Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year?

There was a time when I looked forward to a new year.

But not so much anymore.

I think I might have outgrown the New Year's concept. I mean, it's all arbitrary anyway. January 1 basically serves as the demarcation date for starting over. And "starting over" basically  implies a series or collection of goofs, mistakes, errors, miscalculations and Lord knows what else that were made in the previous 365 days that got us to where we are anyway.

This sounds grossly pessimistic, although I am by nature (I think) not a pessimistic person. It just is,  because there is no such thing as perfection in our human condition.

So we muddle on.

Yes, yes, yes. Good stuff does happen, and that, too, is part of our condition. But very few of us wish each other a happy new year for the good stuff to keep continuing. Peel back the layers and it's likely we'll see that we wish each other happy new year in the hope that things get better for all of us.

It's a good wish to have.

I used to like New Year's because it is a continuation of the holiday season, coming on the heels of Christmas, as it does. We're in winter, and we need reasons to celebrate while freezing our tails off. Plus, we get a lot of time off. Holiday time off from school all those years, which actually conditioned me in my adulthood to expect time off from work. I still feel it. Talk about entitlement, sheesh....

Anyway, I'd park myself in front of the television around 11 p.m. and watch Dick Clark count down the new year, drink some cheap champagne, kiss my wife, and hope the new year would somehow be better than the old one.

Turns out, the new year almost always pretty much resembles the one we just put into the history books. It usually takes me to Jan. 2 to figure that out.

Still... I don't have to stay up late to see the crystal ball drop in Times Square. I don't have to drink my bubbly vinegar, or kiss my friends on the cheek, to reach another demarcation date. But I still do, only now with a seasoned eye and an earlier bed time.

So Happy New Year. Toot the horns and let the streamers and confetti fall.

We get to start over, my friends. Muddle on.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A holiday feast

Christmastime is a feast for the senses, full of sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

So what is the one thing that sensuously stands out in my mind?

I miss the smell of ozone. Specifically, electric ozone. And more specifically, the electric ozone that wafted from the Lionel HO scale train that circled endlessly underneath the Christmas tree.

When we lived in Fountain Hill, Pa., back in the 1950s, and Santa Claus was still a believable annual visitor to our house (What, you mean he isn't?), one of the things he brought was the train set.

No, wait. You don't understand me. He brought the train set, along with the gifts. And the tree. Each year. Yep, that's how Santa worked at our house. My brother and I would go to sleep on Christmas Eve in an undecorated house, save for a single wreath on the front door, only to wake up in the morning with a fully lighted tree in the living room soaring from a mound of gifts. Oh, yeah, and with a six-car Lionel steam locomotive chasing its caboose — and nearly catching it — around the tree.

I can't imagine how my parents hustled to get all this stuff together in a single night. I mean, a tree? With lights and tinsel and glass balls and all those other ornaments? C'mon. Really. A different time, I guess. A different era.

Anyway, dad was the engineer of this train. After the presents were opened, we'd sit by the tree. Dad would flick on the control box, and the little engine that could sprang immediately into life, jumping into full speed like a sprinter from a cloud of blue ozone.


The thing was, my brother and I could never operate it ourselves. That was dad's domain.

Over the years, as we got older and Santa was less believable, the train display grew. It eventually took over our living room year-round, set up as it was on an old Ping Pong table, and included scenery: tunnels, trestles, crossing gates, water towers and train stations. There were two trains: the original steam locomotive, and a diesel. It was great. I wonder how mom ever let dad get away with it. I don't recall us ever entertaining guests, other than dad bringing in his male friends to the house to check out his train display. They could play with it — but we couldn't.

There is one other vivid memory I have. A few years later — maybe our last in Fountain Hill, around 1958 — and I was beginning to understand that Santa was more of a Christmas sentiment than a Christmas sentinel — dad had the entire family trudge through our quaint little hillside village to purchase a tree a few days before Christmas. It was snowing, and it was in the evening. It could have been a scene stolen straight from the Norman Rockwell collection.

But we bought our tree, put it on the sled we brought with us and lugged it back to the house, snowflakes kissing our faces along the way. How could I know then that this would stay with me for more than 50 years?

We set the tree up that night, without Santa's help, and turned on the string of colored lights. The ozone was gone, but the Fraser Fir more than compensated.

So did the Tollhouse cookies and the hot chocolate.

Merry Christmas all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The heavy heart

My original intent today was to write about a childhood Christmas memory, particularly about selecting and then decorating a tree. As a child, those were awesome days for me, and awesome times.

But I can't seem to shake the horror of Newtown, Connecticut.

Of the mass shootings in my lifetime — the first one I can remember is the shooting spree from the clock tower on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, in which 14 people were killed (among them the shooter's mother and his wife) and 32 were wounded — the slaughter in Connecticut seems most grievous and most heinous to me.

This is no doubt because of the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 20 of them were first graders, 6 and 7 years old, all with multiple gunshot wounds. Somehow, to my mind, this transcends Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora — as if it were even possible to raise the bar on senseless horror.

But, geez. Kids. Kids at Christmastime. Their time.

We're learning that many of the teachers at this school performed heroically, perhaps saving untold scores of young lives. And that is wonderful, and amazing, and a triumph of human spirit, until I realize that teachers should not be heroes in the soldierly sense. I want them to be my heroes in the professional sense. Dodging bullets should not be in the job description.

So my heart is particularly heavy. I'm glued to the television news until I can't stand anymore, walk away for a little bit, then come running back for more to fill my information vacuum. I don't think it's a ghoulish voyeurism that motivates me here — I think it's more a quest to try to understand why. Why. Why.

The answer most likely will not come from television. It might even be unanswerable, I don't know.

So I'll continue to shed the unchecked occasional tear, swallow hard my emotions and try to balance the heart that weighs heavy on my soul.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The end is near, Part DOH!

Kim and I were fitfully running around earlier this week, trying to get the rest of our Christmas shopping done.

We even made a dreaded trip to Winston-Salem Thursday night to go to the mall, hoping to beat the crowd as Dec. 25 approaches.

Then it hit me: Dec. 21 is the end of the world. What am I worried about?

This is probably about the 33rd Doomsday Proclamation that I've been so forewarned in my lifetime, and miraculously, I've survived them all. This one has something to do with the end of the Maya long count calendar on Dec. 21 and is somehow connected with an impending collision on that date with a planet called Nibiru that nobody has ever heard of before.

I don't know how the prescient ancient Mayas knew this would happen or even why the Mayas seem to have so much credibility — as opposed to the ancient Aztecs or the ancient Incas — in this matter. I'm not sure I'm going to spend the next 12 days worrying about it, though. What you don't hear too much about is that the Maya calendar begins a new cycle on Dec. 22, which in itself implies continuation of life as we know it, even for the Mayas.

Buuuut, you never know.

NASA has put out a nice FAQ page explaining why it's best not to stop wrapping your gifts (see here), but I wonder if it's still best to hedge your bets. Anything can happen. I suppose we could wake up Dec. 21 and the atmosphere has suddenly turned to hydrochloric acid, or better yet, nitrous oxide. Then we could laugh ourselves to death. Maybe the seas will rise up or maybe the sun will explode. Who knows?

I always kind of wondered what it would be like if gravity simply stopped working.

I do find it a little disturbing that this end-of-the-world event is scheduled just a few days ahead of Christmas.

So now I'm thinking I might hedge my bet in the opposite direction. I'm betting I better not stop shopping for Christmas gifts. Anyway, not until I get my 34th Doomsday Proclamation.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Getting ready

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means we have just a little more than three weeks left until Christmas.

Usually, the First Sunday in Advent is the last Sunday in November. I'm not quite sure why it's waited to fall on the first Sunday of December this year, but if I was industrious enough to find out, I might learn that that extra 29th day back in February might have something to do with it: ah, yes. Leap Year.

Leap Year might also go a long way to explain why there are five Sundays this month as well as five Saturdays. But maybe not. I don't know. That calendarian Julius Caesar is long gone, no doubt buried under all those centuries of 29-day Februarys.

My Moravian star and flag announce the Advent season.
Anyway, it's now the Advent season. The First Sunday usually is my signal to get started decorating the house, and this happens in spurts and fits. Most of our decorations are hidden away deep in the back corner of a walk-in closet upstairs. That means climbing steps. Then it means groping through a forest of old clothes and winter jackets while tripping over bags of storage on the floor to get to the Christmas candles and artificial wreaths bagged on a back shelf.

And you don't want to step on a bag. If you do, and you hear a sound like Styrofoam crunching under your heels, well, it's probably best to tell the wife right off what happened so as not to spoil the rest of December for either of you. I'd probably feel so bad I don't even think I could look inside the bag to see what crunched.

