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

ON MONDAY, AUG. 17, our lone sunflower — or mulberry — rises 10 feet into the sky. We did finally notice some buds this morning.


MORGANTON, N.C. (Aug. 17, 2020) – Well, tomorrow is my 61st birthday, and our lone sunflower—or whatever the heck it is, a white mulberry, maybe—hasn’t bloomed yet. We’ve been watching it grow and grow and grow all summer, and we’ve noticed that its big, green, heart-shaped leaves do follow the sun’s daily golden arcs across the sky. But no blossoms have popped open yet to solve the big mystery.

I’m going to assume it’s a sunflower—kind of like assuming that Schroedinger’s cat is still alive in that infamous sealed box of the popular thought experiment. I mean, why not? We make assumptions about more important things every day—that we haven’t contracted the Covid-19 coronavirus, that our elders locked away in nursing homes are OK, that American voters will make the right decisions on Nov. 3rd.

‘GATHER YE ROSEBUDS while ye may.’ Our new Chrysler Imperial rose, which we planted in memory of Timberley’s dad, grows next to his golf-themed bird feeder in the shadow of our single sunflower.

Oh, my. I’ve tried so hard—well, I’ve kind of tried, anyway—to keep politics out of this book, but, what the hell, it’s my last one, and every other aspect of modern American life has been politicized, thanks to Capt. Covfefe, the Great Prevaricator, who threatens to destroy our democratic republic. A collection of essays about this past year—my 60th year on earth—wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the guy.

In case you can’t quite identify this politician—like our sunflower that hasn’t bloomed yet—I’m talking about Donald J. Trump, strange bedfellow of hypocritical fishers-of-men like the Rev. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and favorite golf bum of brown-nosing statesmen like Senators Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. Yeah, that’s disrespectful. But it’s nothing compared to all of the crap that Trump spews.

If Trump wins a second term in the Oval Office—if a majority of electors actually vote for him again—we’ll know that our 244-year thought experiment in government “of the People, by the People, and for the People” has ultimately failed, and that evangelical Christianity, if not the cat who started that religion, is dead. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that. God knows, I’d like to forget about politics. He does know that.

TWO OF THREE LISTINGS for my correspondence with Saul Bellow, in the University of Chicago’s ‘Guide to the Saul Bellow Papers, 1926-2015.’

Memory. That’s what this penultimate essay is supposed to be about. Remember how I name-dropped my Nobel Prize-winning mentor in this book’s first essay? Well, I wasn’t guilty of name-dropping, per se, because I didn’t actually identify that famous novelist by name. But I did end the essay with a photo of an empty envelope I’d found from one of the letters that Saul Bellow had written to me 35 years ago.

Well, not too long ago, I unexpectedly ran across not just one correspondence but two from Bellow—the two that I’ve thought about, actually fretted over, most often over the years. I had read each of them only two or three times before sticking them in a book and losing them for three-and-a-half decades, so I’m somewhat surprised now by what I remembered correctly and by what my crack memory mangled.

Since I started this writing project one year ago, I also unpacked Bellow’s 1989 novella The Bellarosa Connection, which Bellow published as a paperback original, something that was odd for a Nobel Prize winner. I wondered if he made that decision because in one of my letters I had mentioned to him that I couldn’t afford to buy his newer novels in hardback until a year later when they came out in paperback.

But no. In addition to rereading The Bellarosa Connection, a story about the Holocaust and memory, I also waded through most of a new biography entitled The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005. I read Zachary Leader’s exhaustive book to see if I was mentioned—I wasn’t—but I learned that Bellarosa had debuted in paperback because it was too short for hardback and too long for magazines.

BELLOW’S PAPERBACK ORIGINAL, an extra copy that I found in a remainder bin for 99 cents about 20 years ago, and two long-lost letters that he wrote to me in January 1988 not long after Timberley and I moved to the N.C. coast from Morganton.

So Bellow knew failure, even in his storied career. He also was afraid, I think, of losing his memory, as I am now. Who we are depends on our memories of who we were. Not exactly an epiphany, huh? Well, I know from both observation and experience how even a strong personality changes when the owner’s memory fails. That loss engages most stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, but never acceptance.

