Sunday, December 6, 2015

A new use for some old logs

Back in 2007 we built a log home on our property in Patrick County, Virginia.  The logs were milled by Southland Log Homes at its mill near Elliston and delivered on a cold rainy day in May '07. They gave us plenty of materials -- including about 10 percent more logs than we would need, just to make sure there was enough in case some were ruined during construction.

 The house went up pretty fast during construction, but not as fast as it went up three years later after it was struck by lightning.  The house burned to the ground in June of 2010.  We rebuilt with Hardy Plank siding -- tough to burn, or so we are told -- and never got around to using the left over logs.

Not until the other day, that is, when our son John was visiting.  I had rounded up some stone and a fire ring, and we pulled back the tarps on the unused eight-tear-old logs and brought a few of them into the little patch of woods east of our house.  Had a bunch of Ollie Screws -- the long skinny screws log home companies use to torque down on the logs -- and we screwed them into some leftover six by sixes that we had trimmed down to size. Burned up one drill before we borrowed a heavier duty driver from a friend to get those long screws down into the wood. 

You see the result here -- along with my kindling cart, converted from an old baby carriage that once belonged to our neighbor Leslie Bevacqua's daughter  in Raleigh and tossed out on the trash heap one morning.  Helps keep us warm up here at nearly 3,200 feet of elevation in the Blue Ridge.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Spies in our yard! Northern Spies, yet!

 For the more-than-four decades we've been coming up to Patrick County's Belcher Mountain, we've known there were some apple trees on the property -- some old ones, in fact.  Until we retired in 2011, though, we weren't up here often enough to take note of where the trees are, or to guess what they might be.  I would have told you there might be six apple trees on the yonder hill, tucked away here and there not far from the old Conner-Woods house down by the springhouse.

This year was a revelation.  For the first time, I realized there are at least a dozen apple trees on the property still capable of putting out red and yellow apples.  Thanks to an amazing spring that came on slowly and without a killing frost, we found applies on 12 trees, and a few more apple-looking trees on the borders of old fields that we've slowly uncovered as we hacked away decades of overgrowth and briars and clinging vines. But I had ever known what any of them might have been. Sure, we had a hunch that two trees near the asparagus patch might be some kind of Golden Delicious, and maybe that red apple tree  might be some kind of Red Delicious, only better tasting.  In one of the notebooks my father-in-law, Hal Strickland, carried around, I came across one notation: the apple tree nearest the old house might be a Fireside. 

 I showed a few of our apples to our friend Diane Flynt, of  Foggy Ridge Cidery over near Dugspur, and she showed me the best way to tell if they're ripe (cut 'em open and see if the seeds have darkened; if they have, you can plant 'em, she advised).  She also gave me the name of an apple expert in Virginia who might be willing to take a hard look and tell me what they are. So I sent a box full of two apples from each of the trees (except from Tree No. 5; the apples were gone by the time I got around to collecting samples), marked 'em with a Sharpie and sent them off to Professor Apple, whose real name is Tom Burford.

Not long ago a message arrived from the Professor.  He had not had time to study them in great detail, but had identified about eight.  That little apple tree by the blueberry patch is a Red Siberian Crab apple.  The two we though might be a Golden of some sort are Yellow Bellflowers.   That red we thought might be a Red Delicious is something far better: a Limbertwig, so called because they grow on long, drooping, springy twigs, and they taste great.

True, that tree my father-in-law mentioned is indeed a Fireside, and another tree closer to our house is also a Fireside.  The website describes it this way: "Fireside is a great fresh-eating apple with a great name. Originating from Minnesota, it is mainly seen in northern orchards. It doesn't get as red as McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Jonathon and other northern varieties when ripe, but rather is splashed with quite a bit of green. This color doesn't affect the flavor, which by the way is excellent. You may notice some peening on the skin, which look tiny little dents. This is not a defect, just part of this apple's interesting character. Minnesota apples certainly have the best names."

There's also a Green Cheese apple tree, sometimes called a Cheese Apple, not far from our house.  But the one I like the most -- actually, two of them, one down by the creek and the other about 200 yards from where I write, are Northern Spy apples.

Oh, my. Down here in the Southland -- even in the Appalachians, where folks often had widely differing views about the War Between the States -- the idea of a Northern Spy lurking about is enough to get your attention. I'm not clear where the "spy" part of the name came from, but they are said to be cultivars of an apple native to the Northern East Coast of the U.S., plus parts of Michigan and Ontario. One website I looked at provided some light on the topic -- the Northern Spy is also known sometimes as the Northern Spie, or the Northern Pie Apple. 

OK, could be,  but I rather like the sound of "Northern Spy."  And so did Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology, who wrote this in the poem "Conrad Siever:"

NOT in that wasted garden 
Where bodies are drawn into grass 
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens 
That bear no fruit— 
There where along the shaded walks         5
Vain sighs are heard, 
And vainer dreams are dreamed 
Of close communion with departed souls— 
But here under the apple tree 
I loved and watched and pruned  10
With gnarled hands 
In the long, long years; 
Here under the roots of this northern-spy 
To move in the chemic change and circle of life, 
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,  15
And into the living epitaphs 
Of redder apples!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Jammin' at Bristol

For several years I've been hauling my old 1959 Kay upright bass down to Galax on Fridays to play in the four-hour Midday Music program in the breezeway of the Blue Ridge Music Center.   Toting that bass around, playing it for that long a time and then getting it, and the special stand, and the special stool, is a load  -- sometimes seeming more like a process than a performance.  So when I heard about the Jam Town Jam Camp planned for the four days preceding the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, I signed up, went over to Bristol and spent a wonderful week making mostly bluegrass music with some talented people.

