Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (15/19) — Chapter Fifteen, Rhododendron (2/3)

THE RHODODENDRON BUD looks something like a pineapple, an artichoke or a hop, all of which symbolize hope, peace and prosperity. So much beauty and joy come from this tiny but toxic bud.


MORGANTON, N.C. (May 31, 2020) – Rhododendrons have been the laurels of education throughout my life. Ever since grade school days, my visits to one particular university have had as a backdrop this evergreen, even though its bright pink or purple balls of blossoms may or may not have been in season.

Appalachian State University was the main reason that Timberley and I moved from Ocean Isle Beach to Boone back in the summer of 1997. We had a history with the institution—Timberley had graduated from its College of Business in 1982; I had dropped out as a junior with a 4.0 GPA in 1980. Yeah, I did.

DANIEL BOONE AND DOGS sit by a campfire along Rivers Street near the Duck Pond at the foot of Stadium Hill. In the distance (top) is Varsity Gym; across the street (lower left), Edwin Duncan Hall; in the background (lower right), the campus’s first parking deck, which Daniel still can’t believe was ever built in the first place.

There were several other factors for our move to Boone, of course, but I remember my father telling us at the time, “Just move back to Morganton.” And I had replied, “No, we want to live in a college town, where there are lots of young people and more opportunities—concerts, ballgames, lectures and stuff.”

Even back then, Morganton’s population was rapidly aging, as children were growing up, going off to college and, even if they stayed in the state, moving away to metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro. Actually, our first choice was Asheville, but we both obtained teaching jobs in Boone.

And that was OK, too. Our plan was to be within an hour’s drive of Morganton so that we could visit or even help with the care of our dads, both of whom were dealing with serious health issues. But we had lived and worked in Morganton before, and we had not yet resolved some hometown issues of our own.

Those old vexations, which mainly involved our former employers, are topics for another day (or not).

But we had no such qualms about moving back to Boone, where Timberley had already been spending summers for a couple of years before we moved, anyway. She took education courses in Boone while I stayed at Ocean Isle and wrote novels during my summer vacations from West Brunswick High School.

Those were two of the three most difficult summers of our marriage, not because we suffered any of the usual marital problems—I mean, I didn’t look for companionship from any beach bunnies on the strand. I stayed glued to my laptop screen every day. And the only virtual hookup I pursued was with my wife.

THIS SPRINT BAGPHONE was our first cellular telephone, which we obtained so that the high school tennis players on the team we coached could call home for rides before we got back to the school after away matches.

Those were the early days of the information superhighway, when in order to call Timberley while she drove her Lebaron convertible across the state, I had to guess when she’d be passing through Charlotte and call the number of a cell tower that might ping the big bag phone she hauled in the passenger seat.

Back then there was no video chatting like Facetime, Skype, Hangouts or Zoom. There was no way to chat, as such, on those old cell phones, and I don’t think text messaging was available then, either. The best we could do was talk on the phone or swap email messages from our desktop links to the Internet.

Those were some lonely summers that were made more difficult when hurricanes forced evacuations of the South Brunswick Islands—once when I was home alone on Ocean Isle and packed up but ended up not having to leave; two other times when I was visiting Timberley in Boone and the island bugged out.

The rhododendrons were in bloom and the weather was beautiful in Boone both of those times when I was there while hurricanes either brushed the Brunswick County coastline or made landfall nearby. But watching The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore report from a beach near your island home is pure-D hell.

Both times we waited until the storms had passed and then called a friend back home whom we trusted to give us reliable information about any damage on the island. “Don’t you worry one bit,” Capt. Jamie said. “When you get back down here, your house will be just like it was when you left.” He was right.

Speaking of Capt. Jamie, I’d love to write about him and about any number of other living friends and enemies, but he and all those other breathing people get passes this go-round, since some of them are, as Jamie would say, “on the list of folks who can forevermore kiss my ass.” Jamie is a fisherman poet.

I’m writing so much now about Ocean Isle Beach because that was my favorite place we’ve ever lived and those were the best times of our lives, at least until the two summers that education came between us. The closest thing to rhododendron on the coast is oleander, I guess, whose blossoms also are pink.

What’s odd is that until recently I didn’t know that despite their similar sizes and beauty, both oleander and rhododendron shrubs are toxic from stem to stern, so to speak. According to Wikipedia, both once symbolized danger. In Victorian society, a lady would not want a bouquet of oleander or rhododendron.

But the online encyclopedia also notes that oleander is the official flower of Hiroshima, Japan, because it was the first thing to grow after the atomic bomb blast in 1945; and that rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal, the native country of Gautama Buddha and later “the land of spirituality and refuge.”

