A lost art form

During a trip home last week to Stanly County, North Carolina, I came across these reminders of the days when soft drink advertisements covered the walls of many stores.

The first sign with the demonic-looking Coca-Cola mascot is on the side of the building that housed the Cornwallis Service Station just outside Carthage, North Carolina. Someone has sprayed grafitti on the sign, so I don't know if the Coke mascot's demonic eyes were done by the original artist or the vandal.

The other signs are all in Salisbury, North Carolina.

When I was growing up, Coca-Cola was usually referred to as "Co-Cola." This Co-Cola sign is on the back of what was once a grain and provisions store near the train station in downtown Salisbury. It's been a long, long time since the soft drink was sold for five cents a bottle.

This sign is so well-preserved that I'm thinking it may have been restored not too long ago. It's on one side of another downtown building that once housed the W.A. Roseman Grocery, Grain and Feed Store.

Here's the reason I think the Coke sign was restored. This is the other side of W.A. Roseman Grocery building. It's an advertisement for Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soft drink that is bottled in Salisbury and sold mostly in the piedmont of North Carolina. As you can see, the Cheerwine sign shows its age.


I won't miss Billy Packer

I wonder if Billy Packer annoyed his teammates 50 years ago when he played basketball at Wake Forest College, as it was known at the time. He’s so skilled at annoying people that he must have been doing it for a long time.

Maybe it started on December 7, 1959, when Sports Illustrated, in its annual college basketball preseason edition, referred to Packer as a “brilliant newcomer” on the Wake Forest team. That would be heady stuff for a college kid to read about himself – the kind of stuff that might contribute to some ego management problems in later life.

Still, Packer lived up to his billing during his college career. In 1962, with Packer starring at point guard, Wake Forest reached the NCAA Final Four. They lost to Ohio State, 84-68, in the semi-final game. Cincinnati edged UCLA, 72-70 in the other semi-final game and earned the right to play Ohio State for the NCAA championship.

In those days, the semi-finals losers played each other in a so-called consolation game before the championship matchup. Packer and Wake Forest beat UCLA, 82-80, in that contest. It was UCLA’s first trip to the Final Four under Coach John Wooden, a legend in the making in 1962. And it would be a long time before UCLA lost again in the Final Four. Starting in 1965, Wooden’s UCLA teams won nine straight NCAA basketball titles.

After listening for so many years to Packer’s know-it-all commentary as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports, I’m surprised he hasn’t claimed that he offered some advice to Wooden after that 1962 consolation game that started him on the path to greatness.

For 27 years, Packer has been telling us all about his brilliance. But he won’t be doing it next season. A few days ago, CBS announced that his contract is not being renewed for the coming season.

That’s fine with me. I certainly won’t miss him.

There are several sportscasters – such as college basketball commentators Len Elmore and Bill Raftery and Major League baseball commentator Joe Morgan – whose broadcasts I enjoy. These guys convey their knowledge and passion for the game without trying to convince viewers of their omnipotent brilliance.

During his tenure with CBS, however, Packer epitomized the type of sportscaster that, in my opinion, has taken much of the pleasure out of watching a sports event. Packer and some of his loquacious, second-guessing colleagues seem obsessed with getting inside the heads of everybody within earshot. Every movement by every player, every decision by every coach or manager, every close call by every referee or umpire is thrashed out and analyzed and ultimately criticized ad infinitum. As far as these guys are concerned, the games aren’t played to decide who is going to win. The games are played so you, the viewer, will be awed by the sportscasters’ dazzling intellect.

Five minutes of listening to Packer’s pontifications will convince you that he always believes he’s the smartest guy in the building. Tim McCarver, a broadcaster for Fox’s Major League Baseball telecasts, is another motor-mouthed know-it-all who is in love with the sound of his own voice. And don’t get me started about ESPN’s Dick Vitale, whose loud witless enthusiasm and constant braying of his uniquely weird and awful basketball patois – “Dipsy-do dunkeroo, bay-bee, he’s a true diaper dandy!” and “The emotion, bay-bee, the emotion!” – can send me lunging for the mute button on my remote.

The remarkable thing about Packer is that, for such a smart guy, he makes an awful lot of mistakes. And he never, ever admits it, even if his mistake is ludicrously obvious to a few million TV viewers. I could give you many examples, but I’ll confine myself to one: the closing minutes of the Duke-North Carolina basketball game in March 2007.

Like all Duke-Carolina games, this one was fiercely fought to the end. After a missed free throw, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough and Duke’s Gerald Henderson went up after the rebound. The ball came Hansbrough’s way. Henderson broke Hansbrough’s nose with a vicious forearm blow.

Only Henderson knows what was in his mind when he landed that stunning blow on Hansbrough’s face. But after carefully reviewing the tape, the referees decided that Henderson had committed a flagrant foul and ejected him from the game.