Among them were Gilbert Nelson and his wife Leigh, professional musicians and good teachers who operate these jam camps all over the East under a program developed by Pete Wernick.  The plan isn't to produce professional musicians, but to help dedicated pickers get better at it, learn how to improve their playing skills, absorb the rules of jamming etiquette, expand their repertoire of songs, understand better how to harmonize with other pickers, and become more familiar with stage management, microphone setup and use, and even such things as how and when to make runs up and down the bass.  In other words, not reinventing the wheel, but making sure pickers come away with more knowledge and better skills, and having fun.
Leigh Nelson, left, and Gilbert Nelson at Jam Camp

Among other things, we broke up into four bands of about 7 players each, and performed on a stage that a little later that evening would be occupied by the award-winning Black Lillies.  So our story, of course, is that we opened for the Lillies.  Never mind that our audience was spouses and friends and nice folks who wandered in off the street, while the Lillies' audience was a sold-out, paid audience of enthusiastic fans.  Our band called itself the Bluegrass Misfits -- we had three banjos but just one dobro, one mandolin, one guitar and one old bassman.  Here's a couple pix:
The Misfits, on stage

The best fun of the evening came when Leigh and Gilbert, joined by teachers Bob Minke and Dee Rosser, were performing, and invited up Hannah Jacobs of Danville, whose sweet high-range voice had transported the Misfits with her rendering of "Angel Band", and Corinne Macintosh of Lanexa over near Williamsburg, who played the Stanley crosscut saw with her fiddle bow.  You ain't never heard nothin' like it -- hilarious, charming, eerie, and right smack dab in the middle of the bluegrass tradition that if you can play it, people will listen and let you know when it's good.  They did.  Here's another photo, showing Hannah at the mike and Corinne sawing away on the saw.  You can't make this stuff up.
Sawing away at a Stanley 26" crosscut saw

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Of birthdays, bikes and books

For the past five years, Chuck and Diane Flynt of Dugspur, pictured above, have raised a bunch of money for the Jessie Peterman Memorial Library in Floyd with a birthday ride down the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This is the 6th year, and the goal is to ride a mile for each of Chuck's birthdays -- 75 miles this year.  Some of the dozens of riders opt for other goals -- 20 miles, or 40, or 50, or whatever seems right.  The Flints contribute a dollar for each mile biked to the library. It all adds up.

Last year, for example, the birthday ride brought a contribution of nearly $1,200, and the folks at the library were thrilled.  As I reported last year, branch manager Cathy Whitten said, "We are so grateful to all of you who ride and donate.  It’s just the most delightful thing to us that you all would do this!"

This year's event was a huge success, raising $1,589, reports Chuck Flynt. "Thirty-one riders participated in this glorious event. We all had a great time and are a little tired and sore from the experience. 
Paul Lacoste finished with me as he has for all the six previous rides. Craig Rogers from Patrick Springs, a biking newbie of only 4.5 months, completed the 75 mile course ahead of his coach and inspiration, me. I won't let him start early next year!"

It looks like pretty much fun for the riders who gather early on a Sunday morning to head up the Parkway for the Big Dogs ride up to Rakes Millpond. The wind was howling and it was just over 52 degrees this morning when they left for the first 25-mile leg.  They rolled back in at mid-morning to get a quick snack and then join the Puppy Dogs riders for the second segment down to Fancy Gap and back.
Dan Sweeney gnarfs a banana-and-peanut concoction before heading out with the Big Dogs

But at least this morning it wasn't sleeting, as it was for part of the ride four years ago.  Today's gusty, strong winds were enough to battle. Craig Roger of Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, fairly new to serious bike riding, said he fought not only strong winds but also some startled turkeys in the road as he biked up and down some of those steep hills. 
Craig Rogers and Chuck Flynt, shortly before Craig was first out of the blocks toward Rakes Mill Pond

Craig, heading north, first leg 

Heading back down toward Mabry Mill

Newlywed Dan and Beth Sweeney

Floyd builder Ed Erwin, about to start on the second leg


Saturday, August 29, 2015

The old New River, still magnificent

    It was a little over 40 years ago when I first began hearing about the New River -- not the one down near Camp LeJeune on Carolina's coastline, but the one up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.  It caught my attention because U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin -- not widely known as an environmentalist in those days -- was talking about what a shame it would be to lose that old waterway for a hydroelectric project that would inundate one of the oldest river valleys on Earth.  I was a green-as-grass Washington correspondent for the Landmark Newspapers -- Norfolk, Roanoke and Greensboro -- and covered the dad-gummedest fight you ever saw in Congress over Appalachian Power Co.'s plan to dam the New near Mouth of Wilson and drown one of the most gorgeous rivers in America.

