The past is the present in eastern North Carolina

Reminders of the past are abundant in eastern North Carolina. Explore some of the region’s secondary roads and you’ll get the impression that the present has been a little slower to arrive here than in the rest of the state.

Driving through the region's off-the-beaten-path towns is like stepping into the past.

This fading sign on a brick wall in the little town of Everetts recalls the days when tobacco was the region’s primary cash crop. Tobacco fields still dot the landscape, but cotton fields are becoming more predominant.

This building in downtown Robersonville once housed a bank. It's a miniaturized version of classic early 20th-century skyscrapers designed by architect Louis H. Sullivan.

I've been fascinated by earth moving equipment since I was a little kid. Here's a road grader that may date back to the 1920s. It was pulled by a tractor. The grader operator rode on the back of the machine, using the big wheels to position the grading blade. Now, the grader sits by the road near a farm.

This simple, handsome wood-frame building in Hamilton housed the local Masonic Lodge. I'm guessing that it's late 19th or early 20th century.

Small family cemeteries are a common sight. Some of them are well-kept; others show the effects of time.

Some of the buildings have been renovated and put to new uses. This building in downtown Plymouth was built around 1850 and housed the Hampton Academy. Now, it's being used as a spa.

Other buildings, however, are slowly being overtaken by time and the elements. These buildings once housed a thriving rural business district. Now, they're abandoned.


Greetings from the Summer of Love

I was digging through a storage trunk the other day when I came across this odd little booklet – The Hippy’s Handbook: How to Live on Love, by Ruth Bronsteen. I bought it for a buck or so in a thrift store in downtown Durham, North Carolina around 1990.

The book was published in 1967, when “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear a Flower in Your Hair)”, a haunting pop song by singer Scott McKenzie, was floating across the radio airwaves and thousands of young people were pouring into that city. John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas wrote the lyrics that included these lines:

“For those who come to San Francisco/Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco/Gentle people with flowers in their hair”.

The song was popular during the Summer of Love, which was launched June 21, 1967 with a celebration of the summer solstice on a hillside overlooking San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Harvard University professor Timothy Leary was there. With flowers dangling from his curly, tousled hair, he told the crowd to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

Leary’s preferred method of achieving this total unplugging from the mundane daily grind and tuning in to the elegance of creation was by taking lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid.

LSD is a powerful hallucinogenic drug that can, according to medical literature, cause “profound distortions in a person’s perception of reality.”

Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have your perception of reality profoundly distorted is an individual choice. It seems likely, however, that there was some widespread voluntary distortion of individual realities going on when young people from all over the U.S. were pouring into San Francisco to absorb the Summer of Love.

As many as 100,000 kids were there 40 years ago this month. In a recent documentary about the Summer of Love on PBS’s American Experience, writer Theodore Roszak noted that the kids were seeking “a simpler way of life, less consumption-oriented.”

These were kids who grew up, as Roszak observed, in a time of rigid roles, when dad was the breadwinner and mom was the homemaker and everything seemed safe and stable – except that when the kids were at school they regularly practiced what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

So somehow, I guess, those conflicting seeds sewn in 1950s childhoods – rigid but comfortable affluence at home and duck-and-cover drills in elementary schools – produced some strange fruit in the 1960s.

“You had a generation of kids who arrived in high school and college trying to make some sense of a world they’d been told is just and grand and wonderful and there’s nothing to complain about anymore,” Roszak said. “And on the other hand, (when) you look a little deeper into it, (the world) is just awful and scary.”

Roszak said the combination of “affluence and anxiety” was “a crazy-making combination” that deeply affected the postwar Baby Boom Generation.

That might explain the outlandishness of those who took part in the Summer of Love. Here’s an illustration of hippy haute couture from The Hippy’s Handbook.

Bronsteen says in her book that she likes the hippies because they are “sympathetic, bright, aware, unpretentious, naïve, direct, open and unrealistic.”

But she also notes that they are “clannish and provincial in their hippydom,” and “concerned with postures and appearances and they like to keep their turf for ‘their own kind.’ ”

They're also “completely self-absorbed,” she writes.

The only printing of The Hippy’s Handbook was in September 1967, when the Summer of Love was winding down. By the time it ended, the summer dream had turned sour. The latecomers to San Francisco were more interested in buying and selling drugs and getting laid than achieving any kind of spiritual awakening.

And although the concerts at Woodstock and its evil twin at Altamont were still two years away, some participants thought the Summer of Love was the last gasp of the Flower Children.

“A Utopian moment had been and gone,” Mary Ellen Kaspar noted in the American Experience documentary.

