Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sugar cakes

A couple years into our marriage, after I realized that Kim was something of a magician in the kitchen, I asked her if she'd mind making Moravian sugar cakes over the Christmas holidays.

The request was a simple one, prologued, as it was, with my big, sorrowful brown eyes, and a promise of my annoying unending sadness if my plea went unfulfilled.

Shame on me. Heh, heh, heh.

After all, my Nana Kessler made sugar cakes, and her daughter – my mother – also made them.

Somewhere along the way, Kim got hold of a sugar cake recipe from a real Moravian. She and her mother would set aside a Friday night in December and begin the labor-intensive process of making sugar cakes. They usually ended up making about six or eight of them, and we'd even hand some of them out (despite my completely legitimate protests) as Christmas gifts.

I point out the labor intensive part because it usually took Kim and her mom most of the evening to make them. They used the old Moravian recipe that required potatoes and yeast, which meant at some point you had to wait for the dough to rise before you could continue the baking process. It's exhausting work that requires a serious commitment of time.

One of Kim's sugar cakes is ready to go. Mmmm. Smells good..
 I was usually covering basketball games for The Dispatch on Friday nights in December, but when I came home – usually sometime after midnight – Kim would be there, sugar cakes in hand, a touch of flour on her face, smelling curiously like a bakery.

But, man, we had honest-to-goodness sugar cakes for the holidays.

Over the course of time, however, Kim's mom passed away and I no longer needed my sugar cake nostalgia fix. Kim had little interest in making sugar cakes anymore and I couldn't blame her. Especially since you can walk into almost any grocery store in town and buy sugar cakes from Dewey's Bakery.

Years slipped by. Some Christmases we just didn't bother to have sugar cakes, even though it was something of a family tradition to have some with your morning coffee. And that was OK.

Then, a month or so ago, we were at the Marketplace Mall in Winston-Salem. We were walking around aimlessly killing time until we strolled into the Winkler Bakery outlet store. The Winkler Bakery, of course, is the 200-plus-year-old establishment in nearby Old Salem that still makes the sugar cookies, the Love Feast buns and, yep, sugar cakes for both the tourists and all of us nostalgia-starved Moravians.

The outlet store (which is actually a working bakery that mass produces its product for Old Salem) had packages of sugar cake mix for sale.

"Do you want me to make sugar cakes this year?" asked Kim, holding a package of mix in her hand and reading the instructions.

"Nah," I said both thoughtfully and maturely. "I know how hard it is to make them. You don't have to do that."

"I don't mind," said Kim. So we bought a package.

Yesterday, while I was watching Army beat up Houston in a college football bowl game, Kim was working in the kitchen when a familiar scent began to fill the house.

"It smells like a bakery in here," I said, walking into the kitchen.

"Go outside, take a breath of fresh air, and then come back in," said Kim. "Cleanse your nose."

Well, that was something I'd never done before. But I did as she said. When I came back in, the delicious aroma of cinnamon, brown sugar and butter, warmed to about 350 degrees, gently co-mingled into my nostrils.

I think tears welled up in my big, brown eyes.

Kim was able to make four cakes out of the package of mix. We're giving three away as gifts, but I'm selfishly keeping the cake with the deepest reservoir of brown sugar for myself. I guess I won't be keeping it long, though.

"I know how hard it is for you to make this, Kim," I said, my head virtually swimming in the sinfully rich smells from the oven. "You must be tired, and I'll never ask you to make sugar cake again. I've had more than my share over the years."

A knowing nanosecond flew by.

"Yes, you will," she said, smiling. "You'll ask me every year."

Indeed, I will.

Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to all...

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Holy smokes

I'd just about forgotten about Monday's demolition of the smokestack at Lexington Home Brands Plant No. 1. Clearly, watching a smokestack come down wasn't high on my priority list.

But about mid-afternoon, after running a series of errands, my neurons and synapses started firing and I remembered, "Hey, today's the day." So I drove over to see what I could see.

I first went to the Piedmont Funeral Home parking lot, but that only put me in a position to look straight into the sun. So I drove to the Talbert Boulevard side of the plant, near the railroad tunnel, and got a much better view without damaging my retinas.

History comes down in pieces. (Photo by Adam Gregory)
 Half of the stack was already down, including the iconic white lettering of "Dixie" that anointed the structure.

About two dozen spectators were on hand when I arrived, spread here and there, which kind of surprised me given the emotional outcry about the demolition that you can find on social media. I'm guessing that there was a floating party of sorts, with handfuls of spectators coming and going (like me) most of the day.