I won't rehash that fight, but suffice it to say it took an alliance of Republicans and Democrats -- that's right, that's how it sometimes worked in the mid-1970s -- to adopt legislation putting the New River in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system and thus make it off-limits to damming and flooding.  There was Republican NC Gov. Jim Holshouser and Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Republican Congressman Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell and later Democratic Congressman Steve Neal working side by side to keep that river open and flowing. They won, in what was an amazing set of circumstances that culminated in a huge victory for environmentalists when President Gerald Ford signed the final papers.

A few weeks ago I was cycling with friends along the bike path that runs alongside the New River in Grayson County, VA -- well downstream of the old proposed dam site, and was once again astonished at the beauty of this rugged old river -- wide and slow in places, then rough and wild in others with big jagged boulders primed and waiting to tear up canoes and kayaks just a few hundred yards downstream.  We biked along the path of the old Norfolk & Western Railway, where trains ran for nearly a century alongside the river from the vicinity of Galax on to Pulaski.  The late bluegrass musician Jim Marshall -- who died in a funeral home just a few weeks ago -- wrote about this in his song "The Old New River Train Won't be Coming Back."

That New River bike path is part of the New River Trail State Park -- running for some 57 miles though that area of the Blue Ridge as the river makes its way north to West Virginia and into the Kanawha and the Ohio and then to the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Joe Tennis, in his fascinating book Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth, reveals some of the details of that old railroad. He wrote about how the work began in 1882 and eventually  "pulsed like a main vein through these Virginia villages, where mining -- and dining on the legendary catfish of the New River -- was a way of life. Mile after mile, the railroad followed the river's course on a shelf, just above the floodplain."

So it is today as you leave the town of Fries, Virginia, on the New, for a leisurely bike ride heading north -- down the river, interestingly enough, on that shelf just above the river and its banks.  It's a lovely way to break back in on biking. It had been decades since I biked regularly, and everything about biking has changed, it seems to me. The first day Kerry Hilton and I went about 5 miles -- hardly enough to warm up for veteran bikers, but it was enough for these old legs and hindquarters.  The next day we put in about 12 miles -- and when two rockets passed us on the old railroad bed that now serves as a hiking/biking/horseback riding trail, Kerry informed me they were not FA-18 jets, but our friends Lee Chicester and Jack Russell, racing along toward Pulaski as they trained for a 400-mile expedition up in the Northeast.

I never got anywhere near Pulaski, but then again my goals were much less ambitious than theirs. This seemed appropriate for a railway that was never quite finished. Tennis relates how the New River Plateau Railway Company "had ambitions to keep going," with plans to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and "take a dive" on down into Mt. Airy in Surry County, N.C.  By the early 1890s, Tennis writes, the New Rive Plateau Railway had become part of the Norfolk and Western (now the Norfolk Southern) and got as far as Galax.  This line was part of the planned North Carolina Branch. The state line is not far south of Galax, which the line reached in 1904, "But there, the North Carolina Branch would stop -- still a few miles short of the North Carolina border."

The branch line to Fries -- pronounced locally as Freeze in the winter and Frys in the summer -- ran well into the 1980s, when the property was donated by the railroad to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It then was turned into the New River Tail State Park, and has a bit of everything -- trestles and bridges to traverse, tunnels to zip through and such historical oddities as the Shot Tower, visible from the highway just off I-77. The 75-foot tall tower was built of limestone  by Thomas Jackson in 1807, Tennis wrote.  "In the tower's top room, melted lead was poured through various sizes of sieves. That hot lead then fell 150 feet through a shaft to a large kettle of water, which acted as a cushion.  Jackson reached his finished shot by an access tunnel near the river. The shot was sold on site to hunters, traders and merchants or sometimes shipped downriver by bateaux."

In coming years I plan to see more of the old New River's sights and sites.  I expect I'll start once again in Fries or maybe nearby Galax, and enjoy that gentle ride down the river, heading north. And when I stop I'll lift a glass to all those who in the 1970s saw in the New River a place of unparalleled beauty and rugged splendor, and voted to keep it like it is. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

High 'mater season in the Blue Ridge

  Almost everyone I know is a better gardener than I am and they grow a whole lot more stuff than we do here at 3,186 feet of elevation.  But this has been a wonderful year, starting with a long slow spring without a bad late freeze, enough rain often enough, and some unseen hand from a higher power constantly helping things along. There are tassels on the corn now, 'taters are lovely, onions seem to be holding their own, zukes and cukes and crooknecks still put out, the peppers come and they go, but mostly they come in batches, the rabbit-eye blueberries have come in strong and the 'maters, by golly, we're getting enough to start a produce stand. Here's 
one 15-minute harvest, not counting the slightly nibbled 'maters I threw in the crick:

Let's see, those red things include cocktail tomatoes, Romas, Dolly Partons,  German Johnsons and I think a Big Boy or two. Jane Kendall and I used to laugh about how we liked our 'mater sammiches: "Made at 8 and eat at noon."    Now that we're knee-deep in this 'mater bounty, I think I'll fry a mess of 'em up in cornmeal and bacon grease for breakfast tomorrow.  Reminds me of what Woody Durham used to say when the Tar Heels were on a roll:  Go To War, Miss Agnes!