My closet strategy is to keep the the stuff I use most often near the front for easy access. But somehow, during the course of the year, stuff migrates. I don't know how this happens. Consequently, it took me 20 minutes to locate my bag of candles, which I thought were up front but turned out to be near the back of the closet, underneath a bunch of other stuff. It took me less than 10 minutes to put the candles in four windows after I found them. Sheesh.

I also hung my Moravian star. This requires converting my front porch light into a receptacle for the star, which in itself is not difficult. Unless you're me. I have to climb a two-step ladder to get to the light, which does not lend itself to a stable sense of security as you might think. Plus, the star itself is not particularly easy to handle what with all those plastic points jutting out everywhere.

Making matters somewhat difficult is the fact that my star is about 10 years old now. Some of the plastic rivets holding the points together have become brittle and have broken off, or are about to, so now I handle the star with extra care. I halfway expect to see star debris on my porch one morning.

I also noticed that after I hung my star and turned on the switch, the light momentarily flickered. Uh-oh. My star has given me good service over the years, but it's time may be near. Look at it this way: I keep my star lit through all of December. That's 31 days. Now figure I've done this for 10 or 11 years, and you suddenly realize I've had it lit every day for a full year. Can I get another season out of it? We'll see.

I also hung my oversized Moravian Love Feast flag, which features a mug of coffee, a Love Feast bun and an iconic Moravian candle with curled ribbon at the base. It's a great flag.

I haven't hung the wreaths yet. That's a combined project with the wife, and we'll probably tackle that one in the next week or so.

At least I know where they are in the closet.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Full disclosure: My birthday is Feb. 12. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. So even as a child, I found what I took to be a personal connection with Abraham Lincoln, with whom I shared my birthday. It gave me a way to touch and admire greatness. I regarded then — and still do — the connection as something special.

It is no doubt at least partially because of this accident of birth that I came to be inexorably interested in the Civil War. I grew up reading the age-appropriate books about Lincoln and the war and, when finally reaching adulthood, my interest grew to where I now have a personal library of more than 100 volumes on the conflict.

This doesn't make me an expert; it just makes me a history buff.

In any case, when I learned several years ago that iconic movie director Steven Spielberg was planning a flick on Lincoln, I was both joyous and cautious. While a magnificent storyteller (I still shudder at the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan), I had some reservations about Spielberg doing something on Lincoln, especially with his predilection for occasionally going over the top and into deep space (recall the final sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

What was I worried about?

Kim and I went to Salisbury Thanksgiving Day morning to take in the 11:40 a.m. early bird showing of Lincoln (only $4.75 apiece, although the shared large diet Coke and ginormous bucket of popcorn nearly bankrupted me for the week). Good idea. There were only 20 people in the theatre.

I was taken aback almost immediately by actor Daniel Day-Lewis' appearance as the 16th president. Based on photographs we know of Lincoln, it was eerily right on. So were the resemblances of other actors to their historical counterparts: Sally Field was great as Mary Todd Lincoln, as was David Strathairn as William Seward; Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert Lincoln; and quite spectacularly, Jackie Earle Haley was spot-on as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens.

Aside from the physical resemblances, the script was engrossing. The movie is really about the backroom machinations to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolishes slavery forever — passed through the House. This is something that Lincoln was passionate about; he eagerly signed the passed amendment even though as president he was not required to do so. The movie clearly defines Lincoln's passion for the project.

Consequently, this is a movie full of intelligent dialogue and not so much of saber light swords and exploding planets.

While Hollywood has a tendency to distort history in an effort to entertain and keep bottoms in their seats, Lincoln was still very compelling. Because it's history, we know how it ends. That's what makes the challenge even more gripping for Spielberg, et al, and I believe they succeeded.

(Curiously, I just watched, for the first time, The King's Speech on television last night. This is another almost exclusively dialogue movie, and I was hooked. Hey, I like to see stuff blow up as much as anybody. But sometimes it's refreshing to be treated as an adult by smart screenplay.)

Yes, there might be a nit to pick here and there. The opening sequence where a couple of soldiers end up reciting bits of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln is no doubt a fabrication — nobody was reciting that speech two years after Lincoln gave it — but coupled as a bookend with a flashback scene of the Second Inaugural (a speech arguably even greater than the Gettysburg Address), this storytelling device is powerful.

Full disclosure: Lincoln is an exceptional movie, more than I expected with my boatload of expectations. I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The great getaway

It used to be an annual event, the Wehrles and the Egelnicks riding together to go to Richmond, Va., for the Capital of the Confederacy Civil War Show.

But life got in the way the past three years and we couldn't make it.

Until this year.

So last Saturday, we hopped in the Egelnick's vehicle for a much-needed getaway to a really neat city.

My, things have changed.

The show itself has gotten smaller. Held in an agricultural building at the Richmond Fairgrounds, near the speedway, there clearly were fewer vendors. That's OK though. We had a bit more elbow room walking up and down the aisles looking at the artifacts. It's kind of like going to a museum.

Even our wives seem to enjoy it — I think. They check out the estate jewelry and mentally calculate whether or not they can afford the rubies and pearls and diamonds and amethysts from 150 years ago.

Occasionally, Jay and I might buy a memento or two for our own personal collections, but not so much anymore. Even though the economy still suffers, prices on Civil War artifacts seem to be going through the ceiling.

We didn't stay at the show very long and we'd hoped to find rooms at our favorite bed and breakfast in the historic Church Hill district, located near the Shockoe Bottom area. But the B&B has since gone out of business.

We ended up staying at a hotel that was playing host to about 100 pre-teen soccer girls, who took great delight in running up and down the hallways deep into the night. Sigh.

Anyway, a few things haven't changed. We went to the River City Diner and ordered our usual — the Rochester Garbage Plate.

The Rochester Garbage Plate. This one was actually from about four years ago.
I know. It sounds horrible. Garbage Plate. But it tastes great. It's a conglom-eration of baked beans, cole slaw, hash browns, potato salad and two grilled specialty hot dogs sliced in half down the middle, all of it slathered in cheddar cheese.

Yes. It is a heart attack on a plate. But, hey. This happens just one day out of the year. My rationale was that maybe a plate of this stuff would actually slap my A-fib back into rhythm.

In truth, the plate is so large that I split it with my wife. I once could eat large helpings of food, but as I've grown older, I just can't seem to handle it anymore.

The next day is usually reserved for our trip to Fredericksburg, about an hour north of Richmond and another center of Civil War interest. We usually spend a little time on the battlefield, a little time in the bookstore, and then walk through the historic downtown area, which is very pedestrian friendly, and do a little shopping.

Kim patiently waits for her ice cream at Carl's.
Inevitably, we stop at Carl's. (See here)

I discovered Carl's after watching a PBS segment on ice cream several years ago. Kim and I tried it on our own and declared it to be a little piece of heaven. We told the Egelnick's about it, and I've also had an opportunity to take my Civil War Round Table there for a treat.

It's soft-serve ice cream, and sometimes people call it frozen custard, although technically (and maybe legally) it's either one or the other because of the number of egg yolks that are used. In any case, it's an exceptional delight that's been around since 1947.

After our foray into Fredericksburg, we head back to Richmond and do a little more shopping in an old commercial neighborhood called Carytown, which is, interestingly enough, located on Cary Street, near the Fan District.

By this time, we are usually hungry again, and this time, we make our way to Fan District staple Strawberry Street Cafe, which, interestingly enough, is located on Strawberry Street. Even though the place has a varied menu, it has a world class chicken pot pie that I can't refuse. I always order it, without fail.

Our stay in Richmond usually lasts something like 50 hours. But it's 50 hours well spent.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


She took my breath away 11 years ago. That's when I first laid eyes on her.

She was a Norwegian Forest Cat, something of a rarity in this country and full of the mystery that her Scandinavian breeding implied, and I had wanted one for a while. I just liked the idea of having a Wegie — long-haired, long-tailed, long-named. Perfect.

Mosey takes a moment for herself after a busy day of being a faithful friend.
And from that point on, what a journey it was. She knew her name, Mosey, within the first two weeks, and she would appear, almost without fail, when summoned. Smart. A conniver. She would set ambushes on Do-Little, her gullible Ragdoll housemate, and they'd play together. And eat together. And sleep together.

She didn't meow. She chirped, like a tribble. Tribbles don't really exist, of course; a figment from Star Trek. But Mosey was real, and she chirped. Constantly. She found her voice and used it to melt — what, hearts? Bad karma? Bad vibes?

In the curious translucent integration of species, we became fast friends. She was self-sufficient and yet totally dependent on her humans. But steadfastly loyal. And get this: I somehow became dependent on her and I don't know how that happened.

Do pets know how to love? Perhaps they don't and we only want them to, because only then it seems as if they can love us without qualification, and subsequently we are somehow better for it. We somehow feel a safer warmth ourselves.

This morning, Mosey took my breath away once more. She'd been in decline as a result of renal failure. We discovered two years ago that one of her kidneys had atrophied and the other was under stress. So we managed her health through diet and hopefully we bought her some quality time. I think we did.