But I thought there'd be more people on hand to watch.

I understand the emotional attachment behind the demolition, especially from people who worked at the plant most of their lives. The furniture industry was the beating heart of Lexington for more than 100 years, and the smokestack of Plant No. 1 dominated the city's skyline for nearly that long.

But a devastating fire a year ago brought down several of the plant's buildings, and no doubt considerably weakened the mortar of the cherished smokestack, which actually sits on Norfolk-Southern Railroad right-of-way. Feasibility studies showed it would cost upwards of $4 million to somehow save or move the smokestack.

No philanthropists stepped up to throw money at it.

Times change, and they usually change with circumstances. And history is a fickle thing, meaning different things to different people. Do we miss the old Lexington High School building that once sat where the current post office is located? How about Robbins School? Where's the Donut Dinette? What about Milton Hall, near where Parkdale Mills is located? Anyone miss it? What about Swing Dairy? Why is there outcry over the demolition of a smokestack, but measured resistance to historic districts within the city limits?

My wife, a lifelong native of Lexington, already misses the smokestack. A friend of mine, who also grew up in Lexington, wasn't bothered so much by the demolition of the smokestack, but he sure does miss the factory whistle that could be heard across town ending the work shift. The dismissal whistle, I guess.

It's good to pay respect to the past. It helps describe who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

But we can't save everything. Except, maybe, in our hearts.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

North star

Whenever I want one of the teams I'm pulling for to win, I use a device that's probably about 50 percent effective.

It's called force of will.

I used it both in 1980 and in 2008 to help the Phillies win the World Series. I used it last year to help the Eagles win the Super Bowl. I used it again last year (it was a busy year in Philadelphia) to help Villanova win the NCAA men's basketball championship.

But my force of will – which when pulling for a sports team is something that probably more resembles me straining with my fists clenched and my eyes popping – doesn't always work.

It didn't work when I was on press row covering the West Davidson boys' bid for a basketball title in 1984; it didn't work when the Lexington American Legion baseball team tried to win a state title in Cherryville about a decade ago.

Like I said, my force of will is a 50-50 proposition. When it works, I'm a genius. When it doesn't, I'm a fool who might as well rely on rolling dice and rubbing chicken bones.

I tried using force of will to help North Davidson win a 2-AA state football championship against legendary football factory Shelby yesterday. But when Shelby intercepted a pass in the red zone against the driving Knights and returned it 90-plus yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the first period, everything changed.

Before I could blink my eyes, the Knights were down three touchdowns and forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. Against a formidable team like Shelby, you don't want to be playing catch-up.

North eventually lost 42-21. I felt deflated. My force of will had failed.

The game was aired on WMYV-TV, which is how I viewed the game, and I have to say, it was a very professional broadcast. There was slo-mo instant replay, solid commentary, and intriguing close-ups. That's pretty impressive television coverage for high school football.

When I cover North for The Dispatch, I usually sit in the elevated press box behind the Knights, so I don't get to see coach Brian Flynn working his team other than his striding up and down the sideline with his clipboard tucked into his pants.

But on television, there were some wonderful shots of him sending out signals to his team.

There was one where he brought gripping hands to his eyes, as if he were using binoculars. I don't know what that means – maybe he was calling for a pass and binoculars would help him see further downfield.

Then there was one that looked like he was blowing kisses. Or maybe blowing dust off his hands. I don't know what that means.

There was a kind of "hang five" signal with both hands, although there wasn't a Hawaiian shirt or surfboard in sight. I don't know what that means.

And then, later in the game, I saw him jumping up and down waving his arms, which is usually universal for "look at me," but in this case, I don't know what it means. Maybe he was exhorting his force of will.

I like Brian. I remember when he played quarterback at Central Davidson years ago. He's a personable young man and a clever, innovative football coach who knows how to use the talented players he has on the field. North is lucky to have him. I have a feeling there's going to be plenty more postseasons for the Knights in the future.

Sunday, December 9, 2018


Well, here we are. It's 6:30 Sunday morning and already we have three or four inches of overnight snow on the ground.

And more is coming.

I guess the weather forecasters were right. While the predictions for the snowfall amount were all over the place – anywhere from one to four inches for those located south of I-40 to eight to 12 inches for the Piedmont – I wasn't sure what to expect.