P.S.: I always wondered what that meant, and a few minutes after posting about 'maters, I looked it up on the world wide interweb. Turns out to be one of Chuck Thompson's on-air gems, some years before Woody. Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Charles L. "Chuck" Thompson (June 10, 1921–March 6, 2005) was an American sportscaster best known for his broadcasts of Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles and the National Football League's Baltimore Colts. He was well-recognized for his resonant voice, crisply descriptive style of play-by-play, and signature on-air exclamations "Go to war, Miss Agnes!" and "Ain't the beer cold!".

So there you go. How 'bout them 'maters?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lost in the Fifties Tonight

About, oh, 50 years ago, when Wood Allen and Fred Birdsong and Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison and I were figuring on a big show biz career displacing the Kingston Trio and other giants of the 1950s and early 1960s  entertainment business, we didn't know much about how to do it.  I had a an old sawed-off Roy Rogers (or was it a Sears Roebuck?) 6-string guitar that Wood gave me, and that I had tried to turn into a 4-string tenor guitar like Nick Reynolds played. When  we needed some serious gravitas and percussive thump, I used to borrow an old Alcoa aluminum guitar from the next-door neighbor of a friend on West Market Street in Greensboro.

We didn't know squat, but we didn't know we didn't know squat, so we were deliriously happy in our ignorance, bound as we were for the top, like a rocket ship about to be fire off of Cape Canaveral.We were saved from a degrading life of too much money, too much fame and too much substance abuse when we didn't go straight to the top, or the middle, or anywhere close to it.  But we had a lot of fun, over the years playing in sometimes odd, out-of-the-way places.  That live on-air performance at a little AM radio station in Danville was a thrill. Helen, GA., was fun.  And we set the place on fire a couple times at weddings of daughters in Iredell and Buncombe counties. 

By then I had bought an old 1946 Kay doghouse bass with a partly broken neck, dings all over the body and some ancient strings.  Scrangs, Fred called 'em. But it sure did sound good when we got together.  We lost Fred one night in Alabama when he was returning from a prison ministry session where he counseled inmates, and was killed by a drunken driver.  The bass burned up in a 2010 house fire.  Squirrel died after a noble five-year fight against three or four kinds of cancer.

Wood and I still play, mostly a lot of folk music from the 1950s, but some newer stuff as well.  A few years ago I discovered a nice 1959 Kay bass up at Jerry Fretwell's bass shop in downtown Staunton, VA, and bought it up with a nice soft set of Silver Slap scrangs.  Easy on the hands, and sounds good.   Enjoyed playing it, and was taking up the tenor guitar again with a Martin knock-off made in China.  Cheap, and a thing of beauty, though what I really wanted was a Martin.  Just too costly.

Then just the other week, after a household emergency forced me to cancel a long-planned trip to hang around the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ, a fellow there let me know someone was selling a 1957 Martin tenor guitar, with a hard case, for a very good price.  Wood was flying out there to perform, and he and several friends took a look and bought it on the spot, found a shipping box and dropped it off at UPS.  It arrived here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club Thursday afternoon, where it took up residence in the conservatory right next to my '59 doghouse bass.  When I took it out of the box, the Martin was still in tune -- though an incoming storm front here soon took care of that.  But it plays as sweet today as it must have for its other owners over time.

Here's a look at the Kay Martin duo:
1959 Kay bass, left; 1957 Martin 0-18t tenor guitar, right.

I am mindful that since becoming an age-eligible geezer, there's some danger in acting as though everything was wonderful in the 1950s, when it wasn't at all. But some things were right.  We passed a '55 Chevy on U.S. 58 the other day, and I got the sort of twinge I usually get when I think about that old '56 Chevy Bel Air two-toned sedan with the small-block V8 that I sold for $65 right before going off to the Army in 1969.  Some days I wish I had that old boy back.  Not that I could put it in the conservatory, of course, but the back seat was big enough to carry a doghouse bass AND a tenor guitar, at least with the seat yanked out.  If you see a '56 in good shape for a good price, do me a favor and don't give me a call.  I got more old stuff than I need, including some really old knees.   But thanks just the same.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Of peaches and hardware and pitchers of something cold

Nothing quite like a birthday nearing the end of my seventh decade to remind me of how quickly things change -- and how some of the landmark institutions I once took for granted have already passed from reality into the realm of memory.  I thought about this last week when I was in Slaughter's market in Floyd, and saw the first really good-looking peaches of the year.  More are likely to be in this week, the produce manager told me, and we made a mental note to drop by and buy a box when they arrive.

We're particular about peaches, and when we lived in North Carolina, we always watched out for the coming of peaches from the Auman family orchard down in the Sandhills.  I had worked with Bob Auman at the Greensboro Daily News shortly after the crust of the earth cooled many years ago, and covered his dad, Rep. T. Clyde Auman, in his latter years in the General Assembly. But mostly I recall the occasional interview when National Public Radio's Bob Edwards would call Watts Auman, who ran the orchard during those years, and talked about the incoming peach crop in North Carolina and how that late freeze or the prolonged drought or the fine spring weather might affect the crop.

Alas, the Auman family decided to get out of the peach business last year, and this is the first year that many customers heard of it. I read in one news story that customers were driving up to the orchard only to find trees removed and packing houses empty.  For many families it would be the first summer season in their lives without Auman peaches on the table.

