Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (17/19) — Chapter Seventeen, Dahlia (2/3)

WE’RE STILL WAITING for our ‘Mango Madness’ dahlia to bloom this year. This plant was last year’s MVP, putting out large, fiery blossoms from July to November.


BOONE, N.C. (July 15, 2020) – Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams and old coaches—in my case, a handful of good men who molded me as we pursued our shared goals.

As far as dreams go—I’m referring to sleeping dreams now—I remember only one that seemed to deal with life goals and, in fact, has guided my decision making at various crossroads. To paraphrase the old Yankee catcher, coach and philosopher Yogi Berra, whenever I came to a fork in the road of life, I took it, but I kept an eye peeled for a good roadside diner where I could put that eating utensil to its best use.

The Yankees were, in fact, the first sports team I was aware of as a child, probably around age 5. I liked the names Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra for obvious reasons, as I’m part of the TV Generation weaned on Mickey Mouse and Yogi Bear cartoons. Weaned? I ate all my meals off a little Hanna-Barbera plate bearing the image of a pic-a-nic at Jellystone Park with Yogi, Boo-Boo, Ranger Smith and their friends.

COUNTER-CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — My favorite plate from childhood; I read ‘Ball Four’ almost every summer in my teens; former Yankee Jim Bouton wasn’t the first person to misspell my name, just the most famous.

I recognized a couple of Yankee stars, but I had no idea who manager Ralph Houk was until years later when I read the late Jim Bouton’s classic sports book Ball Four. I met Bouton at a Durham Bulls game in 1993 and corresponded with him later. When I noted that I owned more copies of Ball Four than the Bible, Jim replied, “The Bible is good, but it doesn’t have Joe Shultz,” who managed the Seattle Pilots and provided comic relief in the book.

But back to that dream about life goals. I had it around the time I dropped out of college in 1980 for the second, maybe third time, in four years—I had bailed on Appalachian State University’s APP (advanced placement) program as a senior at Hibriten High School; left Bob Jones University after six weeks; and stayed at ASU only one semester after transferring there from Western Piedmont Community College.

Somewhere along the way, I had learned to quit. When the going got tough, I got going—out the door.

So you can imagine why I was having wild dreams, if not actual nightmares, about my prospects for the future. In this particular dream, I’m standing on the hill near my family’s home in the Salem community outside Morganton. I look to the south-southwest and see a glowing rainbow hanging low in a dark sky above a thick stand of evergreen trees on the horizon. No, you don’t have to be psychic to interpret that.

But the dream in all its Technicolor glory wasn’t over just yet. So what was I being promised? And by whom? As I write this, I’m almost 61 years old, and I still can’t answer those two questions, though I have tried my damnedest through the past four decades to force various interpretations on the dream. As my life has moved from stage to stage, I’ve reconsidered what I thought was God’s promise to me.

And guess what? Those changing interpretations were determined by what I wanted at any given time.

Here’s the rest of the dream: After seeing the rainbow, I turn to walk down the hill to the busy highway where 12 years earlier I had dashed in front of a car and been lucky only to break my leg. But as I turn, I notice a mailbox standing under a cedar tree there on the hill. I open the mailbox and find five letters in envelopes of five pastel colors. All five letters are addressed to me. I’m really pleased. I like getting letters.

Seeing all the colors in that old dream gave me the same thrill I feel now when walking in our flowers.

Of course, we’re talking about symbols here. So, in addition to the rainbow, what might dark skies, pine and cedar trees, mailboxes, letters and five pastel colors symbolize? At this stage, as I begin my shuffle—or maybe my dash, again—off this mortal coil, your guess is as good as mine. When I wanted to be a rock star, those letters were albums. When I decided to be a writer, they were novels. What about now?

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — In my youth I dreamed of being a rock star and then a famous writer, but all I had to show for my dreams were five letters of different colors.

I have no clue. Maybe I’d overdosed on Frosted Lucky Charms or grape Kool-Aid before going to bed that night (I also had a Pixie and Dixie cereal bowl and a Huckleberry Hound drinking cup—the whole set). In my younger days, I might have asked one or two of those coaches whom I mentioned earlier for advice about my dream. Not those two baseball managers. My own four—actually five—best coaches.