As for Bronsteen’s book, it’s apparently become a highly collectible memento from that colorful period. Amazon.com is selling it for $50 a copy.


Dear Jane Austen: Good luck with your project

I have hopes of getting a second book published, but it’s been an, um, interesting process so far.

After my first book was published, I thought that it would be a little easier to get the second one out there. Actually, that's an understatement. I thought it would be a slam-dunk to get my second book published – especially since Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 received very good reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and other well-respected publications.

And Storm also became the basis for a History Channel documentary. How many first-time authors get that kind of recognition? Not a bad debut, I thought.

Well, long story short, I’m still pushing that second book. A couple of highly regarded agents gave my proposal a very long look, but they eventually declined.

I think I’ll place it sooner or later. In the meantime, the task is to keep the proposal fresh and not get discouraged. Re. that last task – avoid discouragement – I came across a story in England’s The Guardian today that helps a bit with that.

The Guardian’s Stephen Morris reports that would-be author David Lassman has had his novel repeatedly turned down by a series of publishers. Lassman modestly describes his novel as not a masterpiece, but publishable.

So Lassman devised a plan – some would say it was clever, some would say devious – to test publishers’ judgment of manuscripts. He made a few changes to chapters of three novels by Jane Austen and sent them out under the author’s name of Alison Laydee. Among his submissions was an excerpt from Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, widely regarded as one of the finest novels in the English language.

The results? All of the publishers rejected the manuscript, and only one of them told Lassman that they recognized the similarity to Austen’s work.

“I was staggered,” Lassman told The Guardian. “Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work.”

The publishers sending rejection letters included some of the big ones. The Guardian contacted some of them for comment. The gist of their responses was that they had sent out form letters of rejection. One publisher told The Guardian that “internal notes did recognise similarities with existing published works and indeed there were even discussions about possible plagiarism.”

Still, anybody who’s ever had a manuscript returned with the terse and maddeningly familiar phrasing of a rejection letter – “read with interest” and “regret to inform you” and “doesn’t meet our needs” and “good luck with your project” – had to feel that some of their worst suspicions are justified about the people who write publishers’ rejection letters.

Since I am, as I said, trying to find a publisher, I'll pass on inserting my personal worst suspicions. I know there's at least one publisher out there who is above suspicion.


Do Brazilian summers predict Atlantic hurricane season?

It’s too early to tell whether predictions for an active 2007 Atlantic hurricane season will come to pass, but if the summer in Brazil is any indication, things may be quieter than expected.

What does the summer in Brazil – more specifically, the Brazilian state of Amazonas – have to do with the Atlantic hurricane season? Probably not much. But on the other hand, a friend in the Florida Keys and his friend in Brazil are making some interesting comparisons.

Amazonas is Brazil’s largest state and home to a huge rain forest. Amazonas also gets about 20 percent of the earth’s rainfall, says Jeff Pinkus, a friend of mine in Marathon, Florida.

Since Brazil is in the southern hemisphere, its summers are from late December to late March.

Pinkus, who has visited Brazil a few times, says he and his friend in the town of Novo Airao compared recent summer thunderstorms in Amazonas to the Atlantic hurricane seasons that followed.

The Brazilian summers of 2004 and 2005 were very stormy, and “the ferocity of the summer season in Amazonas was as intense as could be recalled,” Pinkus said in a recent e-mail.

And the hurricane seasons that followed those summers of frequent violent thunderstorms in Amazonas were astonishing. In 2004, 15 named storms formed in the Atlantic Basin. Those storms included Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm that struck Florida’s west coast; Hurricane Ivan, a true monster storm that shredded Grand Cayman as a Category 5, lost some strength crossing the Gulf of Mexico, but still pounded Pensacola; and hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, two powerful storms that also struck Florida.

The summer of 2005 was one for the ages, producing a record 27 named storms that included four storms that reached Category 5 status. Luckily, all of these killers lost some strength before making landfall, but one of them was the infamous Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans.

In 2006, the summer in Amazonas “was as mild as could be remembered in recent history,” Pinkus says. “Nobody remembers the notable storms of 2006 here in Florida because there were none.”

Forecasters had predicted that as many as 17 named storms and five major hurricanes would form in 2006. But only nine named storms formed, and those storms spawned only two major hurricanes with winds exceeding 111 mph.

Meteorologists said the unexpected formation of a Pacific weather phenomenon known as El Niño kept the lid on the 2006 season. The El Niño has dissipated, however, and the 2007 prediction is for 17 named storms and five major hurricanes.

But the summer that ended a few months ago in Amazonas was another mild one. Does that mean we’ll have a corresponding quiet summer on the Atlantic?

