Friday, February 27, 2015

Mamie Betts's 139th birthday today

There'll be a small party tonight at our place to celebrate my grandmother's 139th birthday. Probably just two of us there, part of a dwindling few who remember that remarkable woman when she was in her prime at, oh, 80 or 85. She was always ready to jump in the car and go somewhere. Or deal another game of cards, her green eyeshade pulled low and her eyes darting around the table. Or ready to pick up a squalling grandchild or great grandchild and balance him or her on her ample lap and tell another of her stories about life back in the day.

She was born a decade after the end of the Civil War, grew up in Raleigh when it was just a small dusty town, still smarting from Sherman's visit but still mostly intact.  She attended Peace Institute, just a few blocks on the other side of the Governor's Mansion, met an aspiring young dentist named Joe Betts, moved to Greensboro shortly after the turn of the century and lived to be 103 before going to her reward in 1979.  She had most of her marbles up until she was 102.

To celebrate the end of her 14th decade, we'll have a nip or two of bourbon, her toddy of choice after she rejoined the Presbyterian Church after the death of my teetotaling Methodist grandfather in the mid-1950s. Her second son Henry would bring her a jug every month or so and put it near the front leg of her writing desk, close to hand in case she wanted a little nip. Her first son was my Dad, John Monie Betts.  Her daughter was a beauty named Margaret, but of course we knew her as Peggy. When those three kids got together with their mom, the laughter would fill the room.

She was a force field in Greensboro in the first half of the century.  Along with two other women whose last names also began with a B ("the Three Bees," as they were called locally) she founded the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1924.  She and Joe Betts were into technology, in a way.  They had one of the first residential telephones in Greensboro in their front hall, and my Dad once told me he never forgot their phone number.  What was it? I asked. "Seven," he said.  They also had a radio that could be tuned to stations named in gold paint on the dial: Tokyo. Berlin. Paris. London. Chicago. New York.   And they subscribed and kept every copy of National Geographic, providing their grandchildren with pictures from around the world that would reappear in elementary school projects at Irving Park and Aycock schools in the 1940s and 50s.

Mamie Betts, as friends called her (To my older sister and me, she was simply "Gran"), was a formidable presence who bore a striking resemblance to a certain presidential spouse.  The family story goes that a stranger once inquired, "Beg your pardon, but aren't you Eleanor Roosevelt?"  To which she replied, "I most certainly am not," and strode away in a huff. 

In her early days in Greensboro as a young bride and mother, she struck up a fast friendship with Annie Cooke, whose husband (and in time, children and grandchildren as well) was a prominent lawyer in town.  Many years later after their husbands died, my grandmother moved in with Annie Cooke and they spent years holding court in Annie's handsome brick home near the golf course.  They were known to most folks as Aunt Annie and Aunt Mamie.  Their upstairs den was a popular gathering place, especially for Annie's sons, graduates of Davidson College, during the 1960s when the Wildcats had nationally prominent basketball teams.  Through some quirk of the atmosphere, the TV in Annie's den could often pick up televised games from Charlotte stations, and a crowd of Davidson alumni, most of them but not all of them lawyers, would watch the games while Annie and Mamie poured lemonade and dealt cards at the table in the corner.

My lasting memory of these two old friends came with their attachment to taking Sunday afternoon drives. For a long time, their driver was a quiet, dignified black man named Leroy -- not Leeroy, Aunt Annie was quick to point out to those who did not know the distinction, but leROY -- who would tuck  the two old friends into the back seat of Annie's car and then hop in front to drive them for a long turn around Greensboro.  Leroy was not in great health in his later years, and he lost a leg to complications from diabetes.  My Dad worked for a surgical supply company and had Annie's car fitted with a mechanism that made it possible to drive the car with one leg.  Thus when they went for a drive, it was the two old ladies who helped Leroy out to the car and into the front seat, and then Annie and Mamie would let themselves into the back and off they would go, gliding around town for the afternoon.  Years later, when I saw the movie "Driving Miss Daisy," there were scenes when I felt like I  had seen this flick before.

Gran saved my bacon once from almost certain permanent grounding.  My parents were out of town one week in the mid-1960s, and Mamie was staying with my sister and me to make sure we didn't get into trouble. I was working construction that summer, and had an early start to the day.  I had left a stove burner on after fixing coffee and rushing off to the other side of town.  The red-hot burner first melted some of the plastic wall tiles my Dad and I had years earlier applied to the wall behind the stove. Some of the melted plastic ignited and, before the stench woke my sister and my grandmother, the resulting fire spread an oily black goo all over the kitchen.  When I got home that evening,  Gran offered me a deal: "If you can get this cleaned up and fixed before your mother and father get home, I'll never tell them about it."  So it was that I spent the next 48 hours scrubbing off goo, chiseling away burned and deformed tiles, finding replacements and more mastic, and getting the kitchen back in reasonable order before the parents got back.  The kitchen smelled faintly of  burnt toast and turpentine for months after that, but no one said a word, and I was allowed to live.

