Sunday, May 31, 2020

Our vale of tears

I'm tired and exhausted. I'm angry and frustrated. And, even against the backdrop of a sadly and seemingly inevitable history, maybe even a little hopeful.

I didn't know I could feel so many emotions at the same time.

But the murder of George Floyd, yet another in an impossibly growing list of unarmed black people killed by over-zealous police who seem to be ignoring constitutional and civil rights, has unleashed these emotions. Again.

I say "again," because we've been here before. Too many times, in fact. A person my age can instantly recall images from the 1960s: of civil rights movements, the Harlem riots of 1964, the Watts riots of 1965, Chicago in 1968, and on and on it goes.

Why does it go on and on?

It's all rooted in racism, of course. In a country founded, in part, by the concept that all men are created equal and in a country supposedly sustained by Christian and Judaic values, we still have George Floyd. We still have Sean Reed. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Eric Garner. And Breonna Taylor. And Stephen Demarco Taylor, and Willie McCoy. And more. Many more.

All these people, supposedly equal under the law guaranteed by the 14th amendment, should have had the protection of the United States Constitution behind them (a constitution which, interestingly enough, was signed by 55 white male delegates, mostly wealthy property owners, and of whom 25 were slave owners. There might be a clue there – the ratification and perpetuation of America's Original Sin).

But they didn't.

Instead, all these people had is what seems like an empty promise. Incredibly enough, with a history of systemic oppression in this country dating back 400 years, most African Americans still pay their taxes (sometimes sustaining the very police enforcement that is killing them), they still vote (when it's not suppressed), they still serve their country (sometimes, without thanks).

We – all of us – should be angry. We should be frustrated. We know what the right thing to do is. Why are we not doing it?

With protests spreading nationally (even internationally. See Germany), I still see a window for hope. This feels different, somehow. The killing of George Floyd finally may have pushed us to a tipping point. The social unrest, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, may be the incentive it takes to change many social inequities. I hope so.

But history is a tough teacher. We never seem to learn from it. There was a World War II because there was a World War I (the Roman numerals speak for themselves); an unresolved Asian war in Korea in the 1950s was followed by an unresolved Asian War in Vietnam in the 1960s; an influenza pandemic in 1918 that had no vaccine and which was finally mitigated by wearing masks and maintaining social distance is requiring us to do the same thing now 100 years later.

When will we ever learn?

('Blowin' in the Wind,' written by Bob Dylan in 1962, is generally considered to be an anti-Vietnam War protest song. But nearly 60 years later, I think it serves us well as an anti-racism anthem. Dylan is for the ages).

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Groundhog Day, Part Deux

The last time I tried to trap a groundhog, it didn't work out so well.

We borrowed a friend's humane Havahart trap, baited it with cantaloupe as per Google, and caught absolutely nothing. Except, maybe, the ants on the cantaloupe.

That was last year. Even though we live within the Lexington city limits, a family of groundhogs – a mama and her litter of four – burrowed under our next door neighbor's utility house and promptly mowed through our vegetable garden. I wrote a blog about it.

We hoped winter would solve our problem, but about a month or so ago, there was mama, back from hibernation, with this year's brood of five young'uns.

I was crushed. Kim was crushed. She was hoping to raise a vegetable garden this year, along with sunflowers, but now we had no hope.

I lamented this tale to my other next door neighbor, who let me borrow his Havahart trap. I baited it with cantaloupe and, again, caught absolutely nothing.

I was getting discouraged. I let the trap go unattended for a few days, and then, for some inexplicable reason, I reset the trap without baiting it.

There's finally a groundhog in my trap. Cute, isn't it?
 The next morning, I had to release the squirrel I caught. I reset the trap, again without bait, and an hour later, I had to release the squirrel I caught. I don't know if it was the same squirrel I caught the first time or not, but I was starting to feel, umm, lucky, maybe? At least I was catching critters now.

I set the trap once more, still going with cantaloupe.

The next morning, lo and behold, the trap had sprung. But no groundhog. I'd caught an opossum.

For crying out loud. What next, the neighborhood cat?

That evening, Kim was making our lunch salads for the next day, and just on a whim, I took an apple core and some celery clippings from the salad prep and put them in the trap.

