Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (3/19) — Chapter Three, Crapemyrtle (1/3)

THIS PINK CRAPEMYRTLE TREE now stands in our front yard, replacing a diseased pink dogwood that had fallen in a storm.


BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 28, 2019) – Forget about Where the Lilies Bloom and Where the Crawdads Sing. When the crapemyrtles stop blooming on Morehead Street, summer is almost over.

Here in North Carolina, there are two Morehead Streets that are both important to Timberley and me. Our preferred Morehead Street—the one I’m writing about today—is where Timberley grew up in Morganton and where we set up true house-keeping as newlyweds about 35 years ago. That rambling, two-story house, where her grandparents had lived for a time before us, was across the street from her smaller, more humble homeplace, where her father lived alone then. The proximity made visits easy either way.

The other Morehead Street—this one in Charlotte’s historic Dilworth neighborhood—has been our reluctant home away from home since the spring of 2017 when Timberley was diagnosed with a rare bladder cancer and referred to Levine Cancer Institute at the Carolinas Medical Center, now called Atrium Health, on East Morehead Street. There she underwent cancer surgery and three separate but related hospitalizations before the end of that summer. We still return to Levine every 4-6 months for tests.

I called Charlotte our reluctant home, but we are forever grateful for the life-saving care we got there and for the support we now receive from our doctor, physician’s assistant, nurses and other healthcare personnel—even the ladies in the CMC cafeteria and the gentlemen who work in the parking garages—who have made the time we’ve spent there bearable and the time we can spend anywhere else possible.

IN THE SUMMER OF ’77, I was this young guy, pictured here on a trip to Atlanta with friends on the day after I finished my summer job at the News Herald.

Both Morehead Streets have blocks that are lined by beautiful trees—stately oaks along East Morehead through Dilworth, eye-popping pink and lavender crapemyrtles along the first block of Morganton’s Morehead Street, in what’s now called the Avery Avenue Historic District. A native Charlottean might scoff at my comparison of the two streets, but home is where the heart is, after all. We love Morganton.

Timberley still says all those crapemyrtles on our hometown Morehead Street were the only “Back to School” reminders she needed back in her schoolgirl days at Mountain View Elementary, Morganton Junior High and Freedom High in the late 1960s and ’70s. Back then, all the crapemyrtles were pink, but through the years homeowners have replaced fallen and diseased trees with both pink and lavender crapemyrtles. Lavender is nice enough but not as pretty as an all-pink row, and Timberley says lavender ones bloom earlier, messing up her “inner clock.” (She actually just said that after I read this to her.)

Thirty years ago Timberley’s wicked stepmother planted two pink dogwoods to put her stamp on the neighborhood after she moved in. When she moved out years later, we replaced one old dogwood that had died with a pink crapemyrtle (the one pictured above). The other dogwood also succumbed to root rot and was removed but hasn’t been replaced yet. We’re thinking we’ll probably pick pink crapemyrtle again but are waiting to see if we get any more “neighborly” letters from some other first-block homeowner who thinks we all should meet her yard maintenance and street-side parking standards, and told everyone so in an anonymous letter that was surreptitiously delivered to every front door on the block. What nerve. What neighborliness.

I said her standards, because I think the mendacious missive was penned—or heavily edited, at least—by a woman, or by a man like me who taught high school English too long. No ordinary guy writes like that. We’ve held on to the letter and consult it every now and then when we run out of things to read for fun. We’re even profiling the writer—as if she were a criminal—so that we’ll know who to wave at and who not to as we drive up and down the crapemyrtle-lined street. I’ll bet she planted the lavender ones.

My earliest memory of Morehead Street is of those crapemyrtles—that long row of solid pink that grew in the narrow grassy strip between sidewalk and curb. It was the summer of 1977, and I was working as tear-sheet boy in the advertising department of The News Herald, where Timberley’s father worked as advertising director. My job was to take a stack of each day’s paper, separate the individual pages, sort them according to the numbers of copies that individual advertisers had requested, and then deliver the smaller, quarter-folded stacks of pages around town for display in the advertisers’ stores or businesses.

If that process seems odd or unnecessary, consider that the actual news-paper was all that existed (until months or years later when images of the newspaper’s pages were photographed on microfilm for use in a library). There was no Internet, no World Wide Web and no digital anything. Xerox machines—that’s what we called photocopiers—were expensive and clunky to use. Xeroxed copies turned brown in a matter of days. So it made sense for a newspaper ad department to employ a tear-sheet boy, a youthful helper, a fresh-faced gofer, a budding young newspaperman like me who had a driver’s license and a car that would start, usually.

