Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (17/19) — Chapter Seventeen, Dahlia (1/3)

KNOWN AROUND OUR HOUSE as ‘The General,’ this dahlia was one of our Most Valuable Plants last year in Morganton, putting out its purple-and-white blossoms for six months.


MORGANTON, N.C. (July 5, 2020) – Like everything else this growing season, our dahlias bloomed early—about two weeks earlier than in 2019. Beginning in late May and blossoming until the second week in November, our dahlias outdid themselves last year, especially the purple-and-white one that I refer to as The General, two glowing yellow, spiky-petaled ones that I call Crack Dahlias, and a flame-colored beauty that consistently yielded perhaps the most photogenic blooms. Our dahlias were prime.

Actually, prime probably isn’t the right mathematical term to describe dahlias. I’d never heard of what’s called the Fibonacci sequence until a couple of weeks ago after I posted on Instagram a closeup picture of a new dahlia called Crazy Love that Timberley planted last fall and some other flowers from our yard here. A friend liked the post and commented simply, “Nice. Fibonacci.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what that term meant, and, therefore, I wasn’t entirely sure which photo he was referring to.

I looked the word up—yes, on Wikipedia—and read some articles on Fibonacci numbers, the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Ratio, and the Golden Spiral. I won’t even try to explain it all—I’ve always hated math—but, basically, the Fibonacci sequence of numbers deals with a pattern of growth or construction that results in an ever-widening spiral, something that is seen everywhere in nature and often mimicked in art and other man-made things. I guess my friend saw it in my closeups of the dahlia and coneflower.

THE GOLDEN SPIRAL, or Fibonacci spiral, can be seen in many flowers like this ‘Crazy Love’ dahlia, one of two new dahlias we planted last fall.

Later I asked Timberley if she’d ever heard the term Fibonacci, and she said, “Yeah. Didn’t the tech guy on God Friended Me talk about that in an episode last year?” Uh, maybe? I must not have been paying attention. So not only was my education lacking—I mean, I did avoid math classes like the coronavirus—but I apparently don’t even absorb information offered on Free TV for all of us audio-visual learners. That motivated me to watch YouTube videos on the Fibonacci topic, including a good, short TED Talk.

Who knew the Fibonacci sequence or Golden Spiral—basically, mathematics—possibly explains why I like dahlias or some other flowers so much? Who knew there was something deep inside them that was calling to me on a subconscious level—but something that other folks were well aware of? Who knew I wouldn’t learn about this innate attraction until I was 60 years old? Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure, even though six decades of seeking order and balance has fed a healthy obsessive-compulsive disorder.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t break what some other people—family members, even—see as faults. Maybe that’s the way it is with other deep-seated—or is it deep-seeded?—human traits, not just autistic tendencies that plague only some people like me, but also problems that every human being deals with.

Like hate. Like hubris. Like racism.

FOUR CLOSEUPS of several vastly different blossoms from the same dahlia’s vines last year in Morganton.

I’ve never thought of myself as hateful, excessively proud or racist—I wouldn’t, I guess, even if I did deserve those terribly human descriptors. But at certain times in my life, however briefly—and deep down inside, meaning always then—I am each of those horrible things, whether or not I really know it.

Like keeping my OCD in check, a greater ongoing challenge is to keep my hidden Fibonacci sequences from spiraling out of control, no matter how predictable and natural the situation might be—like when something or someone gives me the opportunity to be hateful; or when I’m tempted to think I’m greater at something or more righteous than others; or when I make an assumption about another individual or a whole group of people based solely on their race, whether I’m a member of that particular race or not.

If you’ve been paying attention to the screens you watch—both large and small ones—for the past few weeks, or the past few months, years, or decades on Free TV, or for the past five centuries in American history books, whether you read them in hard copy or on your Kindle, you know that racism—whether it was the subjugation and extermination of this continent’s indigenous peoples, or the enslavement and denigration of Africans for profit—that racism is white America’s original sin. Yes, say its name, twice.