Oleanders remind me of driving from Ocean Isle to UNC Wilmington after I decided to finish work on my bachelor’s degree in the early ’90s. Besides seeing the flowering shrubs all along the way, I usually took Oleander Drive, a major thoroughfare, to South College Road on my way to the UNCW campus.

Rhododendrons remind me simply of the High Country. Period. No, not Nepal, which is the Himalayan High Country of Mount Everest and Kangchenjunga, home of the Abominable Snowman; I’m referring to Watauga County—and maybe Ashe and Avery counties—where less disgusting Mountaineers reside.

TIMBERLEY ATTENDED A.S.U. as an undergraduate from the summer of 1977 until her graduation in the spring of 1982. She had started college early, leaving Freedom High after her junior year.

Timberley’s introduction to Appalachian State University came during the summer of 1977 when she decided to enroll in ASU’s Advanced Placement Program (APP), an on-campus version of the classes that I’d taken the previous academic year, combining several 12th-grade and college freshman courses.

My first bite of the ol’ Appal—that’s a reference to everything that starts that way, like the AppalCART bus system and AppalNet computer network—anyway, my first taste of App State came in June or July of 1971 when Mom was taking graduate courses in the College of Education, and they needed lab rats.

For a couple of days, two little friends and I—actually, we called ourselves river rats, because we lived in the Yadkin (River) Valley community of Caldwell County at the time—we let Mom and some of her classmates give us a battery of tests in Edwin Duncan Hall, the old education building on Rivers Street.

When the testing ended, Mom took us three boys to play miniature golf on the little course off US 321 just inside the city limits, on what later became a driving range and what is now an open field next to Boone Golf Club. Rhododendrons were in bloom everywhere. It was cool. We got rained out that day. It rains all the time—or is so foggy it feels like rain—in Boone, even when Morganton is in a drought.

I remember how cool, temperature-wise, that building was, being in airy Boone, and how cool, culture-wise, the Edwin Duncan Octagon on stilts looked. Back then, the Boone-Blowing Rock area had some of the coolest structures I’d ever seen—that brick octagon, the chestnut-shingled geodesic dome of P.B. Scott’s Music Hall, the A-frame chalets along Highway 321 near Tweetsie Railroad, all of the Old West and medieval buildings on the hill at Tweetsie, and, of course, the NASA windmill on Howard’s Knob.

Another personally significant building on the App State campus is Varsity Gym, where Mom, my little brother and I saw the old Carolina Cougars play an ABA exhibition game against Julius “Dr. J” Irving’s Virginia Squires one summer in the early 1970s, though Dr. J didn’t play in that game for some reason. My favorite player on the court that night was rookie Dennis Wuycik, who had played for the UNC Tar Heels, my favorite college team. As a Happy Valley Eagle, I had modeled my jumpshot after Wuycik’s.

MY FIRST NAME has been spelled every way imaginable, even on important documents. My band director — the same man at Happy Valley Elementary and Hibriten High — consistently misspelled my name all seven years of our association.

I also spent two nights in the basement of Varsity Gym during All-State Band weekend in late January of 1975. As a 10th grader, I earned the second chair of the trombone section in the Northwest Division’s Brass Band the only year I auditioned for all-state honors. Playing in the band was easy. Getting some sleep in the gym basement, which doubled as a bomb shelter, was the greater challenge. Also, that was the first time I ever stayed away from home. I even packed a suit and tie, and attended the First Baptist Church of Boone that Sunday morning. The sermon wasn’t bad, I guess—for one delivered by a Baptist preacher.

I have stories about every structure on campus and around town that I ever spent much time in or near. Like everywhere else I’ve been in my life, Boone is inhabited by the spirits of people who had gathered wherever for whatever reason. The ghosts are bound by our individual memories and collective history.

And you can be sure that a rhododendron bush was growing within spitting distance of all those places. The beautiful but toxic evergreen is such an endemic part of Appalachian culture that the university’s yearbook, published from 1922 to 2004, was named The Rhododendron. Photos of Timberley and her sorority’s activities while she was a student there appear in at least four yearbooks. I’m not in even one. That’s because I stayed only one spring semester before bugging out for my life as a hardwareman poet.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — The anthology in which my only two published poems appear (upper right); Timberley, outside Concord’s Emerson House, where the mid-19th-century Transcendentalist Club met; and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s headstone in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

As proof, check out a student anthology entitled Other Voices in American Poetry – 1980, published by the ominously named Harbinger Library Press of Corte Madera, Calif., not far from San Quentin State Prison, where all the inmates are prisoner poets, I’m sure. The anthology—actually just a scheme to sell books to wannabe wordsmiths—accepted two of my poems, both of which reveal not exactly misogyny but certainly disgust for a girl who turned me down because I neither drove a cool car nor disco danced.

That girl wanted to talk to me later, though, when I was a minor personality on local radio. That was right before she married a Baptist preacher.

