Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (13/19) — Chapter Thirteen, Azalea (2/3)

THIS PINK ENCORE AZALEA blossomed last September in our front yard. Our other Encore azaleas bloomed last fall as late as November. Encores were hybridized in the 1980s. They are advertised as ‘the world’s best-selling reblooming azalea.’


MORGANTON, N.C. (April 11, 2020) – Like everything else this past week, our Encore azaleas aren’t doing too well. They bloomed their hearts out last fall, but this spring they must be feeling puny, as my grandmother used to say. Life in a pandemic is sort of like that, right? Good thing we got them on sale.

I know this has been Holy Week, and yesterday was Good Friday. I’m usually really happy when Lent ends and I get back whatever I gave up on Ash Wednesday. But this year I don’t feel too good. We have given up so many things since this quarantine began that I’m losing track of what all we’re doing without.

(Maybe that’s a good thing. And maybe the few blossoms on our Encores aren’t all that bad after all.)

FORMER NEWS HERALD ad man Nat Gilliam, Timberley’s dad, saved this sign from an area golf tournament he helped sponsor.

Since last summer I’ve been planning to write about three basic topics this week: golf, specifically the Masters, which would have completed its third of four rounds today if the annual tournament hadn’t been postponed until fall because of the COVID-19 crisis; world travel, actually one particular trip that one benefactor of our families took to the Middle East one Easter; and religion, what Augusta National Golf Club and the Holy Land have in common, even as a deadly coronavirus spreads around the globe.

I’m thinking that if the Masters is actually played in November this year, club members need to make plans now to replant at least Amen Corner with Encore azaleas that bloom in both the spring and fall—well, except for this spring at our house. Timberley found all our Encores in her favorite department at Lowe’s Garden Center, the dying- and wilted-plant, yellow-tag sale racks sitting in the far corner next to the pallets of cow manure. She amazes me, how she can buy nearly dead plants and resurrect them.

(See how I did that? I worked an Easter concept—resurrection—into my discussion of Encore azaleas.)

That was kind of what happened to Morganton’s greatest golfer, Billy Joe Patton, who might have won the 1954 Masters if not for a bad shot on Augusta National’s 13th hole, fittingly named Azalea, which is the last section of fabled Amen Corner. I won’t go into all that again, as I’ve already written about Billy Joe’s brush with Masters immortality, as no amateur has ever won that grand-slam tournament in its 83 editions. But I’m not referring to the ’54 Masters, or the ’57 Masters when Billy Joe didn’t make the cut.

In his seven straight Masters appearances between 1954 and 1960, that third-place finish in ’54 and his early exit after two rounds in ’57 were Billy Joe’s best and worst showings at Augusta, respectively. He played the tournament the next six years, but finished no higher than 37th and missed the cut four times, according to Wikipedia. Billy Joe’s 1958 Masters is the one I’m talking about now, the one he wanted so badly to win. Reports said he practiced the first 24 days of March in all weather to prepare for Augusta.

Reprinted in the April 8, 1958 edition of The News Herald, Irwin Smallwood of the Greensboro Daily News wrote that a year earlier after “failing to qualify for the final 36 holes, [Billy Joe] made himself a promise—never to go to a tournament like the Masters again unless he was prepared to play his best. And when time for [the] ’58 Masters approached, the scattershot miracle maker from Morganton refused to let rain and snow and other assorted bad elements prevent him from fulfilling his promise to himself.”

Billy Joe’s performance in 1958 at even par was his best score in his 13 Masters appearances, better than four years earlier when he had fallen only one stroke short of tying two legendary golfers and joining them in an 18-hole playoff. Another golf legend, Robert TyreBobby” Jones, Jr., co-founder of the Masters, called Billy Joe’s even-par performance “a perfectly magnificent score.” Also, Jones joked that he might recommend that the historic club christen an out-of-bounds on one hole “Patton’s Woods.”

Smallwood said Billy Joe’s even-par score ironically came more from “straight, shot-perfect golf than the rambling, scrambling which rocketed him to national fame four years ago.” During the presentation of his low-amateur award, Billy Joe responded to Jones’s earlier quip about renaming the out-of-bounds after him. “I kinda fooled you this time,” Billy Joe said, “and didn’t go in the woods too much. … I felt kinda peaceful, like I was playing at home.” With hindsight, should he have approached ’58 differently?

(Again, I wish I’d interviewed Billy Joe when I was a newsman. I would have asked him that question.)