So this evening I will raise a cup or two of Kentucky's finest to Mary Atkinson Monie "Aunt Mamie" Betts.  Happy Birthday, Gran, and thanks.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sweet dreams of the Bahamas in the dead of winter

So, it's about 15 degrees outside here in the Blue Ridge, about 1 degree early this morning, and the weather folks tell us it's going to snow maybe 8 to 12 inches tomorrow. Gonna go up to 15 or 16 tomorrow. First chance this week to be above freezing is Saturday, when the forecast is for 34.

All right. I asked for this. Like it, in fact, most of the time.  But we got a nice break this winter, what with a family wedding in Hawaii in January and an invitation from boating friends who live just a couple or three ridges to our west in Dugspur VA, but who keep a boat down near the N.C. coast in Whortonsville (the Whortonsville Tractor and Yacht Club, in fact) and who move down the Intracoastal in November each year, spend about three months in the gentle climes of the Bahamas, and head north again in March.

We flew into Marsh Harbor on Greater Aboco Island a couple weeks ago and for the second time in our lives (and second time within two weeks) put on T-shirts and shorts and sandals in the dead o' winter and enjoyed temperatures that average something like 40 to 60 degrees warmer than what we usually see outside our windows up here in what is sometimes called the Blew Ridge.  Loved every minute of it.

Don't get me wrong. I like cold weather. I like being able to see 500 feet into the leaf-free woods, to be able to follow the logging trails that the Woods and the Conners carved into these hillsides in the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries, like being able to hike down to the stone foundation ruins of an unknown pioneer family on the North Prong of the North Fork of the Smith River maybe 800 feet from our front porch, and contemplate what it must have taken to carve out a small homestead in a gorgeous but challenging countryside.
Hopetown Harbor on Elbow Key, with the red-striped lighthouse in the background

But we weren't  thinking  about hardship and fighting the elements too much the other evening in Hopetown Harbor on Elbow Cay  (always pronounced key, the guidebooks tell us) at 6 p.m under the first glimmerings of a full moon.  There's a tradition of Tuesday evenings (or was it Monday?) when boaters bring their inflatable dinghies over to the northerly side of the harbor as the conch horns begin to celebrate the setting of the sun.  Everyone ties on to everyone else, begins passing around snacks and uncork whatever it is they are wetting whistles with that evening, and the weekly Dinghy Drift begins.  As the sun sinks below the horizon beyond the Elbow Cay Lighthouse, the Drift moves slowly across the harbor, passing sportsfishermen and Gold Plate sailing vessels and trawlers and battered scows and lovely motor vessels, and every now and then someone cranks up an outboard to move a raft of maybe 15 dingies carrying maybe 35 congenial folks a couple feet out of the way of somebody's hull.  It is a most civil gathering.
Old salts Martha B. and her pal before heading up the ways for Man-O'-War Cay

In the following days we cruise the waters of the Abaco Sea, putting into anchorages at Man-O'-War Cay, Orchid Bay, around the terrible ship-killer Whale Cay, briefly on Green Turtle Cay for wonderful conch fritters for lunch and then on to the pristine Manjack (pronouced Munjack, we are told) Cay, where we meet folks who have carved out their own paradise on an island that has no facilities or utilities other than what they have been able to fashion from their own hard work and ingenuity. Amazing what a big bank of solar panels and, oh, 15 or 20 years of backbreaking labor can produce.
At anchor and looking west from Manjack Cay.

There were some moments of sheer hilarity -- dinghying back from a calm Atlantic-side beach into a 30 mph-wind that had waves breaking into our dinghy as Theresa Palmer (one of the Caribbean's finest boat cooks) was pumping water back overboard and Capt. Brian Palmer was getting lashed with bullets of salt spray.  I am happy to say he took it like a man and a Scot. But I repeat myself.  The admirable Ship's Dog Martini was taking it all in with her generally calm demeanor -- and an expectation of a hefty dinner once aboard the Motor Vessel Intermission.

As I sit and write, in a frigid landscape in need of some gentle Out Island breezes,  I do believe I'd go back to that Bahamas storm anchorage in a, what,  Manjack Minute?

And, as sailors of my acquaintance say, Splice the Main Brace.*

*From Wikipedia: "Splice the mainbrace" is an order given aboard naval vessels to issue the crew with a drink. Originally an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship, it became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog."

