Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (6/19) — Chapter Six, Rose (1/4)

THE SEEDS OF BEAUTY lie within this orange rosehip, fruit of our purple heirloom rose in Morganton.
By RAHN ADAMS

BOONE, N.C. (Oct. 24, 2019) – Rosehip.

No, that wasn’t the last word of Charles Foster Kane. Or of William Randolph Hearst, the father of fake news. By the way, I’m using that particular term, fake news, because it’s more common than yellow journalism, what it was called when Hearst, the billionaire newspaper mogul, was printing lies to make or break others’ fortunes so long ago.

We have to wonder if any seeds of truth remain now in our own dusky time of lies and corruption.

Rosehips are the last hurrah of one particularly beautiful rosebush in our yard on Morehead Street—the orange, seed-bearing fruit of a purple heirloom rose that started blooming in mid-April and kept putting out one gorgeous lavender blossom after another until late September, according to my photographic record of it.

IN A TOPSY-TURVY WORLD, beauty still buds on the Old Courthouse Square in Morganton.

As I’ve taken to saying all too often, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but that heirloom rose, whose bare root we bought two years ago from the Rural King store in Morganton for next to nothing is probably my single favorite plant in both of our yards, whether up or down the mountain. Its price was only about $3.

Whenever I suspected that an iris or lily or dahlia might have become my favorite plant, I’d glance back at that purple rose and fall head over heels in love with it all over again. With each bud and bloom, that devotion to our lone heirloom rose renewed itself countless times throughout this past growing season.

And there was competition from another rosebush—as it happened, another cheap but not trashy Rural King rose whose label identified it as, no kidding, “Dolly Parton.” She is a hybrid tea rose whose blooms are yellow, even though all the Dolly Parton hybrids we later found online were either lipstick orange or two-toned yellow and red.

We figured our Dolly Parton rose was so named after her song “Yellow Roses,” about lost love. That made sense. And she had such nice blossoms.

But with the chilly temps of the past week—and, here in Boone, our first frost this morning—all that’s left of our no-name purple rose are thorny stems, beetle-chewed leaves and, yes, you guessed it, big orange rosehips. This fruit has been there for several weeks, even while the plant bore its last corollas, what rose aficionados call blossoms.

Last weekend Timberley and I visited the rose garden on the Historic Courthouse Square in Morganton, which surrounds the statue of U.S. Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., our hometown’s favorite son. Lest we forget, Ervin led the Watergate investigation that forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

I don’t know how Senator Sam felt about roses when he was alive, but now he—his statue, anyway—stands in one of the prettiest spots in town. The roses there were planted in memory of Robert B. “Bob” Byrd, another “country lawyer” who, like Sen. Ervin, made us all proud but mainly through his good works in Morganton and around Burke County, not in our nation’s capital.

Especially now, with so many changes in our culture, I miss national and local leaders like Sam Ervin and Bob Byrd—and not just because they were really good lawyers. As news director at the local radio station when Senator Sam died in 1985, I produced an award-winning radio documentary about his life. The program, which aired the day after Sen. Ervin’s death, ended with a local historian pointing out that the late senator had spent his long judicial and legislative career defending the Constitution. In closing, the historian asked rhetorically, “The question is, who did Senator Sam pass the torch to?”

No kidding. Who’s carrying that torch now? Anyone? Is it still lit? Will this outer darkness of bold-face [sic] lies and warped perspectives last much longer? I certainly hope not.

I knew Bob Byrd much better than I knew Senator Sam, and so I miss Bob more, again not just because of his distinction in local legal and political circles. Whether or not he knew it when we often saw each other 35 years ago, Bob and I were cousins through our mothers’ kinfolks, going back to a shared ancestor, Jonathan Duckworth, who lived from 1793-1846, his birth and death in Burke County. All of this information, by the way, comes from online resources available to me through Ancestry.com.

Great-great-great-grandpa Jonathan’s father, John Duckworth (1759-1843), was a native Virginian who moved to Mecklenburg County, N.C., as a child, enlisted in 1776 as a 17-year-old patriot in the American Revolution, moved to Burke County sometime before 1782 when he started his own family, and died 60 years later in Morganton. Both John and Jonathan lie buried in the Morganton First Presbyterian Church cemetery.

So Bob Byrd and I had that kinship, though we never knew enough to discuss our heroic ancestor when we were around each other, whether at the Burke County Courthouse, at a Burke Democratic Party event, in a twin-engine airplane that ran off a runway at Raleigh-Durham Airport one night and kind of crashed, or, above all, at our place of worship, the First United Methodist Church of Morganton.