But by then Timberley and I were married, and I wasn’t about to screw my marriage up by chasing after a gal who wouldn’t have given me the time of day if I weren’t reading the time and temperature as part of my job as news director at the local radio station. I didn’t want to deal with that kind of problem.

Besides, working 50-70 hours and six days per week, from 3:30 a.m. until whenever the news stopped happening kept me too worn out to do anything outside work but eat, stare blankly at the TV until 8:30 p.m., and then go to bed—to sleep, sadly. Timberley probably wished she’d married a Baptist preacher.

But I was a reporter poet. At the time, Timberley was visual merchandising and advertising manager at the local Belk department store, and her day off was Wednesday. Once a month when I’d finally get off work from the radio station on a Wednesday, we’d head up the mountain and spend the afternoon in the Boone area—eat at Mountain House or Pepper’s Restaurant, visit Mast General Store, Boone Drug and Footsloggers downtown, maybe take a long walk at Bass Lake or Price Park. It was our getaway place.

And I guess that’s what it became again 10 years later after I was fired from the radio station for doing my job and for learning—through my research one Wednesday afternoon at ASU’s Belk Library—that my employer was supposed to be paying me and most other employees overtime but wasn’t, and after I eventually found a newspaper job in Brunswick County and worked long hours there without overtime. I did file a labor complaint against the station that led to a wage-and-hour investigation and settlement.

So during the summer of 1997, with new jobs and fresh starts ahead of us in Boone, we left our beloved southeastern coast and its pretty but poisonous oleanders, and traded them for the familiar northwestern mountains and their toothsome but toxic rhododendrons—and also for teaching 10th-graders what Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian preacher, is trying to say about beauty in his poem “The Rhodora.”

About 10 years later, my job at Watauga High and interest in the writings of Henry David Thoreau took us to Emerson’s grave in Concord, Mass., where we met entirely by chance Daniel Emerson, one of the philosopher poet’s great-great-grandsons. He was there to tidy up his famous ancestor’s plot, picking up coins, pens, papers and other gifts left by admiring visitors. He said the Emersons had two family plots, the one there on Authors Ridge near Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott; another in a newer section of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The collected coins went for upkeep of both plots, he said.

Of course, when we’d first spotted him, we hadn’t known who he was, and we’d kept our distance. All we saw was an ordinary-looking, slightly unshaven fellow who was picking coins off Emerson’s huge, quartz headstone. “You can come closer,” he’d said to us, apparently thinking we simply didn’t want to walk on the great man’s already footworn grave. From there, Daniel introduced himself and asked who we were and where we lived. We learned that his parents had lived for years on the N.C. coast before his father David Emerson’s death in the late 1990s, not long after we had moved back to the mountains.

I’ve never had trouble talking to complete strangers, whether in person or on the phone. It made my job as a newsman easier, especially when I needed information from someone both unfamiliar with me and unsure of my intent in questioning them. Sometimes I was surprised by the trust that some government officials, in particular, showed me by making comments that I myself would have never made to a good friend, much less to a newsman. Later I wondered if those loose-lipped leaders were merely testing me, wanting to see if I’d print or broadcast their outrageous quotation but being prepared to deny it if I did.

Daniel Emerson hadn’t said anything like that to us. Whether through curiosity or kindness, Daniel had simply allowed, maybe even welcomed, a personal conversation with two strangers who had an interest in his great-great-grandfather, at least enough of an interest to visit the great Transcendentalist’s grave on a weekday evening after a brief summer storm. That was the only connection he needed in order to make and find new connections with us—like that North Carolina coastal connection, among others.

Without going into too much detail, we had several other odd interactions with folks on that trip to the Walden Woods Project outside Concord. In the Thoreau Society gift shop at Walden Pond, we met and talked for several minutes with a famous actor who said his son was a teacher in Thailand. He praised us for being teachers, saying it was something he could never do. But he can certainly act, and he has appeared in some real blockbusters. Also, we later learned that the Walden Woods Project’s education director, who had grown up near Chicago not far from where I’d lived as a child, had a close friend who lived in Morganton and had visited her there recently, even dining at our favorite restaurant downtown.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Connections with people, places and things are everywhere to be found if we only look for them. Everyone we encounter and everything we touch anywhere on earth are connected in some way, whether we like it or not. You’ve heard of the Six Degrees of a Famous Actor? As Waldo Emerson said, “In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, / I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods … Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose! / I never thought to ask, I never knew; / But, in my simple ignorance, suppose / The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.” Simple, huh?

No, apparently not. It’s so hard to understand. But then, I’m just a worrier poet and a retired one at that, not a fisherman poet, not a prisoner poet, not a hardwareman poet, not a reporter poet, not a philosopher poet, not even a dang Baptist preacher.