Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Silent courage

If there's one thing I've learned in 30-plus years of sportswriting, it's that sports is mostly about overcoming adversity:

Overcoming a deficit; overcoming an injury; overcoming impossible odds; overcoming the pain in your head to continue playing against an overwhelming opponent and he's laughing at you; overcoming the pain in your heart when you think you don't have the heart to continue any longer.

Sometimes we call that courage, but it's difficult for me to call anything in sports courageous when in fact sports isn't much more than fun and games. The key verb in anything athletic is usually the word "play" — that should tell you something right there. So with that in mind, I don't see any true courage in taking a buzzer-beating jumper; what's so brave about 10-yard game-winning TD run; what's so courageous about a twisting 15-foot birdie putt to win the Masters? Even stock car drivers and jockeys (who are usually professionals paid very well for their services) have made the conscious decision to participate in their chosen field and know the risks they face. Courage becomes a tax deductible write-off.

Sometimes, though, real life gets in the way. The kind of courage I'm talking about can be seen in a person like Jeff Pace, an assistant softball coach at North Davidson who has been diagnosed with incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Pace, 43, who has already lost his ability to speak to the disease, and his family face an uncertain future. His 14-year-old daughter, Haley, is a freshman shortstop for the team.

Jeff and Haley graciously agreed to be interviewed for the story that appears in today's Dispatch (see here). I've never conducted an interview quite like this one before this. Jeff communicated by writing notes in a pad, and sometimes, Haley would answer for him. Sometimes my questions were difficult to ask — I can only imagine that they were difficult to answer.

Over the years I've stumbled into interviews that grew difficult: Pech Ly, a tennis player from Thomasville who won the Lexington city championship in 1992, told me she lost both her parents to the ravages of war in Cambodia, and that her brother died in her arms; I interviewed Darrin and Macon England after their father, iconic Lexington coach Charlie England, passed away; my own father died too young — at 58 — when prostate cancer reached into his bones.

There have been a number of other stories in similar veins over the years, and they all go to serve to the strength of the human spirit in impossible situations. The Paces, as far as I can tell, try to take their lives as it comes, with no agenda other than to make it to the next day. A silent courage, and it is this kind of courage I can appreciate.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Transforming moment

Years ago — decades ago, in fact, when I was probably about 12 years old — we were living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bethlehem is a fiercely proud Moravian town. It was founded on Christmas Eve, 1741, a full 12 years before that other fiercely proud Moravian settlement, Bethabara, which soon would grow to become Winston-Salem. 

Dad, at that time all those decades ago, was a middle-aged student at Moravian Theological Seminary, which is situated on the campus of Moravian College, and not far from the church we attended: College Hill Moravian Church.

Are you getting the picture?

At any rate, one of dad's good friends and classmates, who was a native of Winston-Salem, invited our family to visit his North Carolina home over the Easter break. This had to be in the early 1960s.

I don't remember much about the trip. What I vaguely recall is attending the Easter sunrise service at God's Acre Cemetery and being impressed by the hills on which the remarkably quaint graveyard is located. Little could I foresee that this initial visit to Winston-Salem ironically would herald my own lengthy career in Lexington, less than 25 miles and 13 years away.

Fast-forward through time. It is the early 1980s, I am living in Lexington now and I am married. I haven't shaken off my Moravian roots, but neither have I nourished them. An Easter arrives, and so does my brother and his wife for a visit from Wisconsin. We take them to the sunrise service at God's Acre and it opens a floodgate of ... not memories, exactly, because my memories are fuzzy and incomplete. It's more like emotions: humility, inspiration, contrition.

Sunrise creeps over the trees at God's Acre Cemetery in Winston-Salem.
 More time passes. Several years later, my wife and I attend another sunrise service on a cold and damp April morning. I don't believe there even was a sunrise that year. At least, I don't remember one.