For some reason, Nat Gilliam, my boss and future father-in-law, had told me to take a stack of papers to his house on Morehead Street one day. I don’t know why, though maybe it was because he wanted Timberley to practice sorting tear-sheets so that she could take my job. We were in a recession, after all. But that was the first time I was impressed by the beauty of Morehead Street—and I’m not referring now to Timberley, who did take my part-time job at the paper later on. (She just said, “I did it before you, too, thank you very much.” She really did—say that, I mean. Randy Hart, who later became the paper’s ad director, was the tear-sheet boy right before me.)

I’ll go ahead and tell this story, because it happened that summer of my first real job that didn’t involve pushing a lawnmower and has stayed with me to this day. It’s only slightly ironic that I’m typing all this now as I wait for the grass to dry so that I can go outside and mow the lawn, the one job I can’t seem to finish for the life of me. This old story is kind of long but—like mowing grass—ties my whole life into one neat bundle. Well, not a neat bundle, exactly. But a bundle … or pile, rather … of something.

I’d already been in trouble once with Nat for charging too much gasoline to the newspaper’s account for a couple of weeks. After all, this was not long after the Arab oil embargo, and unleaded gas was, what, 60 cents per gallon? I don’t think gas had hit a dollar yet. But, anyway, Nat had told me that instead of filling out a mileage report, I should just fill up my gas-guzzling 1974 Gremlin at Whis’s Gulf station “every now and then” and charge it to the paper, to reimburse me for all the gas I burned as I drove around town delivering tear-sheets. It turned out that his idea of “every now and then” differed a bit from mine.

“It’s not the paper’s fault you’re driving back and forth to Lenoir every day,” Nat said, pointing out that my family still lived in Caldwell County and that I was driving to Morganton on weekdays after I got out of school at Lenoir Hibriten. This first job dust-up happened in the spring while school was still in session. We moved back to Morganton about a year later. Still, it wasn’t my fault, was it, that Randy, my predecessor, had driven a Volkswagen Beetle on his rounds, or that I had to drive a “compact” car that was little more than a full-sized AMC model with its back end lopped off. And that V6 engine was thirsty.

So from then on I kept track of my mileage and turned it in at the end of each month. At the time, I had no idea I’d be marrying Nat’s daughter about five years later. But it wasn’t a particularly good start to our relationship—my relationship with Nat, my boss, I mean. Timberley claims she never saw me working at the paper that summer, even though I saw her there at least a couple of times when she visited her dad. That was also the summer she decided to leave Freedom High after her junior year and to enroll in the Advanced Placement Program at Appalachian State, so I guess she had a few things other than Gremlin-driving, gas-stealing country boys on her mind. And so did Nat, who hadn’t expected to start paying for her college education just yet.

Well, after that first hiccup, things went pretty well for me at the paper that summer—or so I thought. I stayed at my grandmother’s house in the Hopewell community south of Morganton through the week to cut down on daily travel. Grandmother said I was working “banker’s hours”—from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday—but she was proud of my part-time job at the News Herald, because she and her mother-in-law before her had been the paper’s Hopewell community columnist for ages. My mother continued the tradition.

At the newspaper office, I got into the routine of ad department work. In addition to doing tear-sheets, a task that occupied most of my time after lunch, I also maintained the newspaper-exchange rack, which held current copies of maybe 20 other daily and weekly papers from around the state. Of course, I felt that it was also my duty to read all those papers—at least their section fronts—as I filed them. And that was the way I handled maintaining the News Herald’s back-issue inventories, the last 30 days’ worth of issues that were kept in bins downstairs and the past year of issues in storage-room bins upstairs. I had an inquisitive mind—or a woolgathering one, maybe.

And then there were the bound volumes (that were inexplicably thrown out once after the News Herald was sold but were saved from the dumpster by a concerned employee and donated to the county history museum). One whole wall downstairs held these big, black, hard-bound volumes of issues going back to the newspaper’s earliest years around the turn of the 20th century. I needed a ladder to reach the oldest books high up the dark back wall of the composing room where the shelves stood. And, yes, I did open those old volumes and turn through the nearly 80-year-old issues as I rearranged them. But, no, I didn’t fall asleep at the top of the ladder one time, as Nat claimed for years despite my denials. I was probably just resting my eyes.

Another big part of my job was to carry “proofs” to advertisers so that they could check their ads and make sure that no changes were needed before being printed. Usually, I took out proofs in the afternoon as I delivered tear-sheets; however, sometimes I had to get ads proofed in the morning before the paper went to press around noon. One Wednesday about mid-way through the summer, an ad rep told me to grab a big “double-truck” (two pages) grocery store ad that was set to run that day and get it proofed, pronto! Because we were so close to press-time, I took out the actual pasted-up pages that would later be photographed, turned into off-set printing plates, and then installed in the press room upstairs. This was a true “hands-on” process, with no virtual anything. I had the only copies of these valuable pages.

So you can understand why the whole News Herald operation—from the girls at the reception desk up front, to the reporters and editors in the newsroom, to the guys and gals in the composing room, to the pressmen and delivery boys upstairs—came to a screeching halt when those two pages turned out to be missing at noon when the paper was supposed to go to press. They didn’t have to stop the press, only because it hadn’t even started rolling yet. All because of little old me, the guy on the lowest rung of the job ladder at the newspaper, even below the paper boys.

