyway? I can't tell you much, but what I do know is that he was the cashier for the Bank of Lexington. I know this because I have both a $5 and a $10 Bank of Lexington note, and the name "C. F. Lowe" is signed in the lower left corner on both of them.

The Bank of Lexington didn't last long. It was chartered in 1859 with $300,000 in assets, and it somehow managed to survive the inflationary Civil War only to shut its doors in 1866, a year after the war ended.

I'm going to guess that Albert M. Hunter (see here) had nothing to do with this demise. And I can only wonder what became of Cicero after the bank closed. Did he work for another bank? Was he a part of Reconstruction? His marker is rather elaborate, so he was apparently a man of means — or came from a monied family. What? What? What?

What I always thought was interesting about Lowe's signature is that, for many years, the chairman and president of the former Lexington State Bank was Bob Lowe. I held hope against hope that all this was more than just a coincidence and that there was some kind of family connection going on here.

But I talked with Bob about it one day, and he said as far as he knew, there were no direct ties between the two of them. Nor could LSB trace its corporate lineage to the Bank of Lexington.

Well, phooey.

There is one other note of interest here, so to speak.

My $10 certificate is dated "March 1, 1861," which puts it in a very historic time line. Less than six weeks later, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, igniting the Civil War.

And, interestingly enough, both notes were engraved and printed by the American Bank Note Company, located in New York City.

Go figure.

For more information about the Bank of Lexington notes, check here.

So I bring my tour to an end. I think I read somewhere — maybe it was on the Find a Grave site — that there are more than 6,000 markers in the cemetery, and more are being added nearly every day. Many of the stones there are works of art. Some are plain and simple. But everyone of them has a story to tell.

The place is alive with history.

I hope you enjoyed the tour. I sure did.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Walking through history — Part IV

About a year ago I was taking my morning walk through Lexington City Cemetery when something caught my eye at the foot of a gravestone about 30 yards away from me.

So I went over to the stone and saw what had caught my attention was a five-pointed bronze star that I instantly recognized as a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) marker, meaning that the recipient was a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War.

"Hmm," I thought. "How unusual is this to find a GAR marker in a municipal southern cemetery?" GAR markers sprinkle Yankee cemeteries from Maine to Minnesota. I'm not so sure that's true of southern cemeteries. What, I wondered, had Charles E. Burgess done to get himself buried in Lexington, NC?

And were there more GAR markers in the cemetery?

Yes, indeed. The next day, altering my route somewhat, I came across the stone of Albert M. Hunter, punctuated with a GAR marker. Wow. I couldn't believe it. Two Yankees buried in a cemetery with dozens of Confederates. What the heck is going on here?

A little research was in order.

The Burgess stone didn't have much information on it, and a Google search of his name didn't turn up anything pertinent.

So for the time being, at least, Charles E. Burgess has come to a dead end. Literally.

Ahhh, but Albert M. Hunter. His stone stands several feet tall, and even though the inscription on it is weather-beaten and almost illegible, his place of birth jumped out at me and nearly wrestled me to the ground — Adams County, Pennsylvania. I know where that is. It's county seat is Gettysburg.

Oh my gosh. A Union veteran, born in Gettysburg, is buried in a southern cemetery. The irony...

And a Google search of his name was a true bonanza. I should be so lucky in the lottery. Turns out, Hunter enlisted with a cavalry unit — Cole's Cavalry — as a bugler in 1861. But within months, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and later achieved the rank of captain of Company C.

He was captured during Robert E. Lee's first foray into Yankeeland just days before the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, for all you non-Yankees). He was paroled and later saw action in the Gettysburg campaign, but not in the monumental three-day battle itself. A few days later, during Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, Hunter and his men burned Lee's pontoon bridge at Falling Waters — after Lee had already departed.

Interestingly enough, he was discharged in 1864, but later re-enlisted as a private in February 1865, just months before the end of the war. I can only speculate that he saw the war was winding down and wanted to be part of its history. Maybe he wanted to march in the Grand Review.

Hunter survived the war and sometime along the way he and his wife, Annie, migrated to Lexington, NC. I have no idea what brought him here. Maybe he got a job as a sports writer for the local newspaper, I don't know. His records do show that he was a banker in Gettysburg before the war. I can't imagine there was such a critical need for a Yankee banker in post-war Lexington, but something brought him here, and he liked it enough to stay. And the townsfolk apparently liked him well enough to keep him here. I hope he understood their accents.

This might be helpful:

In any event, he lived to be 78 years old. Maybe a little more research — a look through old city directories, perhaps, or a visit to the historical museum, may shed more light on Albert M. Hunter and Charles E. Burgess. If I come up with anything, I'll revisit this post.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Walking through history — Part III

I do love my war heroes.