Still, inevitability lurked. There was the heart murmur; the constant congestion; the bad kidney that may have been the root cause of her slide; the unstoppable weight loss in the last month.

So when I saw her sitting still this morning, not chirping, not interested in food, not interested in me for the first time in 11 years, my breath rushed out of my lungs, with a groan, to where I couldn't catch my breath, and I knew it was time. Sometimes you don't know. Sometimes you want to hang on a little longer. But I couldn't do that to my friend. I asked my wife, Kim, how she felt, and she tearfully concurred.

So we went to the vet one last time, stroked her fur and said our farewell. And then she was gone.

I'm still trying to catch my breath, of course. I thought with another cat in the house that the grief wouldn't be so difficult to bear, and yet, I'm surprised to find an emptiness that lingers, like an unanswerable question, in those familiar places.

Places where Mosey took my breath away.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lexington Historic District, Part III

On Thursday, Tammy Absher, Lexington's Director of Community and Business Development, asked the Lexington Historic Preservation Commission to present the proposed local historic district and its final draft of design regulations to City Council for approval.

The commission subsequently unanimously approved the recommendation.

This happened in front of maybe 10 approving and like-minded people sitting in the gallery. I was one of them, along with my wife, Kim. "Finally," I thought to myself. This could actually happen. I could hardly suppress my smile and pleasure. I wanted to high-five somebody.

The next step is that the proposal for Lexington's pilot local historic district (inclusive of West Center Street to West 3rd Avenue east to west, and South State Street to South Payne Street north to south) will be reviewed by the Planning Board, and from there, with their recommendations, be presented to City Council for its consideration to be added as an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

I'm excited about this. I even went up to the podium and spoke into the microphone to tell the commission how excited I was. (I'd never publicly spoke into a mic before; it was a little unnerving and somewhat distracting to hear my voice amplified). I think it's now in the public record that I used the incredibly articulate phrase "smack dab" as I gave my street address and described how close to the middle of the proposed district I lived, as in Smack Dab in the middle (well, I am, more or less).

All of this has been a while in coming. There have been a series of public meetings, sometimes contentious, as input from the community was digested and then drafted and redrafted in to the final guidelines designed to specifically fit Lexington. From what I can tell, the end result is a set of regulations far more relaxed and flexible than the original draft. To me, it's perfect.

Kim and I both think it's a win-win situation. Why? No tax monies are involved in this, yet we have a chance to preserve the architecture, heritage and character of a neighborhood that is more than 100 years old. We have a chance to stabilize neighborhood property values in an unstable economy; we have an opportunity to protect our neighborhood from any encroaching commercialization. Perhaps just as importantly, we might be able to create a legacy of preservation and stewardship to pass on to future generations. This town has already lost significant structures, I'd hate to see it lose any more.

This is not a done deal yet.

But at least we're moving forward. We've given ourselves a chance.

Friday, November 2, 2012


What is it that's so appealing about Halloween?

The candy? The kids? The fun? All of the above?

My wife, Kim, and I look forward to October 31 almost every year with a fair amount of anticipation. We almost always seem to enjoy seeing the Trick or Treaters come to the house wearing their costumes along with their excitement.

Some of the children are unbearably cute and others are incredibly creative. One year, we had a kid come to the house dressed as a cardboard commode. You put his candy in the toilet bowl after he lifted the commode lid for you. It was hilarious.

A steady stream of kids came to our house this year. It never changes.
I was never that creative. The best homemade costume I had was when my mom dressed me in an oversized flannel shirt and blue jeans and stuffed straw in the cuffs and ankles, which were then tied off with twine. I went trick or treating as a scarecrow, itching and scratching the whole night.

I remember in my early years, when I was about 5 or 6, we collected our candy in a paper lunch bag. But when we moved to Connecticut, the kids had graduated to pillow cases.  We pulled in a ton of candy with that ploy. Mom was not amused, but dad was forever grateful as he took his percentage of treats as payment for being our guardian.

When I got older, into my teens, I went Trick or Treating for UNICEF as a church project. It was a way to raise money for kids in underdeveloped countries. We'd go out in teams of two and ring doorbells and sometimes people were nice enough to give us nickels, dimes and quarters. This was back in the mid-1960s.

Evey once in a while we'd be tested by the homeowner. "Can you tell me what UNICEF stands for?" they'd ask.

"United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund," I'd reply and hold out my official UN money container. Occasionally I'd see either joy or disappointment by those adults because I knew what it stood for, and they'd plop in their coins. Some reluctantly.

Afterwards, we'd go back to the church for cider and doughnuts, a treat which I now always associate with Halloween.

Kim and I saw our thrill for Halloween multiply by the Nth degree after we moved to Second Avenue nearly 10 years ago. We had moved into an older neighborhood that had sidewalks, and that made a difference. Suddenly, Halloween became a safe, walkable community event. The streets and sidewalks looked like a shopping mall — kids were criss-crossing the street everywhere. It was amazing — and still is.

A few years ago, out of curiosity, I head-counted all the kids who came to the door (this no doubt being a precursor to me estimating Barbecue Festival crowds) and came up with something like 105 kids before we ran out of candy and shut down for the night.

It's been that way ever since. We had well over 100 kids this year, even though we weren't counting, and the weather was cold and blustery, and it was a school night. But it was nearly nonstop from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

So another Halloween has come and gone, and it was a royal treat in itself.

I can't wait until next year.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Festival time

After my previous blog, in which I wrote my Master's thesis explaining how 200,000 people can squeeze into nine blocks of Uptown Lexington for the annual Barbecue Festival, I feel compelled to give a crowd estimate on this year's event.

So how many people were here? Don't ask me. I dunno.

Ask Joe Sink.

Sink, the former publisher of The Dispatch and a founder of the event 29 years go, now serves as the Festival's honorary chairman and people counter. He is on the record as saying this year's crowd was as large as last year's, which he estimated to be 200,000 in both 2011 and 2010.

He may be right, although I think there are some indicators to suggest the crowd was a bit smaller this time. The weather (the most critical factor) was dicey as wind-blown and wide-ranging millibars from a potential offshore hurricane brought overcast skies and threatened rain most of the day.

The noontime crowd on the Square seemed smaller than in past years.

 Conse-quently, I think fewer people showed up. It felt like there was less jostling and shoulder bumping on Main Street during the early hours of the Festival. Also, the number of cars that use the parking lot in the business behind my house did not seem as full later in the day as in previous years.

So I'm guessing somewhere between 180,000 to 190,000 people showed up. Inevitably, not all Barbecue Festivals are going to be jam-packed — relatively speaking, of course.

Having said that, my wife, Kim, and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves this year. Usually, we arrive around 7:30 a.m. to beat the crowd and stay until about 10 a.m. or so. Then we skedaddle before the hungry throng becomes ravenous and simply devours you.

That was our original plan for this year, too. So after our traditional 10:30 barbecue brunch, we headed back for home — until we heard Lexington's Ken Davis and his trio-plus-one performing on the local stage and froze us in our footsteps. That kept us for another hour.

It was here that Kim ran into two high school classmates, Kelly Sink and Becky Frazier. Together, the three of them sat on the asphalt of First Avenue in front of Ken's performance and planned a spontaneous 34th annual class reunion for that evening.

Underhill Rose performs at the Barbecue Festival.
Afterwards, Kim and I took a 45-minute break to recoup. We nixed the idea of going home, because we wanted to see Underhill Rose perform at Stage 4, which would happen in less than an hour. So we made one more quick loop through Main Street, using sidewalks and alleys as rapid transit shortcuts.

Underhill Rose is a collection of three talented women from Asheville — they like to call their contemporary bluegrass as "smoky" and "rootsy," but I like to call it the Asheville Sound — and thanks to High Rock Outfitters as a cozy venue, they've developed a nice fan base here in Lexington.

Anyway, we listened to them for nearly 90 minutes as they bravely soldiered on under a swaying stage canopy that was a little bit unnerving to watch. When they were done, we got to speak with them for a few moments as we bought a CD and a T-shirt that they were selling out of Tupperware containers. (I just love struggling artists. Everything about them is so raw and genuine. You hope they eventually hit the big time but do it without ever changing who they are.)

In all, Kim and I stayed at the Festival for more than eight hours and spent about $100. What, are we nuts? We've never done either before.

But the day was not finished. We still had two after parties to attend: a floating Halloween gathering at 6 p.m., and then Kim's impromptu class reunion at a local restaurant at about 7:30.

Even after numerous phone calls to others in their class, the reunion turned out to be Becky, Kelly, Kim and me. And I'm not even in their class.

So we started the day with hundreds of thousands of acquaintances, and ended up in comfortable conversation as four good friends.

It was perfect. It was something you could really count on.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Joe Sink is right

The 29th annual Barbecue Festival is almost upon us, which means, if the recent wonderful weather holds out, that we'll probably have another awesome turnout Saturday.