The next morning, there was a groundhog in the trap, a young'un, looking up at me with pitiful eyes. Yes! Success. My very first groundhog.

But now I had the problem of disposal. Sometimes I don't always think these things through.

Harold checks out his new home.*
 So I went knocking on neighborhood doors. I came upon Amy Dillard and asked if her husband, Shawn, was around. I told her my story about the groundhog, and wondered if he could help me take him somewhere.

I just missed him, she said, but wait a minute, she'll call around and see if she could find somebody who could take a groundhog.

The next thing I knew, I was riding in the Dillard's pickup truck, heading to Rockcrusher Road.

"I called my ex-husband," said Amy. "He lives down by the quarry. He said he'll take it."

OK. I know what you're thinking. I thought it, too, squirming, as I was in the passenger seat, maintaining a decent social distance from Amy. For one brief moment, it came to me in a blinding flash: I was riding in a pickup truck with my neighbor's wife, driving to her ex-husband's house out in the sticks, with a groundhog in tow, in the middle of a pandemic. You can't make this stuff up. It's not how I usually roll.

But we finally got to Robbie Mallard's place, a heavily wooded area quite suitable for groundhogs, as well as squirrels, deer, possums, and, if need be, pterodactyls.

Robbie greeted us with a smile and took the trap. He promptly named the groundhog Harold, which suddenly made everything a little more personal. We walked down to a creek, where he opened the cage. Harold didn't budge, even with freedom beckoning. I think Harold probably was petrified by all the humans peering at him.

His hesitation didn't last long. He finally edged his way out of the trap and slowly explored his new environment. We gave him a quiet cheer.

Amy drove me home, both of us feeling pretty good about the moment.

Then, today, I looked out my window. There, in my neighbor's yard, was another groundhog. I figure it's Harold's sibling.


Bill Murray found himself in a pickup truck with a groundhog, too.

*Photo by Robbie Mallard

Sunday, May 17, 2020


I've never been a big auto racing fan, which means I guess it's kind of ironic that I spent an entire career in sports journalism  – more than 40 years, if you're counting – just an hour away from the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the beating heart of NASCAR.

There could be any number of reasons why auto racing has never appealed to me: To begin with, I'm not a motorhead. I open the hood of a car and I don't know what I'm looking at; I wasn't born into the NASCAR culture, so it's kind of foreign to me anyway; I never saw the point in driving in circles; and auto racing is loud. Very loud. And sometimes, people get killed.

And it's not just NASCAR. I never got into the Indianapolis 500. Or Grand Prix racing. Or go-karts. Or whatever. It's just me, I guess.

So how come I can't wait to watch today's Darlington 400 (at 3:30 p.m on FOX)?

I know why. Because it's sports. Live sports. On television. I think the last live sporting event I watched on TV was the ACC Tournament, which was halted in mid-stream in early March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, our televised sports has been a vast wasteland of recycled championships in nearly every sport. I can't watch something where I already know the outcome. That's why I never record a sporting event. If I know who wins, what's the point?

And it's not only auto racing. Golf, of sorts, also returns today with the TaylorMade Driving Relief event (2 p.m on NBC), featuring Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff in a charity skins game to raise funds for the American Nurses Foundation.

So today, there will be real-time sports with outcomes in doubt. I suspect genuine, in-the-moment competition could feed my empty, aching sports soul with sheer joy. We'll see.

The PGA Tour plans to return in full on June 11-14 with the Charles Schwab Foundation in Fort Worth, TX. Stay tuned.

All of this will be interesting not only for the competition and live action, but also to see how golf and auto racing will play out in a pandemic world. No fans will be allowed at either event, which will be strange. Nobody yelling "In the hole!" or "Yudda man!" the precise moment a putt is launched.

And I'll be curious to see how social distancing will be accomplished on the golf course and on the race track. No hand shaking after dropping 35-foot putts. Remote interviews only. During pit stops, will drivers get a dose of sanitizer along with their Gatorade? What happens with pit crews? Are they all considered essential workers? What about the guy who cleans the radiator intake? Is he expendable?

And then there's major league baseball.

