Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (18/19) — Chapter Eighteen, Sunflower (1/4)

OUR FIRST DANDELION of the current growing season in Morganton revealed itself on Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day, after a mild winter and what looked like an early spring.


MORGANTON, N.C. (July 31, 2020) – All my life, I’ve felt like a dandelion in a field of sunflowers. So about a year ago—it was in early August—I ordered two packets of dandelion seed from Amazon and decided to become a dandelion farmer, as if anyone needed help to grow the little yellow buggers.

Now, I knew better than to plant those seeds right then. Dandelions are spring wildflowers. But that’s how I am. I start thinking ahead, and then I begin gathering all the supplies I need to do whatever I’m planning to do. When the time’s right, I want to know I can meet whatever deadline I’ve set for myself.

Last summer when I started this book, I had big plans—besides growing dandelions and then feasting on dandelion greens and dandelion wine. I’d also bought some dandelion tea from the supermarket—it was supposed to do wonders for me—but one cup was all it took to quench my thirst for dandelion tea.

Timberley and I were also going to buy fishing licenses and go trout fishing once winter passed and the weather warmed up. We planned to dust off our golf clubs, shine our golf shoes and play regular rounds of golf. But then the pandemic hit and shut everything down, and we got to know life under quarantine.

ALL TEED OFF about hitting the links again this past spring, it turned out that this photo shoot on the 18th tee at the Grove Park Inn course a few years ago was the closest we would come to playing real golf in the ensuring years, including this one.

As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But so is the turnpike to heaven. Who knew that a microscopic act of God would inoculate us against our lying president with a dose of reality, bring our economy to its greedy knees, and forever change American life as we have known it?

I chose not to build a special raised bed and plant my dandelion seeds when I saw them popping up in our yard on their own. Rather, I stockpiled dry beans. Instead of fishing, we support our neighborhood supermarket by buying their Scottish salmon when it is on sale. And we haven’t played golf, not once.

We did plant sunflowers in both Morganton and Boone. Only one sunflower—we think it’s a sunflower, anyway—has come up, though. I have taken pictures of the impressive green shoot as it has grown and have run them through Google Lens in an attempt to identify it. Google says it’s a white mulberry bush.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — We’re waiting to see if this plant is a sunflower; a silk sunflower in an arrangement that Timberley received during her hospitalization three years ago; the birthday card I picked for my mother.

Well, we’ll see. That green stalk is growing faster than any plant I’ve ever watched like this. I’m starting to think Timberley planted magic beans there, not sunflower seeds. But, no, in Morganton her beans are in our backyard garden boxes and in one spot in the front yard by our purple heirloom Angel Face rose.

I’m betting it’s a Sun King sunflower. You can bet I’ll keep an eye on it and report back in a week or so.

After all, that’s what I’ve done all my life—be a reporter, in one way or another. It comes natural to me, I guess, as I come from a long line of reporters. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother served in succession as barely paid newspaper reporters called community correspondents for at least 50 years.

My mom—whose 90th birthday is today, by the way—took a step further in journalism. For at least 20 years, she was the faculty advisor of Morganton Freedom High School’s Liberty Press newspaper. Also, she published two collections of genealogical information called These, My People and Poteat Kindred.

In compiling her first book, Mom spent hours after school over a period of months going through back issues and bound volumes of The News Herald, looking for articles that mentioned any of our kin. The second book was an update using newspaper clippings that she had collected at home for over 20 years.

CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER RIGHT — Mom’s first book, whose pages combined info on the Poteat family tree with reprints of News Herald articles about family members; and a gift mug from Freedom High’s Liberty Press while Mom was faculty advisor.

I wish I could say that my own, more formal journalism career had as positive of an impact as Mom’s, but I certainly have her to thank for pushing me onto this career path I’ve tread since childhood. When I was as young as six or seven, I remember hunting and pecking on Mom’s old manual Royal typewriter.

When I was still 17 in the summer after high school graduation, Mom took me to the Brendle’s discount store in Hickory and used leftover money from what people had given my late brother during his illness and hospitalization, and bought me a new electric Smith-Corona typewriter as a graduation gift of sorts.

That summer, in the evenings after I’d worked my part-time job in The News Herald ad department for Timberley’s dad, Nat Gilliam, I sat behind my new typewriter at the kitchen table for hours and plotted out my first novel in a detailed treatment. I was alone, as my parents were gone for weeks that summer.