Former Dispatch publisher Joe Sink — a founder of the Festival and so perhaps not coincidentally its official crowd counter for newspaper publication — has given us his eyeball estimate of 200,000 attendees for the past two consecutive years.

That number seems a little incredible, but as Joe often tells doubters, "Go ahead and prove that it's wrong."

That's not an easy thing to do. The Festival is a free event, after all. There are no gates, so there are multiple access routes to the Festival's nine blocks of Main Street in Uptown Lexington. Nobody wears GPS badges or bar codes to be counted.

A few years ago, one doubter on The Dispatch forum wrote that the Festival probably drew no more than 75,000 people, a count that seems way too small to me.

Curiously enough, the official Barbecue Festival brochure said last year's crowd was estimated at 160,000. The difference between Joe Sink and the brochure represents the entire population of Goldsboro. But that's neither here nor there. Besides, Goldsboro is eastern barbecue anyway.

I do think the actual number of last year's crowd and the potential for this year is somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000 people.

So instead of suggesting that Joe Sink is laughably wrong (which many people wish they could do and sometimes attempt to try at their own risk), I'm here to show you why I think he's close to correct. At least he's in the ballpark.

Soooo, the other night, my wife, Kim, and I stepped off one block of Main Street, from First Avenue to Second Avenue. It took 110 paces, times my stride of 2.5 feet. That comes out to a block that's 275 feet long. (That will be my average for all nine blocks, which includes the Square, which is not really a block, but it is the confluence of North and South Main Streets and contains a huge crowd most of the day. Also, not all blocks are of uniform length. We stepped off the block between Second Avenue and Third Avenue, and it was 170 paces long, or 330 feet. So the difference between 275 feet and 330 feet will serve as my margin of error).

Then we stepped off the curb, over the parking lane and to the white dashes on Main Street, up to but not including the lane where the vendor tents are set up. That was seven paces from curb to tent row, or about 17 feet.

With those dimensions, I figure reasonably you can have 275 people in each of seven rows abreast in one walking lane of one block. That comes out to 1,925 people. But then you have to multiply that by two, since festival goers fill the walking lanes on both sides of the vendor tents. That's an average of 3,850 folks per block— and I'm not including the sidewalks or the side streets. I think we can comfortably round that off to 4,000 people per block for convenience sake.

I think that's a logical estimate that each block can hold. Whether it is the physical limit is debatable. I guess you can argue each block could hold up to 5,000 people at once. Maybe more. There are times during the Festival day when people are packed into each block like pork shoulders in a smokehouse.

Anyway, multiply 4,000 people by the nine Festival blocks and you get 36,000 people at the Festival at any given moment.

But the Festival crowd is fluid. It's not a static stadium crowd that barely changes. People are coming and going — mostly coming, I suspect — for 9.5 hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Since the 36,000 number represents only a snapshot in time and not an accumulation of Festival goers for the day, how do you turn that number over?

Here's where things admittedly get a little arbitrary and open for argument, but I don't think my reasoning escapes common sense. I figure there are probably five palpable fluctuations in the crowd during the course of the day — one at 8:30 a.m. when the Festival begins and the crowd is already forming, another at 10 a.m. when most people arrive, another at noon for lunch, another at 2 p.m. for the Guitar Pull and another at 4 p.m. for last-minute shopping.

I consider these fluctuations to be like blips on the screen of a radar sweep. The scope never changes, but the blips come and go. So what I call my "turnover" rate over the course of the day is similar to five radar sweeps, (times 36,000) giving us 180,000 people. Now we're close. If I can justify a rate of 5.5 sweeps, then the crowd count reaches 198,000.

Maybe the 5.5 rate comes in if we throw in the longer blocks, the side streets and the large crowd that gathers in the parking lot for the stage at Sam's Car Wash.

Flawed assumptions? Maybe. But then, maybe not. This is not a scientific study and the numbers certainly feel right.

We tried another tack at the Black Chicken Coffee the other day.

One of my friends suggested we take the 36,000 and split it three ways (another arbitrary but reasonable assumption): a third of that crowd stays all day (because they travel great distances and won't leave early), and so the number will stay at 12,000 people; another third stays half the day, maybe from 10 to 4 and thus you take that 12,000 and multiply by two shifts to give you 24,000; and the final third stays about two hours (perhaps strolling the nine blocks as a circuit or two before leaving), so multiply 12,000 by four to give you 48,000. Add those sums for a total Festival crowd of 84,000, which seems low to me. Some will say, "Aha! See? There. The true number."

But divide the 12,000, the 24,000 and the 48,000 each by 84,000 to give you multiplying factors for each third of the crowd. The multiplier for the 12,000 figure is .1429; for 24,000 is .2857; and for 48,000 is .5714. Then work backwards. Multiply the 200,000 estimate by those factors and you get 28,580 all day people; 57,140 half-day people; and 114,280 for two-hour people.

Again, this sounds reasonable to me. If the official crowd estimate is 160,000, then you get 22,864 for all day folks; 45,712 for half-day people, and 91,424 for two-hour people.

What I am not factoring in is the 30 percent chance of rain in the forecast. All bets are off then.

But beyond that, maybe Joe Sink is correct after all. "If you really want to know what the crowd total is," Joe told me, "just look for it in The Dispatch."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hall of Famers

There was a moment during the 11th annual Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night when it occurred to me just how important this event truly is for our community.

It might have happened during keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Lee Jessup's introductory remarks. He briefly told us of a story from his childhood, about when he would regularly have a pitch-and-catch with his father back in the day while growing up in Hickory.

I almost always expect to get a laugh from one of Jessup's parables, so my anticipation level usually runs high when he's speaking. He's probably one of the best story tellers in the county, so I usually can't wait to hear what he says next. But when he said his dad "was my Hall of Famer," I nearly started bawling into my plate of scalloped potatoes. It was Field of Dreams come to life, right here in the J. Smith Young YMCA.

The point being, of course, that nearly all of us are impacted, in some way, by someone who has done or said something remarkable, big or small, that adds meaning to our lives. Real Hall of Famers, then, can actually be you and me. And sometimes we are, to somebody.

So the tone was set.

Which is why most of us smiled a teary-eyed smile when Peggy Sink Black, a girls' basketball star for Pilot School back in the early 1950s, said she wishes she could still shoot baskets as she put up an imaginary right-handed jumper from the dais. Literally, it was an air ball — but you know this one swished.

Or why Bowman Gray Stadium NASCAR legend Ralph Brinkley, now in his 70s, became so emotional, bringing both hands up to cover his mouth while searching for words. He gave much credit to his pit crew and their families for the success he enjoyed while racing to 64 victories.

North Davidson softball coach Mike Lambros, usually emotional in an animated way, also had a little trouble getting the words to flow. He told the audience of more than 200 that being inducted into this Hall completed his bucket list wish. Imagine that. And he's still actively coaching the Knights.

Mandy McKinney, who helped West Davidson's girls capture a 2-A state basketball title in 1985-86, was nervous about speaking to the large crowd, but she did well, thanking her parents and her teammates for their support during her career.

Bruce Mills, an All-ACC defensive end for Duke after a stellar career for coach George Cushwa at Thomasville, also thanked his family. Given that football put him through 14 knee and leg operations in his lifetime, that in itself should be enough to put him in somebody's Hall of Fame.

Then there was Mattie Terry, the mother of Lexington basketball star Carlos Terry, who was killed in a car accident in 1989. Mrs. Terry noted, through her tears, that Carlos has been inducted into several halls of fame recently. "He has received many awards the last three years. However, with Lexington being his home, this is special. This is very, very special.”

Special, indeed.

I've been on the Hall's board of directors for about four years and covered several of the other banquets for The Dispatch before that. Each one has had its profoundly heart-tugging moments, but somehow, this year reached a pinnacle. The event is more streamlined now. From social mingling to dismissal took less than 2 1/2 hours.

But it was a meaningful 2 1/2 hours, perhaps in ways we can't yet comprehend.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Breaking good

We finally got a chance to get away to the beach during the Columbus Day weekend.

Well, OK. So it was only 72 hours of relief, but it gave us a chance to break our mundane daily routine. Plus, it was the first time in nearly two years that we were able to go, what with Kim caring for her elderly father and all for much of that time.

Ahh, yes. To break the routine. To free ourselves of the daily grind that, in all reality, gives us a sense of stability and bedrock in our lives. But I guess we even need a little break from stability now and then, and the beach is the perfect place for different scenery, different activities, even different persona's.

 So what did we do?

Usually, when we go, one of our first stops is Barefoot Landing, where we walk around, do a little shopping, and grab a cheeseburger at Johnny Rockets.

This time, we headed to Broadway at the Beach to see one of Kim's friends who had entered her Mustang in a car show there. Then afterwards, we walked around, did a little shopping, and went to Hamburger Joe's at the recommendation of several of our friends, where we ate ... cheeseburgers.