Like many red-blooded American boys, I wanted nothing more than to be a sports star, with my athletic dreams starting in the fourth grade when I began watching mainly NFL football and ACC basketball on TV. I remember when a classmate’s father, a preacher like my dad, came to school to visit his daughter, and he asked me what I wanted to be someday. He was thinking I’d say preacher or teacher, like my folks. I said football player.

After rooting for Johnny Unitas and the NFL Baltimore Colts and watching them lose Super Bowl III to Joe Namath and the AFL New York Jets, I became a Dallas Cowboys fan and a devotee of hat-wearing head coach Tom Landry. That year I had won the local NFL Ford Punt, Pass & Kick competition, and I played for the Salem Pee Wees the next school year but didn’t get to punt, pass or kick. I was a lineman.

I got one chance in an early-season practice to play running back. With no instruction, I was put in the first-string backfield, handed the ball, and promptly tripped, not even tackled, at the line of scrimmage. Though I was happy to play any upright position—as less than two years earlier I had spent six weeks in traction with a broken leg—my dreams of being another Calvin Hill or Roger Staubach had to wait.

My family moved from Morganton to rural Caldwell County the next fall, so I didn’t play football that year. The next summer, though, I played for the Braves in the Happy Valley Optimist Club’s inaugural youth baseball season, even picking the team’s name with my then best friend and teammate, both of us being Atlanta Braves fans. I was the team’s best all-around athlete and wanted to pitch. I played catcher.

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT — My playing career, such as it was, started on this court at Piney Grove Baptist Church in the Yadkin Valley community of Caldwell County and ended at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton.

The next two winters—in the 7th and 8th grades—I played junior high basketball for the Happy Valley Eagles. I was the best outside shooter on the team both years. In the 7th grade, my best friend and I also were the best gym-floor sweepers in the whole school. Our homeroom teacher, a first-year teacher and coach, let us leave class each morning to push brooms, race around the empty gym and jump-slap at the nets.

But after basketball season that 7th-grade year, my teacher and first-year basketball coach didn’t seem to like me so much anymore. In P.E. class one day—on the very gym floor we’d swept—my buddy and I had said we didn’t want to square dance with the girls, as the coach had requested. “You’re gonna want to play basketball next year, aren’t you?” he shot back. We danced, but I also told my folks about his quip.

You’d be surprised—or maybe not—at what a big impression a call from an angry parent, who is also a fundamentalist preacher’s wife, can make on a rookie teacher and coach, no matter how full of himself he is. Mom, a veteran teacher, informed him in no uncertain terms that she and my Baptist preacher dad didn’t approve of me dancing at school or anyplace else, and that I’d better play basketball next season.

Well, let’s put it this way. I was on the team as an 8th grader. I even started most of the games and was our leading scorer after the first four games of the season, the four games that our coach missed while he was away in Army Reserves. We were 2-2 and even beat for the first time the private Patterson School, which was then coached by ex-Miami Dolphin lineman Maxie Williams. I scored half of our points and in double figures for the second time in four games.

Against zone defenses, my jumper was automatic. I was self-confident, the Eagles’ leader on the court.

But when our regular coach returned and retook the team reins, my season took a decided turn for the worse. It was a different and more difficult row to hoe—or furrow to plow, if that’s a more consistent metaphor. Dumbass that I must have been back then, I couldn’t figure out why my season so suddenly went south, why the coach was now making snide remarks and bad-mouthing me to other team parents.

We lost all six remaining games that season under the young coach after he returned from the Reserves.

THREE GREAT COACHES of my younger years were Dean Smith, Tom Landry and Jim Valvano. If Dean were a dahlia, he’d be this one called ‘Hawaii,’ which we planted but haven’t seen come up yet. Many UNC seasons started at the Maui Invitational.

Still, I kept following my favorite basketball team—the University of North Carolina Tar Heels—and I kept right on dreaming that someday I’d play for the greatest basketball coach of all time, UNC’s Dean Smith. It didn’t matter that I was never taller than 5-foot-9, about what my height was in the 8th grade. After all, this was when short guys like Monte Towe, Spud Webb and Mugsy Bogues were ACC stars.