Full disclosure, I’m starting this essay on Saturday morning. The TV is on, and right now I’m watching the CBS This Morning Saturday story on fly-fishing. The feature is opening with a gorgeous fly-fishing scene from the movie adaptation of Norman Maclean’s classic book, A River Runs Through It, a mix of memoir and fiction that turns on the author and narrator’s interpretation and manipulation of memories.

As I’ve written before, A River Runs Through It has special meaning. Its final lines are: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs.” And its closing sentence: “I am haunted by waters.” Haunted.

If you remember, the main reason I picked Life on the Run as this book’s subtitle was because our home outside Boone was built on the grounds of the old Rutherwood Fish Hatchery, which supplied trout for streams throughout northwestern North Carolina until the 1940s. Four historic structures from that era still stand in our quiet hollow. But I’m guessing that even the buildings’ owners don’t know their history.

Over the past 23 years that Timberley and I have lived in Rutherwood, what used to be the old hatchery superintendent’s residence on the main road has been a fraternity house, then a sorority house for much of our time here. Last year I met one of the girls who had stayed there, and I asked if she knew that the house was historic. She smiled, maybe from some memory of her own, then said no when I explained.

As near as we can figure, our property probably contained one or more of the hatchery’s larger holding ponds where the biggest brookies, browns and rainbows—the really, really big whoppers—swam about lazily until breeding time. Now in ruins, the actual runs—sluiced, concrete waterways used to transport trout of all sizes from one pond to another—undoubtedly once lay on the parcels closer to the highway.

In an almost century-old photograph, one of the largest runs appears to have lain under what is now our subdivision’s access road. So, every time Timberley and I have driven out of or into our hollow on our way to our Morganton cottage or back to the Boone cabin, we’ve been “on the run.” Especially during this pandemic, we’ve been thankful for the two houses to visit and for two sets of supportive neighbors.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — An Arizona Iced Tea ‘Arnold Palmer,’ my favorite summertime drink other than water with lemon; the classic comedy ‘Caddyshack’ with one of my dahlias on crack; and a signed (signature not shown) print by artist Barbara Barrett that we found by chance at a Santa Fe art gallery.

None of our Boone neighbors have said a single word to me about the way I mow—or don’t mow—our front yard. Our grass is usually the longest at any given time of the year, as I’m the last greenskeeper to start mowing in the spring and the first to stop in the fall. And when I do cut the grass, I often leave the “roughs” unmown around the outside of the yard, at least a couple of inches deeper than the “fairway.”

One summer I tried to mow an oval-shaped putting green into a flat section at the far end of our yard, in the part now bounded by our tributary to Ray’s Creek—a shallow drainage ditch we dug this past spring to run water from the spring that popped up along the driveway next to our forsythia bushes, to a larger spring-fed creek that separates our property from one neighbor’s immaculate yard that contains a pond.

Yes, I know that it’s Rae’s Creek at Augusta National Golf Club. But our neighborhood was originally subdivided by a man named Ray Robinson, according to our deeds on file at the courthouse in Boone. For laughs, I also changed the spelling of Hole No. 1 on our front one—Fore!-sythia, I call it, instead of Golden Bell, which is Hole No. 12, the heart of Amen Corner, on the back nine at Augusta National.

Going back to my earliest “golfing” days, I’ve tried to get around paying cart and greens fees by using either my yard, my basement carpet or public greenswards for practice and play. I have pitched, putted, chipped and driven freshly mowed lawns, weedy athletic fields and rolling college campuses. And after reading Alex Straus’s Guerrilla Golf, I’m tempted to tee off with a foam ball on local disc golf courses.

I haven’t done so yet, because I’m still writing the rulebook, which I hope is shorter than the 180-page, leather-bound, New Testament-like The Rules of Golf that I bought back in 2004. Like the latest update by the USGA and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to make pandemic-related changes—allowing gimmes, for example, to curtail excess handling of flag sticks—I might simplify my rulebook.

THE GLOSSARY OF GOLF (FLOG) on the website of The Rock’s Nick Faldo golf course in Muskoka, Canada, explains the letter ‘D’ well.

Maybe something like this: 1) A round of DOGBALLS, thus named because each and every hole is a par 8 (which lying on its side looks like a sleeping dog, I’m told), consists of however many holes (or cups, cans, buckets, baskets, barrels or boxes) that the player or players choose to complete in one outing (or inning, as the case may be). The length of a hole (or cup, etc.) cannot change the par score.