Clearly, we were walking on the edge of the envelope.

Breakfast the next day is usually a stop at the Golden Griddle in North Myrtle Beach, where I get a short stack of blueberry pancakes. This time, to shake things up, we ate breakfast at The Shack (formerly The Biscuit Shack) in Cherry Grove, where I ordered blueberry pancakes.

Me on the wild side.

Usually, by the second day of our beach adventures, we make sure we go to Calabash where Kim and I split a seafood platter of fried shrimp, flounder, cole slaw, hushpuppies, deviled crab, scallops and French fries. Usually, we go to Dockside, one of our favorite haunts, which has a wonderful view of the intracoastal waterway. Then afterwards, we generally snoop around Calahan's for a while, and then break away to the Calabash Creamery for some spectacular homemade ice cream.

This time, Kim wanted to try a place she read about called Twin Lakes Restaurant at Sunset Beach. So we went there instead. We were taken to a table with a view of the intracoastal waterway, where we promptly ordered and shared the seafood platter of flounder, deviled crab and fried shrimp, with cole slaw, hushpuppies and French fries (the scallops here were extra).

Following our meal, we went to Calabash, where we snooped around Calahan's and then went across the street for small servings of ice cream at the Creamery.

I could hardly stand myself, I was so out of my character.

On most of our beach trips, we like to make a stop at The Todd House in Tabor City. This is usually done on our day of arrival, but since we left on a Saturday, and the Todd House is closed on Saturdays, we made the stop for lunch on the way home on Monday. Glad we sneaked that one in there.

We did make one planned stopped at David's Produce in Ellerbe, which we always do, but since the new Ellerbe bypass has been built, David's inventory seems to be sagging. I hope they find a way to work it out.

Our last stop before returning to Lexington was for more homemade ice cream, this time at Ben's on Rte 211, just a few miles off 220 at the Candor exit. This is a place we discovered on the way to Pinehurst when I covered the U.S. Open back in the day. It's been a regular stop for us ever since.

So there you have it. Different places, different venues, different Kim and Bruce. It was great to finally get away to the beach and break the normal routine of our lives. I feel so refreshed and so much like a new man now. It's great to be alive.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My reading list

The other night as I prepared to make my presentation to the Davidson County Civil War Round Table at Yarborough's Restaurant, one of my friends, Matt O'Bryant, told me he had just finished reading Stephen Crane's classic, "The Red Badge of Courage."

"Have you ever read it?" he asked me.

"Yeah," I said. "Probably 20-25 years ago. I think it was on my high school summer reading list."

I didn't think much about what I had just said until the next day, when the conversation wouldn't go away and rose up in my brain like swamp gas.

Then I stopped my wife, after it all sunk in.

"Kim. I just told a guy that I read 'The Red Badge of Courage' about 20 years ago because it was on my summer reading list in high school. It just hit me. It was more like 45 years ago when I read it. Geez."

"Well," said Kim. "You better not tell him that. He'll think you're old."

I guess so. The point, though, is that I ran straight to the library and checked out a copy of Crane's book, took it to work and finished it in about six hours over three days. I'd forgotten how incredible the book was. Crane, who died of tuberculosis when he was only 28, is often considered to be a progenitor of the modernist literary style. Consequently, I was surprised by how engrossed I became in the book, which was not as difficult to read as I had once remembered.

Somehow, it had gotten better with age.

For some reason I've gone on a reading surge. About nine or 10 months ago, I reread Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and then quickly followed that with his "Life on the Mississippi," which I had never read. I love Twain. Folksy. Perceptive. Witty.

A few months ago, I was humbled into reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," which I had never read and was astonished by its craft.

I'm not quite sure where I find the time to read fiction, or classics, in between writing my own stuff while reading history books, Our State and Sports Illustrated or any other magazine that falls into my lap. But somehow, I seem to manage.

Right now, I'm reading a 400-page alternative history novel, "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" by Stephen Carter, which proposes that Lincoln miraculously survives Booth's assassination attempt and then faces postwar impeachment proceedings with a defense team that includes an African American female lawyer as well as Dan Sickles, a rapscallion Union General/lawyer who existed in real life and was the first person to successfully use the temporary insanity defense in America for the murder of his wife's lover. I can't make this stuff up.

OK, Carter's book may be a little cheesy, but I'm hooked. I'm 100 pages into it right now and I can't wait to see how it ends.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for part three of Rick Atkinson's excellent World War II trilogy, for which he's won a Pulitzer Prize. Atkinson is an exceptional writer of history who brings incredible clarity to the dry and mundane.

Sometime soon, I need to read Moby Dick and see what all the excitement is about. Call me crazy...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Food and the aging process

Kim and I were in a Winston-Salem restaurant for brunch recently when something caught my eye.

An older woman, perhaps in her sixties and wearing a beautiful white blouse with her jeans, was sitting alone at the counter enjoying her breakfast. Nothing unusual about that — until she reached around the back of her neck and untied a small bow that held her bib in place.

Her what?

"Kim, look at this," I said, because the woman was sitting off to the side behind my wife, who couldn't see what was happening. Kim never got oriented fast enough to see the woman carefully folding her bib and stuffing it into her pocketbook.

Seriously, it was about the size of a lobster bib. The woman was finished with her breakfast and presumably had just saved her blouse from, what, a spillage of cheesy shrimp and grits? Ketchup drowned home fries? Runny Eggs Benedict? A breakfast lobster?

I don't know. I chuckled to myself over this for a moment until I started thinking about all the times I've unwittingly splattered ketchup on myself or somehow slobbered coffee onto my prized Gettysburg T-shirts.

I am getting older and sometimes the food I try to eat occasionally (and mysteriously) wrestles me to the ground. I mean, how can I possibly miss my mouth? And yet, I have the stains to prove I not only missed my mouth, but just about everything close to it. The more I wondered about this woman having no fear of wearing a bib in a public restaurant, the more I started to admire her for her ... her ... her wisdom.

"Maybe," said Kim, "we ought to invent bibs for older adults. You know, with a pocket or trough on the bottom to catch the food so it doesn't fall on the floor and you can still eat it. That way, you don't waste anything that costs a lot of money. We could be millionaires."

"Yeah," I said, catching on. "We could call them 'Elder Aprons' or 'Senior Savers' and put little slogans on them, like 'I stop for slop' or, 'I've got it, I've got it' like baseball players. Or 'You can't mess with me.'"

It was about this time that it struck me that the aging process is cyclical. We wear bibs when we're infants, then go through adulthood so full of ourselves by trading in our bibs for napkins (if we use anything at all), and then back to bibs down the homestretch because by our golden years we shake, rattle, roll, can't see and can't hear.

Sometimes I wonder if, in fact, I really need to wear some kind of jumpsuit when I eat.

I'm sure it's only going to get worse. I guess it's only a matter of time before I start wearing Depends with my bibs.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

This (town) is nice

Every once in a while something comes along to remind me how much I enjoy living in Lexington.

This video certainly doesn't hurt:

See here.

Actually, I don't have to be reminded about how much I enjoy living in Lexington. I've lived in six different towns — all of varying sizes — in four different states in the past 61 years, and none compares with Lexington, which I find to be New England quaint, Southern friendly and uniquely special. Living here just seems to come naturally for my aging soul.

I moved to Lexington from my Pennsylvania roots in September of 1976, so I'm celebrating my 36th year here. I can never be a native of the town, like my wife, but I certainly can be one of its ambassadors.

The video — I missed the original televised broadcast, so thank goodness for the Internet — shows not only how Lexington has changed in the past decade or so, but also its potential for the future. I hope I get to see some of this potential come to fruition in my lifetime, like Raymond Smith in the video has seen so far.

Does Lexington have problems? Of course. You can hear it on the street almost any time: there's no jobs, there's nowhere to eat if you don't want to suffocate in barbecue, the schools are inferior, there's no after hours entertainment options. Therefore, city hall is clearly filled with scoundrels.


If that's what you think, you aren't looking hard enough. I was surprised by the fact that nearly 200 businesses are located in a six-block Uptown perimeter with 94 percent occupancy. In an era of economic downturn, this is amazing. But you know, when I think about it, I don't see many vacant buildings on Main Street anymore.

Some of those buildings are being converted into second floor loft-type living quarters, so that's exciting. People are actually wanting to live in Uptown again.

High Rock Outfitters has brought us quality live entertainment on a regular basis, bringing in talent from Winston-Salem, Greensboro, even Asheville. I'd like to see Lexington gain momentum as a budding artist colony with perhaps other Main Street venues. Thanks to HRO for showing the way, the potential is there. I don't think the importance of what HRO has done for Uptown can be overstated.

The city's commercial heart beats with a healthy pulse, particularly around noon on Saturdays — about the time the vibrant Farmers' Market is finishing up for the day.