Again, I never thought I had a racist bone in my body until the current reexamination of societal values involving race heated up again in late May after the brutal murder of a black man by a white policeman in Minneapolis, Minn., just one of the countless examples of what’s being labeled as “systemic racism” in our white-dominated culture. I mean, from an early age I was taught to respect if not all people, then at least all “good” people. Also, I was forbidden to say the N-word that I’d heard other “good” boys say.

Growing up, all of my sports idols—all of them, for whatever reason—were African Americans, from UNC Tar Heel basketball star Charles Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at the nation’s first public university; to Dallas Cowboys halfback Calvin Hill, a Yale graduate whose son, Grant Hill, later starred in basketball at Duke; to heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali, whose intelligence and grace throughout his life were undeniable; to Atlanta Braves home run champion Hank Aaron, who broke the greatest record in sports despite death threats; and, finally, to tennis great Arthur Ashe, whose memoir Days of Grace is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read, because it is more about life than athletics.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — This young fan obviously emulates his hero, UNC basketball star James Worthy, at a 1982 alumni event in Lenoir; the autographed photo I got in 1973 from my childhood sports idol, home run king Hank Aaron; and two books by two other heroes, tennis champion Arthur Ashe and sportscaster Howard Cosell.

Still, as a boy living in Illinois, my family having moved there from North Carolina when I was just six weeks old, I remember being proud of my Southern roots, of having been born in the South, despite my knowledge, even as a first-grader in a primary school north of Chicago, that the Yankees had beaten the Rebels in the Civil War (I’m not sure that I knew the terms Union and Confederacy back then). Besides Carolina blue, my favorite color has always been gray, as in Confederate officers’ uniforms. Even then, as an innocent six-year-old, I wanted us to move back to Morganton where my favorite granddad lived.

After that school year, we did return to North Carolina, about six weeks after my little brother Ken was born around Easter. Later on, that was something funny about the two of us: I was a native Southerner who had grown up in the North and talked like a Yankee; he was a born Yankee who spent almost all of his nearly 11 years in the South and therefore spoke with a Southern drawl. Cousins sneered at me for being “a little Yankee,” but Ken was A-okay because he was learning to say “y’all” and “over yonder.” I even found an old tape recording of my Southern grandmother making fun of me when I wasn’t around.

I don’t know. My Northern grandparents in Pennsylvania probably didn’t like me all that much either. I always felt like an outsider no matter where I was, probably from having moved so many times at such a young age. By the sixth grade, I’d attended four different schools in four towns in two far-flung states. But Morganton has always been important to me because I was born here. Even when we lived on the N.C. coast for 10 years, we always came home to Morganton whenever we could. For good or bad, the town is our familial home—though not our only “hometown”—and Morganton’s people are our people.

Over the past few weeks, in particular, I’ve tried to rationalize how I could—rather, how I can—be so proud of my Southern heritage and how I can also respect some Southern symbols—like the Rebel flag; Confederate monuments like the one on the Old Courthouse Square in Morganton that bears names of kith and kin; and even Civil War figures like Southern generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and North Carolina’s own Thomas L. Clingman—while opposing racism in the real world of here and now. Must I keep my Southern pride to myself? Can I reject hate and still love my dear old Southern home?

Certainly, there were many actions and many people of the past to be ashamed of in our hometown. Not every aspect of one’s heritage is admirable, and that includes the historical winners as well as the losers. In fact, sometimes we respect the vanquished more than we admire the victor. The Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought 157 years ago this past week, is a good example. On July 3, 1863, the last day of the three-day battle in south-central Pennsylvania, North Carolina troops were among the units that made a last-ditch effort to break through the Union lines along Cemetery Ridge. It’s known as Pickett’s Charge.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — Morganton’s Confederate monument on the Square; Timberley viewing the monument at the ‘high-water mark’ of N.C. troops in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; the same monument (background, far left) as seen from the Union line.