But there was one today. It was glorious. Even though we were late for the start of the service, we made it in time to make the thought-provoking procession up Church Street, from Home Moravian Church to God's Acre. Along the way we — and perhaps 10,000 others — were serenaded by several Moravian brass bands, stationed at various points along the route. One band would play a familiar hymn's refrain, answered in kind by another band at an unseen location, until the hymn traveled around the cemetery from point to point. It served to swell the heart and dampen the eyes.

Morning light etched into the clear sky. Songbirds seemed to be everywhere.

I think this was the 239th sunrise service at God's Acre. My memories are still a little uncertain, but the emotions have ripened and matured with age. There are definite connections with various stages in my life that once were and perhaps with those that are yet to be. One thing is certain: it's clearly a transforming moment.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Photo album of Chattanooga campaign

These ancient daguerreotypes, with accompanying explanatory text, were recently discovered in the attic of an old abandoned building on Missionary Ridge:

The Mr. Rt. Rev. Dr. Col. Lee Onidas Polk Jessup prepares to consecrate a medicinal relaxative (?) procured from the personal collection of fallen comrade Butch Zimmerman while standing next to the North Carolina Monument on Horseshoe Ridge on the Chickmauga battlefield.

Jessup carefully opens the container as the dry, dusty and way-too-eager thirsty troops look on.

A salute is offered to Zimmerman's memory by his surviving compatriots: "See you in hell, Johnny Reb!"

Several seedy members of the Irregular North Carolina Artillery prepare to fire a one-gun salute.

Members of an unnumbered North Carolina partisan unit gather by the 39th North Carolina Monument on the Chickamauga battlefield.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mr. Patriotic

I was covering the high school baseball game between North Davidson and Davie County for The Dispatch the other day when I ran into my friend and photographer Donnie Roberts.

We got to talking about this and that for a few minutes before the game and then we both stood silently for the National Anthem. When the pregame ritual was through, Donnie turned to me and asked, "I wonder how many times you've listened to the National Anthem in your career, Bruce."

Hmm. That's something I've never considered before. But it got me to thinking — no doubt I've shuffled my feet to quite a few. After all, I enjoyed (mostly) a 30-year career with the newspaper, and since I retired five years ago, I've been doing some stringing for The Dispatch as well.

Donnie's question stuck with me. After the game, I went home, found my calculator, and started crunching the numbers.

It goes something like this:

• The high school football season is usually 11 games long, but you have to tack on the postseason as well. Teams like Lexington and Thomasville are almost always getting into the playoffs, thus extending the season. So, on average, I figured I covered 14 football games per year for 35 years, which comes out to something like 490 games. Then, there's the ACC. I'm going to figure that I covered about five ACC games per year for about 25 years, which is an additional 125 games.

That comes to an approximate grand total of 615 football games in my career.

• The prep basketball season, which starts in late November and runs into mid-March by the time the playoffs are through, is on average 17 weeks long. I also covered ACC basketball in that span, so, on average, I'm going to say I covered three games per week for 17 weeks per year for 30 years. That comes out to 1,530 ACC and prep basketball games. And National Anthems.

Now, as a stringer, I cover perhaps one game per week. I've done that for five years, so that's an additional 85 games, for a grand total of 1,615 basketball games. Actually, the grand total of games is considerably more because of all the girls' games I've covered, but we're counting National Anthems here, and usually there's just one National Anthem played in a basketball doubleheader.

• I'm going to combine the high school baseball and softball seasons into one entity because, in actuality, I'm counting events covered in a week. Those seasons, including the playoffs, usually run 13 weeks on average and I would say I covered three events per week, 39 games per season, 1,170 games over 30 years. Tack on five years of stringing and the total is now 1,235 games.

• The American Legion baseball season is an animal — a bear actually — in its own right because you're covering a game almost every night from late May until July, and perhaps even longer depending on how well the team does in the playoffs. Plus, we usually covered Post 8's away games, too. So, on average, I'm going to say I covered 20 Legion games per season for 30 years, or 600 games. Tack on about 10 more games as a stringer for the past five years and the grand total is 610 games.