I live in a historic neighborhood with tree-lined sidewalks just a few blocks from all of this action. My neighborhood is loaded — totally out of proportion, by the way — with at least six teachers and former teachers, so I can hear firsthand how the school system is making strides. If it wasn't, they'd probably be leaving to teach in Chicago.

Several of my friends are on city council, including the mayor. Because I know them, I know their ethic and their concerns. Change doesn't come in the next five seconds, like most of us want. It may not even come in the next five years. It takes laying the groundwork. The changes we've already seen in this town were no doubt prepared for us years ago, back in the days when we were complaining there was nowhere to go.

But changes certainly will continue. I can feel it in the heartbeat.

Monday, September 17, 2012

It's National What Month?

Kim and I were driving down Silas Creek Parkway the other day when I glanced at Biscuitville's towering promotional sign out in front of the familiar yellow building.

"September is National Biscuit Month" it shouted at me.

I almost slammed on the brakes. Oh, no. You've got to be kidding. How could I have forgotten? Did I need to rush right in and surprise Kim with a ham biscuit? A gravy biscuit? A liver mush biscuit? Here it is September and I didn't make any plans to buy her a biscuit.

But this got me to thinking about other national months that sometimes creep into my awareness zone. Who determines what month is going to celebrate which cause, or which illness, or which food item? Why do we have national months of anything in the first place?

I thought a national biscuit month might be one of the more frivolous celebrations on the calendar, but I wasn't sure. So I did what I always do when I have a question and googled it. So I googled "What national month is it?"

(Remember the old days when you had a question and you'd run to an encyclopedia for an answer? Or an almanac? Or, better yet, to dad? Thank goodness for Google, I say...)

Anyway, I got this (see here).

I'm not sure it's a complete list, but it looks like it could be. There's nearly 200 national months of something on there, to be somehow parsed out through 12 actual months. And I figure it's probably legit since the site draws its sources from the National Health Observances, National Health Information Center, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. and the Department of Health and Human Services.

I found out that September really is National Biscuit Month.

Some are indeed frivolous, like "Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month" (February) or "National Toilet Tank Repair Month" (October). Who knew? Who cares?

Some are important, like "National Nutrition Month" (March) or "American Cancer Society Month" (April). This is the kind of awareness we can appreciate.

Some are insistent. "National Noodle Month" is listed twice for March, although I suspect this is a typo. However, Foot Health Month is listed for both March and May. C'mon.

But some appear to be conspiratorial. I mean, don't you find it odd that Chocolate Lovers' Month and National Dental Month are both in February?

Some seem to come at the wrong time. Do they know in Tabor City, home of their October Yam Festival, that February is National Sweet Potato Month? Uh-oh.

October, the month of festivals, is also the month of national recognition with 38 listings, including National Apple Month and National Caramel Month. OK, that makes sense — a conspiracy that works. October is also National Applejack Month, and I don't think it's the cereal.

December, which gives us enough to celebrate, only has three listings, although one of them is International Calendar Awareness Month.

It just goes on and on. Kind of makes you glad there aren't 13 months in a year.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mountain air

What we needed was to get away from Lexington for awhile.

But Lexington decided to follow us anyway.


It's been about a year, maybe longer, since my wife and I had any time off together. This is significant because Kim's father passed away last November, and for several months before that, she was his caregiver. She was virtually chained and locked to The Ton. ("The Ton" being our little circle of friends' admittedly obscure nickname for Lexington. You know, Lexing-TON). And we couldn't find the keys.

An ocean of arts and crafts tents fills up Art in the Park in Blowing Rock.
Even after he died, poor Kim was nearly overwhelmed as the executrix of her father's estate, an emotional and seemingly never-ending respon-sibility. On top of all this, she had to look for a job after her position at a local bank was eliminated after 31 years because of financial downsizing.

But then, almost as if by magic, doors and windows opened. She found part-time work that she enjoys. We closed on the estate. The calender suddenly had a September vacancy and Blowing Rock — one of our favorite three-day weekend getaways — beckoned with an Art in the Park siren song.

So we went. We left Friday morning and thoroughly enjoyed the two-hour drive to the mountains, and when we got there, we did the usual: Mast General Store, shopping, eating, more shopping on Main Street. It was comfort food for the weary soul.

We got up early Saturday morning, shared a huge breakfast omelet and then made the up-mountain trek to Art in the Park. We took in the art, the crafts, the fresh perspective — Lexington had faded into another dimension. We were giddy with...

"Hey guys," said the voice from thin mountain air. "Are you having fun?"

There's no escaping Lexington with John Horne (left), Lee Jessup and myself.
I couldn't believe it. Standing there in front of me were my good friends John Horne and Lee Jessup, with their wives, Lisa and Mary Jo. Oh my gosh. It was like that moment in the Christopher Reeve movie "Somewhere in Time" where Reeve's character discovers a 1979 penny and is suddenly thrust back into the present after self-hypnotically falling in love with a woman in 1912, never to return (hey, it's a sci-fi romantic time-travel saga too complicated to explain here). It was like we were suddenly back in Lexing-TON.

Actually,  it was kind of amazing. Back in June, I'd encountered the Jessups in Gettysburg. Then, about a month or so after that, I was in the same vehicle with Lee as we made a Civil War Round Table trip to Appomattox. Boom, boom, boom. Jessups everywhere I turn.

That wasn't all. Later in the day we bumped into Jim and Gayle Burke. We also learned that our dentist, Sim Siceloff, was meandering somewhere on the mountain. I was starting to think Kim and I needed to get in the car and drive yet another 100 miles or so, maybe into Tennessee or Virginia. It probably wouldn't have helped.

I sound like I'm being harsh with my friends, but not really. It was just that the whole meeting thing was totally unexpected. In fact, there was a moment later on Saturday when Kim and I were in the park at Blowing Rock where an amazing free concert was presented by the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders, dressed to the hilt in kilts and brandishing bagpipes and drums. We arrived in time to hear several Scottist laments. Then someone requested Amazing Grace. I go jelly-kneed with Amazing Grace anyway, but to hear it live with bagpipes, oh my. It started off as a bagpipe solo, then reached a soaring crescendo when the other 10 pipers joined in for the final stanza.

I teared up. I suddenly wished my friends were there to hear this. I wanted them there.

As it was, the rest of the weekend belonged to Kim and me. We recharged the emotional and psychological batteries. We had breakfast at the Daniel Boone Inn, and then got back into town in time for the annual neighborhood picnic. No Jessups were in sight.

But we did run into the Burkes.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Musical interlude at HRO

Kim and I recently found a new place to enjoy ourselves.

Actually, it's not a new place at all — it's been around for at least several years and maybe even longer — it's just new to us.

The other evening we dropped by High Rock Outfitters (HRO) on Main Street, next to the square, to listen to a handful of musicians perform during open mic night. Oh boy. Freebies. This usually occurs on Wednesdays. And usually, they're playing in front of 30 or so customers who are sipping local wines or boutique brews from North Carolina.

But what a treat. When we got there the omnipresent Scott Gibson was performing with his wonderfully named backup band, the Side Effects. Scott plays acoustic guitar and usually has a harmonica braced around his neck. It's better than a tie — at least you can play a harmonica.

Anyway, Scott is a hip folk artist — maybe even eclectic — leaking out of the Woody Guthrie mold. He sometimes performs Guthrie tunes, and most times he does original compositions. Either way, the gravel in his voice lends an earthy, you-can't-beat-me-down truth to his art. (See here) I really like his stuff.

When he was done with his set, Scott yielded the mike to Old Dave Williams, another acoustic artist from Lexington. I don't know that he's actually old, but that's how he introduced himself. "Old" might be his first name, as far as I know. He did tell us that he helped produce a public television show several years ago about the decline of the local furniture industry and wrote some of the music for it.

I googled Dave Williams just to see what came up and got about 800 hits (I exaggerate only slightly) for the name. About 700 of them were for musicians, so I didn't bother to look any further.

Old performed three songs and gracefully gave way to Davis Tucker.

Keep in mind that, other than Scott, I have no clue about the other artists. I'm hearing them for the first time. But Davis, who really might be old, has been around. He's got a few CDs out there, and while his chest-length gray beard and shoulder-length gray hair makes him a genuine Santa Claus candidate, he's got a nice voice. I like to call it an acoustic voice.

Anyway, he had a female vocal accomplice with him whom he introduced as his ex-wife Shannon. I figured that had to be an incredibly amicable separation if they're doing free open mic sessions on Wednesday nights in small-town honky tonks in the Piedmont. That's cool. They do sound good together.

I googled his name and found out he has a relatively steady gig most Tuesdays at George's Pizza in High Point. He sometimes plays with a band called "The Geezers," appropriately enough. I think they all have gray beards. He also does fairly steady work at the Sagebrush Steakhouse in Kernersville.

Davis and his ex did a half-dozen original tunes, including my instant favorite, "I started out with nothing, I've got most of it left." (See here) Amen, brother. They were still performing when Kim and I left around midnight, because we had to go to work the next day.