I think that's because, in the face of unspeakable horror and indignity a spark of humanity somehow seems to emerge — to save a buddy, to save a stranger, to correct an injustice — without regard to the danger to self. I don't know from where that motivation comes. I hope I never do, but if ever I do need that kind of courage, I hope I have it.

I imagine Lexington City Cemetery has its share of war heroes, but one stands out — Gen. Robert Sink. His story was told, at least peripherally, in the wonderfully produced HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which followed the exploits of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II.

Sink, who was portrayed by actor Dale Dye in the miniseries, was a colonel in the war and the commander of the 506th. He was so well respected by the men who served under him that his outfit was often referred to as the Five-Oh-Sink. Oh my.

The National Guard Armory in Lexington was named for him.

His World War II accolades and citations were remarkable and lengthy, and included, among other things, the Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters; the Legion of Merit; and the Air Medal. He was considered a master parachutist (only four percent of military parachutists achieved that status during his time) who made two combat jumps during the war — one on D-Day, and one during the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden. He also was in Bastogne commanding his troops during the Battle of the Bulge.

He annually celebrated his birthday by jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.

Sink died when he was only 60 years old and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery at the site where his marker rests today. But about a decade ago his remains were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. I think that is more than appropriate.

Here is a Web site worth looking into for further details and some interesting pictures about Sink:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Walking through history — Part II

In continuing my stroll through the Lexington City Cemetery, it occurs to me that some deaths are simply tragic, and sometimes they can alter the course of a city's history.

That may have been the case with Harry Anderson.

No, not that Harry Anderson, the actor/comedian who played Judge Harry Stone on the television comedy Night Court. The Harry Anderson I'm talking about was the mayor of Lexington for several months before he was killed by a particularly ferocious and selective lightning strike during a camping retreat at Linville Gorge over the Easter weekend in 1978.

Anderson was only 45 years old and after winning an unopposed election for mayor by acclamation, he held the hopes of an entire city in his grasp. From what I can gather — I'd been in Lexington for less than two years as a rookie sports writer for The Dispatch — he was wildly popular, no doubt in part for his youth, vigor, enthusiasm and foresight. He'd already demonstrated some of those attributes during four years as a city councilman.

The city council, in fact, was primed to consider the purchase of a nuclear power plant as well as the establishment of a regional waste treatment system, according to The Dispatch. Indeed, it's clear to see now that Lexington was approaching a crossroads in its history. By the 1980s and certainly into the 1990s, the city would start losing some of its lifeblood furniture industry to overseas interests. Anderson, who was a vice president of marketing for Burlington House Furniture, may have been able to guide Lexington over those bumpy, twisting roads.

But it was not to be.

According to an article in The Dispatch, Anderson was one of 19 campers on the retreat. There had been some light rain that day, and some cloud-to-cloud lightning, but no indication of what was to come. Most of the campers were huddled under a tarpaulin at the center of the campsite, with Anderson standing next to a tree at the center of the site, where a wood stove had been erected.

When the bolt came, Anderson was killed instantly. He was the only one who died, but the strike came perilously close to wiping out a core of Lexington's intelligentsia, including lawyer Bob Grubb (who was hospitalized with burns), councilman Robert Team, and Dr. Sidney Hood. All members of the party, according to the article, were either knocked down or suffered some kind of injury in the incident.

One member of the party had to hike for several miles to get help.

Anderson's resting place is marked by a simple stone with nothing more than his name, date of birth, and date of death. There is no indication of his role with the city, or the promise of his potential.

It's easy to be fatalistic about this. What direction would Lexington have taken had Anderson lived? It's impossible to say.

Sometimes stuff happens for a reason. And sometimes, stuff just happens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walking through history — Part I

Each morning, God's weather and my mood permitting, I take a four-mile walk along the trail at Grimes School. I've done this for years. Sometimes I extend this exercise an extra half-hour or so by heading off to the nearby Lexington City Cemetery, part of which is built on a considerable incline and so it really gets my heart to pumping.

Perhaps strange to say, I like cemeteries. I consider them to be very much like history books for all the tales they tell — or tales not told but imagined, depending on how well you can divine the weather-beaten words etched on the tombstones. In any case, they really do talk to me.

Once, while in Brunswick, Maine, my wife and I found the resting place of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union hero at the Battle of Gettysburg. Another time, we found the elaborate grave of Confederate general James Longstreet in massive Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville, Ga.

