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

‘MIDNIGHT DANCER’ was the first of our dahlias to bloom in May. The opening of its burgundy blossoms is as perfectly choreographed as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dance routine.


BOONE, N.C. (July 21, 2020) – Mango Madness’s first fiery blossom of the summer opened Sunday in Morganton. As I’ve said before, that dahlia was our Most Valuable Plant last year off the mountain. He bloomed from July to November, and all his mango-colored blossoms were photogenic, catching rays of light just right no matter how he lined up to the sun. But this year he’s playing catch-up in the AFL.

Yes, that’s the Adams Floral League, which opened in March despite the novel coronavirus quarantine. The AFL’s Dahlia Division took the field in May with the blooming of our burgundy beauty, Midnight Dancer, who finished out of the money last year in fourth place behind Mango Madness, The General and Yellow Star. This year a newcomer, Crazy Love, has taken an impressive lead in our garden.

FROM BUD TO BLOSSOM, our ‘Crazy Love’ has taken the lead in the running for this year’s most prolific and photogenic dahlia.

Crazy Love was one of two new dahlias whose bulbs we bought last fall at Lowe’s Garden Center and then planted—well, Timberley planted them, as I’m always careful to note—in the front yard next to The General. Sometime in the spring, a rodent—a mole or vole, probably—ate The General’s bulbs and those of one new dahlia, Hawaii. Actually, part of one bulb remained, and Timberley did replant it.

But we have no idea which fallen dahlia that partial bulb belongs to—The General or Hawaii. So far it hasn’t come up at all. That’s okay, though. We have plenty of other dahlias to fill out the Division, like Karma Chocolate, Karma Corona, a curious fuchsia flower I’ll call Karmac McCarthy and my dahlias that appear to be on crack. Actually, those last ones are cactus dahlias with wild-looking florets.

Speaking of MVPs, Wikipedia says the 42 species of dahlias are so diverse because they’re octoploids—in other words, they have eight sets of chromosomes, making them easier to hybridize than most other flowers, which generally have only two sets. Roses range from diploid to octoploid—that’s two to eight pairs—and they’re quite beautiful, but they’re also much more delicate than tough dahlias.

In all seriousness, my two favorite flowers in Morganton last year were the dahlia Mango Madness and our purple heirloom rose called Angel Face, whose name we learned this past spring when we returned to the local Rural King store to buy four new bare-root roses named Chrysler Imperial in honor of Nat Gilliam, Granada for Beatrice Cobb, Waiheke because that sounded Hawaiian, and Climbing America.

Why Climbing America? Well, because we wanted a pretty climbing rose for the back yard, with coral- and salmon-colored blossoms. Also, the name spoke to me, as that’s the heartless part of America we’ve come to know and despise. It has been nice to see some beauty in a climber, not just ugliness. Yes, I’m talking in symbols and metaphors again. That, after all, is the language of so many things now, not just flowers.

If you consult various online sources, you’ll see that roses in their different colors symbolize just about anything you might want—love, hate and everything in between. Dahlias, on the other hand, symbolize elegance, inner strength, creativity, change and dignity. They also represent a person who stands strong in his or her sacred values—like the coaches I started writing about last week. A coach’s role is sacred.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — Timberley holds a ‘Midnight Dancer’ blossom that I picked for her; with closeups of our ‘Karma Chocolate,’ ‘Crazy Love,’ and ‘Karma Corona’ dahlias.

In this chapter, I’ve also been discussing my youthful dreams, whether in reference to life goals or those subconscious screenings of nocturnal narratives that either thrill or horrify us as we sleep. Today I have another singular dream to share, perhaps the only one I’ve ever had that I knew was meaningful as soon as I awoke, without having to analyze it. It was a message—from whom, I’m still not sure—just for me.

I had the dream when I lived alone in a small upstairs apartment in downtown Valdese. My apartment’s three rooms, kitchen and bath had once been part of a doctor’s office. For whatever reason, my dreams while I lived there were more vivid and often more frightening than at any other time in my life. I often wondered what or who was causing the nightmares—perhaps the spirits of patients who had died there?

