Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (5/5)

THE CAMELLIA OUTSIDE my parents’ dinette window blooms like this every winter. I remember Mom standing at the window and enjoying the now 50-year-old bush’s blossoms.


BOONE, N.C. (Feb. 20, 2020) – We really wanted to attend this weekend’s Tidewater Camellia Club annual show in Wilmington—and, well, to eat breakfast one morning with my buddy John at Inlet View Bar & Grill at Shallotte Point. We’ve wanted to do that for a while, but our plans never work out.

Almost 30 years ago, I worked for John at a medical office management company in Shallotte while I was attending the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He was one of the best supervisors I’ve ever had, only partly because he was a kindred spirit—a former high school teacher and coach, and an Atlanta Braves fan. At the time, I was learning to be a teacher and coach, so he was a valuable mentor. Together we also suffered through the Braves’ World Series losses to the Twins in ’91 and the Bluejays in ’92. John gave me a red foam tomahawk from one game. I gave him my Chipper Jones rookie card.

His wife Amy, also a teacher, showed Timberley how to fix a low-country boil, with potatoes, ears of corn, sweet onions, smoked sausage, chicken breasts, shrimp and clams. We’d gotten together at John and Amy’s home on the intracoastal waterway for the opening game of the ’91 World Series, one of the best fall classics ever. The food and the fellowship were great. The game—a Twins win—not so much.

This past Saturday night, Timberley made a low-country boil just for the two of us. It was good, but it got us thinking about the possibility of a quick trip to the coast. Inlet View had reopened for the season on Valentine’s Eve and was even serving breakfast again on Saturday and Sunday mornings. John takes spectacular sunrise photos every day from one of Inlet View’s decks and posts them on Facebook. For weeks I’d followed and liked those glorious sunrises, along with John’s countdown to Reopening Day.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT — The foam Braves tomahawk my friend John gave me; Junior Hughes’s table at Inlet View; the old marina sign on the waterway; and a fisherman NOT experiencing boat trouble on the natural canal outside our Ocean Isle Beach home in the 1990s.

Through John and Amy, I met one of my heroes years ago—Amy’s father, Junior Hughes, a World War II veteran and local paving contractor who founded Hughes Marina at what was then Bowen Point and, with his wife Allison, the marina restaurant, where Timberley and I would sometimes go on Sunday afternoons to enjoy plates of fried shrimp and a Winston Cup race on the wall-mounted TV. Once I helped with the marina’s annual Poor Boy Shark Tournament (and heard the best excuse for failure in any endeavor—“boat trouble”—a lament that Timberley and I still use when something, anything goes wrong). And we had also played Junior’s nine-hole, par-three course, Goose Bay Golf Links, that he himself had built down the road. It had the same charm as Roy McAvoy’s driving range in Tin Cup.

I also helped Junior and John cook pigs a couple of times and was entrusted with the recipe to Junior’s secret BBQ sauce, Puck-Muck’em. I have, in turn, shared the ingredients with Timberley. We will take that recipe to our graves unless we meet someone with enough character to be a grillmaster of Junior’s caliber. The last time we saw Junior was during one of our infrequent visits to the Shallotte area since we moved and during our first breakfast at the new Inlet View. Standing with John and looking toward his house from a deck outside the restaurant’s main dining room, we could see Junior sitting in a lawn chair on his boat, which was dry-docked in the back yard. He’d been having real boat trouble—not like the whining loser in the old shark tournament—but he was working to fix his problems. Junior wasn’t working at that very moment; he appeared to be sitting quietly with a cup of coffee, looking past the ICW, Monk Island and Shallotte Inlet to the sunlit sea. Less than two years later, Junior died at age 91.

Our last look at the ocean from Inlet View was on the Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend back in 2017—the last day of the season for the restaurant that year. That trip was the penultimate goal we’d set for ourselves after Timberley’s cancer surgery and its lifestyle-altering effects less than five months earlier. After breakfast, we attended morning worship at Village Point United Methodist Church and ran into two other mentors, Tracey and Phyllis James, from my first teaching and coaching experiences up the road at West Brunswick High School in Shallotte; and another former boss, Susan Usher, my news editor from our time at The Brunswick Beacon, where both Timberley and I had worked in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Our ultimate rehab goal, by the way, was to shag that very New Year’s Eve to the dulcet tones of Gene Pharr & Continental Divide, our favorite beach band. We almost met that final challenge.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, that goal was as much for me as it was for Timberley, because I’m the one who couldn’t dance even before her seven-hour operation on June 29th. That Dec. 31st we did manage to get a table and party reservation at the Mount Pleasant restaurant where Continental Divide would be ringing in the New Year. Despite my back problems—I’d have my own surgery three months later—Timberley and I took the dance floor sometime before midnight (in case I would turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of 12) and didn’t quite shag but did sway to Gene Pharr’s Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame stylings.