Anyway, Lexington's cemetery is as conversational as any I've strolled through, and with a minimum of research, you can find some very interesting stories buried there. I'd like to relate a few that I've uncovered, so bear with me, dear reader, because it may take me several posts over the course of several days to accomplish this.

And we'll start with what I consider to be a very intriguing story:

One of the most prominent markers in the cemetery belongs to Dr. R.L. Payne. It stands about six feet high, accented at its base by a UDC Southern Cross of Honor, indicating that the good doctor was a Confederate veteran.

But the one thing that catches your eye on his stone, above all else, is the word "Assassinated."

Holy smokes. What's that all about? Who assassinates doctors?

Turns out Baxter Shemwell did.

This occurred in 1895. Shemwell was a rather well-connected guy back in the day, operating several businesses, including a livery stable, a farm implement store and a pharmacy, among his other enterprises.

He also liked to carry firearms. That, and his apparently short-fused temper, did not promise for lasting relationships. Shemwell became embroiled in a feud with Dr. Payne over an insurance policy, according to a book by former Thomasville Times editor Wint Capel titled The Good Doctor's Downfall (which, interestingly enough, is not about Dr. Payne, but rather Thomasville physician J.W. Peacock, who gunned down Chair City police chief John Taylor in 1921. What the heck...?)

Anyway, Shemwell encountered Dr. Payne on Lexington's Main Street one day (I've been told this was during a break in a court appearance for both), and Shemwell pulled out his pistols and started firing away, killing the doctor, who ended up with a pretty nice and thought-provoking marker in the cemetery.

Shemwell, meanwhile, pleaded self-defense in the ensuing trial and got off. Connections? Maybe.

But apparently he was a nasty guy. He later served time for attempting to shoot down attorneys Wade Phillips and John Bower for refusing to accept a retainer from him. Shemwell served part of a subsequent 30-month sentence working on a chain gang on Highway 47 out toward Central Davidson, which now bears the name of Shemwell Highway.

He once held a gun to a train conductor's belly when he was told the train did not make a scheduled stop in Lexington. It did that day.

Shemwell finally died in, yes, a gunfight on Main Street in 1932. He was 74 at the time, and he intended to shoot down storekeeper Adam Sink, who held several mortgages on property that Shemwell had title to. In the gunplay that followed, Shemwell was brought down by Lexington police chief R.B. Talbert. Shemwell survived long enough to be taken to the hospital, where he died of his wounds.

It's said that Shemwell's final resting place is a secret, but an Internet search revealed an obituary that said, in part, that Shemwell "will be taken to Tyro and laid to rest in the cemetery where the parents of the deceased and other near relatives are buried." It's uncertain whether or not that cemetery still exists. It's uncertain whether or not I will look for it.

Talbert later went on to have a boulevard named after him, where you can now enjoy several Mexican restaurants, pizza, movies, or a workout in a gym.

Ain't history grand?

Coming up: Gen. Bob Sink, two unlikely GAR markers, Cicero Lowe and Harry Anderson.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

www=World Wide Wehrle

I'm still trying to get a handle on this blog thing.

Not the writing part. The computer part.

I started blogging about a month ago just to use as an excuse to write. I like writing. I like to see words actually take shape and form themselves on a blank screen. I like to play with the meaning of words and the meaning of ideas formed by those words. It's fun.

But to blog, I have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of a computer, and that's where it gets a little dicey. All I know about computers is what I learned during my days as a sports writer for The Dispatch. It was a brave new world for me when The Dispatch finally went computerized. I wasn't sure if I could live without my IBM Correcting Selectric Typewriter, especially with its amazing correctable ink cartridge. Man, now that was some high tech stuff. Hit the correcting key and a letter would disappear. Hit it repeatedly and whole words were gone. It was like bringing back a fired bullet.

Anyway, computers arrived and I learned how to log on, create a file, type a story, save, and log off. That was almost two decades ago. I'm not much beyond that now, I fear.

Blogging allows me to continue writing (albeit without a paycheck). One of the interesting features of Blogspot, the vendor I use, is that it has a tab called "Stats" which allows you to track the page views you get from your readers.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I'm not even sure I believe the numbers it throws at me. As a former sports writer, I love to study stats: batting averages, earned run averages, yards per carry, points per game, goals for, goals against. It's endless. Sports statistics are the flotsam and jetsam left floating from the actual games played, and sometimes, they're impossible to ignore. Statistics can be addictive.

So I've noticed that on days I post a new blog, I get, on average, about 35 page views. Cool. On days I don't post anything, I'm still getting about 10-12 page views. So thank you for that, faithful readers. Or, at least, faithful checkers-inners.