2) Equipment used in a standard (or non-standard) round of Dogballs consists of any lengthy, rigid, and crooked, knobbed or blunt object that vaguely resembles a CLUB, made of wood, iron, steel, graphite, aluminum or plastic (hard or hollow, as in PVC or PEX pipe); a round BALL-like object, nut or fruit of any size, weight, and compositon except a real golf ball; and the aforementioned HOLE (or Cup, etc.).

3) Play involves each Player, in alternating turns, STRIKING their own Ball with their own Club, thus advancing their own position on the GREENWAY (even if the grass, carpet, vinyl and/or wood flooring is some other color) until the Player’s Ball settles on the lowest possible level of the Hole (or Cup, etc.). From first Striking to final Holing of the Ball, the sphere’s LIE depends on the RUB OF THE GREEN.

4) To learn to keep SCORE in Dogballs, Player(s) might choose to peruse The Soul of Golf by William Hallberg, Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy, and the classic tyro tome So This Is Golf! by Harry Leon Wilson; and to view Caddyshack, paying special attention to Zen golfer Ty Webb, the golf scenes in the “Realpolitik” episode of Northern Exposure, and the “Double Cranko” episode of M*A*S*H.

Golf should be that simple. But it truly is the game closest to real life. Like fishing (which isn’t called catching for a reason), golf doesn’t depend upon competition to be enjoyed. In fact, golf competitions are contrived contests of Player v. Player, when the true test is Player v. Course, or Player v. Himself. Or Herself. Or Themself. At least I think that’s Deepak Chopra’s main point in Golf for Enlightenment.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — My audiobook of Deepak Chopra’s self-help golf book; my 2004 edition of ‘The Rules of Golf’; the first of my four copies of ‘The Rub of the Green,’ my favorite golf novel.

I mentioned the phrase “the rub of the green” a couple of paragraphs back. It basically means “them’s the breaks, kid,” and actually appeared in The Rules of Golf until it was removed in the 2019-20 update. It’s also the title of my favorite golf novel, again by William Hallberg, that I’ve written about in at least one previous essay here. Did I say Hallberg ended up in Asheville and died of cancer in 2014? I forget.

And that’s my main point in this essay. I think I’m losing my mind, just as my poor mother did when her dementia started robbing her of words and memories at least 20 years ago. In my case, it isn’t just being bad with names anymore. It’s being unable to think of simple words that I’ve used most of my life. It’s asking for something, then forgetting what I needed. It’s being unable to hold a complete story together.

But I’m not alone. Other writers I know have had that problem late in life. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago when I finally got to play golf—well, not the way you’re probably thinking. Since I couldn’t play actual golf, or dogballs, this past spring or this summer—not because of the pandemic but because of my bad back—I decided to dig out my old golf video games and reload them on my old computers.

That was easier said than done—and almost as frustrating as playing real golf. In short, after at least a month of quarantine-restricted effort, I finally got British Open Championship Golf loaded onto an old desktop computer that could run the Windows 95 program, as well as Arnold Palmer Course Designer; then Links 2003 on a newer laptop; and—oh, joy!—my Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’06 on the same device.

MY GOLF GAME has improved through the years, from Windows 95 (left) to Windows 98 (bottom right) to Windows XP (top right). But I couldn’t get an earlier Tiger Woods PGA Tour game on my old iPod Touch to reload.

But in getting that old desktop running again—a feat in itself—I rediscovered a virtual treasure trove of photos and emails, in particular, on the computer’s whirring hard drive. There were notes going back 20 years from friends and family, as well as from other writers like Bill Hallberg and Reynolds Price. Bill thanked me for my kind note about The Rub of the Green. I found a number of emails from Mr. Price.

He always signed his notes as “Reynolds,” even though I always addressed him as “Mr. Price” out of respect for his long-time teaching position at Duke University and his status in Southern literature as a fiction writer, essayist, poet and playwright. Along with the advice he gave me about dealing with my father’s death, he also told me about several ongoing writing projects, even commenting on difficulties.

I’d forgotten that. Celebrated novelists just aren’t supposed to have trouble coming up with words and memories to put down on paper. But maybe that’s what Ernest Hemingway meant when just before he killed himself at 61, he scrawled, “I can’t stop writing,” in lipstick on a bathroom mirror. And maybe Nobel laureates aren’t the only people who need their memories to, as Mr. Price told me, “thrive on.”

