Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Virginia's Mark Twain"

It's not that far, a couple hours' drive, from Person County N.C. to Patrick County, Va.  But Barnie Day's journey to published author has been going on nearly four decades now.  Along the way he has been a reporter, editor and newspaper publisher; retail merchant and health clinic administrator; political commentator and sage of the Blue Ridge, business executive and farmer; banker and county manager; county supervisor and state legislator.  A couple of people who should know have called him "Virginia's Mark Twain."

And as many who live around Belcher Mountain's Meadows of Dan already know, he has fought through Parkinson's disease while producing some crackerjack writing in his novel "The Last Pahvant," available on and elsewhere, and in a new work about life in Oxford, N.C. during the Civil Rights era.

Now there's a 3,000 word story on Barnie Day in the July-August issue of Carolina Alumni Review, published by the General Alumni Association at UNC Chapel Hill.  Here's a link to that story:
If that doesn't work, copy and paste this into your whatchamacallit:

That story began 10 months ago after I read a version of "Pahvant" and told Barnie what everyone who reads the book also tells him: It ought to be in print. I sent a copy to my friend Regina Oliver last October and suggested the Review write about Barnie, who graduated from UNC in 1975. She immediately agreed, enthusiastically so, and asked me to write the piece.  So last November, Barnie and I started meeting early mornings for about an hour -- the length of time it takes for my arthritic hands to go from useful to seized up -- and we talked and talked on chilly mornings, and sometimes in the evenings over some Irish whiskey -- well into the new year.

We talked about life in the 1950s and 60s when he was growing up in Roxboro, about working in factories and at little newspapers, about scrabbling his way through Chapel Hill with the help of a athletic meal ticket his roommate had ("I tell people I went through Carolina on a football scholarship, it just won't mine," he likes to say), starting up a newspaper that folded not because it wasn't good, but because it was undercapitalized, and moving through a variety of jobs over the years, all the while thinking about writing the long form and telling stories people will want to read. 

The editors at the Alumni Review liked the story of Barnie's career so much  that they hired one of the best photographers anywhere: Steve Exum.  He came up to Meadows of Dan shortly after Spring arrived and shot wonderful photos of Barnie and Debbie Day, the restored farmhouse where they live (with secret rooms below ground where, the story goes, a moonshiner and bootlegger hid his illicit wares long ago) and the writing room where Barnie turns on the lamp many mornings hours before the sun starts to brighten the rural countryside.

 Oh, meant to add this one, too, of Barnie and Debbie, with Yip.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Honky Tonk Angels

In the late 1970s when I arrived in Raleigh, downtown was a dead-end place after 5 p.m.  The city fathers had ordered Fayetteville Street -- North Carolina's "Main Street" with a handsome promenade from the State Capitol down to the equally imposing Memorial Auditorium -- dug up and replaced with a pedestrian mall with benches, gardens, trees, fountains, a big clock and a false expectation that people would throng to it.  It was a disaster -- not the least because local merchants opposed outdoor seating for restaurants (there weren't many) and because construction knocked out a lot of retailers whose walk-in customer business disappeared when it became impossible to walk in through the mud and trenches and chaos.

But there was one place that made it: Blanche's Center Grill, just a block south of the Capitol. It was a lunch counter kind of place, run by Blanche and Larry Blaylock, as good-hearted a couple as you will find in this land. Blanche had big black hairdoos and a ready laugh; Larry, a veteran of a bad time in the Korean War, was quieter but loved it best when there was a big loud crowd in his place.

I came to know them when a barkeep at Rusty's, around the corner, ticked off the Capital Press Corps with extremely bad service during their weekly gatherings to blow off some steam and whine about clueless editors, power-hungry politicians and unctuous wannabe policymakers who spoke in florid languages incomprehensible to the human ear. One day a barkeep tardy with the next round tossed off an ill-considered line: "Keep your pants on. It's not like you all have anywhere else to go."

