Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (9/19) — Chapter Nine, Garland (2/3)

ON EPIPHANY EVE IN MORGANTON, Christmas lights, garlands and wreaths still adorn the downtown business district. If they aren’t removed tonight, folk legend says they should remain until Candlemas on Feb. 2 for good luck’s sake.


MORGANTON, N.C. (Jan. 5, 2020) – It’s Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, and I’ve spent the past few hours going through a stack of old newspapers that I found this afternoon packed away in our storage building. Finding one article in particular thrilled me, like winning maybe not the lottery jackpot but a couple of bucks on a scratcher anyway. That paper saved me from having to talk to the judge on Tuesday morning.

Let me explain. When we came down the mountain to Morganton for the weekend, I knew I wanted to write about Old Christmas, which is tomorrow. According to the late Richard Chase, who collected The Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales in Southern Appalachia, folk legend places Jesus’ birth on Jan. 6 after the 12 days of Christmas in the popular carol. He said that Dec. 25 is “Christmas made for man.”

Mr. Chase told me that Old Christmas—also called Epiphany—is “the Lord’s Christmas.” You’d never know it, though, from the church service that Timberley and I attended today at 11 a.m., because Epiphany wasn’t even mentioned. In fact, the preacher informed us that from now on he wouldn’t be preaching at all at the church’s 11 o’clock service, that he would preach only at the 9 o’clock service. Now that was an epiphany.

I WROTE THIS NEWS STORY and took this photograph of renowned author Richard Chase in December 1981 for The Valdese News. He entertained students at Valdese Elementary School on Dec. 8, 1981.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The newspaper article that saved me from pleading my case before an old judge Tuesday morning was a story and photograph published in the Dec. 17, 1981, edition of The Valdese News. I was the writer and photographer; Mr. Chase’s visit to Valdese Elementary School was the subject of the article. He was the first famous author I ever met and arguably the most influential.

After I eventually left the news business—and that’s what it is, a business—Mr. Chase’s life-long work as a Southern Appalachian folklorist influenced my own work and philosophy as a high school English teacher. He was the first to show me that many folk tales and legends in divergent cultures are related, how stories and characters that we mountain people shared—like the many Jack tales or “Wicked John and the Devil”—are similar to stories in other parts of the world, even from Shakespeare and the Bible.

FOLKLORIST RICHARD CHASE took special interest in the spelling of my name when I interviewed him. “Ah, you’re not Ron,” he said, clipping the word short. “You’re Rahhhhn.”

Above all, Mr. Chase taught me to respect traditions that are good and true, even ones that others may discount or deride for whatever reason. That’s an important lesson that many people in different facets of life still need to learn, especially in the arts and in other transcendental endeavors like, say, worshiping a higher power.

And I’m not referring to the aforementioned judge, whose first and last ruling in a case involving me wasn’t in my favor. But that was some 32 years ago, and it’s another story for another time.

On Saturday, I called the Valdese Public Library and learned that they have no microfilm whatsoever of old newspapers. I already knew that the Morganton Public Library’s Carolina Room keeps microfilm of The News Herald prior to digitization and of The Valdese News from 1938 when Beatrice Cobb started the Valdese paper until 1950, even though it continued to be published for at least another 40 years, I think. As I’ve said before, I worked there as staff writer and photographer from April 1981 until August 1982.

But I also knew that the History Museum of Burke County has the old, full-sized, hard-bound volumes of The News Herald that were used by everyone in the newspaper office, including members of the general public, to look up old articles and other information. It was even my job one summer years ago when I worked at the paper and Timberley’s job at various other times to take care of those bound volumes and to save the daily issues that would be sent off to the bindery every few months. I always enjoyed turning through those big old books whenever I could during my days as a newspaperman. It kept me in touch with the old stories of the past.

That is to say, Timberley and I both know how to handle old newspapers and bound volumes. What I didn’t know for sure until we visited the history museum Saturday was that it also holds the bound volumes of The Valdese News, including the ones for the years I worked there. It didn’t matter, though, because the museum volunteer who had accompanied us to the basement vault where the books are kept wouldn’t let me touch them. Even after our explanations, he suggested that I call the museum Tuesday, the next day it would be open, and “talk to Judge Sitton,” who I later learned is the museum’s executive director.

It didn’t matter one bit to the old volunteer that I was working on a deadline, as are we all. He kept saying he wished he could be more help. No, I really didn’t believe him, even though all I did was thank him for what little he had done.

But that’s OK, buddy. Being a pack rat sometimes comes in handy. Thirty-eight years ago when I tossed that paper into a box and then carried it with me all over creation—at least, from Valdese to Morganton to Calabash to Ocean Isle Beach to Valle Crucis to Rutherwood and back to Morganton—I had no idea that I’d ever need or want it again. I didn’t know until now that the news stories, features, entertainment columns and photographs that I had contributed to the historical record of Valdese, N.C., in 1981-82 would not be available to the public on microfilm or in digital format, only in a single set of books locked away in an old vault.

That’s the way it goes with the passage of time, I guess. Whether we like it or not, we poor old folks and our old stories are just this close to becoming irrelevant. Still, every day is an epiphany, whether the preacher says so or not.

But you know what? A Merry Old Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!