A couple of weeks ago after a round of golf upstairs in the spare bedroom where the old computer is set up on storage bins that have needed to be hauled downstairs to the basement for the past several years, I returned to the living room on the ground floor and took down Senator Sam J. Ervin’s book Preserving the Constitution. I was pissed at Trump again and wanted to read Ervin’s ideas on constitutional rights.

Inside the cover were three folded letters that I’d hidden there at least 30 years ago—one from Senator Sam, thanking me for the series of radio stories I’d done with him on the 10th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation; and two letters from Saul Bellow. One was typed; the other, handwritten. I have no idea why I had put Bellow’s letters in that particular book instead of in, say, The Bellarosa Connection.

This time with my ambition in check, I saw that the second letter, in particular, wasn’t nearly as harsh as I’d first thought. “I don’t think your performance in these pages is what it might be, considering your expectations,” Bellow wrote. “You’re not there yet, I’m sorry to say. With more work—perhaps. You need considerable development.” But hadn’t he recognized Hemingway’s spare style in my writing?

Well, I learned later that Bellow disliked Hemingway’s style—that as a fiction writer he was old Ernie’s antithesis, despite the Chicago connections they shared. Later, after another rewrite of that same novel of mine, another literary lion—this one Louis D. Rubin, Jr., of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill—had the same criticism. So either I’d run into two Hemingway haters, or, as I figured, I was no Hemingway.

There was one other detail that my memory has gotten wrong all these years. In telling this story, I’ve always said that Bellow offered to read 20 pages of my novel, when, in fact, he said I could send 50. So here I am 32 years later wondering if I sent him 20 or 50—as if those 30 extra pages might have made any difference whatsoever. But you know the old saw: Where there’s life, there’s hope. Or maybe not.

Actually, what I did not misunderstand or misremember from Bellow’s letter, what hurt my pride the most, and what I have carried with me all these years was his closing sentence: “And you can’t count on fiction to rescue you from your immediate problems.” As I’ve said before, failure—whether it’s in a profession, in sports, even in love—may feel like a door slammed shut, but you can keep on knocking.

That’s why I finally stopped writing novels and decided to write what has always been more of a strength—personal essays like the columns you might have once enjoyed on the editorial pages of your hometown newspaper, stories that let me exorcise my memories and exercise my voice as a writer. We try not to be crushed by the weight of memory so that we can bear with dignity and grace each pressing moment, right?

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — Another favorite old book I rediscovered this past year; my granddad and me at what we called The Park in a hollow with a creek below his farm; and a childhood school photo of my mom from the late 1930s.

As I said, my memory might be failing, but I remember the three gifts my favorite grandfather gave me before he died when I was a child—four, if you count him playing his guitar for me. He gave me a little fishing pole, a set of toy golf clubs and a box of sand from my favorite place way back then, a wooded hollow with a creek running through it. He had hauled it to me in Illinois all the way from Morganton.

But that’s pretty much all I remember about him because he died when I was so young. Everything else I know about him comes from stories either from my grandmother, who retained her sharp memory to the end, or from my mother, whose memories have been silenced. Just as Timberley and I now spend much of our time on the road between here and there, so too did Mom and I for at least a year after we lost my little brother.

I’ve always been one to ask a lot of questions, even before I was a newsman, and I don’t remember that Mom ever refused to answer any question that I asked her. But now, some 40-odd years later, I cannot for the life of me recall anything I asked her except for one simple question: “Why did you guys name me ‘Rahn’ after Dad’s doctor and ‘Ellis’ after Aunt Clara?” I’d never liked my name—Rahn Ellis Adams.

“I don’t know,” Mom said, in the passenger seat, “but I thought it sounded like a good writer’s name.” If memory serves, I said nothing and enjoyed the glow of knowing there might be some hope for me yet.

You see, I’m not haunted by waters like Norman Maclean was—not until that tributory to Ray’s Creek on Hole No. 1 overflows or an old copper pipe in our basement in Boone springs another pinhole leak.

So as I turn 61 tomorrow in Rutherwood, still living life on the run, I am haunted not by waters, but by words—like faith, hope and patience. And by the truth of a lone sunflower that we believe is sure to bloom.