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT — Billy Joe Patton driving a ball “a mile” from his tee near Grandfather Mountain’s Mile-High Swinging Bridge; MLB stars Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle hitting baseballs from ‘Billy Joe’s Tee’; and Timberley’s painting of the spot now for what served as cover art for our novel, ‘Night Lights.’ (Photos by Hugh Morton)

For example, Billy Joe’s undoing in the final round of the ’54 Masters was a double bogey on the par-5 13th hole, but he was the talk of the sporting world that Monday and, as I’ve noted, was even featured a couple of weeks later in the second-ever issue of Sports Illustrated. Four years later, not only did he par Azalea in the final round, he parred his last eight holes. But was that really par for the course? For him? It’s almost as if the screenwriter of Kevin Costner’s movie Tin Cup had Billy Joe’s ’54 Masters in mind.

My favorite quotation from Tin Cup is main character Roy McAvoy’s observation: “When a defining moment comes along, either you define the moment or the moment defines you.” At the movie’s end, he does just that—he defines the moment—but he loses the tournament he’s playing in the process. His girlfriend consoles him by saying that years in the future, no one would remember who had won that day, but they would remember Roy’s defining moment. “My god, Roy,” she says, “It was … immortal!”

By the way, the 1958 Masters champion was Arnold Palmer, who, like Billy Joe Patton, was a swash-buckling linksman and gallery favorite—remember Arnie’s Army?—as well as a Wake Forest alumnus. It’s fair to say that on Easter Monday that year, more Americans were talking about Arnold Palmer than about Billy Joe Patton. Smallwood tapped Billy Joe as the newspaper’s “Athlete of the Week,” but only because Palmer, though a former Wake player, wasn’t a North Carolinian by birth or current residence.

(Still, Billy Joe was the talk of the town here—at Kibler Drug, at Dave Rader’s Cafe, over at Lazarus, down at the pool hall….)

So while Morganton’s greatest golfer was trying to define some moments on a golf course in Augusta, Ga., from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday in April 1958, Morganton’s greatest newspaper publisher and philanthropist was trying to define her Christian beliefs experientially during a Holy Week sojourn in the Holy Land. Beatrice Cobb, no stranger to world travels, decided to mark that experience—Good Friday and Easter Sunday in Jerusalem—off her bucket list. Miss Cobb died of leukemia the next year.

As was her custom, Miss Cobb wrote letters home throughout her trip so that her News Herald readers could follow her globe-trotting adventures, at least via air mail. She also kept a travel diary—this time, a red, plastic-covered, pocket-sized notebook of simple, blue-lined pages. Only about half the pages are filled with notes from her pens and pencils. In her legible scrawl, the first page lists her travel itinerary beginning on March 25, 1958, in New York City, and ending on April 7, Easter Monday, in Jerusalem.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this particular airline journey of Miss Cobb’s was beset by travel delays, some of them due to serious equipment failures that required emergency landings, and her own tiredness and physical “indisposition,” as she put it. In fact, she felt “woozy” upon her arrival in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon and was sick in bed for the next 24 hours, later writing, “Undoubtedly I had been going too hard and had failed to be as careful as I should have been about what I ate, and the water, in Egypt.”

(I’ve said before that I wonder if she knew then how ill she really was, and if that’s why she was there.)

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — Beatrice Cobb’s diary for her 1958 Holy Land trip; her itinerary written on the first page; an excerpt describing Easter Sunday morning in Jerusalem.

By mid-afternoon Saturday,” Miss Cobb continued, “I managed to walk the few blocks to a part of the shopping district, browsed around for perhaps an hour, and wound up the afternoon by spending at least an hour alone sitting in the sunshine, away from the crowds, and in the beauty and quiet of the picturesque garden of the ‘Garden Tomb.’ The warden, a displaced Nazarene by the name of Mattar, and his wife were most hospitable.

Before leaving the garden I accepted Mrs. Mattar’s invitation to ‘have a cup of Nescafe,’ in her sitting room in the warden’s lodge near the gate, and as I sat there in the twilight of ‘Easter Eve,’ the story I heard, not only about the Garden tomb but about the Mattar family’s tribulation, work, courage, faith and hope, told uncomplainingly, in a sweet voice that within itself, even without the words of the drama related, bespoke serenity of mind and Christian character.

It may have been my mood, but it went through my mind as I listened (and I stayed too long, I thought) that Mrs. Mattar had the same classic features and soft voice that one could well believe belonged to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was an inspiring experience. As I walked back to the hotel alone, in the gathering darkness, which seems to come so early in these Eastern countries, I had a feeling that by accident I had had an experience that really ‘conditioned’ my mind and attitude for Easter in Jerusalem.