But, as I indicated, not every dream I had there was bad. Timberley and I had been dating for at least a few months, and I had been visiting her at Nat’s house—now our home in Morganton—whenever she’d come down the mountain from ASU for the weekend. I liked spending time there. Nat had a stereo with Bose speakers, a big color TV with a remote control, a Knabe square grand piano, and other neat stuff.

And, of course, he also had Timberley there with him those weekends at the Morehead Street house. At the time, I was still working at The Valdese News. Nat was looking for work then, as he had been fired a few months earlier from The News Herald, not long after its trustees—publisher J.D. Fitz, banker Ben Whisnant, and lawyer Sam Ervin Jr., the former senator—sold the two local newspapers to Park Communications, Inc.

From the moment Roy H. Park bought The News Herald until long after that cussed old coot with wild eyebrows fired my soon-to-be father-in-law, Nat’s dream was to start his own local paper to give Burke Countians the type of publication they’d become used to, first under the guidance of publisher Beatrice Cobb, then under the auspices of her trust. Nat and other longtime employees saw the sale as a betrayal.

I can admit now that even though I was employed by Park Communications at The Valdese News, I did help Nat work toward his goal of running his own newspaper. During one visit to Nat’s house, I even typed up a prospectus that he distributed to local businesses and potential investors. Imagine my shock—and my response—when a News Herald reporter handed me a copy and asked if I’d seen one before.

AN ANTIQUE SLOT MACHINE that my father-in-law received from his father, who ran a garage in Kannapolis, N.C.

That was around the time I realized that I would soon have to choose between working for Roy H. Park and dating Nat Gilliam’s daughter. And that was about when I had the singular dream that I mentioned earlier. Its focus was a 1930s “trade stimulator,” basically a one-armed bandit, a penny slot machine that paid off in cigarettes and gumballs, a curio that I played around with when I visited Timberley.

The story of my dream isn’t long. I’m sitting or standing in front of the slot machine. I put a penny into the notch, and then, with my left hand, I cover the window showing the three wheels of fortune before using my right hand to depress the lever and send the three wheels spinning. Ordinarily, the images that appear in the window are different Depression-era cigarettes, like Twenty Grands, Wings and Fatimas.

But when I remove my hand to reveal the window, I clearly see just three words, one where each of the wheels would have been. I say that because the wheels themselves and, for that matter, the window are no longer there in my dream. The three words appear to be molded right into the old machine’s front, as is the name Penny Smoke, various instructions and other markings on the contraption’s front and sides.

Faith. Hope. Patience.

Now, being a preacher’s kid, I’d grown up listening to and singing the religious tune “Faith, Hope and Charity.” That’s the way to live successfully, right? How do I know? Well, the Bible tells me so—that’s how. That’s what Roy Rogers and Dale Evans always said when I played their little yellow vinyl record as a child. Faith and Hope made sense. But where, oh, where did that last word, Patience, come from?

Again, I turned to the Bible and eventually found this in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Heb. 6:11-12, NIV). But I didn’t, and still don’t, like the Apostle Paul. And I’m not Hebrew.

I do like Hebrew National hot dogs like the ones we bought at Yankee Stadium during our train trip to New York City six years ago. That was some kind of trip, taking the Southern Crescent from Charlotte to Penn Station, spending three nights at the Hotel Pennsylvania, taking in King Lear at Shakespeare in the Park, Coney Island, a couple of Yankee games, and sharing an elevator with songwriter Paul Simon.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT — Timberley checks her phone on the ‘Southern Crescent’; the Grand Hall of Legends at Yankee Stadium; and me on the Coney Island boardwalk after lunch at Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters.

Yep, that whirlwind trip gave us the stuff of dreams, all of it dripping with symbolism. But what do any of these stream-of-consciousness kinds of things have in common with my old coaches, valued dahlias and meaningful dreams? Nothing at all. And at the same time everything I might care to imagine. Yeah, I know. I’ve never liked answers like that either, where one side of the coin works as well as the other.