MLB is hoping to begin play in July with a schedule cut in half and in empty stadiums. No spitting allowed. And can you really argue with an umpire from six feet away while wearing a face mask?

Baseball already is making some innovations, like combining the American and National leagues into three 10-team divisions: the West will see the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Athletics, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Rangers, Astros and Mariners, while the Central will include the Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Cardinals, Royals, Reds, Indians, Twins, Braves ad Tigers, and the East will feature, the Phillies, Pirates, Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays, Rays and Marlins.

I already like this setup. It could be a keeper. Look at all the natural rivalries. Travel distances will be cut significantly. And as much as I love baseball, the shorter season has some appeal. This also would be a good time to experiment with speed-up rules, too.

We might be getting a glimpse of the new normal today and in the coming weeks as well. There's still a lot of tweaking to be done.

We're already in the early stages of reopening the country, but if numbers spike in the next couple of weeks, it could all go back to full quarantine again. You never know. We better enjoy today while we have it.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

History lesson

Because I keep looking for stuff to do while staying in place in the middle of a pandemic, I find myself doing a lot of reading.

I like to read. I probably have 200 books in my home library, nearly half of those about the Civil War, and fully two-thirds of my collection about history in general, with the rest mostly about sports.

Because of the lockdown, I'm reading some of my books for the third, maybe even fourth time. I can't wait for access to the Davidson County Public Library again.

Anyway, my wife's boss, Mac Parrott, let me borrow one of his books: "Centennial History of Davidson County North Carolina" by (Rev. Dr.) Jacob Calvin Leonard. It has a copyright date of 1927, even though the actual centennial of Davidson County would have been December 9, 1922 when, 100 years prior, an act of the North Carolina General Assembly carved out Davidson County from the enormous and far-ranging borders of Rowan County (Named for Matthew Rowan with borders ranging from present day Anson County to present day Burke County, if I understand correctly).

Consider 1822 was only 33 years after the United States Constitution was ratified and put into effect. Davidson County, as a governing entity, was nearly as young as the entire country.

I guess it took Dr. Leonard several years to accumulate his information and then assemble it into a 523-page work. Some of it is dry reading, as history usually is, but Dr. Leonard occasionally injects a little bit of himself into his tome, which can liven things up a bit for the curious reader.

I'm guessing a good number of current Davidsonians know that Davidson County was once a part of Rowan County. Maybe fewer know that colonial North Carolina saw its own western border reach the Mississippi River.

Look how big the colony of North Carolina was.
 Here's where it gets kind of interesting. Davidson County was named for Rev-olutionary War hero General William Lee Davidson, who was actually born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

He was wounded in the battle of Colson's Mill, SC, while a major of the Fourth Regiment of North Carolina Troops.

Then, sadly, while serving with Gen. Nathanael Greene, Davidson – now a brigadier general promoted for his conspicuous bravery – was shot through the heart and killed during the battle of Cowan's Ford on the Catawba River in May, 1780.

Then there's this (from Dr. Leonard's book):

"Davidson County ... is the second North Carolina county of the same name. This information was called to the attention of The Dispatch in a letter from Major W. A. Graham, Commissioner of Agriculture, who recalled that one of the early sessions of the Legislature of North Carolina saw the creation of the county of Davidson, with Nashville as its capital.

"Shortly after the creation of Davidson County the territory of the west seceded and formed the State of Franklin. In 1784 North Carolina ceded this territory to the Union as an independent state. The name was then changed to Tennessee, after the river that winds itself across the State several times and which got its name from the Indians that still roamed the country toward the Mississippi.

"Davidson County, Tennessee, still remains and Nashville its county seat, is the capital of the State. It was named after General William Lee Davidson, who fell at Cowan's Ford on May 1, 1780. Nashville was named for General Francis Nash, another distinguished North Carolinian. ..."

So, apparently, there was a Davidson County before there was a Davidson County. According to Dr. Leonard's book, "From 1749 to 1822 Davidson County was included within the limits of Rowan County." I'm not sure how that could be, but Dr. Leonard (who was a pastor of First Reformed Church of Lexington) continues by writing, "In 1749, Rowan was constructed out of Bladen. Rowan at that time covered the whole of Western North Carolina and Tennessee, such distinction continuing until 1770, when Surry County was formed. Rowan was truly a great county. In the year 1822 Davidson County was erected from the portion of Rowan east of the Yadkin River."