For me, that was a huge accomplishment. Forget public speaking; one of my greatest fears has always been public dancing. It comes mainly from my upbringing as a Baptist preacher’s kid who was taught that dancing would send me straight to hell, but also from my aversion to being mocked for not being able to dance and hold a half-full red Solo cup at the same time. If I had achieved even that fairly low level of expertise on the dance floor or in the sand, I would have had much more good, clean fun back when Timberley and I were dating in the early ’80s. Being afraid to dance with the person you love is a worse sin, one whose wages are paid on earth, not in some fictitious lake of eternal fire and brimstone.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT — Toddler Rahn on a pony at his grandparents’ house near Morganton; little Rahn on a float at a church swim outing in Illinois; and eight-year-old Rahn at Salem School near Morganton.

While I’m on the subject, I have some other fears to confess—anxieties that have paralyzed me at times through most of my 60 years on this blue marble orbiting the sun. What’s odd is that these three other phobias or aversions are linked to my earliest memories. Odder still, I’ve discovered old photographs of myself within hours or even minutes of the events—two minor, one major—that took their tolls on my trusting young soul. Even before I knew those pictures existed, I held fuzzy impressions of the earliest events, thinking they might have been dreams, not memories of actual experiences from my childhood.

I’ve always been afraid of deep water and, in turn, bridges and piers—yes, an odd situation for someone whose favorite home was in an old beach house next to a natural canal on a barrier island. Maybe those years in Brunswick County helped me face and overcome that fear to some extent, but it’s still with me. It goes back to when I was two or three years old and when my family lived on old Route 66 in central Illinois, in a village called Towanda. The short version of this story is that my family was on a church outing at an area lake, with piers extending into the swimming area. With me standing on the pier, Dad stood below me in the water and said, “Jump, Rahn. I’ll catch you.” I did. He didn’t. And that was that.

I won’t go into all the details of subsequent childhood problems with walking out on wind-swept piers on Lake Michigan; riding in the car across steel-girded suspension bridges high above wide rivers or over the 17 miles of low bridges and dark tunnels across the storm-tossed Chesapeake Bay; or even of jumping off the high dive at the local recreation center pool—something I have never done to this day.

The other minor event happened to me at a younger age, I think. At least my memory of it is much less defined and more dreamlike. For years, I carried the mental image of seeing a horse’s belly from below. How weird, I always thought. Why would I dream about something like that? Maybe it was related to all those episodes of Roy Rogers or Rawhide that I’d watched as a child, I figured. Or maybe the dream came from my yearning to appear on kid shows of TV cowboys like Sheriff Sid Perry in Champaign, Ill., or Fred Kirby in Charlotte, N.C.—or from actually meeting Sheriff Sid once at a store appearance and wondering why he seemed so gruff and needed a shave. But the horse’s underbelly had been real.

As a teenager, I was turning through an old photo album that Mom had put together from our years in Illinois, and I ran across two pictures of cute little two- or three-year-old Rahn riding a pony bareback and of a female cousin leading the pony by its bridle in the field behind our grandparents’ house in the Hopewell community outside Morganton. This was during one of my family’s rare trips south when we lived in Illinois, from late 1959—the year I was born—until 1966, the summer before I started second grade at Salem School. I’d attended first grade in Zion, Ill., and kindergarten in both Zion and Towanda.

“What’s this?” I asked Mom, showing her the pony-riding photos. Mom shook her head a bit. “Oh, that was when you fell off the pony,” she said. “We had told her not to set you up on that pony, but she went ahead and did it anyway.” Now, as I think back on that revelation—that the equine underbelly I’d seen hadn’t been in a dream after all—and on the fact that Mom was the one making the disclosure, I can’t help but wonder exactly who had photographed me on the pony and my cousin leading us, if the adults present had advised against my pony ride. “Was I hurt?” I asked. She shook her head. “No, just scared.”