• Then there are the minor sports. I'm going to add 100 events over my 30-year career to cover National Anthems that might have been played at wrestling matches, tennis tournaments, track meets, swim meets, stock car races and anything else that might have required a show of patriotism.

That comes to an approximate grand total of 4,175 National Anthems I've listened to. Most were recordings. Some were done live. Some were very good. And others, well, if you can't say anything nice...

But, geez, 4,175 National Anthems. That just might make me the most patriotic man in America, or close to it.

Now here's a little more food for thought. I traveled on average 20 miles per game. Most of the high schools were within 10 miles, one way, of The Dispatch. But then there were trips to Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and what not, and during the playoffs, we'd practically drive to the ends of the earth. So, with an average mileage of 20 miles per trip, I drove approximately 83,500 business miles in my career.

And how many athletes did I cover? Football teams usually carry about 40 players, while baseball and softball teams have about 15 each and basketball teams have about 12 each. Add the minor sports, and take into account athletes who play multiple sports, let's say that's an average of 100 athletes per school. There are eight public schools in Davidson County, meaning there are 800 athletes per season. That's 24,000 athletes over 30 years. I know some athletes play two or three seasons in their careers, skewing the total a bit, but I have not taken into account the private schools, like Sheets Memorial, Union Grove or Westchester Academy, which also demanded our attention. But I'll downgrade that to about 20,000 athletes, which is probably a fair representation.

Holy smokes. No wonder I can't remember their names.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Take me out to the ball game

What the heck is this?

Sometimes I wonder who is in charge of designing team logos. Some creations just don't make any sense at all. Some, like the one seen here, are just plain creepy.

OK, OK. I know. The nickname for the Chattanooga Double-A minor league baseball team is the Lookouts, thanks mostly because of nearby landmark Lookout Mountain that casts its formidable presence over the city. So there is more than just a little logic to naming the team the Lookouts. In fact, I think it's a great nickname.

Perhaps, alternatively, the team could have been named the River Benders because of the gigantic twist the Tennessee River takes around town. Or the Missionaries, because of another looming geological formation, Missionary Ridge, that hugs the city.

But Lookouts is good. And famous. Lookouts were playing baseball in Chattanooga as far back as 1885. I'm just not so sure about the logo, though. A pair of heavily-lidded, not-too-alert cartoon eyeballs. No clue that it even represents a baseball team. If I were the team logo designer, I'd at least consider using something like binoculars to represent a team called the Lookouts.

The Davidson County Civil War Round Table was in Chattanooga this past weekend to take in historic battlefield sites like Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge and Chickamauga. Those areas consumed most of our daylight hours. But during the evenings, at least seven or eight of us took in the Lookouts on both Friday and Saturday nights.

Groundskeepers prepare the infield prior to a game with the Smokies.

The team plays its games at AT&T Field, located on the top of a rise that gives a commanding view of the landscape beyond the outfield fence.

And you can't find a better value for your dollar, or in this case, your two dollars. General admission seats are $4, but with a senior citizens discount, you can get in for wallet-saving $2. That's considerably cheaper than a gallon of gas, thus giving you more bang for your emotional mileage.

The Lookouts are the Double-A farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. There is an area behind the right field foul line called Lasorda's Landing, named for the iconic former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. This is a little annoying for a Phillies' fan such as myself, but since I was in enemy territory I tried to make the most of it. So I attempted to blend in with a ballpark hot dog, soft pretzel and a soft drink the best that I could. I don't think I was found out. I even rooted (reluctantly) for the Lookouts in their games against the Tennessee Smokies, a Chicago Cubs' farm team that is from Kodak, TN, just a few miles east of Knoxville.

All in all, the weekend was spectacular. The group got its fill of Civil War history laced with a little baseball.

Now I'm primed for the Winston-Salem Dash and/or the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Anyone coming?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

March of the Alpha males

What do you get when you combine two Marines (including a former drill sergeant), at least three lawyers, a graduate of Annapolis, an ordained minister, a realtor, two independent businessmen, three or four county planners, a retired sports editor and perhaps three or four other retired servicemen types?