That first novel ended up taking me at least 15 years to complete (four times) and get out of my system. By then, I had worked for three newspapers, a regional entertainment tabloid and a radio station, where I was news director. Station management also forced me to appear without pay on a cable TV newscast.

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT — The News Herald’s new lobby, built in 1977 when I worked there part-time; paper that News Herald community correspondents used for their columns; the News Herald’s 1980 mug given to advertisers.

Mom’s big story was her family, whether in her community column for The News Herald or in her two genealogy books that traced the branches, limbs and roots of family patriarch Sidney Poteat’s far-flung descendants. My biggest story also dealt with family and kindred spirits, but not how you might expect.

During my 10 years as a newsman, I often had the good fortune—as defined only by reporters—to be in the right place at the right time. I covered armed manhunts, murders, drug-trafficking investigations, forest fires, hurricanes, school building explosions, and the final years and death of a great U.S. senator.

MY SMITH-CORONA WORKED, and so did my typing fingers, two years ago when I made a short video for social media, using an audio clip from my interview of Sen. Sam Ervin about President Nixon’s resignation.

Oh, the stories I could tell about all those news stories and others. But the single news story that had the biggest and most positive impact on me—and Timberley agrees—was a wedding that I covered for The Brunswick Beacon on Saturday, Sept. 26, 1987. That story and a later update changed our lives forever.

I had fully intended to write about this story even before a major player in it died two weeks ago. Frank Nesmith, 93, of Sunset Beach, N.C., died on July 16th. For about 40 years, he was caretaker of the now well-known Kindred Spirit mailbox on Bird Island, an uninhabited barrier island on the NC-SC border.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — A patch of sunflowers outside one of the ‘Captain Charley’ cottages at Cape Fear on Bald Head Island, a scene that inspired Timberley’s ‘Sunflowers’ print; an early Beacon ad for Timberley’s ‘Kindred Spirits’ print; and Timberley in a field of sunflowers at Sims Country Bar-B-Que in October 2017.

Back in late September 1987, Timberley and I had lived in Brunswick County—in Calabash, actually—for just over a month. As a reporter at The Beacon, I’d walked into a huge story—a cocaine-trafficking investigation led by district attorney Michael Easley, who later was state attorney general and governor.

I was used to covering big stories from my newspaper days in Valdese (Rhonda Hinson’s still unsolved murder in December 1981) and from my radio days in Morganton (the manhunt after the shooting of a state trooper, the devastating High Peak forest fire, Salem School’s destruction, and Sam Ervin’s death).

But on my very first deadline day—every Tuesday, at the weekly Beacon—I got the dubious honor of covering the resignation and arrest of the county’s long-time register of deeds, who had been caught up in the drug probe. And it was like that for the nearly three years I worked there. The news never let up.

Months in advance, I predicted Hurricane Hugo—yes, I did, in a column about that upcoming season’s hurricane names—and then had to cover its devastation on Ocean Isle Beach, where we then lived in an old beach cottage that weathered Hugo and four other hurricanes before we returned to the mountains.

In my last Beacon column, I noted that I was tired of feeling, as a reporter does, like the “wallflower” who attends the prom but is never asked to dance. Still, local reporters are treated like minor celebrities until they get fired—as happened to me in Morganton—or until they write a story that folks don’t like.

Reporters are observers of other people’s lives, not necessarily their own. That’s one reason I, like some role models, drank and smoked too much—not only to deal with the pressure of asking tough questions and facing hard deadlines, but also to ease the pain of not being equal to the real celebrities we covered.

“And, dammit, I want to dance.” That was my column’s last line—if my editor had let me use profanity.

I had gotten to dance only once on the job as a Beacon reporter, and that opportunity came on the night of Sept. 26, 1987, in a Calabash waterfront bar to the songs of a Jimmy Buffett wannabe and one-man Coral Reefer Band. Wearing only swim trunks, I had hopped a boat ride up the river from Bird Island.

The loosely defined “beach music dance” was held in connection with the wedding I mentioned earlier. A reception for the bride and groom also was given at a Calabash seafood restaurant. Not having my T-shirt and Topsiders—Timberley still had them—didn’t keep me from attending the wedding reception.

A friend from Morganton was visiting Timberley and me that weekend. The three of us had parked at a Sunset Beach access area, walked to the west end of the strand, waded across Mad Inlet to Bird Island, then found the Kindred Spirit mailbox, which contained a wedding invitation along with some journals.