My colleague Brent Hackney, who knew every place within a hundred miles where a person could get a nip of the sauce, strolled around to Blanche's Center Grill the next morning.  Would it be all right, he inquired, if a dozen or so newshawks and hangers-on came around for an hour or so after work to have a few cold ones?  They were delighted. Usually their business trailed off by mid-afternoon and their doors were locked by 6.  But if someone was buying, they'd be happy to do some selling and serving into the evening hours.

So it came to be that Blanche's became the weekly stopover for a press corp that considered itself overworked, underpaid and insufficiently appreciated by the louts who ran their newspapers and radio and TV stations.  And it was then we discovered a marvelous thing: Blanche and Larry had the most wonderful jukebox in the Cap City.  On it you could find the 1939  "Moonlight Serenade" by big-bandleader Glenn Miller, one of the most danceable songs in American history; "My Girl," the 1965 beach music anthem by the Temptations, "Slow Hand" by the Pointer Sisters, one of the most erotic songs ever aired, and a gem you'll rarely find: "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

Country music fans surely thought about that fine work when Kitty Wells died Monday at age 92 in Nashville.  She made that song famous in 1952, almost by accident, at a time when she was about to quit the business, or at least quit going on the road.

But the version on Blanche's jukebox wasn't by Kitty Wells. It was by the state's garrulous happy pol, Rufus Edmisten, who had come to notice as an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin during the Watergate investigation of the Nixon administration.  Edmisten went on to become N.C. attorney general, then an unsuccessful candidate for governor, and later secretary of state before going into private practice and lobbying and making, as he was delighted to tell anyone who inquired, a ton of money. Somewhere along the way Edmisten crooned "Honky Tonk Angels" into someone's microphone, and it wound up on the jukebox at Blanche's where he sometimes lunched.

I don't believe there was a Kitty Wells version on that jukebox, but it would have been welcome. So would Kitty, but in that particular lunchroom, Rufus ruled.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s Blanche's got urban-redeveloped. I think the property became an expansion of the next-door Farmer's and Merchant's Bank, and Blanche and Larry went on to other things.  I wondered the other day when I heard about Kitty Wells what had happened to that jukebox.  It ought to be in the Smithsonian  -- or at least up near the bar at Player's Retreat over by N.C. State. But that's another story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The long-billed fishing cap

The heat index the other day was about at the level that Ray Bradbury might have used as a book title back in the 1950s, and I was longing for some way to avoid the sun.  There's a closet upstairs with part of the vast household collection of baseball caps, and my hand fell on something out of the long-ago: the long-billed fishing cap my son got in New York City for his 16th birthday, 25 years ago this summer. He's in Idaho and I'm in Virginia, and it sure looked like a hand-me-up to me.  Now most days that old black-billed cap helps keep sunlight off this old worn-out face.

 I forgot we still had that cap. I know for sure it went to Europe with him once, and off to college, and I could have sworn it spent some time on his noggin down in Ecuador, but maybe not. The thing looks like it hasn't been out of the box long.  But somehow it made it back home to Raleigh and survived a brutal move a year ago, when stuff went flying out every door and window of the house in our feverish race to get rid of Too Much Stuff.  I never have found five or six cartons of books I meant to keep, so I have no idea how the fishing cap made the cut.

It's a genuine Abercrombie & Fitch fishing cap, with a bill at least two inches longer than any of the other ball caps hanging on pegs at the house, the barn and the shop.  Well, genuine Abercrombie & Fitch to a point; the original Abercrombie & Fitch had gone into bankruptcy around 1977, and the store that David Abercrombie, once the chief surveyor for the Norfolk & Western, and a lawyer named Ezra Fitch had developed was no longer in business.  The big outfitter's store on Fifth Avenue had closed up, but not before I had visited it in the mid-1960s when I had a summer job in New York City, and later whenever I was in town to cover political conventions.

