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...