In the Beacon newsroom the day before, a reporter from the Greensboro newspaper had called to ask if we were planning to cover “Kindred Spirit’s wedding” on Bird Island. We had no idea what that meant, but I somehow got the assignment, and that’s how I ended up covering the very best story of my career.

CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER LEFT — My wedding story in The Brunswick Beacon; the Kindred Spirits site on Bird Island in the 1990s; a green heron that visited our neighbor’s pond in Rutherwood last week.

This is where Frank Nesmith comes into the picture. I don’t know all the details, but he had erected the mailbox on a sandspit near Ocean Isle Beach about seven years earlier in order to swap messages with a pretty artist from Fayetteville as the two of them were out and about during her visits to the islands.

Eventually, Frank moved the mailbox to Bird Island along with a driftwood bench for beachgoers who had wandered across Mad Inlet from Sunset Beach and had discovered the site hidden in the dunes. He stenciled “Kindred Spirit” on the mailbox in honor of the pretty artist and kept it stocked with journals.

At that late September wedding, the pretty artist became a bride. But Frank wasn’t the groom. He was the boatman who ferried me and other guests from the shore to the flotilla in the bay behind the island where the ceremony actually took place. After I snapped my photos, he passed me off to another boater.

A feature writer and a photographer from The Charlotte Observer and I were the only journalists who covered Kindred Spirit’s wedding. If I’m not mistaken, the Observer’s story and photos appeared that Sunday. My full-page “Under the Sun” spread had to wait until that Thursday’s edition of The Beacon.

But the story doesn’t end there. Bird Island became one of our favorite places to visit, especially over the next couple of years as we explored the barrier islands from Bald Head Island at Cape Fear to Bird Island at Little River Inlet. We learned to live by the ebbing and flowing of the tides, and to slow down.

During the summer of 1989, Timberley and I made the trek to the Kindred Spirit mailbox one day and found another special note from the pretty artist and bride. Her name was Claudia Sailor. Her husband was Steve Nimocks. She was an art teacher from Fayetteville. He worked for the state attorney general.

Claudia wrote that she and Steve had returned to the Kindred Spirit mailbox on Bird Island to celebrate their first wedding anniversary the previous September and had written each other notes in the journals. But just three days after their visit—on Sept. 30, 1988—Steve died unexpectedly. He was 61 years old.

The 50-year-old widow went on to write that as soon as she was able, she went back to the mailbox and looked for the journal containing their notes; however, that particular notebook was gone. Undoubtedly, she checked with Frank and other kindred spirits, but I have never heard that the journal was recovered.

I wrote one of my Beacon columns about Claudia’s search a couple of weeks after we read her note. It was possibly my finest essay and appeared where the paper’s weekly editorial usually did. Meanwhile, my own pretty artist, Timberley, was inspired to paint a watercolor scene of the mailbox on Bird Island.

That was the first of Timberley’s four poster prints and art reproductions. The “Kindred Spirits” print’s commercial appeal gave her the confidence to open Kindred Spirits Gallery & Shop one summer on the mainland part of Ocean Isle Beach. Since then, she has maintained the Kindred Spirits Online Gallery.

Even this collection of essays is an outgrowth of that shared experience in September 1987, now almost 33 years ago. Last night as I lay in bed, I thought about Frank’s recent death and wondered if Claudia is still alive and still looking for that journal. I looked online and saw that she died seven years ago at 74.

Since I was wide awake, I checked on another couple whom we had known and admired from that time and place—an older husband and wife who had been friends of Frank and Claudia since long before the mailbox existed. As I expected, the husband had died—though not that long ago. But his wife survives.

I thought about that husband, in particular, because something I had written in one of my last columns for The Beacon—something related directly to Sunset Beach and indirectly to Bird Island—had peeved him enough to tell me so to my face. But instead of fussing and fuming, he gave me some calm advice.

“Just because you’re telling the truth,” he whispered, “doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is always right.” As anyone who knows me can attest, I have failed to heed that advice time after time, because I have often had trouble differentiating between what was true and right, and what was true and wrong.

In fact, that dead reckoning—between truths and falsehoods, rights and wrongs—is what continues to concern me most, in all aspects of life and society, as I steer towards the end of my 60th year, hoping that all the logs I leave behind aren’t lost. But clouds obscure the stars, and I often fail as a navigator.

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for this season’s first dandelion to become a puffball so that its seed could scatter like dust in the wind.

As one young man once said of an older man’s truths, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44-45, NASB).

In the end, whether we’re family or not, whether we love one another or not, we are all kindred spirits.

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