But isn’t that how life is? Aren’t our reactions after the fact just as important as what really happened in real time? Don’t we all need faith in something, even if only in the confidence that a good coach shows in us? Don’t we all need hope for the good things that come from our hard work, like looking forward to those dahlia blossoms in season? And shouldn’t we be patient enough for our dreams to come true? Isn’t everything interconnected?

Everything in life can be a lesson. And anyone can be a coach. But my three favorite coaches—all three of them tennis instructors—possessed values that were as sacred as our Karma Chocolate, Crazy Love and Karma Corona are beautiful. All three men are no longer with us, but I have no doubt that each one was a coach and a gentleman until his last breath. All three were my role models, but in different ways. I am forever grateful to them.

COUNTER-CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — WPCC coach Chuck Galyon; Timberley’s ‘Tennis Mon’ painting of me on the court; Shallotte teaching pro Jim Parsons; and Morganton teaching pro Bill Naylor (right) with men’s singles champion Mike Daves.

When I knew him, Chuck Galyon was always in great shape and had a good tan because he taught physical education classes outdoors almost year-round. In addition to being my basketball coach at Western Piedmont Community College, Chuck taught me how to swing a tennis racket and do more than just slap the ball over the net. He also instructed me in golf, badminton and archery, but his role as my first tennis coach was special because turning me into a tennis bum gave me a place to hang out and friends when I needed them most.

My relationship with Chuck continued when I left school and covered WPCC basketball for The News Herald as a stringer. My best story from that season was one that I chose not to write because it seemed too embarrassing for the coach and team. On an overnight trip to Morristown, Tenn., we lost by at least 50 points, finished with only three players on the court, and were robbed at gunpoint back at our motel. What a nightmare.

But, hey, the paper was paying me only $5 per article and none of my expenses. So I killed that story.

I met Jim Parsons when I became varsity tennis coach at West Brunswick High School. Admittedly, I was wet behind the ears, and Mr. Parsons—we didn’t dare call him Jim—was the teaching pro over at Brierwood Country Club in Shallotte. He came to our matches to watch his students play on my team, but I soon learned that it was our team, because he wanted my players to succeed just as much as I did.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I took tennis lessons from Mr. Parsons, so he really was my teaching pro. The first check I wrote to him came after we disagreed about a rule on the court, one of those little rules that don’t seem quite fair. “If you’re right,” I told Mr. Parsons, “I’ll pay you for a lesson.” The next day I coughed up his fee and scheduled several additional lessons so that he could work with me on my fancy footwork.

I always see Mr. Parsons in long sleeves, long pants and big hat, to protect his light skin from the sun.

I met Morganton’s tennis pro Bill Naylor back in 1979 when I and other WPCC tennis players helped him monitor a junior tournament at the community college courts. Back then, I played with a wooden Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph racket that I trusted only Bill to restring. And the last couple of times I played tennis hard—before my back surgery two years ago—my hitting partner was Bill, my last pro. Even at his age, he wore me out.

Of my three tennis coaches, I could probably tell more stories about Bill than the other two, because he attended our church, sang in the choir with Timberley, and lingered with us in the parking lot swapping tales after church. Those stories wouldn’t be mine, though. They would be Bill’s, as his life—both as an athlete and educator—was richer than anyone else’s. I do hope Bill wrote that memoir he told us about. It’s his story to tell, as only he can.

FOR WHATEVER REASON, this ‘Karma Corona’ was the only one I happened to see last summer. I’m still waiting for it to bloom this year.

Bill did everything under the sun, and I wondered why the paper never wrote a feature story about him. Maybe they did, and I just missed it.

Faith. Hope. Patience. Loyalty and Passion. All five, the ineffable currency of old coaches and singular dreams.

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

  1. Still just smiling! I loved Bill Naylor – he tutored for us at the Literacy Council!
    Thanks for sharing – I do enjoy reading your stories!

    1. Thanks, Brownie. I should’ve known that Bill would be a literacy tutor. I sure do miss him.

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