How about the march of the Alpha males?

This was the overabundant collection of testosterone that composed the Davidson County Civil War Round Table on its recent foray into Chattanooga this past weekend. Who, exactly, do you leave in charge here?

It sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster. After all, most of us left Davidson County on two different days in separate vehicles with the calculated aim of converging at the Chattanooga Comfort Inn sometime on Friday. One member of our group even flew in from Arkansas. In all, there were probably about 18 of us, although I'm not certain anybody stood still long enough for anything resembling an accurate head count.

But somehow, it all worked out. And in one magical moment, nearly all of us arrived together for the first time during the trip on the top of Lookout Mountain Friday afternoon. That was cool.

Well, it almost all worked out.

Midway through our five-hour guided tour Saturday of the Chickamauga battlefield conducted by another Alpha male, a college history professor, we broke for lunch. Most of us got the message.

One didn't.

Actually, I think it was more of a miscommunication. He was in a car that was about to break off from the main group to head to Atlanta, and somehow, he missed hitching a ride with somebody else to the restaurant. We were probably two-thirds of the way through our meal when someone asked, "Where's Andy?"


I'm not sure how this can happen in an era of cell phones, iPhones, iPads, MaxiPads and what else, but it did.

In fact, it happened to me last year. We were at Antietam last April. Most of us had taken the afternoon off for our senior power naps, but apparently, as the Alphas woke up and headed off in their various social groups to their various destinations, I'm not sure anyone bothered to ask, "Where's Bruce?"

I made a couple of cell phone calls to the numbers I had with me, but those calls went directly to voice mails. Lot of good that did. I was left to wander the streets of Shepherdstown on my own for several hours until, walking back the couple miles to the motel, one vehicle of our group happened to drive by and gave me a lift for the final grueling 400 yards.

I've been told this also happened to yet another member — the drill sergeant — several years ago.

As Alphas, I guess we're expected to be able to fend for ourselves in these situations, and that's fine, even though it's a little disconcerting to be left behind somewhere when you're 350 miles from home, without wheels, and all you can do is leave appropriately air-turned-blue-laced voice mails to people you consider to be some of your best friends at most other times.

Andy, as it turned out, waited patiently for us at the battlefield's visitors' center. We brought him his lunch in a to-go box, so he was happily refueled and refreshed for the second half of our tour. He remained remarkably calm.

Maybe he knew it was just his turn.

With this precedent for losing its members already established for this club, I'm kind of wondering where next year's trip will be? The Wilderness perhaps?

I suppose we could pepper the group with a few Beta males here and there to kind of act as file closers. The only trouble with that is who admits to being a Beta male? And once you put a Beta in charge, doesn't he then become an Alpha? So then you're back to where you started, which makes us all Omega men. I don't know. It's all Greek to me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Getting away

There's nothing better than a little getaway to revitalize the spirits.

So, when the Davidson County Civil War Round Table, a mostly unofficial community of about 25 American Civil War buffs of which I am a member in good standing (at least I think am, since I am the only true Yankee in its ranks, and have been for perhaps 25 years), planned its spring campaign to Chattanooga, TN, I was there.

I'd never been to Chattanooga. About all that I knew about the place was that apparently a choo choo passed through there and Glenn Miller performed a nifty little song about it. I also knew that a couple of significant Civil War battles were fought there in late 1863 — Chickamauga is less than a half-hour away while Chattanooga sits in the shadow of both Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, which offer stunning vistas of the city and the Tennessee River, which makes a sensational S-bend through the town.

Lookout Mountain (distant left) as seen from Missionary Ridge.
Chattanooga is considered to be in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Anything not east of the Appalachian Mountain chain would be in the west, and that's why I jumped on the opportunity to go to Chattanooga. Most of my ACW knowledge and experience is eastern-theater centric. First off, it's easy — I live within a day's ride of most of the eastern battlefields, from Gettysburg to Savannah, from Ball's Bluff to Bentonville, and consequently, I've seen most of the major eastern fields. Several times over, in fact. Just ask my wife.