Thus is goes.  Cellar Anton's, a favorite Greensboro haunt of my early dating days in the 1960s, and an eatery that we teenagers thought both sophisticated and cosmopolitan, has closed.  I gave a girl a ring there one evening in 1965 over a dish of moussaka and a pitcher of something cold, and three years later we married. 

Briggs Hardware in Raleigh -- virtually a daily stop for me when it was downtown for more than a century on Fayetteville Street, and later an easily-accessed morning stop on my way to work at its North Raleigh location, has closed its doors. When I first started going in to the squeaky-floored store just down from the Capital in the 1970s, old Mr. Jimmy Briggs used to ring me up as he crooned a little ditty he had sung for Greensboro Daily News correspondents for 40-some years, he claimed: "The Daily News/Is mostly used/For wrapping fish/And worn-out shoes."   You don't get that at Lowes or Home Depot, you know.

These were wonderful places and I'm sorry to see them go, but there's also a world of new places to haunt and things to find and craft beers to sample -- more than I'll be able to get to, I expect, but I'm going to give it a try.  We're off today to hunt for a good bike shop, and a new restaurant down in the western Piedmont.  We'll toast the Aumans and Antons and Briggses of the world with a new IPA somewhere, and look forward to their successors.   Cheers!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

One harvest ends, another about to start

About 85 or 90 pounds ago, maybe more, this green stuff started almost jumping out of the ground where the Connors or the Woods once had their dairy barn.  It's the plot where the late Hal Strickland  and his wife Frannie first planted asparagus about, I think 40 years ago. Maybe a little more.  They bought the farm for less than $200 an acre, and probably within a few years were growing prize-winning asparagus, at least in our minds.  Frannie hauled a bunch of it to Greensboro for years while it was coming up, and gave away, I'd guess, several thousand pounds of it over the years.  I know we carried a couple hundred pounds of it during its 8-10 week growing season during our working years.

But at a certain point you have to let the asparagus patch go.  After Hal died, we made the asparagus patch smaller and easier to maintain.  Or so we thought.  Still takes a lot of work to keep it weeded (we're behind) and whack back the encroaching foliage from the field (we're a bit ahead on that) and you still have to do everything else that goes with minding an asparagus patch, a sizeable blueberry patch and the vegetable garden down by the creek.  I don't see how the Stricklands managed to keep it all going in their advancing years, but one thing was obvious: they spent a lot of time and effort on it.  Just plain hard backbreaking work.

Last week, blessedly, we cut the last 14.8 ounces of asparagus and shared it with neighbors who were frying up some fresh-caught bream and bass from the pond.  Now it's in full fern, as you can see:

Over the winter, we dug up some blueberry bushes Hal had planted on an Eastern-facing slope years ago. They bore some berries, but not a lot, and Hal asked me to transplant them when I could.  But the time I got around to it, they were so large I needed an industrial-sized backhoe to dig 'em up.  So we pruned four of them to manageable size, dug up most of that, whacked them into smaller pieces and potted some for replanting (two will go to our niece in honor of her baby daughter, Fiona Grace) next year and put four or five into the big blueberry patch on a Western-facing slope.  To our utter astonishment, they all are still alive and  putting out foliage, and three of them have a few berries on them.

A couple days ago I noticed that one of the older, early bushes was blushing -- from green to pink and ruddy and running on toward that purplish sweetness that tells you in a couple more days there will be magic on the table again.  Here's a picture of the early berries, not far from being ready.  Well, okay, maybe a little longer than that. I'm an optimist when it comes to berries, and I'm looking forward to dressing up my morning Cheerios this summer, and my winter oatmeal come December, with a big pile of 'em. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay

Kenneth Grahame was on to something when he wrote these words in 1908: "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Grahame was retired then, from the Bank of England, and writing down the stories he told his son about the River Thames. Some of them wound up in "The Wind in the Willows," and though it's a child's book, it still reflects the fascination some of us have with the watery side of the world.

I do most of my messing about in boats from a rocking chair these days, just like the ones that adorn the porches and decks and docks of hundreds of little places along the Intracoastal Waterway and the little bayside and creekside towns that dot the East Coast's tangle of rivers and sounds and ports and backwaters.

The view from the porch on Broad Creek, Deltaville VA

They most recently included a week with two other couples on a Deltaville porch deck looking over Broad
Creek in Virginia's Middlesex County. Morning coffee on the porch turned into afternoon drinks and daylong reading, all the time keeping an eye on the high-dollar sportsfishermen and the bright white workboats that rumbled and grumbled their way down the creek and out onto the wide Rappahannock, just a few miles above its junction with the Chesapeake Bay.  You can steam or sail anywhere in the aquatic world from Deltaville, of course, but we looked for the crabbers and the sloops and cutters and kayakers and boat-scopers who noodled and puttered back and forth every day on that quiet stretch of water.

Nearly six decades after Grahame wrote about boats,  Otis Redding and Steve Cropper captured the serenity of watching the water in "Sitting on the dock of the bay:"

Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come
Watching the ships roll in
And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away, 

I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time.

