Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (11/19) — Chapter Eleven, Dogwood (1/3)

OUR PINK DOGWOOD out front in Morganton was as beautiful as ever last April. It’s one of only two dogwoods that we have left after losing several trees to disease and storms in recent years.


BOONE, N.C. (Feb. 26, 2020) – It has always seemed odd to me that the dogwood—a small tree found from the mountains to the sea—is North Carolina’s state flower, while the longleaf pine, found only in eastern N.C., is our state tree. Our legislature, in its infinite wisdom, made those decisions in 1941 and 1963, respectively. I would have picked an entirely different state tree or at least a more common pine.

Maybe the scrub pine, Pinus virginiana, or loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, would be more appropriate now, as both are much more numerous in wider regions than the majestic longleaf variety, Pinus palustris, of our coastal plain. Wikipedia says that the longleaf pine is a “cultural symbol” of the South as sources of resin (pine tar), turpentine and timber needed by 18th– and 19th-century merchants and ship builders—yeah, back when we were true Tar Heels, before the One-and-Done Era of college basketball.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — The simple beauty of a dogwood petal; part of Timberley’s painting of downtown Morganton; the Confederate memorial at the old Burke County Courthouse; part of Timberley’s mixed-media artwork on N.C.

Even when I lived in Illinois (where the state flower is the violet, and the state tree is the white oak), I longed to move from the Land of Lincoln to the state that was First in Flight. I knew nothing about the real reason for the Civil War—that it was over the immoral institution of Southern slavery—but I knew that my maternal ancestors had fought in the Confederate Army, and, therefore, I saw myself as a little Rebel spy in the North. I later learned that I also had paternal ancestors in the Union Army and that my kin fought each other at Gettysburg and on other Civil War battlefields. But I wasn’t nearly as proud of my Yankee forebears as I was of kinsmen whose names appear on Morganton’s Confederate memorial.

I don’t know why. You’d think a little boy would rather associate with the winning side, the right side.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I was born in Morganton, moved with my family to Illinois when I was six weeks old, then moved back to Morganton almost seven years later. I’ve often wondered what my life would be like now if we had stayed up North. The schools there—at least the ones in Zion, Ill., north of Chicago, where we lived last—were undeniably better than the ones I attended in North Carolina. I did love all my teachers at Salem School near Morganton, most of my teachers at Happy Valley Elementary School near Patterson, and about half at Hibriten High in Lenoir. But the Illinois schools were superior.

I don’t know why. Maybe it was the teachers or the community support or the collective student bodies.

Maybe it’s still the case because N.C. Senator Phil Berger, Pinheadus republicanus, and his legislative henchmen in Raleigh have done everything they can to cripple public education in North Carolina over the past 10 years, from K-12 schools to the state’s separate community college and university systems. Supporting charter schools, private religious schools and voucher programs with state tax money is not the way to go. Funding public educational opportunities and paying public educators well is the answer.

North Carolina’s public university system is the true state flower, a vine winding from the mountains to the coast with 16 blossoms in Asheville, Boone, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Cullowhee, Durham, Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Greenville, Pembroke, Raleigh, Wilmington and Winston-Salem. Sure, the best academic universities, as in their marquee sports teams, are UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State. But Timberley and I are proud of our current association with Appalachian State University and of our degrees from App State and UNC Wilmington, respectively. I’m also thankful for Morganton’s Western Piedmont Community College, where I was able to attend classes, work part-time and play basketball.

Yes, looking back on my checkered college career, I wish I’d pushed harder to go to UNC Chapel Hill and hadn’t gone off to Bob Jones University straight out of high school, as my parents had demanded. Because I knew they wouldn’t approve of any school other than BJU, I hadn’t even bothered applying to Chapel Hill or any other state university, not even Appalachian only about 30 minutes up the road in Boone, where I’d already participated in my high school’s dual-enrollment program. And I just smiled and demurred when News Herald publisher J.D. Fitz—the big boss when I worked there part-time my senior year of high school and the summer before college—asked if I’d like to attend UNC’s journalism school and if he could help me get in. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I’d said yes.

I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have always struggled to find good jobs. Maybe when things went sour for me in Morganton, I would have been hired at the Durham paper when I applied for a reporter job, or maybe I would have been offered a full-time position at Raleigh’s WRAL, not just a part-time news job, when my head was on the chopping block at my station after I checked into wage-and-hour violations.

CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER LEFT — Dean Smith, the greatest basketball coach in the sport’s history; Timberley’s name tag from a 1982 UNC alumni event in Lenoir; Timberley (my girlfriend then), James Worthy and a young admirer in Lenoir.

I had wanted to attend UNC ever since I started rooting for the Tar Heel basketball team when I was in the fourth grade. My mother and I were Tar Heels born and bred; my younger brother, who was Illinois born, loved Dean Smith and the Heels even more than Mom and I did, and when Ken died in 1977, we buried him in his favorite Carolina blue sweater. That was my senior year in high school when I applied for college admission. I felt that my folks had been through enough, for me to rebel over where I went. But after a failed six-week stint at BJU, I eventually went to work to pay my own way through the state community college and university systems, attending Western Piedmont, Appalachian State and finally UNCW.