“I do not think that 3 years of comparing summer weather patterns from the Southern to Northern Hemispheres is enough to draw a direct correlation,” Pinkus says, “but it certainly deserves more research.”

Stay tuned.


A decade of blogging

In its July 14 edition, The Wall Street Journal comments on the approaching 10th anniversary of the creation of the web log – a.k.a. the blog.

“We are approaching a decade since the first blogger – regarded by many to be Jorn Barger – began his business of hunting and gathering links to items that tickled his fancy, to which he appended some of his own commentary,” writes Journal reporter Tunku Varadarajan.

Barger’s first blog entry was December 23, 1997, Varadarajan says.

Since that date, The Journal notes, blogs have “roiled presidential campaigns and given everyman a global soapbox.”

Varadarajan includes comments about blogs from a dozen luminaries representing a variety of professions. My favorite is by novelist Tom Wolfe, a writer I’ve long admired for his keen perceptions of human nature and current events and his remarkable ability to communicate his observations with razor-sharp wit and insight.

Wolfe isn’t very impressed with blogs. He has the following to say:

“One by one, Marshall McLuhan's wackiest-seeming predictions come true. Forty years ago, he said that modern communications technology would turn the young into tribal primitives who pay attention not to objective ‘news’ reports but only to what the drums say, i.e., rumors.

“And there you have blogs. The universe of blogs is a universe of rumors, and the tribe likes it that way.

“Blogs are an advance guard to the rear. For example, only a primitive would believe a word of Wikipedia (which, though not strictly a blog, shares the characteristics of the genre). The entry under my name says that in 2003 ‘major news media’ broadcast reports of my death and that I telephoned Larry King and said, ‘I ain't dead yet, give me a little more time and no doubt it will become true.’

“Oddly, this news supposedly broadcast never reached my ears in any form whatsoever prior to the Wikipedia entry, and I wouldn't have a clue as to how to telephone Larry King. I wouldn't have called him, in any case. I would have called my internist. I don't so much mind Wikipedia's recording of news that nobody ever disseminated in the first place as I do the lame comment attributed to me. I wouldn't say ‘I ain't’ even if I were singing a country music song. In fact, I have posted a $5,000 reward for anyone who can write a song containing the verb forms ‘am not,’ ‘doesn't,’ or ‘isn't’ that makes the Billboard Top Twenty.”

Wolfe no longer reads blogs because he has become “weary of narcissistic shrieks,” The Journal reports.


Selling Boomer nostalgia

I’ve been buying baseball cards since I was old enough to have a few pennies in my pocket. As I’m writing this I have a small stack of cards on my desk. In fact, that stack is what prompted this entry. More about that shortly.

I still remember when, as a little kid in 1957, I unwrapped a one-cent Topps baseball card package and discovered that I possessed my first Mickey Mantle card. I know this may sound screwy, but it was an electric moment, one that I vividly remember decades later.

I managed to acquire a Mantle card every summer from 1957 to 1961. That’s his 1958 card that’s pictured below.

It was because of Mantle that I became a New York Yankees fan. Somehow, he could kindle the dreams and stir the admiration of thousands of little kids in thousands of little towns across the U.S. He became an icon for the post-war Baby Boom generation.

But New York may as well have been a million miles from the small town in North Carolina where I grew up. I had no hope of ever seeing Mantle in person. What connected me to Mantle and the Yankees were words and pictures that fed my imagination: daily baseball box scores in the Salisbury Post and Charlotte Observer; Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook; the CBS Game of the Week on TV and, of course, the baseball cards that I bought during the summers.

In those days, baseball cards were basically just another toy for kids, and when my pals and I shared our collections, the cards that were exchanged showed signs of wear and tear.

All of that would change, however, when the oldest Boomers reached serious middle age. They wanted to recover those lost accessories of their childhoods, and they were willing to pay top dollar for them. And that’s when we Boomers, with our focus on status, image and money, pretty well ruined the simple pleasure of collecting baseball cards.

Starting in the late 1980s, buying baseball cards became like playing the stock market. A flurry of new companies such as Upper Deck began issuing cards that used slick action photos and designer graphics to appeal to the now-sophisticated Boomer tastes and fondness for expensive trinkets.

A futures market emerged. The cards of promising rookies became highly sought and highly priced because buyers thought these first cards would be worth small fortunes if and when the players were voted into the Hall of Fame.

Boomers who remembered frugal mothers scolding them for wasting money on baseball cards had erased that lingering guilt. You could actually believe you were making a smart investment when you bought $5 worth of cards because you might turn up, say, a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card that supposedly was worth $120 at one point.