Though kinsmen of mine—both maternal and paternal ancestors—did face each other at Gettysburg, I don’t know that any of them were directly involved in Pickett’s Charge on either side. Standing at what looks like a gravestone of polished Carolina pink granite just a few long strides from the nearest battery sitting on the ridge, one can’t help but wonder about this symbol of what Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner called the Lost Cause, a revisionist narrative that gave the defeated South false pride. That pink stone marking how far N.C. troops had charged represents not bravery, but willful ignorance.

Another facet of the Lost Cause was the construction of Confederate monuments throughout the South in the first two decades of the 20th century, especially during World War I. According to Documenting the American South at the UNC University Library, our town’s granite monument was erected in 1912; its original finial, or ornamental top, was replaced with the bronze soldier in 1918. Nine years later, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 3, 1927, that silent soldier looked down upon Morganton’s most shameful day, when the corpse of a black murder suspect who had been hunted down and shot was put on public display on the town square. Photos in area newspapers—but not in The News Herald, of course—show a carnival-like atmosphere, as the crowd milled about, waiting to file past the man’s gruesome remains.

I mentioned in an earlier essay that my grandmother, who lived in the Morganton area most of her life from 1898-1992, often told me old stories when I was a child. That was one of her frequent tales—how the black man had killed the white girl one afternoon in Morganton and then had taken off, terrorizing the area for two weeks while hiding out and breaking into local farmers’ granaries and springhouses for food. When I researched this well-documented event a while back for use in my last fiction manuscript Anywhere Like Heaven, I learned that the terror extended all over western N.C. even to black men who were detained or taken into custody after they were mistaken for the murder suspect, picked up on the roads or taken off trains. Imagine being a black man then, with armed white mobs roaming everywhere.

Oh, wait. We don’t have to imagine it. We can just watch it happen on our screens, over and over again.

It’s a bad dream, a nightmare, that I imagine black men, young and old, have on a regular basis. As I’ve said before, my recurring nightmare involves being a journalist and not being able to meet my deadline. Whatever that might mean on a Freudian or Jungian level, it doesn’t compare to the fear of getting shot to death or slowly strangled by an individual whose role is to serve and protect. I don’t know how those situations feel, obviously. But I do know how being run over feels—I’ve shared that story earlier—and I have a good idea of what it’s like to be stabbed to death. Don’t scoff. It was just a dream but a vivid one.

It was the only dream I’ve ever had in which I died. I’ve had it only once. And I don’t remember exactly when I had it. It’s as if this dream, this nightmare, has always been with me. In the dream, I’m standing on a smoky battlefield next to my fallen horse. I’m wearing gray. Another rider in dark blue appears. He thrusts a knife into my chest before riding away. I look down at the wound and simply say, “I’m dead.” So that’s my death dream. What it means, I’m not sure. Maybe it means I watched too many violent TV shows as a child. Or maybe, if I believed in reincarnation, it was a final, lasting memory of another life.

But it really doesn’t matter now. Whether it’s an old memory or an old dream, it’s a narrative that needs to remain in the past because it no longer has a hold on my mind or imagination. Times have changed. Faulkner also said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but he was dead wrong. One’s past dies upon that person’s death. What lasts indefinitely are the impact of that life and the tales told of that life by others, some who knew the deceased, some who didn’t. God knows our hateful pasts need to die out.

NINE DIFFERENT BLOSSOMS from ‘The General’ last year. Note the variations in tint, pattern and floret shape.

All things, good and bad, must come to an end. Take The General, our purple-and-white dahlia that has thrived in our front yard for several years until this summer. It was our first and last dahlia to put out its blossoms over a six-month period from spring through late fall. This spring, though, when The General hadn’t bloomed by its appointed time, Timberley started digging and found that something—some kind of rodent, we assume—had tunneled to The General’s loamy base and had eaten all its roots and bulbs.

The General was always there—until he wasn’t. We missed him, but we moved on and planted another dahlia there, one that will be just as attractive but in a different way, one whose time to blossom is now.

And we shall call it Fibonacci.