What did matter was that I was slow of foot, either from running on my right leg that had been so badly broken just a few years earlier or from not being in running shape when high school tryouts began. The daily sessions always ended with what were called Carolinas in polite company, suicides or puke drills by we who were about to run them. I always came in last, from the start of tryouts until the day I died.

And I was too proud to salute when coaches weren’t entirely honest about why I hadn’t survived the cut.

For example, on the last day of 9th-grade tryouts, the junior varsity coach took me and two other short boys aside and told us, “You’re still on the team. But you just won’t get a uniform. We only have 12.” I got up from where we were sitting in a little circle and said, “Then maybe I’ll just do something else,” and I walked out of the gym. The next year I was cut yet again, but without the coach’s little pep talk.

As a junior, I played well in varsity tryouts but still didn’t survive the last cut. It made no sense to me.

So, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I went to the junior varsity coach, swallowed my pride and asked if I could play jayvee ball that year—as an 11th grader—something that is rarely done. “I just want to play basketball,” I admitted. To his credit, the coach let me play, and I quickly became a key team member, if only because I was the only jayvee with a driver’s license and could regularly drive other guys home.

On the court, I played well enough and was one of the team’s best outside shooters. Also, I was one of the better man-to-man defenders in the half court, able to steal the ball or deflect the ballhandler’s pass. As a result, I suffered more jammed and sprained fingers than the average player. But I still couldn’t run puke drills at the end of the day. And I still had to deal with the indignity of being an 11th-grade jayvee.

Meanwhile, the varsity coach, who was also my U.S. History teacher that year, apparently didn’t make a cut of some kind himself, because he resigned his teaching job and coaching position over Christmas break. Seeing a varsity basketball coach quit over the holidays is about as rare as seeing a junior on the junior varsity. But I still liked him despite rumors about why he left—and despite his judgment of me.

The coach who took the quitter’s place mid-season was my first actual coach to show confidence in me while still pushing me to improve. I could say the same thing about the old Salem High School coach who had introduced me to somewhat organized basketball as a child during summer open gym. I loved that man and still do. He lives near us now in Morganton, and we often see him walking around town.

Like my mom, the old Salem coach moved to Morganton Freedom High School after the consolidation of the county’s high schools. He coached varsity baseball and, yes, junior varsity basketball for years. I got to speak to him before my jayvee team’s game at Freedom that season, and I even started that game, though I was ordered—at 5-foot-9, remember—to jump center against the Patriots’ 6-6 big man.

While another player in that situation might have feigned a jump and fallen back, I tried to win the tip.

As a kid, I dreamed of “growing up” and playing basketball for that old coach at the old Salem High in its old crackerbox gym. Morganton is a basketball town, and any number of coaches through the years, including the old coach I’m writing about now, were our local version of Dean Smith. As a 4th and 5th grader, I spent many cold winter nights in that gym rooting for the gold-and-black Salem Tigers.

I reminded the old coach of that in the late 1990s when we ran into him, by then a retiree, at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, where the Freedom boys won the state championship. Later the same day, we watched the Freedom girls win the state championship in the old Carmichael Auditorium, where I’d dreamed of growing up and playing ball for the Dean. I understood the tears in the retired coach’s eyes.

IF COACHES WERE DAHLIAS, they might be like these two varietals, a fiery-looking one called ‘Mango Madness’ and one as brilliant as the sun, called ‘Yellow Star.’

But back to my actual coach—well, the new varsity coach, anyway—at Hibriten. He’s still alive, too, so I’m not going to name him here, but to cut down on confusion, I’ll just call him “Lefty,” because he was more like the University of Maryland’s flamboyant old coach Lefty Driesell than Dean Smith. Now, we Tar Heel fans absolutely hated Lefty Driesell back then, and I didn’t like my Lefty much more, at first.