The book is filled with all kinds of tidbits like this, and there are plenty of pictures of faces with familiar last names like E. Odell Hinkle, William Moffit, John W. McCrary, Emery Raper, George Mountcastle, William Holt, B. Cabell Philpott and Irvin L. Sink, to name a few. No women, though. Times change. That's what history is about.

Clearly, I need to get out of this quarantine.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

My friend Donnie

By 1990, I'd been at The Dispatch for 14 years. I only had 16 more to go.

But in that 14-year span, the newspaper had already gone through four photographers: Gareth Wetherill, Scott Crowder, Glenn Roberson and Scott Hoffmann. For some reason, during my tenure there up to that point, The Dispatch had been blessed with exceptionally talented photographers. They stayed at the paper for an average of 3.5 years. Each.

The photojournalist at work.*
And for some reason that I can't quite fathom, I'd managed to become fairly good friends with all four of them, even though my interest and knowledge in photography approached something akin to zero. I was a sports writer and I guess maybe they liked sports well enough, so maybe that was a connection. That, and the way that disparate personalities can somehow seem to interact with one another on the sly.

So when photographer No. 5 showed up, I was more than a little apprehensive. Could we work together? Could we be friends? Or would we simply be workplace colleagues?

Turns out, I was worried about nothing. True enough, Donnie Roberts was a baseball fan – he even played the game in high school and he followed the Cincinnati Reds (I followed the Philadelphia Phillies) – but as time went on, I learned he had a taste for music that ranged from Pearl Jam to Underhill Rose, a sense of humor with a twist for thoughtful, offbeat eclectic comedy, a sharp nose for news and a photojournalist's eye for the precise shutter click that told the story. He also had an artist's touch with his camera.

Photojournalism at .7 of a second. One of my favs. How did he do that?**
So we became friends. There was a span of several years – I think I was already retired – where we played golf together once a week. We did that until a shoulder issue took him out of the game.

My wife, Kim, and I had him over to the house every Super Bowl Sunday for a run of several consecutive years, maybe a decade's worth. Kim would make the chili and chocolate mousse, Donnie would bring the craft beer, and I provided the television. Or, when he finally got an HD TV (and I didn't), Kim would still bring the chili and mousse, but we'd watch the game at his place.

Kim said he was always smiling. His smile remains his signature to this day.

What was evident throughout all this was that Donnie was continuing The Dispatch trend for exceptional photojournalism, whether it be in sports or hard news. He developed (OK, so maybe that's a deliberate pun and throwback to the pre-digital darkroom days) a rapport with many of his subjects, earning both trust and confidence. It was local journalism at its best and I bet he won more than 50 press awards in his time with the newspaper, maybe even more.

Photojournalism as art.**
And it could never end.

But a little more than a week ago, Donnie emailed me that, after 30 years with the paper, his job was being eliminated by Gannett/Gatehouse, which owns The Dispatch, along with 240 other newspapers in its conglomerate, including USA Today. The cuts were nationwide.

Donnie's last day was Friday. It leaves The Dispatch without a photographer, perhaps permanently. It leaves our community with an enormous void.

All you have to do is go to his Facebook page and read his farewell story. Then read the comments. There's more than 100 of them, from colleagues, friends and subjects, which tells you more about the impact a single man can have on his neighbors than almost anything else.

I don't know what lies ahead for my friend. He's hinted that, at age 59 and after 30 years, he's not really interested in going back into newspaper work, or even freelancing. As a 30-plus-year veteran of journalism myself, I can understand that. The Nikon might feel more like an albatross around his neck these days, I don't know. Maybe he can teach his craft somewhere. Or maybe something totally different and rewarding will appear for him out of the blue. I hope so.

Donnie had a remarkable run at our little newspaper, and because he did, so did we.

Thank you, my friend.

Kim, myself and our friend.***

* Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images

** Photo by Donnie Roberts (Who else?)

*** Photo by Melissa Egelnick