But by the time John Betts turned 16 in 1987, a rival had bought up the Abercrombie & Fitch brand and had opened a new store down near the Battery, and it stocked a line of trendy clothes for the younger set.  The trip to New York at 16 was John's big birthday present;  we drove up to Baltimore and hopped the Amtrak for the city. We checked into the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th, home of the once-famous Round Table where the wits and writers of an earlier era, such as Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross and Alexander Woolcott, held court in, as one described it, "a vicious circle."  My son's grandfather, on a business trip to New York in the 1950s, was to meet another textile executive from Greensboro in the Algonquin lobby, and failed to notice, as he read his evening newspaper, that sitting next to him was a  clarinet played named Benny Goodman. His friend clued him in as they left the Algonquin lobby, and loved to rib him about it in years to come.  But that's another story.

When we got settled at the hotel, I asked John what he wanted to do. "This is the crossroads of the world, and you can do anything you want," I said, or something mighty like it. I was thinking Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Bronx Zoo, that kind of thing.  He said, "I want to go to Abercrombie & Fitch and then see the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie."  Off we went.

At A&F we prowled the store looking for something useful. When he saw the long-billed cap -- shiny black bill on the top, flat black underneath, attached to a khaki-colored dome, with four ventilator grommets on each side to let off steam -- he had to have it; it would be just the thing to wear while strolling down Broadway and being awed by the tall buildings and hurried strangers.  And it was, it was.  And we went to see "Predator," then took the subway up to the Bronx and watched his New York Yankees whip my Baltimore Orioles.  He cut quite the dashing figure in that long-billed cap. I was just happy it wasn't a Yankee cap, though if he'd asked, I'd have paid for it. It was a long evening, as the O's had little going on at the plate and less on the mound.

The next day I put him and the long-billed cap on the plane for a summer adventure and made my way back south, figuring that hat would blow off somewhere along the way and that's the last we'd see of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Happy to be wrong about that. It's still in the family, and still doing service.  Turns out to be a dadgum good tractor hat and a pretty fair weed-pulling hat, too.   The weather broke the other day and the well-traveled cap went back on a peg, awaiting its next shift.

But the weather forecasters are predicting another hot spell, and there's a 70% chance I'm going to need some shade. When that heat arrives, I'm going with the old A&F, yessireebob.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Of sand and shrimp and leaky ponds

When I was a kid about a hundred years ago, there was only one thing I looked forward to than the end of the school year: those precious days when we would head to the beach, sometimes for as long as a week, more often three or four days. Usually Myrtle Beach, sometimes the Outer Banks.

Didn't matter, couldn't wait.  Summer days were long, but we made 'em longer by getting up before dawn, my Dad and I, and awaiting  first light before we'd plunge into the waves.  A great swimmer and good diver, he'd get his fill after 45 minutes or so, and head back to the cottage or the inn or wherever we were staying and get his coffee. Me, I'd stay on the beach, waiting for the magic moment when the lifeguards would open up for the day and start renting those canvas rafts for maybe 25 cents an hour.  I'd ride the waves best I could on those rafts, rubbing my chest raw the first day against that salt-laden and sandy canvass, and soaking up sun until I glowed at night. I'd stay on the beach all day when I could, and sneak back soon as I could when the grownups would insist on taking a nap or eating lunch or some foolishness like that. Just never could get enough of it.

Then, anyway. Somewhere along about middle age it was a lot hotter, or maybe I was just noticing it a lot more, and tolerance for sand in my shoes and baked-flat-midday-heat waves and long walks in soft sand accompanied by no-seeums seemed to evaporate.  It was about the same time I turned into a geezer, of course.  And while I still looked forward to beach vacations, it isn't the same; after two or three days, I start thinking of the cool morning sunrises and the icy water from our springhouse and the breezes that blow over Belcher Mountain, and all the things that need doing up here, and I long to be back in the hills. 

So it was the other week. Our family has gone down to Rich Inlet at the northern end of Figure Eight Island every summer for years.  It's a fascinating place to see the changes nature wreaks every year. When first we went there were still some sorts of buoys out in the inlet, but the buoys are gone and its shape has changed so much it's hard to tell, except at low tide, where the main channel is.