Well, not wasted in my book, anyway. The six of us plowed through I don't know now many books -- a dozen at least, while sitting on that porch, when we weren't off testing restaurants for crabcakes or oyster po'boy sandwiches or the next round of craft beers or small-batch bourbons.  And somehow we found time to mess about a couple of days in a fine, handsome Cape Dory 33 sloop our friends keep at a nearby marina, just a five-minute walk from our upstairs perch.

The wind was up in the high teens on one sail, which involved more hanging on and bracing for gusts into the 20's while thrashing up towards the iconic 1957 Robert Norris bridge over to Kilmarnock. A sail later in the week was calmer, jetting out into the Chesapeake on one long starboard tack and returning to the Broad Creek daymarkers on one long port tack on a rising wind.

In our sailing and motoring days we have seen the Intracoastal up close from Vero Beach to Oriental, and shorter stretches of the more northerly sections.  We have also spent a good deal of productive time sitting on docks in river towns like Beaufort and Beaufort -- distinctly different places that provide spectacular views of the riverine and inlet worlds -- and quiet places like Pecan Grove Marina just off Shop Gut near Oriental, where we recovered from a white squall on the lower Neuse, and the old River Forest Marina just off the waterway in Belhaven.  So we're adding Deltaville to our list of grand places to sit and watch 'em roll in, and watch 'em roll away again. Wasting time, you know, is easy, but knowing where to do it -- that's the key.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

And then the wheel came off

Back in 1977, when I was still young, my father-in-law acquired a beast of a machine -- a big 7-horse Troy Bilt rear-tine tiller that was the envy of this part of Belcher Mountain Road.  Well, okay, there weren't any close neighbors then, and few neighbors now, but it was a marvel.  It would tear up patches of ground on this old farm pretty fast and turn them into nicely-tilled gardens for more than three decades of garden bounty.  There's not a long growing season up here at about 3,000 feet, but it's a mighty productive short season when there's just enough rain and not too much wind.

Thing is, a 38-year-old tiller can be a lot of work just to get ready to have it do all the work.  I sent this old boy to the shop last fall for a good worming-out, new plug and new fuel line.  Even when it gets good care, it's a chore just to crank, as I relearn each spring.  The pull-cord is a good four feet long and requires throwing some body weight with it.  When 10 pulls don't do the trick, it's back to the basics.  Fuel cock opened? Choke on "on"? Fuel valve opened up just right?  Tiller controls on neutral?  Sigh.  Sometimes, when nothing else works right, you just have to pull the plug, squirt in some WD 40 or some such, and crank it into life, hoping the thing won't blow itself to pieces. Then it's a matter of wrestling the thing down to the garden, through the gate and into position to till a straight line for the potatoes. And this point, I was pretty worn out pulling on the cord, but happy to finally be ready to till.

I was five feet away when the wheel came off.  I hope no one could hear me over the roar of the old engine, because the air momentarily turned blue -- what the great editor and professor Jim Shumaker would have described as a flow of molten profanity.  Somehow the beast had dropped a bolt on the port side of the tiller and the wheel had simply done what it was bound to do: spun itself off the axle.  This resulted in half a morning looking in the grass for the missing bolt (futilely); running back to the barn to find a replacement (four candidates, with nuts, just to make sure I got the right size); back down to the garden to see which of them would fit (one of them), and then another 20 minutes while I figured out how to tighten down a two-inch bolt in a space where there is insufficient space to insert two fingers, let alone one socket wrench and one crescent wrench (more molten incantations.)

At last I got it all together and fired back up and heaved into position to begin tilling.  Cranked up the fuel feed, threw it into forward and slow, and held on as it bucked and jumped and bounced side to side whenever it hit a rock of any size.  The first pass approximated what artists call an S-curve, but I figured out how to straighten it out -- by throwing myself on top of the tiller, hoping that 180 pounds of old man would help stabilize a beast that still plenty of go and not much whoa. 

When I finished, it looked pretty good, but I felt like I had just gone 10 rounds with Strangler Lewis. I retired to the house, found a shady spot on the deck and read the latest Rick Bragg book for a couple of hours in quiet bliss. Those 'taters could wait for another day.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Prize-winning colleagues, every one

Someone said a long time ago it's not enough to be good; you've got to be lucky, too.  Dunno about the good part, but I do know that I've been a lucky guy for just about every one of these going-on 69 years. Had good parents, good teachers, good editors, good friends and good times.  Had superb bosses along the way -- Irwin Smallwood and John Alexander at the Greensboro Daily News, Ran Coble at the NC Center for Public Policy Research in Raleigh and Ed Williams and Rich Oppel at the Charlotte Observer.

But today I'm writing about the people I worked with and who have been recognized by their collegues as THE best in the business.  I'm talking about Maria Henson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials about battered women when she worked for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentrucky.  She later joined the editorial staff at the Observer and worked for several years with me in the Observer's Raleigh Bureau. With her energy and drive and insistence on good writing and and her impatience with ineffective government, Maria showed why she won journalism's top prize.  She's now Associate Vice President and Senior Editor at Wake Forest University.

And I'm talking about Kevin Siers, the Minnesotan who came south to draw pictures for the Observer's editorial pages a couple of decades ago and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for "thought provoking cartoons drawn with a sharp wit and bold artistic style."  Kevin's work was at times hilarious and and times painfully poignant but always with a sharp point.  He was also a most collegial co-worker.  I never spent more than a week or two in Charlotte at any one time, but always enjoyed wandering into his office to see what he was working on, and to get him to tell me how he was doing.  Almost every time it was, "Not too bad."  Yep. Pulitzer Prize.  Not too bad.