Still, it’s a sad state of affairs that this season, for the first time in 50 years, I haven’t watched one single UNC Tar Heels game on television or in person—well, I’d only attended one Carolina game in those 50 years, anyway, a 1977 win over Tulane at the Greensboro Coliseum back when sweet-shooting Walter Davis and four-corners field general Phil Ford were the UNC stars. We always watched Atlantic Coast Conference basketball on the Jefferson-Pilot and later Raycom television sports networks that appeared on stations across the state. I remember coming home from Wednesday night prayer meetings to “sail with the pilot” and watch Dean Smith’s Tar Heels play Norm Sloan’s N.C. State Wolfpack or Lefty Driesell’s Maryland Terrapins. For whatever reason, the most memorable UNC-Duke games were always on Saturdays—like the one in 1974 when UNC won after scoring eight come-from-behind points in 17 seconds to force overtime.

I wonder what UNC coach Roy Williams will do after this horrible, basement-dwelling season. Will he retire? Will he coach until his team posts a winning season record again or wins another ACC championship? Isn’t it funny how, on this Ash Wednesday, North Carolinians care more about who the Carolina coach is than who the Pope is? We won’t go into who should be governor or who should be president in these politically divisive times. But aren’t we used to division, as we’re all Tar Heel, Wolfpack, Blue Devil or Demon Deacon faithful? Still, shouldn’t we care more this morning about our mortality—that from dust we came and to dust we shall return—than that UNC, like a blind hog, finally rooted out another acorn, another win last night?

I don’t know. Maybe ol’ Roy will just keep pluggin’ along no matter how many dadburn games they lose.

UNC ALUM CHARLES KURALT turned to writing bestselling books after his retirement from CBS News. In 1991, I wrote him a fan letter and got this response.

I can’t help but blame the ACC’s greed for the close losses and for the lack of support that the Tar Heels are suffering through this season. The main reason I haven’t seen a UNC game yet—or any ACC game, for that matter—is because they are no longer broadcast on over-the-air television channels, instead on cable’s ESPN and pay-channel ACC Network. Being a poor retiree, I want my Free TV—for news and entertainment, as well as for all those great commercials for step-in tubs, reverse mortgages and drugs.

If all of us poor folks could pull for our Tar Heels, they’d be winning every close game, except maybe for the occasional one against the Wolfpack, what has all them tall, corn-fed, farm boys, or those dang Blue Devils that ain’t the good Methodists they used to be. Poor ol’ C.D. Chesley is rollin’ in his grave, which, by the way, Timberley and I found in Linville’s Tanglewood Cemetery as we were researching our novel Night Lights. Grandfather Mountain’s Hugh Morton told me that the cemetery used to be a hole on the old Linville Golf Course that started and finished at Eseeola Lodge. A true-blue UNC man, Mr. Morton used to hang out some mornings in the restaurant at the nature center on the mountain, or at least that’s where we always seemed to see him. That’s what I always wanted to be—a UNC man, just like Mr. Morton, U.S. Senator Sam Ervin, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, writer Walker Percy, historian Shelby Foote, novelist Thomas Wolfe, actor Andy Griffith and more other famous fellows than you can shake a pine bough at. Wikipedia says Carolina has “one of the most active alumni groups in America.”

I don’t know. I’m wondering where all of UNC’s famous alumnae are in the school’s Wikipedia article—that’s female grads.

The other “branch” of our university system is its statewide public television network, UNC-TV. With 12 over-the-air stations in Asheville, Canton, Chapel Hill, Concord, Edenton, Greenville, Jacksonville, Linville, Lumberton, Roanoke Rapids, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, the non-commercial network broadcasts four digital channels of news, public service, educational and entertainment programming from Manteo to Murphy. Have I mentioned that in July 1997, Timberley and I sat in our car at a Blue Ridge Parkway overlook, plugged a portable TV into the cigarette lighter, and watched the UNC-TV broadcast of Charles Kuralt’s funeral in Chapel Hill before we drove back home across the state to Ocean Isle Beach, stopping only at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to pay our respects at Kuralt’s flower-covered grave? This was before smartphones existed.

Maybe that’s how those of us who are already tired of commercial television and radio can survive the next eight months until Election Day—by watching the PBS Newshour every evening and listening to National Public Radio newscasts during morning and afternoon drive times; by reading newspapers for detailed information instead of settling for superficial and potentially spurious treatments of important issues on Facebook or Twitter; and by refusing to be sucked into commercial media’s bunghole of hate and lies.

ON A RECENT SUNDAY morning walk, Timberley and I saved these cones and needles from a fallen pine bough that we found.

I don’t know. Maybe loving money is the root of evil, and following the money—paying close attention to what other people do for it and with it—does lead us to the truth. But are we willing to do without it? Without what? Without truth? Without money? Without evil? Without whatever it is that we want because it’s what everyone else seems to have?

Dogged if I know. But maybe since the longleaf pine is still our state tree, we all just need to start standing tall again. That would be a good start.