Friday, February 13, 2015

A gentleman and a Dean

 I was out of the country when the news broke that Dean Smith, longtime coach of the University of North Carolin Tar Heels, had died last weekend. The tributes that rolled in for Coach Smith were moving especially to those of us who had watch this Kansan revolutionize the game of college basketball while at the same time serving as the conscience of the larger community for so many things.  And it reminded me of the basic, fundamental humility of this giant among the coaching profession.  I never knew him well, but on one magic evening a little more than a decade ago, I sat at his side at dinner and listened to him talk about important things -- winning, for sure, but more importantly, about life.  He was fascinating, informative, inquisitive and gracious as he quietly answered questions from a group of North Carolina's editorial writers and columnists. 

 In 2010, after it became widely known that he was struggling with memory loss and other adverse effects of dementia, the following column appeared in The Charlotte Observer, where I was an associate editor, and The News and Observer.

A gentleman and a Dean

July 27, 2010 

Watching Dean Smith walk onto the playing floor of the basketball palace named for him in February was a thrill for many who didn't know they'd ever see the famed coach on the hardwood again. Adoring fans and players cheered for the innovator from Kansas, sending up thanks for hundreds of memories of the way he coached his teams to success and the way he treated his players - stars, role players and bench warmers alike.

There had been rumors for a while about Smith's condition. Only recently has the news become widespread that his memory is failing him. The man who revolutionized college basketball and set a standard for conduct could no longer always remember those who had been close to him throughout his life.

Smith's family acknowledged these signs of aging in a graceful statement about his progressive neurocognitive disorder. It deprives him of his ability to remember every name, every game, every signal event in a long and productive career.

I've had a few interactions with him over a long period - a handshake and a chat a time or two back in college days when I was a cheerleader. In those days the packed crowd in Carmichael made the place thunder when Bobby Lewis or Larry Miller finished a full-bore fast break with an unbelievable twisting reverse layup followed by Lou Bello's whistle signaling a foul in the act of shooting.

Those were dizzying days. Smith's teams did amazing things - including turning my mother, a conservative, prim grammar teacher who brooked no nonsense from anyone on the globe, into a rabid basketball fanatic. At a game in the 1970s I saw this tiny survivor of the Great Depression and lifelong health challenges practically knock down grown men to plant herself in Phil Ford's path and ask for his autograph on a program.

Maybe it was all those games Smith's teams won that made her such a fan. But I suspect it was more the way he treated those who played for the blue and white - and the discipline and determination he instilled in his players.

Years later I came to find other reasons to admire Dean Smith. In 2004, a group of editorial writers and columnists from the state's newspapers were planning their annual get-together in Chapel Hill, a weekend heavy on discussions of public policy, research findings and brainstorming about upcoming issues. We talked about a dinner speaker, and someone suggested Dean Smith.

I thought it was unlikely we could get him to join us. He was probably getting hundreds of such invitations, and it was well-known that he declined most of them. And since basketball season was still on, he'd be tuned to the TV, not to the questions of opinion writers.

A couple of days after I wrote inviting him to join us, his office called back. Coach Smith loved to read the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspapers and, as long as the Tar Heels weren't playing that Friday night, he'd be delighted to join us.

That was the prelude to the most enjoyable evening with a public figure that I can recall. Smith didn't want to give a speech, but he was happy to have a long conversation about any topic we wanted to pursue. So as we tore into platters of food at a room over Spanky's on Franklin Street, we talked about players, NCAA rules, recruiting, politics, the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. Senate race (and how he had resisted entreaties to run for office) and how college life had changed so dramatically over his career.

I reminded him of some unforgettable moments from the late 1960s when his teams were beginning to win consistently - and mentioned a player who had recovered the ball in a scramble and found himself sitting in the lane, back to the basket and no one to pass to. He flipped the ball back over his head - and might have been the only one in Carmichael not to have seen it drop through the bucket for two.

Smith smiled, reminded me of a few other details about that play and recalled the recruiting of a key player. He was from a family so poor that he had never been to a restaurant and didn't know how to use a menu. When he got to Carolina, the blue blazer the team issued him in the years when the practice was common was the first such jacket he had ever worn. Smith thought NCAA rules governing such things, well-intentioned as they were, sometimes go too far.

In time the conversation turned to opposing coaches. My longtime friend Rosemary Roberts, a columnist for the Greensboro News & Record, wanted to know what Smith thought about Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's habit of using strong language that appeared on TV to include barnyard expletives.

"Mike's a friend of mine," Smith said, "and I'm not going to say anything bad about him."

Then he smiled and added, "But in the home where I grew up, 'gosh' and 'darn it' were considered pretty strong stuff."

I'm pretty sure I saw Dean Smith express himself in plain terms to the refs a time or two. But I appreciated his gentle answer about a rival coach many thought surely was his mortal enemy.

Reflecting on it later, I remembered that before Dean Smith became famous many folks wondered what it was he was dean of.

It was dean of a lot more than just basketball. It was also how to live and how to conduct oneself.

Thanks, Coach.