My point here is that HRO gives Lexington some nice after sunset options. The place is booking groups left and right, including talent from Asheville, that little artist colony in the mountains. Sometimes you pay a cover charge for the bigger name acts, but that's OK. I'll pay $7 to listen to music every bit as good as the $75 or so that I pay to hear Alison Krauss or Martina McBride.

Kim and I might be a little late to this party, but we're still glad that we came.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reporting Zeek: A story of talent, timing and truth

Here's a loaded question for you: Are you like me?

Well, heaven forbid on that one. What I meant to ask is, as the tale of  Zeek's alleged worldwide penny auction Ponzi/pyramid scheme unfolds, can you hardly wait for the next chapter of this surly saga to appear in The Dispatch?

You probably can't wait, and I think I know why. The subject matter is fascinating. It ropes us in. And because Zeek is headquartered right here in Lexington, it involves us, whether we were victims of the apparent scam or not. It's scandalous, it's rich, it's sad, it's engrossing. It's impossible to let go. It's our story.

And it's been extremely well-written and well-researched. That helps keep us interested, too. Despite how complicated the story has become, the local copy itself is clear, concise, informative and very, very readable. We can thank a young, personable, talented 23-year-old reporter for that.

Nash Dunn has covered the Zeek fiasco for The Dispatch.

A few months ago, Nash Dunn was working for The Observer News Enterprise, a five-day daily out of Newton-Conover in Catawba County. "I was a reporter, photographer, everything. It was a smaller staff, but it was a good starting point," said Dunn, who studied journalism at Appalachian State University where he worked the news beat for The Appalachian, the campus newspaper.

Then he arrived at The Dispatch, figuring to add to his résumé as a community reporter. Zeek, however, suddenly put him in a different realm. How did that story fall into his lap?

"About two months ago, right after I got here, I was driving home (he lives in Winston-Salem) and saw a line of people out the door at the building on Center Street," said Dunn. "At first, I thought maybe it was a homeless shelter or something like that.

"Then we'd gotten a few phone calls about what was going on," said Dunn. "So Chad (Killebrew, the executive editor of The Dispatch) and I sat down. I told him I wanted to go for it and see what it was all about.

"A few people tried to talk to me and get me into it," said Dunn. "But I guess I was suspicious of the company and what it was. And we just kind of started from there."

After a few weeks lag time to gather information and hone his work to crystal clarity, Dunn's centerpiece feature on Zeek (see here) appeared in The Dispatch on Thursday, Aug. 16. Events cascaded on top of each other after that. Later in the day, by sheer coincidence in timing, the North Carolina Attorney General's office confirmed that it was investigating Zeek. Shortly thereafter, seemingly within hours, the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission declared Zeek was an alleged Ponzi and a pyramid and shut the place down. Zeek CEO Paul Burks was fined $4 million by the SEC without admitting or denying guilt. The whole thing was stunning in how quickly it revealed itself in its online warp speed. The timing, from centerpiece story to Zeek closing its doors, was incredible.

"I knew they were being investigated," said Dunn, who added that he never expected events to turn as fast as they did.

And the impact was immediate. By the time Dunn came back to work the next day, he was inundated with emails and voice mails — mostly from assorted Zeek affiliates from around the world, wanting to know what was happening.

"I've probably gotten over a 1,000 emails and a 1,000 voice mails," said Dunn, who suddenly went from manning the community desk to become the paper's international desk. "That part has been something new to deal with."

Many of the out-of-state interviews that show up in Dunn's subsequent stories are from people who originally called the paper to glean information about what was happening to Zeek. They ended up being part of the story — as, indeed, they really were. It's just that now they were on the record.

And for the most part, Dunn said the feedback has been mostly positive. "I think most readers," said Dunn, "appreciate what we've done."

The scope of the scandal apparently has grown. It was first estimated that a million people worldwide were victims of the $600 million scheme. But the receiver has indicated that as many as two million could be involved. That's far more than the infamous Bernie Madoff affair from just three years ago, a $65 billion scheme that victimized mere thousands of people. This might turn out to be the largest Ponzi scheme ever by the sheer number of its victims.

As a journalist, Dunn feels the excitement of reporting an important story.

"When I first got into (the story), it was interesting," said Dunn, a native of Raleigh. "But once I learned everything, and once it kept unfolding, it's definitely exciting. You want to keep being first in reporting stuff — that's always motivation to keep going. I never thought I'd get as involved with it as I did, but it's definitely exciting."

This story will continue for a while. Some of us might eventually grow weary of it, as we sometimes do in our sometimes overloaded, overzealous and overwrought society. That would make it our loss if that should happen.

But for now, Dispatch readers have been treated to exceptional journalism by a pretty darn good writer of the news.

And that makes us lucky to have him here.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Reload Lexington

Maybe it's time to take a little break from Zeek, the alleged worldwide Ponzi/pyramid affair that somehow reached daylight when it climbed up and out of the Lexington refuse pile a few weeks ago and started breathing the same air that all the rest of us do.

I love this place. Best use ever of an old, once-forgotten building.
Maybe it's time to reflect on something good and decent about Lexington, if only for a moment. Just in case we've forgotten that about ourselves.

I'm talking about the Lexington Farmers' Market, which has become something of a looked-forward-to social event available to us all every Saturday morning, and to a lesser extent, Wednesday mornings, from May until October.

The thing has been in serious operation for about five or six years at the old (but beautifully renovated) Lexington freight depot on Salisbury Street. The place primarily offers fresh, in season vegetables, but also an assortment of bakery items, honey, blueberries, mushrooms, grass-fed and hormone-free cuts of meat, garden plants, and every now and then, scented soaps, painted pottery and uncommonly creative jewelry. Not bad when you consider these are the very items that not only help to sustain us, but humanize us, too. They help to give us balance and ballast as we make our way. All for reasonable prices.

The selection of fresh produce is nearly endless.
Aside from the neat stuff you can buy, there's also the anticipation of who you might see there. Yes, you'll likely bump into a neighbor or two. But you might also rub a shoulder with an acquaintance you haven't seen for a while, or even a classmate you haven't seen in years. Or perhaps an elected official — sometimes you can bend his ear while he's thumping a cantaloupe for ripeness.

Sometimes, you have to put conversations on hold as the 10:07 rumbles down the tracks less than a watermelon seed spit away. Boys and men wistfully eye the diesels as they rhythmically clack by. Women mostly keep shopping. It's like magic. All of it.

This probably isn't a great time to talk about the market. I mean, it's near the end of the season. Most of the seasonal produce is gone. I actually meant to blog about the market about a month or so ago but a few other things got in the way — like the heavy, distracting odor of Zeek.

On the other hand, maybe this is a great time to talk about the market after all: it's here where you can find fresh vegetables, fresh baked goods, fresh air. Ahh, yes. Fresh air.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Some just don't get it

On Sunday afternoon, my wife went to the laundromat next door to the Zeekler headquarters building on Center Street. She couldn't believe what she saw on the Zeek building's window

As we now know, Zeek, the penny auction that promised riches, has been shut down by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as an alleged $600 million Ponzi/pyramid scheme that lured in perhaps as many as a million participants worldwide.

This message was posted at the Zeek HQ.
And yet, posted on the building's window, was a handwritten message on lime-green florescent posterboard with this message: "We forgive you. Please restructure and save our Dreams! (signed) Zeek affiliate."


In reading comments at the end of most online stories about Zeek's demise, the company's defenders have castigated just about everything and every government agency in sight, including the SEC.

Meanwhile, there's a willingness to forgive the very agency that takes their money, promises rewards with 1.5 percent daily interest that is funded mostly by its newest affiliates — the people most likely to be burned when the pyramid collapses.

Unbelievable. Zeek good. SEC (and therefore U.S. government) bad. Yikes.

Some folks, no doubt, were so enamored of the scheme that it's likely they even took out five-figure loans to buy into the program. But buy into what?

I'm trying not to be too hard on most of the people who bought into this. Several are my good friends and I hope they recoup their losses. This is, after all, a hard economy we're living in. The promise of a better financial future may have been too much to resist. I cannot fault what most likely is human nature.

But human nature sometimes includes fraud and deceit and that's where you have to be wary.

For an excellent analysis and overview of the whole sordid mess, see here. Checking the reader comments at the end of the Hub Pages review is interesting, too.

It's a sad story, indeed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sleek Zeek ends streak

I come into today's blog post with mixed emotions.

There's a part of me that is overjoyed that the mighty Zeek penny auction empire, headquartered right here in little ol' Lexington, has crumbled under its own weight (with a little help from the Security and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, the Better Business Bureau and the North Carolina Attorney General's Office).