Keep in mind, modern reader—this is Rahn talking, by the way—that the term “Nazarene,” which Miss Cobb used to identify Mr. Mattar and his wife, is complicated. According to Wikipedia, early Christians were referred to as Nazarenes. Also, the Galilean city of Nazareth, where Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived, is known as “the Arab capital of Israel,” with a predominantly Muslim population. So were the Mattars Christians? Or were they Arabs? Did it really matter—I mean, did the Mattars’ chosen religion matter?

(If Miss Cobb had lived another 18 years, until I worked at The News Herald, I would have asked her.)

On Easter Sunday morning, Miss Cobb rose at 4:30 a.m., according to her diary, and went with two friends to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—“the center of everything in Old Jerusalem, at Easter or any time,” she wrote—also, the official spots designated by the Catholic Church as the places of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. At 5 a.m., her small group observed the exclusive Roman Catholic mass from outside and basically held a little sunrise service for themselves there on the church steps.

Miss Cobb wrote, “By that time the sun was moving up rapidly in the Eastern sky, shedding its gold on the nearby roofs and steeples, and seemingly offering a cover for the imperfections of some of the man-made scenes by which we were surrounded. As the three of us sat there on the outside, our presence apparently attracting no attention whatsoever, Dr. Bowles suggested that we would have our own Easter service, and he read the scriptural accounts of the Resurrection as related by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

(Dr. Charles P. Bowles, by the way, was one of North Carolina’s most prominent Methodist ministers.)

After breakfast back at their hotel, the three friends attended a non-denominational Easter service at the Garden Tomb, the second time in as many days that Miss Cobb had found comfort at that holy site. “It was a comparatively simple, though very moving service,” she wrote. “Frankly, to me, after this Easter visit to Jerusalem, the Garden Tomb, in its simple beauty and setting, symbolizes more of what I want to think was the ‘stage’ for the first Easter morning drama than does the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

My father, a Southern Baptist preacher, said pretty much the same thing after he visited Jerusalem for the first and only time during our nation’s bicentennial summer of 1976—my own summer of freedom. Before touring the Holy Land, Dad had served as a voting delegate to the inaugural World Congress of Fundamentalists in Edinburgh, Scotland. With him gone for a month, I let my hair grow longer than he would have allowed, and I rode a 1972 Yamaha 200 road bike all over hell and half of the Lenoir area.

(Actually, I felt like Shoeless Joe, like I’d died and gone to Iowa. That’s another Kevin Costner movie.)

ON GOOD FRIDAY at our house in Morganton, Miss Beatrice Cobb’s pen holder bore a pink azalea blossom and a pink dogwood bloom. She did not type, but instead wrote all her columns and articles by hand.

So, let’s see. That’s golf and world travel, with a little baseball thrown in for good measure. I guess that leaves religion to discuss on this Holy Saturday, this day that some Christians believe Jesus went to hell to get all the folks who would have been Christians if they hadn’t been born before Christ was born; and then I will have finished what I set out months ago to do today.

(Moses was an Encore azalea of a Judeo-Christian prophet? He had to go to hell and then bloom again to get to heaven?)

About choosing either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb to venerate, Miss Cobb observed, “As a matter of fact there are and will always likely be serious doubts about the exact spots of the enactment of the two greatest events in human history, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, but it is not of too great importance that these questions of definite places and surroundings be settled for the true believer in the earthly existence of the ‘beloved Son’ of God.” Respectfully, I take her thoughts a step further.

At the risk of being damned to hell or some other man-made “Patton’s Woods” of Christianity on Holy Saturday, I’m convinced that we can say we “accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior” until we’re blue in the face—or red, as is more often the case these days—but that the profession means nothing if we don’t also practice what Jesus preached. The kingdom of God is within us, not some Mar-a-Lago in the sky, with mansions and streets of gold. Followers of Jesus love all people. Period. Otherwise, we don’t love God.

(I’m not sure Billy Joe and Miss Cobb—both old members of my church—would like what I just said.)

But I don’t know. I do wonder. Maybe I should just pull my driver and go for the green—the putting green, not for the green of moneyand at least try to love the gallery, even the guy who yells, “Get in the hole!”; or my neighbors, whether they’re Nazarenes or not, and then see if I’m more at peace with myself than ever before. After all, isn’t that what the story of Good Friday and Easter, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, is all about—sacrificing one’s self for the whole world? Is every heartbeat, every breath a defining moment?

Maybe not. Maybe so. Maybe we’ll learn what living and dying are all about. Maybe we’ll never know.