And I'm talking about Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who this week won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting about wrongdoing and mismanagement in the Secret Service. She was part of a team that won last year's Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on national security issues, and won various other prizes for her investigative reporting, including stories about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife that eventually led to their convictions in court.  Carol worked in the office next to me in the Observer's Raleigh Bureau, and watching her investigate wrongdoing in state government was like being in a classroom with an excellent teacher.  Haven't known many people who could so quickly develop such good sources that produced so many useful stories that fulfilled the newspaper's key job of watching and reporting the truth. 

It surprises me not one whit that Maria, Kevin and Carol won the Pulitzer.  It does surprise me that many of my other colleagues at the Observer and in Greensboro have not also won the big prize for their labors in uncovering stories that huge institutions such as government and business did not want in print.  Their work was excellent and unrelenting and deserving of high honors, and maybe someday they will get them.

I won more than my fair share of prizes and honors in my four decades of journalism, but the closest I came to the big prize was probably the delightful meal served up by my then-Greensboro colleague, Windy March, now in Florida.  It was a chicken dish -- appropriately called "The Pullet Surprise."  It was a prize-winner, too. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The War's End for Great-Grandfather Betts

    While looking for something else this morning my hand came on a little book published a good many years ago and reprinted in the 1960s by cousins in Sanford. It was my great-grandfather A.D. Betts' "Experiences of A Confederate Chaplain, 1861-1865," recounting a Methodist minister's treak across the South while serving as chaplain of the 30th North Carolina under Lee and Jackson.

     It was 150 years ago last week that he wrote of the end of that awful Civil War, and his story concluded not far from the Greensboro home where my father was born a little more than  half a century later (1906) and where old A.D. would spend the last years of his life, dying when my father was 12.  I'd always heard him referred to as an impecunious parson, a gentle man kind to those he served, comforting Northern as well as Southern soldiers wounded or dying. 

     But I've also found bits of his diary disturbing in some ways.  Had the troops he supported won the war, it would have prolonged slavery.  And as you will see,  his final entry suggests that at war's end, he took with him one of those slaves ("a negro servant," as he put it) whom he addressed as "Boy," though it is unclear to me whether he owned this "servant," or  was simply taking him along with a horse as a favor to a friend. I never heard any of my family discuss the ownership of slaves, another one of those curious practices often found in Southern families whose collective archives of pictures, writings, odd pieces of furniture and personal belongings give only the vaguest clues as to their participation in the customs of the day.  It begs some research.

     Here's how he recounted that time in the last entry of his diary, dated April 9, 1865 but evidently covering several days:

April 9 (Sunday) - Heard Brother Willson preach.  During this week heard that Lee had surrendered! Sad news. Johnston's Army passed through Chapel Hill. We knew Sherman would soon be in. I did not wish to meet him. I told some of my friends I was going with Gen. Johnston's Army. Rev. Dr. Charles Phillips tenderly told me to go on and my friends would take care of my family. After midnight I kissed my wife and children and mounted a mule and rode away, thinking I might not see them in months or years. I rode all night, crossing Haw river, overtook Johnston's Army and reported to Brig. Gen. Hoke, who assigned me to duty as Chaplain to 17th N. C. Regt. We camped a few miles from Greensboro for two or three days till we heard we were to be surrendered. I rode to Greensboro one day and met Rev. Dr. John B. McFerrin of Nashville, Tenn., at the home of good Mrs. F. M. Bumpass. 

 The night following the tidings of our contemplated surrender was a still, sad night in our camp. Rev. W. C. Willson, the Chapel Hill pastor, was with us. We had preached a few times in that camp; but that night we made no effort to get the men together. In little, sad groups they softly talked of the past, the present and the future. Old men were there, who would have cheerfully gone on, enduring the hardship of war, and protracted absence from their families, for the freedom of their country. Middle aged men were there, who had been away from wives and children for years, had gone through many battles, had lost much on their farms or stores or factories or professional business; but would that night have been glad to shoulder the gun and march forward for the defense of their "native land". Young men and boys were there, who loved their country and were unspeakably sad at the thought of the failure to secure Southern Independence.

        Rev. W. C. Willson and I walked out of the camp and talked and wept together. As I started back to my tent - to my mule and saddle, I should say, for I had no tent - I passed three lads sitting close together, 
talking softly and sadly. I paused and listened. One said, "It makes me very sad, to think of our surrendering." Another said, "It hurts me worse than the thought of battle ever did." The third raised his arm, clenched his fist and seemed to grate his teeth as he said, "I would rather know we had to go into battle tomorrow morning." There was patriotism! There may have been in that camp that night generals, colonels and other officers who had been moved by a desire for worldly honor. Owners of slaves and of lands may have hoped for financial benefit from Confederate success. But these boys felt they had a country that ought to be free! I wish I had taken their names. And I wonder if they still live. They are good citizens, I am sure.