The east gets most of the press, too, probably because the two opposing capitals, Washington DC and Richmond, are approximately 100 miles from each other. That in itself would attract a lot of attention. It certainly did back in the day.

But a sound argument can be made that the Union actually won the Civil War in the western theater. That would be especially true by controlling the Mississippi River and thus splitting the Confederacy in two, which would also deny the south such resources as copper (for primer caps), gun powder manufacturing and transportation hubs. And that's pretty much what happened.

Anyway, our group finally gathered itself and most of its membership by Friday afternoon on the top of Lookout Mountain, where we were amazed that the Union could knock the Confederates off the high ground. Mostly, we just enjoyed the spectacular view.

Some of us later went to Missionary Ridge on the east side of town. Again, the Confederates where forced to give up the high ground, an action that allowed the Union to control Chattanooga and use the place as a staging area for Gen. William T. Sherman's subsequent march into Georgia, and later into Savannah and the Carolinas.

Our visit to Chickamauga, meanwhile, was marked by a five-hour tour conducted by a history professor from nearby Dalton State College, who took a complicated, convoluted battle and turned it into something most of us could understand. He was very, very good.

The highlight of the day was a toast at the North Carolina marker on Snodgrass Hill, by the round table membership, to fallen comrade Butch Zimmerman. This toast may or may not have involved a bottle of Zimmerman's select bourbon, brought along (maybe) to mark the occasion of his passing a few days prior to the excursion. It seemed somehow appropriate, if in fact it actually happened. I'm not sure it did because it may or may not be illegal to consume alcoholic beverages on federal property. We can only hope and assume that Butch, a distinguished district attorney with a zeal for anything southern, would have approved.

I guess you could say we revitalized Zimmerman's spirit, too.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Walking though history — additional addendum

I've gotten to where I really appreciate the genealogical section of the Davidson County Library. My recent walks through the Lexington City Cemetery raised some interesting questions about the history of some of the people buried there, and the library has been a great resource for me in answering some of those questions.

The latest revelations unearthed to me (so to speak) were concerning Cicero F. Lowe, whose signature appears on the $5 and $10 notes of the Bank of Lexington, where he served as the bank's cashier. The bank itself had a short lifespan, from 1859 to 1866, but interestingly enough, those dates covered the Civil War years. And many of those bank notes still can be found as keepsakes at various locations in town.

So what else did I learn about Cicero Francis Lowe?

According to an excerpt from The Lowes of Lowes Grove and Century Oaks, as furnished by the library, Lowe was a  lifelong resident of Davidson County, born in 1817 and died in 1892. He operated a general store at the corner of Main and First Avenue (Cafe 35 location? The corner is unspecified), and he also served as clerk of court for 28 years. After a short tenure as the cashier for the Bank of Lexington (which was located where Conrad and Hinkle now stands), he served a term in the North Carolina House of Representatives.

He was married twice: to Barbara Miller, who mothered four children; then to Mary Thompson, with whom he had three more kids.

There was one striking piece of information about Lowe that was printed in the Jan. 11, 1937 edition of The Dispatch in an article about outstanding figures in the town's history. It's very reminiscent of a certain newspaper publisher for whom I once worked. It reads: "One of the most unique and powerful figures in the history of Lexington and the county was Squire C.F. Lowe. Large of body, irascible in temper, domineering in voice and manner, he was a terror to wild and mischievous boys of the neighborhood who surrounded him. Yet, behind it all, his heart was as warm and tender as that of a little child. His manner appeared overbearing, but it was only his way, and he never harmed anyone but himself in trusting too much to the honesty of others. His wife, Mary Thomson...was perhaps the kindest and sweetest-hearted woman that ever lived in town."

Holy smokes. If I never believed in reincarnation before, I just might now.

And, I've been told, that Joe Sink was born in 1937.