Before you get the wrong idea, I had done my job correctly … well, three-quarters of my job, anyway. I had taken the full-sized, cardboard-sheathed pages from the ad rep, placed them carefully in the back seat of the car I’d driven to work for the first time that day (my dad’s four-door Ford Maverick, because he had decided to work on my two-door Gremlin). Check. Then I had driven the pages straight over to the A&P and had gotten the store manager to proof them tout suite, baby. Check. And finally I had, again, carefully returned the expensive, double-truck ad to the rear passenger area of my car and had driven straight back to the News Herald office without stopping anywhere else, not even at a fast-food drive-thru or a convenience store for a late-morning drink or snack. Check.

What I hadn’t done, though, was remember to take the pages out of my dad’s car and carry them back into the newspaper office before I took off for lunch. Now, in my defense, I had walked downtown for lunch and had left the car parked in the News Herald lot. So the double-truck grocery ad was actually still there outside the building—though in an unfamiliar beige Maverick, not my familiar screaming-yellow Gremlin—when the ad rep who handled the A&P account ran outside, didn’t see my usual conveyance parked there and assumed that I’d driven to lunch.

Since no cell phones existed back then, someone from the paper called the cops when they couldn’t locate me immediately, and the police dispatcher put out an A.P.B., an all-points-bulletin, for me and my Gremlin. They called the local radio station and had a P.S.A., a public-service announcement, broadcast several times asking “Rahn Adams, if he’s listening, to call the News Herald immediately.” No, I wasn’t listening. Me? I was bebopping from one store to another downtown, looking at tennis rackets in the Hobby Shop, at army-surplus clothes and stereos in the Army-Navy Store/Radio Shack, and at sneakers in Morganton Hardware. I grabbed a burger at the old Hardee’s and spent a few minutes reading the latest Rolling Stone at the public library.

Then, maybe a minute before one o’clock, I bebopped back to the News Herald … where the assistant editor stood at the door waiting for me. “You’re in trouble,” he said (or maybe that’s how I translated whatever it was that he actually said). “Where’s the A&P ad?” I retrieved the ad P.D.Q., pretty damn quick, from the back seat of that Maverick, carried it carefully—and sheepishly—into the building, and handed it to the ad rep whose red face told me that, yes, he was steamed and I was in trouble, probably not just with him but with Nat and maybe even with the publisher, J.D. Fitz, the big guy at the paper, who had hired me against Nat’s wishes. Nat had wanted to hire a family friend’s son, who did replace me within a matter of weeks.

All that afternoon I tried to make myself scarce. I did my tear-sheets without saying a damn word and delivered them around town without window-shopping one darn bit. I did get held up briefly at Morganton Hardware when a police officer whom I knew—my cousin’s husband, actually—stopped me and asked if I’d heard the radio announcements about me earlier in the afternoon. He was smiling when he asked me that. But I was too worried to laugh about my newfound notoriety just yet. I knew that my News Herald retribution was right around the corner, literally, because the newspaper office was only a short walk from the hardware store, the next-to-last stop on my tear-sheet rounds. The old Belk-Broome store, located across the big municipal parking lot from the News Herald building, was my last stop. No clothes browsing that day.

Nat finally buttonholed me in the back shop about an hour before quitting time. He didn’t look happy. He wasn’t grinning and cracking jokes as he usually did behind the ad department counter where his desk and the three ad reps’ desks sat. And where I used to stand and do tear-sheets, I figured. After all the trouble I’d put everyone to, I expected to be fired and wouldn’t have blamed Nat or Mr. Fitz or the ghost of News Herald matriarch Beatrice Cobb for unceremoniously showing me the door and telling me not to come back, not even to turn in my last mileage report. But I had underestimated my future father-in-law’s self-control and his patience with clueless dumbasses like me.

“I’m not going to fuss at you for what you did today, Rahn,” Nat said evenly, pausing a split second before adding, “because I know you’ll never do it again.” And that’s all he said. I finished my summer job at the News Herald and went off to college, only to have problems and drop out after six weeks. But that’s another story for another day. When I returned home, I did go by the News Herald office to see if I could get my old job back, but the answer, of course, was “no,” because the boy whom Nat had wanted to hire to begin with was the new tear-sheet boy and, as far as I know, hadn’t stopped the presses, as I had that one summer day.

So that’s why, whenever we see those pink crapemyrtles blooming on Morehead Street, Timberley thinks of going back to school and I think about the summer of 1977, when I met her for the first time and got to know her father as my best boss ever, and, for good measure, learned something of value about a distracted young man’s propensities for experiencing unexpected grace and forgiveness among friends and strangers alike in his small Southern hometown.

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