On the other hand, a fair number of my friends, some of whom urged me to join in the apparently get-rich-quick program, were participants in what has allegedly turned out to be a massive global Ponzi-slash-pyramid scheme and stand to lose small to large amounts of money. (Some folks might get reimbursed for their losses from the receivership, but larger cash rewards recipients might suffer clawback, which really means payback. Don't spend your Zeek earnings yet.) I feel badly because I don't want my friends to be hurt, even though I do feel a need to suppress the urge to scold them and make them stand in a corner for an hour. Or a week. A Zeek week.

Massive? Zeek's assets were said to be something like $600 million, which is peanuts compared to financier Bernie Madoff's famous $65 billion theft back in 2009. But Zeek (where did that name come from anyway, and what does it mean?) reportedly involved more than a million people worldwide, making it perhaps the biggest encompassing Ponzi scheme ever, if not one of the largest.

Oh my. In the 35 years I've lived here, Lexington has been put on the national map by the kissing first grader (see here), former Sheriff Gerald Hege and his pink jail and Spider car, and now the world's biggest Ponzi scandal. Kinda brings a tear to the eye, doesn't it? Well, we do have the Barbecue Festival...

Let me say right here, before I go any further, that I did not join Zeek. I was told long ago that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That old saw is going to be bounced around a lot in the next few weeks, as it should be because no adage has ever been worth more than it is now. In the list of maxims, it should be classified "1-A" right under the Golden Rule (which, curiously, seem somehow connected to each other right now).

The scheme allegedly designed by Zeek owner/operator Paul Burks is complicated. Even after reading about it in The Dispatch (see here), it's still a little beyond me. Which was another reason not to join. Complication, knot-tying, and misdirection are all Ponzi red flags. If you don't understand it, or even if you think you do, it's best not to join it. But a lot of people did.

(The Dispatch, of which I served as a sports writer/editor for 30 years, has done an outstanding job reporting this fiasco. Although it didn't break the story, once it was handed the ball it ran with it, moreso than any other media outlet in the Piedmont. Reporter Nash Dunn has been superlative and his writing has been crisp, extremely readable and informative. This goes way beyond what you expect from a small community newspaper. Well done, Dispatch).

While I feel badly for my friends who were involved, and a little embarrassed that this whole thing has been hatched right here in Davidson County, I am more than a little put off by the continued Zeek defenders who seem to think the program was untouchable. Just glance at all the reader comments at the end of nearly any online story about Zeek's troubles. Holy smokes.

When the NC AG first confirmed that Zeek was being investigated for fraud, many Zeekers welcomed this because surely the office would find Zeek to be legitimate. When the SEC stepped in and closed the doors, charging that it was a Ponzi and a pyramid, and that Burks allegedly skimmed millions for his personal use, the yammering began: the SEC is corrupt, the BBB is corrupt, your mother is corrupt, this is another instance of too much government intrusion and it's another government conspiracy to keep you from being wealthy, that Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes and why not investigate them (SS is not, see here), ad nauseum. The Zeekers' arrogance is both amusing and disturbing.

Any pyramid scheme is destined to fall eventually. Some people will make money off them, but it's money coming from those following behind. Eventually, people do get hurt. The trick, I guess, is to know when it's a pyramid in the first place. That indicator usually happens when you're encouraged to bring in others behind you. Another clue is that if all the money to be made sounds too good to be true in the first place.

My corrupt mother told me this years ago. I'm glad I listened.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Loving the Olympics, sort of

Did you enjoy the Olympic Games?

I think I did.

But I had to catch myself a couple times — there were moments when I had to reel myself in and remember where I was and who I am.

Who I am, for example, is not a big follower of, say, water polo. This sport is kind of like soccer in a swimming pool, where a number of players  — not quite sure how many — bob around in about eight feet of water and where one team tries to zip a nerf ball (or the waterproof equivalent — surf ball?) past an opposing team's goalie while everybody treads water.

I don't guess there are any professional water polo leagues around, but I could be wrong. I may google this to find out, if I decide I really care.

Anyway, here I was the other day, not really a water polo fan, yelling at my television, hearing myself scream in ever increasing octaves that the United States women were getting jobbed when Australia was given a potential game-tying penalty shot with one second left to play. Australia made the shot and sent the game (match? scrum? flotsam?) into overtime.

I was crushed. Until I remembered who I am. So wait a minute. I'm getting riled up over water polo? Not in this life, brother. Are you kidding me?

And yet...

Then there's the equestrian events. Why don't they give the medals to the horses? Seems to me they are the real athletes here. Nevertheless, I spent at least a half hour watching dressage the other day before I remembered who I am and switched channels. Usually, the only time I'm aware of dressage is when my wife is getting ready for work and she needs me to button the back of her dress or help tie a back bow. You know. Dressage. I think it's why husbands were invented.

I wish somebody would give the astounding U. S. women's gymnastics team some elocution lessons, and particularly Aly Raisman. The post-performance interviews done in droning monotone were a little grating. Any why did they change their team nickname from the Fab Five to the less friendly Fierce Five? Something about not wanting to be confused with the University of Michigan's Fab Five basketball team from back in the early 1990s. To tell you the truth, I really don't think I was ever going to confuse Jalen Rose with Gabby Douglas in this lifetime. Oh well. Those wacky fierce somersaulters, God bless them.

Then, of course, there's U.S. champion swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps telling the world that everybody pees in the pool (see here). Yikes. Upon hearing this confession, a friend of mine noted wryly, "No wonder they wear goggles." As for myself, I just figured that the whole thing gives new definition to the term "Olympic Gold."

You know, I spent two whole summers in my youth dumping bags of alum and opening containers of chlorine into a public swimming pool trying to get the pH factor just right because of pee-ers (not peers) like Phelps and Lochte. Sheesh.

To be sure, watching some of these sports that I never knew existed has been somewhat refreshing. There's admittedly a certain amount of pride in pulling for athletes from your country, and I guess that's why I can get riled up every quadrennial over whitewater kayaking or quadruple sculls without cox rowing. USA, USA, USA.

It's why I can't wait for the next winter Olympics so I can cheer for curling. Man, a broom and a stone. What's more basic than that?

But when the Olympics start trending toward rhythmic this and synchronized that, I'm a little lost, a little out of my element. Really? Waving ribbons and hula hoops is an Olympic sport, and baseball and softball are not? To my mind, rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming seem a little more like choreography than actual mano a mano (or womano a womano) competition, but what do I know?

Not much, apparently.

Hey, I've enjoyed these Olympics. But I'm ready to move on.

Thank God the Little League World Series is underway.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

To ressurect a mockingbird

It pains me to confess this, but...

I am 61 years old, and I just finished reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." For the first time. Ever.

Shame on me.

I don't know why it took me this long. Last weekend, I was on a road trip with some buddies, and somehow in our conversations of Civil War, food, women, beer, wine, travel, politics, Olympics and sports, the book was mentioned. It's not that we're a particularly erudite group of guys, but every once in a while we'll stumble onto something unexpectedly satisfying and must tell others about it. I don't know, maybe it's just simple bragging. It's like hitting a horrible hook off the tee that somehow still bends into the fairway. Maybe it's simply a miracle.

Anyway, I revealed to the boys that I hadn't read the book. It had just never popped up in any of my high school summer reading lists. That was on Saturday. By Wednesday, I was in the library. I took it home. I took it to work. By Friday, I'd finished the book.

I'm still in awe. How in the world did I ever miss this one?

Back up a minute. I'd seen the movie a thousand times, so I knew the storyline. The movie also gave me the visuals on Atticus and Jem and Scout, on Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell. Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody else, could ever be Atticus Finch other than Gregory Peck. Not Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, not anybody. This movie, this book, this author and these actors are where a moment in time embraces perfection.

So the movie did not ruin the book for me. Instead, to my mind, they enhance each other. This is rare (like the hook shot that finds the fairway).

I'm not about to give a book report 53 years after it's publication, but while I'm reading it, I'm wondering about Southern literature and Southern authors, and what makes them what they are.

I googled Harper Lee and discovered she never had published another novel again. Why would she — how could she — after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird? I mean, what's left after that? And yet, that talent... I also learned she grew up in Monroeville, Ala., where her neighbor and schoolmate was Truman Capote (who was the model for Dill in her book). Are you kidding me? How does a small southern town (pop. 6800) offer two astounding authors?

Was Harper Lee courageous to write this novel? It first appeared in the hot embers of the Civil Rights movement. A white southern female uncovering our blemishes in dangerous times. Wow. This all adds to the intrigue of the book.

So what is it about great Southern literature? (You can specifically google that, too. See here.) What's the extra influence, the soul-crunching burden, the drama and the irony that bubbles to the surface in good southern writing? Race relations? The Civil War? The sometimes oppressive climate? The fried-food and kidney-stone diet? William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe, Fannie Flagg, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, James Dickey...we can go on forever. More importantly, perhaps, is what makes us read them?

I don't know. For now, like Scout in the courthouse, I'm prompted to stand up. Greatness is passin.'