        Next day I mounted my mule and started to Chapel Hill, intending to surrender there. I took along a negro servant and horse for a friend. At sunset we met an old man at his spring near his house. I politely asked to be permitted to spend the night on his land. He objected. I said, "Boy, take off our saddles and halter our horses." The farmer quickly said, "If you will stay, come up to the house." I slept on his porch.


        I had seen many of them dead, wounded, or prisoners. Near Chapel Hill one rode up to my side. The Blue Coat and the Grey chatted softly and sparingly. He kindly offered to show me the way to headquarters. I thanked him and told him I would ride to my house and see my family and report myself later. The town was full of Federals. Each home had a guard detailed by the commanding General. My guard was a faithful, modest fellow. In due time I called at headquarters and was paroled. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Music in the hills of Georgia

This is how it looked one recent Saturday at John and Jody Bowles' house in Georgia -- before the music storm
In the middle of a dreary March marked by frequent snows and cold rains and blustery winds, John and Jody Bowles and their friend Neal Spivey did a remarkable thing: They invited dozens of musicians to bring their instruments to their home just outside Atlanta for a weekend of playing the music that once took the world by storm -- before the British Invasion.  Devotees of The Kingston Trio flew in from California and drove down from Minnesota and up from Florida and out from St. Louis and Ohio and south from New Jersey and Virginia and North Carolina to play everything they could think of.   It was billed as the Second Annual Kingston Trio Mini-Camp, playing off the long-running annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp held each summer in Arizona -- and sold out every year, at a pretty handsome price.

In the 1950s, The Kingston Trio was on top of the music world -- producing more albums each year and selling zillions of records and performing on college campuses and in clubs and auditoriums around the world.  "There had been other urban folk revivals, but it was  The Kingston Trio that set the wildfire, single-handedly ushering in the really big 'folk boom' of the late 1950s and '60s," wrote William J. Bush in "Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise  of the Kingston Trio."  Their first five albums all became number one sellers, something no other group has ever done.  Fourteen of their albums were among the Billboard Top 10 at one time or another, Bush added.  Nobody came close in popularity, until the Beatles (who reportedly were big Kingston Trio fans themselves) and Rolling Stones transformed popular music once again.  But the Kingston Trio still has a strong following, and the current Kingston Trio performs on the road 30 weeks a year, usually selling out, I'm told.  They remain popular because it's good music, they appear to still be having fun and they're accessible to their fans.

If you are into music, chances are you have seen a lot of Martin Guitars and Deering banjos and other pricey instruments.  You could buy a pretty nice mini-mansion on lakefront property for the money tied up in the collection of Martins in the Bowles home that day.  The Martin guitar is the standard for performers and serious students of guitar, and John Bowles owns Martins dating back to the late 19th century.  Others have had their Martins rebuilt, including one four-string tenor guitar that its owner, Bruce Blasej, had rebuilt into an eight-string tenor guitar for a fuller sound when played way up the keyboard. I got in on this deal when my friend of a half-century and more, Wood Allen of Charlotte, got us invited down to Alpharetta to join in. Wood's going as a camper to the fantasy camp this summer and I'm tagging along to take notes and pictures and maybe play a little guitar on the side. My instrument of choice is a 1959 Kay upright bass, but it's hard to pack that baby into an overhead baggage compartment, so my little Blueridge (yep, one word. Sigh.) tenor guitar -- a dead-on knockoff of the beautiful Martin tenor guitar played in Georgia by Rob Reider -- will make the trip with me.

That's Wood Allen, left, guitarist Tony Lay, center, and Stan Sheckman, right, on the bass guitar
 We played Friday evening, all day Saturday and Saturday evening, and all Sunday afternoon, running through as much of the Kingston Trio repertoire as we could remember and segueing into the Eagles, the Limelighters, and a lot of individuals, most particularly that of John Stewart, who joined the Kingston Trio in the latter 1960s and brought with him a new dimension in sound and songwriting.  One of the highlights of the weekend came Saturday afternoon when Rob Reider hooked up his laptop to the Bowles' TV and tuned in Bob Shane and his wife Bobbie out in Arizona so that we could serenade them live with  the rousing "I'm Going Home" march that the Kingston Trio made famous. Here a clip from that taken by Beth Woodward:

(If that video won't work for you, Wood Allen suggests trying this link:)

Bob Shane is a revered and legendary figure in American folk music, but his work transcended the field. Early on he was known as the "Hawaiian Elvis Presley." After Shane recorded his hit "Scotch and Soda," Frank Sinatra turned down the opportunity to cover it because, it has been written, no one could do it better than Shane already had.  Shane not only survives, but as the owner of the Kingston Trio band, he's still performing on occasion with the current K3s (George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty), and overseeing the production of new albums (Wood and I have a song that will be on a new disc) and the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ.  What was fun about this weekend is that his grown children also came by the Bowles' house and brought their grandchildren, so in one weekend we played for three generations of Shanes.  Pretty cool.

A very long time ago, Wood Allen and I and Fred Birdsong and later Jim Garrison thought we'd hit it big in folk music.  We thought we might be the next Kingston Trio.  We didn't and we weren't.  But thanks to a lot of nice folks who have kept the Kingston Trio flame alive and burning brightly, we've had a chance to know them, work with them in the studio and -- on occasions like the mini-camp in Alpharetta, play for the one of the originals.  As a Minnesota friend of mine likes to say, Not too bad.