 The beach at the upper end of the island has broadened nicely in recent years, but that also means it's a long hike out to the waterline, and at low water you may have to wade another 100 yards out to get more than waist-deep. It's more like work just getting out there for these aging knees.

On the other hand, Nixon Channel curves around sharply towards the mainland and creates a nice swimming-and-crabbing hole just a couple hundred feet from the cottage.  We took beach chairs and a cooler and an iPod down there the other day and parked ourselves two feet from the water's edge, where it was about a 10-step walk to full immersion, and a fine place to watch the sun set over the Intracoastal Waterway.

This is another sign of Full Geezerdom, I know.  But it's simpler, cooler, quicker and more gratifying than a long trek across hot sands and a long trek through knee-high breakers just to get wet.  I always did like the sound side.
So why go? Silly question. For the shrimp, of course.  Shrimp isn't all we eat, but to me it's the reason the Good Lord gave us the coast: It's where you go to get fresh shrimp, and I never have gotten my fill of it.  You can cook it, as Forrest Gump's friend Bubba pointed out, any number of ways. But I like mine this way: Get five pounds of good medium or large shrimp, heads off.  Heat a big pot of water. Throw in half a stick of butter. Open a beer and pour half of it in and drink the other half. Put the shrimp, unpeeled, in the boiling water for seven minutes.  Lay out old newspapers on the table.  Fix a bunch of cocktail sauce with catsup, fresh horseradish and fresh lemon juice. Give everyone a plate full of shrimp and turn 'em loose.  Grab a shrimp (watermen call 'em bugs), pull off the peel, toss it into the pile in the middle of the table, dip the shrimp it in your own supply of sauce or butter or even tartar sauce and wade your way through a pound or so. This is the essence of the shrimperoo.

Corn on the cob or cornbread re also good, but you're mostly going to be eating with your hands, so keep plenty of napkins nearby.  When you're all done, cleanup is easy: roll up those newspapers with the peels inside and carry it all out to the trash.   Mighty good eating. Mighty easy tidying up.

We miss the fresh shrimp of the coast, but back on the mountain there's work to do, now that the derecho has blown through up here and left in its wake a billion leaves and little branches on the gound and a heat wave that has taken us into the near-90s a few days.  The derecho -- a straight-lined windstorm -- is a new word to us but not to meterologists.  I imagine it'll be in the news as a figure of speech before long, the same way tsunami was when people learned what it meant and how they might press it into daily speech. There'll probably be a tsunami of news headlines about the coming derecho of -- what? negative campaign ads? political promises? huge corporate contributions? hot rhetoric? -- in the election season.  The tide is just beginning to rise.

Cooling off in all this hot air is somewhat problematic. We have a leaky, muddy pond inhabited by some big old snapping turtles, but its waters are cool enough to make it worth our while.  There's a lot of pluff mud on the bottom of that old pond, so our old scuba diving booties come in handy negotiating the rocky, gooey bottom.  You can just about wade across the old pond, but there are some inflatable chairs left over from the visit of some young'uns a few years ago, and Party Doll has discovered a floatable plastic drink container that keeps pondwater and turtles out. So our little watering hole will do nicely until sea level rises enough to give Patrick County some oceanfront real estate.  I think it will be quite a while.

In the meantime, if only we could figure out how to grow shrimp in a muddy mountain pond.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Aw, naw, not Andy

First it was Earle Scruggs, then it was Doc Watson, and now they say ol' Andy Griffith has passed over to the other side. Read Dennis Rogers' fine piece here:

I don't know what year it was exactly, but I remember well that old beat-up radio in the early 1950s on our kitchen table, where we listened to the local radio show on WBIG or WGBG and heard the announcer talk one morning about a young kid comedian right out of Chapel Hill and his funny story about a big event that looked like a tent meetin'.  It was called "What it was, was football," and my dad durn near ruptured himself laughing so hard at it.