What amazes me is there is an international page view stat. Since I've started this blog, I've had 15 page views from Canada, two from Great Britain, two from Russia, two from Japan, one from Singapore, one from Indonesia, and one each from a view other unexpected places.

As far as I know, I have no friends in those countries. I figure these are accidental page views. That can happen, I guess, when somebody reads a friend's blog, then goes to the menu bar at the top of the page and hits "Next Blog," which randomly brings up a blog from somewhere else. Since there's a bazillion blogs out there, you never get the same blog twice.

I asked a friend of mine who used to blog whether she paid attention to the stats tab, and she said she did not. She also warned me to be wary of any responses I might get in broken English because it probably means a spammer has entered my world. This is a little disturbing to me since both my brothers like to communicate with me in broken English.

But I guess it's something I can live with. Nobody said it would be easy to be World Wide Wehrle.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Mardi Gras of basketball

This time, right now, for nearly as long as I can remember, has been one of my favorite times of the year.

It's ACC Tournament time.

Please excuse the ruminations of an old retired sports writer, but apparently, I just can't help myself. So here goes:

In 30 years of writing for The Dispatch, I'm guessing that I was fortunate enough to attend at least 20 ACC Tournaments. Most of those were in Greensboro and a handful of others were in Charlotte.

I always thought Greensboro to be the best venue for the tourney. The coliseum is relatively easy to get to, the arena is intimate enough — at least in the lower level — for fans to make an impact, and Greensboro itself — the historic headquarters city of the ACC — is also pretty much the geographic epicenter of the league.

What I most remember about covering the tournament is the palpable sense of electricity that snapped its way through everything. In the old days, before the conference expanded to 12 teams, the tourney was a three-day affair, and Fridays before the initial opening tip-off were pregnant with possibility. It was always fun making your way through the fans in the parking lot before game time, to drink in (usually by osmosis) their passion, their absurdity, their expectations. Would the actual workplace be so imbued.

The Dispatch always had a two-man sports staff, so covering the tournament meant everything else locally came to a standstill. Guess what? Nobody seemed to mind.

But because we were a small newspaper, we never had two courtside seats. One seat was on press row, the other was where you could find one within the bowels of the coliseum, usually in front of a television monitor. So whichever writer was actually staffing a game then gave up the preferred press row seat to his colleague for the ensuing game. It was a perfect arrangement.

Fridays (and now Thursdays, too) could be endless. Usually, it means at least nine hours of actual real-time basketball with perhaps a three-hour break for dinner. That's not much of a gap between sessions, especially if you are cranking out a story in the meantime. The fourth game of the day usually starts after 9 p.m. and, for some reason, almost always seems to go into overtime. A long day gets longer and the deadline gets shorter.

Sports writers are known for enjoying their perks and two of the best were the pre-tournament lunch buffet and the between session barbecue dinner. For the rest of the day we could snack on all the ice cream, party mix, pretzels, crackers and soft drinks we could consume, without charge. Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch was never a sports writer.

Other freebies sometimes included media gifts (say what???) like T-shirts, pens, writing pads and in very good years, something worthwhile like a leather laptop carry-all bag. I still use mine from the 2003 tournament. That was also the year of the 50th anniversary of the ACC.

People used to tell me how lucky I was that I got to go the tournament, and I guess I was. But if the truth be told, as I got older, I found more joy in watching the games on TV. I mean, I can leave my sofa whenever I want, there's baseline-to-baseline vision of the court, there's instant replay, there's commentary.

Through it all, it's still the ACC Tournament. It's a Mardi Gras of basketball. It's still one of my favorite times of the year.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What the evidence tells me

I've been in an email conversation with an old high school friend of mine lately. She still lives in Pennsylvania, where we first became friends, so we don't get to see each other very often.

When my atrial fibrillation was revealed to me last week, she informed me that she's gone through two heart-related episodes of her own in the past two years that required immediate attention. That was shocking to me — she's just a year older than I am and always seemed to be in excellent health.

Somewhere in the correspondence we became both retrospective and introspective. She noted that sometimes she looks back on her life (she was a special education educator and is now retired) and wonders if she'd change anything. She said she wouldn't even if she could. I'm glad.

But that conversation prompted an old issue for me. I was a sports writer for 30 years and at times wondered what was it that I was doing to make a difference. I mean, really. Sports writing. Even in the newspaper business, sports writing is often referred to as "the toy department" of journalism.

My father was at various times in his life a Moravian minister and a public school English teacher; I have one younger brother who is a registered nurse; another younger brother works for Head Start in Alaska. Many of my friends, curiously enough, are educators or theologians. My wife is a professional secretary (the backbone of any business) and a caregiver to her elderly parent. I don't have to look far to see the difference makers around me.