The surviving Topps cards from the 1950s and 1960s became like reliable blue chip stocks or prime real estate. You couldn’t go wrong buying those cards because it was like buying land – they weren’t making any more.

A highly detailed system evolved to grade the condition and set the prices of these older cards. A corner that had become slightly rounded from being handled could dramatically lower the value of a card.

But the baseball card market peaked in the mid-1990s and then declined. I stopped buying cards about 10 years ago. Apparently, a lot of other Boomers also stopped. And, apparently, the Topps marketers noticed that.

A few days ago I was browsing through a store in Norfolk and I noticed a box of Topps Heritage baseball cards with a throwback look. The box and wrappers were more or less duplicates of the Topps 1958 cards – the cards I eagerly paid a penny apiece for when I was a kid.

So I bought a couple of packs – $3.50 for a pack of eight – and discovered that the design is identical to those 1958 cards I fondly remembered. But as you can see from the Andy Pettitt card here, they were cards of today’s players. Pettitt's card is in that small stack that I mentioned at the top of this post.

It was fascinating. I was looking at contemporary players through the eyes of a kid. In my head at least, the guys on these throwback-design cards looked like the “real” baseball players of my childhood instead of the overpaid steroid-soaked prima donnas inhabiting the rosters of today’s Major League Baseball teams.

It was clever marketing by the Topps designers. I know I’m being manipulated, but it’s got me interested in baseball cards again. And that, no doubt, was the intent.


Bill Pinkney, 1925-2007

The world of rhythm and blues music lost one of its finest voices yesterday when singer Bill Pinkney died in Daytona Beach, Florida at the age of 81.

The Associated Press reported that Pinkney, who was in Daytona Beach for a July 4th performance, was found dead in his hotel room, apparently of natural causes.

Pinkney’s resonant bass voice underpinned the soaring vocals of Clyde McPhatter in The Drifters’ first R&B recordings in the mid-1950s. He sang lead in The Drifters’ 1954 recording of Irving Berlin’s classic, “White Christmas.”

Cartoonist Joshua Held has done a wonderful animation of The Drifters' version of "White Christmas." The animation features Pinkney, portrayed as Santa Claus, singing lead and McPhatter as the solo-singing reindeer.

Pinkney also was a talented athlete and played professional baseball in the old Negro League. He served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II, receiving several commendations for his service.

I interviewed Pinkney on April 17 for an as-yet unpublished travel story about beach music clubs on South Carolina’s Grand Strand. It took me several days to catch up with him by phone at his home in Sumter, South Carolina, and it was clear that he wasn’t letting advancing age slow him down too much.

We talked for 30 minutes or so about Pinkney’s time with The Drifters and his memories of performing across the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s in shows that included stars such as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Peggy Lee, The Clovers, Fats Domino, and others.

Pinkney toured the South as a performer in the days of segregation, and he recalled that at that time, the typical seating arrangement had white kids watching from the balcony and black kids on the floor.

At other places, barricades were erected to separate whites and blacks.

By the early 1960s, Pinkney had known nothing but segregation as an athlete, soldier and performer. But as he looked out at his segregated audiences from the stage, he saw a profound change taking place.

“I think music, like The Drifters, brought people together more than anything in the world, as far as ending segregation,” he said.

I think Pinkney was proud of the part that he and The Drifters had played in bringing down the barriers that separated the races. He earned acclaim as an accomplished musician, but he also deserves recognition as someone who brought people together.

He’ll be missed in both of those roles.


2004 Hurricane Ivan a reminder -- or a precursor -- to Category 5 storm in Florida Keys

It’s been more than 70 years since the last Category 5 hurricane struck the Florida Keys, and the collective memory of that event has all but faded among island residents.

When the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 battered the Upper Keys on September 2, 1935, it brought 200 mph wind gusts and a storm surge powerful enough to shove 120-ton steel train cars off the railroad track at Islamorada, Florida.

But the islands were dramatically different in those days. Perhaps 1,000 people lived on the islands outside Key West.

Now, about 80,000 people live in the Keys, and on any given day, another 40,000 or so tourists are on the islands. And with all those people crammed onto low-lying, narrow islands with only one highway out, emergency management officials worry about what might happen if a powerful hurricane crosses the Keys.

Some public officials in the Keys wanted to get a realistic idea of what a Category 5 hurricane – that is, one with winds exceeding 155 mph and a storm surge exceeding 18 feet – would do to the Keys. So in October 2004, they went to Grand Cayman Island only one month after monster Hurricane Ivan had battered the island with catastrophic winds and flooding.