I drew jury duty in Burke Superior Court one week back in the mid-1980s when I was still the local radio news director. When I looked up the judge at the courthouse and asked to be excused because I knew so many law enforcement officers and lawyers, and was familiar with all the cases on the docket, the judge just shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave. Everybody’s got some excuse.”

So I rejoined the other potential jurors at the rear of the courtroom and waited for the first trial to begin. Sure enough, it was a case involving a serious traffic accident that I remembered well and had reported on. I had read all the police reports. I knew and even liked the investigating officer, as is often the case with local reporters and the lawmen they work with. And, yessireebob, I also knew the defendant’s top-notch attorney. He and I attended the same church, and I looked up to him as a leader in that church.

Jeez-o-pete, I thought, I really can’t sit on this jury. But, of course, I was among the first group called to the jury box for questioning during voir dire (that’s jury selection, for all you folks who don’t watch the legal drama Bull on Monday nights). You know, come to think of it, somebody should produce a TV show about a country lawyer like Senator Sam or Bob Byrd or … like, oh, wait, like Matlock. Yes, Andy Griffith, another great Tar Heel whom I’ve always admired, portrayed a down-to-earth but sharp attorney who never missed a trick. That was Bob.

When it was my turn to be questioned, I thought I saw a mischievous glint in Bob’s eye. “Please state your name, sir,” he began, then after my response continued, “Thank you, Mr. Adams. Please tell me, sir, what you do for a living.” I did. “Thank you, sir,” Bob said, “and in your capacity as news director, have you ever been in contact with any of the parties involved in this case?” He motioned toward the assistant DA, the policeman, and his own client. I said, yes, I had—with the prosecutor and policeman, anyway.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, then paused a moment. “Mr. Adams, is it true that you and I also know each other, that you and I were among a cadre of Morgantonians who traveled by airplane to the state capital of Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend a banquet feting the honorable Sen. Samuel J. Ervin, Jr., and that the twin-engine airplane in which you and I were passengers encountered difficulty upon takeoff at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and crashed? Is that true, Mr. Adams?” He still hadn’t even come close to cracking his usual grin.

I was kind of taken aback, but I managed to say, “Uh, yes … sir.” Being in court was serious stuff.

Well, young man,” Bob said wryly, “for that very reason I shall excuse you from sitting on this jury today. Thank you very much, Mr. Adams. You may return to your seat in the gallery.” I got out of the jury box while the gettin’ was good. And I wasn’t considered for another jury that court session.

When Timberley and I visited the rose garden last weekend on the Historic Courthouse Square, we paid our respects to Bob Byrd, as well as to Senator Sam. I took pictures of more roses still in bloom than I had expected, though I didn’t know enough about them to distinguish hybrids from heirloom varieties. I did look for rosehips and found a big red one, but I would have never dared to take it. That would have been disrespectful at the very least. I also found one especially curvaceous yellow rosebud that looked like our yellow Dolly Parton tea rose but with a streak of red lipstick. I handled her with care out of respect for Bob and for any other passersby who might stop to appreciate her beauty.

Plaques bearing Senator Sam quotations lay in various spots around the Square. The best one was on the sidewalk near his biography: “Our greatest possession is not the vast domain; it’s not our beautiful mountains, or our fertile prairies, or our magnificent coastline. It’s not the might of our army or navy. These things are of great importance. But in my judgment, the greatest and most precious possession of the American people is the Constitution.” Sen. Ervin entitled his last book Preserving the Constitution.

Standing in the old courthouse’s cool shadow on a mild October day, I looked west into the slanted, amber rays filtering through the trees across the historic square, from behind the backlit block of white-brick buildings along East Union Street. I wanted to see if we might glimpse the start of a glorious fall sunset behind Table Rock and Hawksbill mountains, twin peaks whose memory when away and whose scenic beauty when at home have always reassured Burke Countians like Senator Sam, Bob Byrd, and even me of where we belong, though life nowhere is all roses, all the time. That first frost always comes.

But what of thorns and rosehips? What of strange fruit and the seeds of truth in these dimly lit times?

We couldn’t see Table Rock and Hawksbill from where we stood that day. So we walked back home to check pretty Dolly Parton’s thorny stems and our purple heirloom rose’s crop of orange rosehips before dark. We’re not sure—I’ll have to google roses a few more times—but some pruning may be in their future, for their own good.

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