The wind is whipping snow all over the place...
 It was all about the anticipation, a word (and impatient expectation) which makes me think about Carly Simon's great song about ketchup. The early forecasts rolled in about a week ago. Since then, it's been all about the waiting... waiting... waiting.

And now it's here.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I mean, I spent my childhood winters in snow, frolicking in the stuff in years spent in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Connecticut, all before I was old enough to drive a car.

Back then, I thought it was great.

A part of me really enjoys it and I actually do appreciate the gentle fall of flakes as it shrouds everything in pure white. It salves the soul.

But I'm not a kid anymore. I dislike driving in the stuff. I don't want to walk in it. I've long ago given up building snowmen or sliding down soft slopes on a sled. I don't want to be left stir crazy in my house because everything is closed and there's nowhere to go.

And this morning, to make things a little different, the wind is blowing. Flakes sometimes are falling in a diagonal direction. Hmm. And Fido needs to go out. Enjoy.

I suppose this will likely be our version of a White Christmas, unless we actually do get snow on Christmas Eve. Yeah, we still have more than two weeks to go for that to happen, but we are in Christmas mode, and the decorations on the houses somehow make the season seem more, umm, more... seasonal.

I guess I should just sit back and enjoy it.

But, man, I just got done raking leaves. And now I have to shovel snow? Sheesh.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


Normally, I don't get too excited when news breaks across my television screen about a 7.0 earthquake somewhere on the planet.

I guess that's because it seems most of those high intensity earthquakes are in Italy, or Ecuador, or Japan. Places like that.

Except this time, the Big One that broke late Friday night was in Anchorage, Alaska.

Where my brother Dave lives.

Seven point oh.

That got my attention.

As soon as I collected my thoughts, I tried reaching him on my cell phone using the only number I have for him. That didn't work, because, as it turned out, Anchorage had lost its power and there was no cell phone service. I got a recorded message to try my call again at a later time.

Hmmm. Iconic Alaska.
 I couldn't wait. So I private messaged him on Facebook. Yeah, I know. No power. But at least the message was there for him.

Early the next morning, I saw that he had marked himself as "Safe" on Facebook, proving that Facebook actually is good for some things. I don't know how he had access to Facebook, or what device he was using to relay his message, but I was grateful for the update. It corroborated what I'd been hearing on the news that there were no known casualties from the episode.

Dave actually lives in a suburb of Anchorage called Wasilla, and from what I can gather from previous pictures of his on Facebook, he lives in a rather remote area that favors moose and other wildlife as opposed to tall buildings that can tremble and fall on you.

Dave did post a picture of a knee he skinned when the earthquake came, causing him to lose his balance. He might be the only known casualty in Anchorage, if he reports it.

And there are the aftershocks. The news this morning said there have been more than 650 of them. Whoa.

Dave actually responded to a friend on Facebook that so far, "What is unnerving are these 'aftershocks'. You feel them coming on and you're ready to ride the mechanical bull again."

I can't imagine. 

I tried calling him again later, and while service was back up, a woman's voice answered and told me that I had the wrong number. Curiouser and curiouser. But Dave has never been one for following the norms. Geez, he lives in Alaska, for crying out loud, and he has (off and on) for more than 40 years.

We actually visited him once, back in July 1992, where he took us to Earthquake Park in Anchorage. It's a jumble of rugged upturned rocks left over from the Great Earthquake of 1964. It was midnight, and we sat there talking and drinking wine coolers and waited for the sun to set, which, of course, it never did.

I myself have never been in an earthquake – not even a slight tremor – although Kim does make the Earth move for me. But I can't imagine solid ground letting loose like that. Earthquake Park is the closest I've ever been to earthquake damage.

All this got me to thinking, though. The three Wehrle boys are pretty much spread out across the country, and so far, we seem to be handling our natural disasters as well as can be expected (I know. Kiss of death right there).

I live in North Carolina, where we have hurricanes. Or at least tumbling trees when the tropical storms blow hard enough. It's still unsettling when the wind gusts reach 40 or 50 miles per hour, even here in Lexington.

Our youngest brother, Scott, lives in Oklahoma, where they have tornadoes. Okay, so do we on occasion, but ours are mostly F-1's. Out in Oklahoma City, the Fujita Scale tends to break higher than in North Carolina. I'm not sure if Scott has actually even seen a tornado, but I figure his odds are better than mine of seeing one. I hope he never does.

And then there's Dave in Alaska.

I guess we'll take our disasters one at a time, just like everyone else does. It's all we can do.