Although no two hurricanes are exactly alike, Ivan had much in common with its 1935 ancestor when it roared past Grand Cayman on September 11 and 12, 2004. It raked the island with sustained winds exceeding 165 mph and gusts of perhaps 200 mph. That was nearly identical to the power thought to have been unleashed on the Keys on Labor Day Monday, 1935.

There were other factors that were important to the visiting Keys officials. Like the Keys, Grand Cayman is composed of coral outcroppings. And the construction is similar to the Keys, including steel-reinforced concrete buildings meant to withstand high winds.

Randy Mearns has lived in the Keys since 1968 and is a former fire chief and former mayor of Marathon. He made the trip to inspect damage from Ivan.

In March 2006, Mearns told me that what he saw had a dramatic effect on him.

“I’ve been here a long, long time and I’ve been through a number of storms,” Mearns said. “And I was saying, 'I’m going to stay for anything.'”

Now, Mearns has doubts about staying if a reincarnation of the Labor Day hurricane is headed his way. “What I learned is you better take whatever you want to have when this is over and go,” he said.

Mearns brought back some remarkable photos of Ivan’s damage on Grand Cayman. The shots are reminiscent of descriptions and photos of the damage in the Keys after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

This photo . . .

. . . of the ruined interior of a beachfront condo on Grand Cayman is a reminder of what Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to a friend after he saw Indian Key a few days after the 1935 hurricane: “The whole bottom of the sea blew over it.”

This photo . . .

. . . shows the top floor nearly sheared off a residence. It's a reminder of this photo . . .

. . . of the Hotel Matecumbe in Islamorada after the Labor Day hurricane.

Finally, this photo . . .

. . . shows what's left of a utility pole on Grand Cayman -- a concrete, steel-reinforced pole designed to stand up to vey high winds.

Jeffrey Pinkus, a Marathon city council member, said Mearns's photos "really proved how vulnerable (the Keys) are."

"If we have a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hit here directly, any part of the islands, life as we know it will change," Pinkus said. "I'm sure of it."


Caught up in the moment

Perhaps you’ve read that Mike Nifong, the former district attorney in Durham County, North Carolina, who brought improper charges against some lacrosse players at Duke University, has resigned from his job and been disbarred by the North Carolina Bar Association for ethical misconduct.

The story of the accusation flamed across the news wires when it broke last year because it was loaded with emotional hot buttons. White student-athletes at upscale Duke were accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper they’d hired to perform at a party at the off-campus house they rented on Buchannan Street, which is near Duke.

It's good that the charges were dropped. I feel I should repeat that statement about every third or fourth sentence because any comments about the behavior of the Duke lacrosse players seems to provoke outrage from those who apparently want Nifong to be jailed at Gitmo for his ethical lapse.

But when this story broke, Duke officials certainly behaved as though something had happened. The lacrosse coach was quickly fired and the team’s season was halted.

I spent many years in Chapel Hill and worked for a few years in downtown Durham. I read news stories and heard residents talk about the behavior of Duke students on Buchannan Street. What angered neighbors wasn't merely that college students were throwing loud parties. They've been doing that since the Stone Age. When I was a student, it wasn't considered a successful party unless the cops showed up twice -- once to warn you, and the second time to send everyone home.

What made the Buchannan Street parties different was the persistent behavior of Duke students toward residents, who complained about vandalism, students relieving themselves on neighbors’ lawns, porches and shrubbery, beer cans and other trash left in their yards, and a general attitude among the students that they needn’t trouble themselves with acknowledging their neighbors' complaints.

The News and Observer of Raleigh wrote about the Buchannan Street problems. So years of this boorish behavior as a background had to have been an influence on early public opinion about the charges against the lacrosse players. If Duke officials weren't already on edge because of the earlier problems on Buchannan Street, wouldn’t they have instantly and vigorously defended the players and the coach?

But now that the rape charges have been dropped – and I repeat, they should have been dropped – and Nifong's unethical conduct has been revealed and punished, public opinion is rushing to the other side of the boat and behaving as though the cops interrupted choir practice to arrest the lacrosse players.

It seems that all we do these days as a society is to become obsessed with the events of the moment. There is no context to anything, no reflection of what came before the Big Event that has grabbed everyone’s attention until the next Big Event breaks. No one bothers to link past events to present ones.

So, as I said, it’s good that the charges against the Duke students were dropped. But to paraphrase Judge Walton's comments about the recent brief filed by a group of famous attorneys on behalf of Scooter Libby after he’d been convicted of perjury, I hope we'll be this eager to jump to the defense of the next innocent defendant who's hauled in to face false charges – especially if he’s too poor to hire top-shelf legal talent to defend him.