I know what you’re thinking. And, no, I don’t have a fear of horses or of western character actors named Hoss or of drives through the Kentucky bluegrass countryside. But I do have a fear of falling that pairs really well with my fear of bridges, piers and exposed walkways along sheer cliffs and bodies of water. As the saying goes, I’m not afraid so much of falling as I am of the sudden stop when I hit the ground—or, in my case, when I hit the dark water, go under, thrash around for several minutes, and then drown.

That leads me to the third incident—the major event that caused me grief for decades until I realized that I hadn’t done anything morally wrong, that I’d simply made an innocent mistake that unfortunately had resulted in serious, near-tragic consequences. Also, I finally saw that the accident could have been avoided. As a teacher, I started talking about the experience to my classes, if for no other reason than to give them some insight into how I’d become the adult standing before them, whether I was liked or not. If they saw that I could laugh at “boat trouble,” they might be able to navigate their own troubled seas.

I was a third grader at Salem School. My two older siblings and I rode the big orange bus (they weren’t yellow back then) to school and back every day, though our morning and afternoon bus-stops were on opposite sides of busy, two-lane U.S. 64 South about two miles from Morganton. Only a year earlier, I was the frightened second grader, the newcomer with the Northern accent, who cried every morning in the cloak closet for the first two weeks of school because I’d never ridden a bus before; I’d always lived in town and walked to school, and I was afraid that my older brother and sister would get on the school bus and go home without me. (A year or two later, they both did, in fact, abandon me at Hershey Park.)

Now, maybe I should have taken the hint that I was an unwanted child and run off with the next circus that came to town, but that day in September 1967, I was comfortable with riding the school bus, and I was looking forward to Picture Day. For whatever reason, I’d left my school books—my spelling book, a math book and a library book—at the morning bus stop. So when I got off the bus after school at the afternoon stop on the other side of the road, I walked a short way before remembering that I needed to go back across the busy highway to the morning stop to retrieve my books. Yeah, I could have crossed safely if I’d thought to ask the bus driver to let me cross in front of the bus before he drove up the road.

But I wasn’t thinking. It had been Picture Day. I needed to get my books. My brother and sister were on their way home, walking down the road and up the hill, and they weren’t waiting. As I waited to cross, I was distracted by a cattle trailer that passed in the northbound lane nearer me. I could see the cows—or maybe they were steers—through the slats of the long trailer. I crossed behind the trailer, looked to my right, saw the black car in the southbound lane, and felt the impact as its front bumper struck me thigh-high and threw me several feet forward onto the hot pavement. I remember the impact but not the pain.

NEWS HERALD ARTICLE about the traffic accident in September 1967 that could have ended my life but only changed its course.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any pain. When I started to realize what had happened and where I was lying—in the middle of the road—I decided that I needed to get up and get out of the road before I got hit. So I tried to stand up, rising on my right leg first, the leg that had taken the blow. You guessed it. I’d suffered a complete fracture of my right femur (that’s my thighbone for “Dry Bones” fans), and when I put my weight on the leg, the two big broken bones slid past each other. That pain I felt, and I again fell to the pavement, hitting my head possibly for the second time. (At this point in my story, I’d usually tell students that these apparent head injuries probably explained why I was so crazy or mean or whatever.)

So there I was, still lying in the road only moments—though it felt like minutes—after having been hit by a car on a busy two-lane highway during the afternoon rush. As I lay there, my only thought was, I need to get out of this road before I get hit. The word again did not occur to me. So I crossed my arms and rolled, yes, rolled all the way across the northbound lane to the shoulder of the highway … without getting hit again, thank goodness. When I finally lay still, I looked back toward the vehicle that had hit me, and I saw the driver—a tall, skinny, bald-headed man—getting out of what appeared to be a squat, black Volkswagen Beetle. Later, at the hospital, the man came to visit me. He was short and squat, but he was bald-headed, and I learned and later saw that his car was a long, black Olds. But it was black.

I still have the scars from where Dr. Hairfield, a former Army surgeon, drilled a steel pin through my lower leg the day after my accident so that up to 40 pounds of iron weights could be attached and my jammed femur bones could be slowly pulled apart and reset over the six weeks that I was in traction at the old Grace Hospital across from the old Morganton High School. That day I did feel pain, because my doctor did not put me to sleep before drilling the pin through my leg; he had chosen to use only two shots of Novocaine—one in my hip, the other in my ankle—to lessen the pain. I remember screaming bloody murder throughout the procedure. My mother, who had stayed with me the night before, wrung out one cold washcloth after another until the pin was in place. I remember Dr. Hairfield saying, “This isn’t hurting him,” as I screamed. I was afraid that even MHS students across the street could hear me.