Even in the classroom as our new history teacher, Lefty was volatile and would say anything he wanted to anyone at any time. For instance, one afternoon he listened quietly as a popular but pleasantly plump cheerleader griped to him about the quality of our cafeteria’s food. “Honey,” he replied, “you don’t look like you’ve missed too many meals lately.” That’s just one example of his classroom management style.

And he had the same basic personality on the court, except tougher and cruder. He told one 11th grader—a classmate and friend of mine—that he ran the court as if he had a ring in his nose that was chained to his, well, to his manhood. That was mean, but, yeah, that was how my ol’ buddy looked running with his head down. And when I invariably came in dead last in the daily puke drills, the coach made me run an extra one all by myself.

But Lefty didn’t humiliate me for being slow. In fact, he led both teams—we practiced with the varsity some days—in cheering me on as I dragged myself through that last, interminable suicide. And when the two teams didn’t practice together, I saw him once peering at us through the tiny, square, gym-door window as I buried one corner jumper after another as the first string practiced its 1-3-1 zone defense.

After the last game of the jayvee season—at Watauga High here in Boone, by the way—I approached my jayvee coach in the locker room and asked what I should work on in the off-season, because I did want to play varsity ball my senior year. “I know I’m slow,” I said, “but I play good defense.” I held up one hand with its two jammed fingers from defending my first-string counterpart too well in practice.

“Well, yeah,” the feckless jayvee coach said, “you have quick hands, but you have slow feet. But, you know, Coach [Lefty] and I were talking about you the other day, and he said if this was the start of the season, you’d be on the varsity.” Several weeks later, in history class, Lefty verified that assessment of me by lecturing the class on how well he knew all his basketball players, even a lowly jayvee like me.

“I can even tell you about Adams back there,” Lefty said, sitting behind his teacher’s desk. “Adams, do you know what your problem is?” Yeah, my coaches suck, probably wouldn’t have gone over well, so I just kinda nodded or shook my head and shrugged indecisively. “Adams is probably the best shooter in this whole school,” Lefty continued, “but his problem is, he doesn’t have any self-confidence.” No shit.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — The Yadkin Valley community after a skiff of snow in the late 1970s; my little brother Ken on his 9th birthday in 1975; and my senior photo, with a hospital band on one wrist and the Jan. 17, 1977 edition of the Morganton News Herald in my hands.

But I didn’t get to play for Lefty in what could have been my senior season of sweet vindication. After participating in pre-season workouts with other varsity players, I chose to defer my basketball dreams after my little brother was diagnosed with a large tumor in his chest on Oct. 1, 1976, underwent cancer surgery, radiation and chemotherapy at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, then died on Jan. 17, 1977, in Morganton.

I talked to Lefty only once that year, at least a month after my brother’s death. One day as I walked past his office in the gym lobby, he came out and stopped me. “Why didn’t you tell me about your brother?” was all he said. As usual, I just shrugged and moved on. At the time, I thought Lefty was telling me that a good team member would have talked to him, to my coach. But in my mind, I’d never made the team.

I didn’t understand then that he might have been trying to say that my lack of trust had hurt his feelings.

MY FIRST TEAM as head coach was this group of young men from West Brunswick High in Shallotte, N.C. In May 1993, we played in two tournaments — one in Cary, N.C., the other in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As I’ve written before, I became a high school basketball coach myself about 15 years later, and I soon learned how easy it was to make mistakes, whether through ignorance, impertinence or foolish pride. I also learned that sometimes the best player has to play a position he doesn’t like for the best of the team and that balls can take funny bounces. Of course, my suspicion that even junior varsity squads own more than 12 uniforms was also confirmed, telling me that my instincts as a player hadn’t been entirety off base.

I haven’t even mentioned my three favorite coaches yet, all three of them tennis instructors. I never had delusions about my tennis ability, just basketball dreams. So if my two favorite basketball coaches—the old Salem coach and the second Hibriten varsity coach—were two of the five envelopes in my rainbow dream, what color would each man’s letter be? What color would each of their messages be within me?

One envelope would be Salem Tiger gold, I have little doubt, or maybe Carolina blue. The other letter, I know even better, would be a color that symbolizes passion for life and a loyal heart—a shade of red.