For those who never heard it, it went this way:

What It Was, Was Football

It was back last October, I believe it was. We was a-goin’ t’ hold
a tent service in this college town.
And we got thar about dinnertime on Saturday And different ones
of us thought we ought to get us a mouthful to eat before
that we set up the tent.
And so, we got down off of the truck and followed this little bunch of
people through this small little bitty patch of woods.
And we come up on a big sign, says “Get somethin’ to eat here!”

And I went up and got me two hot dogs and a big Orange drink.
And before I could take ary mouthful of that food this whole raft of
people come up around me
and got me to where I couldn’t eat nothin’ up like—
and I dropped my big Orange drink. I did!

Well friends, they commenced to move and they wasn’t so much
I could do except to move with ‘em.
Well, we commenced to go through all kinds of doors and gates
and I don’t know what all, and I looked up over one of ‘em
and it says “North Gate”, and we kept on a-goin’ through there,
and pretty soon we come up on a young boy.
And he says “Ticket, please…” And I says “Friend, I don’t have a ticket.
I don’t even know where it is that I’m a-goin’.” I did!

Well he says “Come out as quick as you can.”
And I says “I’ll do ‘er—I’ll turn around the first chance I get.”
Well, we kept on a-movin’ through there and pretty soon everyone
got where it was that they was a’goin’ because they parted
and I could see pretty good. I could!

And what I seen was this whole raft a people a-settin’ on these
two banks and a-lookin’ at one another acrosst this purty little
green cow pasture! Well, they was! And somebody had took
and drawed white lines all over it and drove posts in it and
I don’t know what all! And I looked down there and I seen
five or six convicts a-runnin’ up and down and a-blowin’ whistles!
They was!

And then I looked down there and I seen these pretty girls
a-wearin’ these little bitty short dresses and a-dancin’ around,
an’ so I set down and thought I’d see what it was that was
a-gonna happen. I did!

And about the time I got set down good, I looked down there
and I seen thirty or forty men come a-runnin’ out of one end
of a great big outhouse down there! They did!
An’ everybody where I was a-settin’ got up and hollered!
And about that time thirty or forty come a-runnin out of the
other end of that outhouse and the other bank full—
THEY got up and hollered!
An’ I asked this feller that was a-settin’ beside me, I says
“Friend, what is it that they’re a-hollerin’ for?”
Well he whopped me on the back and he says
“Buddy, have a drink!”
Well, I says “I believe I will have another big Orange.”
An’ I got it and set back down.
An’ when I got back down there again, I seen that them men
had got in two little bitty bunches down there.
They had—real close together--and they voted! They did!

They voted and elected one man apiece.
And them two men come out in the middle of that cow pasture
and shook hands like they hadn’t seen one another in a long time.
And then a convict come over to where they was a-standin’ an’ he
took out a quarter and they commenced to odd-man right there!
They did!

Well, after a while I seen what it was that they was a-odd-mannin’ for.
It was that both bunches-full of them men wanted this funny-lookin’
little punkin to play with! They did, and I know friends that they
couldn’t-a eat it ‘ cause they kicked it the whole evenin’
and it never busted!

But anyhow what I was a-tellin’ was that both bunches-full wanted
that thang and one bunch got it an’ it made the other bunch
just as mad as they could be and friends I seen that evenin’
the awfullest fight that I’d ever seen in my life!
I did! They would run at one another and kick one another
and throw one another down and stomp on one another
and grind their feet in one another and I don’t know what all!
And just as fast as one would get hurt they’d tote him off
and run another’n on!

Well, they done that as long as I set there but pretty soon
this boy that had said “Ticket please…” he come up to me and
he says “Friend, you’re gonna have to leave because it is that
you don’t have a ticket.” And I says “Well, alright…” an’ I got up
an’ left. An’ I don’t know, friends, until this day what it was that they
was a-doin’ down there, but I have studied about it, and I think it’s
some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them
men can take that punkin an’ run from one end of that cow pasture
to the other’n without either gettin’ knocked down—
‘er steppin’ in somethin’ !

Andy, I've been going to that same cow pasture for more than half a century, and I can't ever walk in without seeing those folks have "the awfullest fight I ever seen."

You beat all, you know that?