During my six weeks in traction—yes, another one of those 40 days and 40 nights kind of things—and my seven weeks, in all, at Grace Hospital, I learned to depend on the kindness of strangers. After the first couple of nights, I stayed in my private room alone. My father, a pastor who regularly visited sick folks anyway, saw me every day or two, and my mother also stopped by on her way home from school many days. My older siblings never visited. Ironically, the only cousin who came to see me was the one who had let me fall off the pony about five years earlier. She brought me a burger from Hardee’s and a book about Sam Houston. Folks did, however, send cards filled with dollar bills to pay for hospital room TV. I remember watching the 1967 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and then-cursed Boston Red Sox. It was the first time I ever saw the Green Monster in left field at Fenway Park and rooted for triple-crown winner Carl Yastrzemski, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson and all the other old Sox, but to no avail in their seven-game loss to Bob Gibson and the loaded Cards (Roger Maris, Curt Flood, Reggie Smith, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver, et al.). Obviously, this was before I became a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan.

So what did I take away from my accident and long hospitalization—that is, other than an aversion to bedpans and urinals? In simplest terms, shame—an intense feeling of personal humiliation over what I’d done, what I’d endured and what I’d put others through, even though I was only eight years old and it had been, as I said, an accident. Until just a few years ago, I never considered that I might have been killed by the car or by another vehicle—a cattle truck, even—when I rolled across the road. I rightly blamed myself more than I did the poor driver who had reportedly taken one drink after work before heading home and had definitely taken a few drinks before visiting me in the hospital that night. I felt as if I’d ruined his life because I hadn’t waited for the traffic to clear before I darted across the highway.

Even worse, I later learned that my father viewed what had happened to me as God’s wrath on him for his having accepted a pastoral call for some wrong reasons, like to have a paying gig after having been fired from his last church. If the black Oldsmobile that nailed my ass had finished me off, I wonder if Dad would have seen that as more divine punishment or less, as my obsequies would have been over in only three days as opposed to my hospitalization and rehabilitation of about three months. Who knows.

So if you know me and have ever wondered why I’ve always tried to fade into the woodwork or why I have so little self-confidence or why I have trust issues with certain friends, family and colleagues who haven’t always adhered to the truth, well, now you know. Maybe, as I’ve said before, I should be more forgiving—of others and of myself. Maybe I should remember all the good times—the good food, the good fellowship and, above all, the good people—and not stress out over the “boat trouble” of the past.

CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER LEFT — Collector magnets on a section of our fridge’s door in Boone; ‘The Blue Marble’ photo from Apollo 17 in 1972; and the Camellia Grill in New Orleans, where, along with Inlet View at Shallotte Point, we hope to someday eat breakfast or lunch again.

Instead of heading for the coast this weekend—what with a snowstorm on the way and all—I think we might try to visit the bonsai exhibit at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville. I doubt that the outdoor exhibit has a camellia bonsai and, if so, that it’s in bloom. But there might be one inside. If so, that would be a sign, I think—like last week when I told Timberley that if Mom’s camellia outside her dinette window was in bloom, it would be a sign for us not to make the long drive to Shallotte Point for breakfast with our friend and then to Wilmington for the camellia show. The bush was on fire with hot-pink blossoms. We considered making the trip anyway, and then the state forecasts started calling for Snowmageddon.

But what would a camellia bonsai signify? According to, the camellia symbolizes “a longing for someone and is given to someone who is missed.” A Quora entry says the bonsai represents “peace, harmony and balance” and “the minimalist approach of Zen Buddhism and [it] teaches us to remove the clutter from our lives.” So if I take those two definitions together, the message is somewhat mixed, as a camellia bonsai would have me finding balance by pining for the good things and good people I’ve lost.

Who said that the nature of life is suffering? Or was it that life’s a beach and then you move back to the mountains? Then you die. And why are we such a superstitious bunch of beings anyway? It’s all so hard to understand. I just don’t know. Sixty years and six months on this blue marble, and this is where I am.

Where? Heading home on the back nine. Always on the run between here and there. With boat trouble.

2 thoughts on “Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (5/5)”

    1. Thanks, Michael. If we’re able to get out of the house this weekend, we need to drop something off for you and Susan. It would take just a minute. I’ll call or text before we stop by.

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