As a bachelor, I tried to compensate for this perceived void in my life by sponsoring a Navajo Indian child through Save The Children, figuring if nothing else, I had made this one contribution. I did that for about 10 years (until he turned 18), and even now, I still feel pretty good about it.

Now there's bits and pieces of my own retired career occasionally popping back up like long-lost cold case crime scene clues. The two most recent instances occurred within hours of each other the day of my hospitalization.

The woman who wheeled me to my room after I was admitted said my name sounded familiar to her, even though I was sure I'd never met her before. Turns out that I had written a story about her son, 25 years ago, who had qualified for a statewide athletic event in Special Olympics. She thanked me for it. How could she possibly remember, or care, that I had written that story a quarter of a century ago?

A few hours later, an echocardiogram technician arrived to do a sonogram of my heart. In the conversation that ensued, it turned out her husband is recovering from leukemia. I asked her last name, she told me, and I replied that I once covered a very good high school baseball player with that name back in the 1980s, and are you related? "He's my husband," she said. Knock me over with a feather (actually, not hard to do right then). She said they kept all the newspaper clippings from all those years ago.

So what do I make of this residue that actually might be some empirical evidence of the impact of my career, and perhaps of my life?

I'm thinking that as we make our way along our journey we leave behind little deposits of ourselves bobbing in our wake. Those deposits mingle and interact with the countless layers of others, some who become our friends and others who remain acquaintances, influencing us, guiding us, poking us, molding us, just as we do to them. Some of this contact may be instantaneous; some remains dormant for years, maybe even decades.

And maybe it is this point of contact where the difference making lies.

Some mood music:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not the best idea

Here I am ordering a three-cheese pepperoni and sausage pizza while in the middle of my cardizem I-V drip at Lexington Memorial Hospital on Wednesday. Hey, check the numbers are good.

C'mon, I'm kidding. I'm talking with my wife, who had gone back to work with my blessings because all she could do at the hospital was worry. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Never saw this one coming

Sorry that I haven't blogged in several days.

But I didn't have my laptop with me during my 32-hour hospitalization.

Yeah, you read that right. Hospital. The big H. Followed by the big "Oh," as in "Oh, my."

This all came about when I scheduled myself for a physical examination Wednesday, following a health screening on Saturday in which an electrocardiogram revealed an atrial fibrillation in what I always thought was a perfectly normal heart.

So my blood work on Tuesday at 8 a.m. turned into another ECG, which prompted my doctor to have me admitted to Lexington Memorial Hospital by 10 a.m. Never saw that one coming. Apparently, my heart was racing at around 140 beats per minute. I was told it was like my heart was running a sprint while I was standing still.

Through all of this, I never exhibited any symptoms. No sweating, no fatigue, no lightheadedness. Ever. I was still walking my daily four miles per day, no problem. Go figure.

You have to understand that the last time I was admitted to a hospital was 60 years ago. That was the occasion in which I was admitted into the world. Any subsequent trips to hospitals in those years were to visit other people. In that time, I've never had a broken bone, a serious illness or an organ malfunction that required hospitalization.

So being told that I had to go to the hospital kind of punched me in the gut, knocked the wind out of me and raised my anxiety levels several notches.

I imagined myself suddenly having an out of body experience — the hospital gown, the IV tube, the hospital bed, the heart and BP monitor were all happening to me, only I made myself feel like I was watching it happen to someone else. This OOB technique, I think, actually made all the subsequent injections, blood drawings and whatnot that were to come somewhat bearable.

The worst shots were the blood thinners I had to have injected into my abdomen. What? Shots in the belly? Whose bright idea was that? How could they not use my triple-T buttt? Never saw those shots coming, either. I had two of them, several hours apart, each about 2-3 inches from my navel.

Even today, hours after my discharge from the hospital, my abdomen has two large black-and-blue areas on either side of me. I'm telling people this is the side where the bullet went in, and this is the side where the bullet came out. It was a clean through-and-through, missing my vitals by mere centimeters.

The upshot of all this is that my heart rate is down, but it still has not converted to sinus rhythm. So it's medications from here on out, I guess. I'm on a beta blocker for the heart, I continue aspirin therapy for blood thinning to prevent clots, and I start Lipitor for my cholesterol.

I'm officially old now. I can talk medications with any senior around.

Because there is no true history of heart disease in our family, and I've lived a relatively clean lifestyle, the a-fib is apparently a random event for me. Oh, goody. Random events. How do you ever see those coming?