Repeated replays of the video showed that Henderson made his violent lunge toward Hansbrough after the ball had caromed away from him. Maybe Henderson had no intention of striking Hansbrough and his lunge was only adrenaline-fueled frustration. But the basketball was beyond Henderson’s reach, and he had no reason other than frustration to make such a powerful forearm swipe in Hansbrough’s direction. It was an emotional, out-of-control action and he broke a guy’s nose. And that’s a flagrant foul.

But from the moment blood spurted from Hansbrough’s broken nose, Packer defended Henderson. It was an amazing denial of reality in the face of clearly contradictory evidence. Yet Packer insisted for the rest of the game that he was right and the referees were wrong. I’m sure CBS officials got some outraged phone calls and e-mails after that game.

Caulton Tudor, one of my favorite sports columnists who writes for the News and Observer of Raleigh, wrote a recent column about Packer’s departure from CBS in which he recalled a quote by the late Al McGuire.

In some ways, McGuire was everything that Packer is not. He was personable and funny, he didn’t take himself too seriously, and he’d won an NCAA championship. McGuire’s quote about Packer was this: “The poor guy is so serious about basketball that he can't have any fun with it. He's like a Catholic nun with her rosary and all these Baptists down here are about the Lord's Prayer. It's all life or death. There's no in-between with Billy. If it's on his mind, it jumps out of his mouth. But, bless his heart, his mind is just as fast as his mouth.”

Tudor, a smart, insightful and experienced columnist, praised Packer’s work at CBS. But as I said, it’ll be a relief to me not to have to listen to him this coming winter.


Florida firefighters relieving North Carolina crews

After almost six weeks of fighting the wildfire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, firefighters with the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be relieved by firefighters from Florida.

A news release from North Carolina officials announced that the Florida crew arrived today and will take charge of the firefighting effort tomorrow. Firefighters from seven states, plus federal and local firefighters have been battling the blaze since June 1, when a lightning strike started the fire. About 41,500 acres have been burned.

More information is at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.

(Photo: Tom Crews)


Fire update: Still burning

We've gotten some rain here in eastern North Carolina during the past week or so, and that's dampened things down some. But the fire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is still burning, and no one expects it to be extinguished anytime soon.

The problem is that the fire, which started June 1 from a lightning strike, is still burning peat. In some places it's actually burning underground. Firefighters are using helicopters and heat-sensitive infrared spotting equipment to detect underground fires that aren't visible to the naked eye. They're also now having to deal with some of the secondary damage caused by the fire. The secondary roads and state highways that they've used to bring in dozens of heavy firetrucks and heavy earthmoving equipment to fight the fire are starting to deteriorate after more than a month of this traffic. So now road graders are working to repair some of the damage.

The fire isn't going to be extinguished until we get a downpour from a tropical storm or hurricane.

More information about the fire is at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.


Remembering Jesse

I grew up in North Carolina not far from the hometown of the late Senator Jesse Helms, and I’ve long wondered if I might be distantly related to him. My mother was from Union County, where Helms was from, and I have many cousins there whose last name is Helms. I know that I have many of the small-town values that Helms revered – including the belief that it’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead.

Still, Jesse was never reticent about speaking his mind. So maybe it’s a family trait that I feel compelled to speak my mind about him.

I never understood the tenacious grip that Helms had on North Carolina politics during his 30 years in the Senate. He represented a brand of angry, reactionary Old South conservatism that isn’t usually associated with this state. And yet, while North Carolina chose progressives and moderates, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans for its other elected offices, there was always Jesse, the ultimate unyielding ultra-conservative demagogue, towering over everyone.

Helms affected the lives of North Carolinians before he became a Senator. I have an old friend named Mike who remembers the anguish Jesse caused his family in 1968 when Helms was editorial director of WRAL-TV in Raleigh.

Mike’s father, a Methodist minister, was moving the family from Raleigh to Charlotte. But he was having trouble selling their house. One day he got a call from an African American man who said the real estate broker wouldn’t show him the house. My friend’s father made his own deal to sell to this man.

When word got out that a black family was moving into this previously all-white neighborhood, Helms was apoplectic. He went on the air with a scathing editorial denouncing the minister and accusing him of “blockbusting.”

Jesse even broadcast the address of their home. Cars with license plates from Deep South states showed up at all hours of the day and night and parked on their street. Agents from the State Bureau of Investigation moved in with my friend’s family to protect them until they moved to Charlotte.

Still, there were times when Helms’s unyielding resentment of those who annoyed him was funny, almost charming, in a weird way. When I was working at the Raleigh News and Observer (which Jesse detested) I was told to get in touch with Helms to get a comment about a breaking news story.

The N&O had the phone number of an apartment Helms rented in suburban Washington, D.C. I dialed the number.

“Hello,” I said, “am I speaking with Mr. Helms?”

“Ah, who's calling?” Jesse asked.

“My name's Willie Drye, Mr. Helms, and I'm a reporter for the News and Observer. I was wondering if ...”


“Mr. Helms? Mr. Helms?”

I dialed the number again. This time it rang unanswered, and I let it ring. Finally, after a couple of minutes, someone – I assume it was Jesse – picked up the phone and dropped it back onto the hook.

“Have we done something lately to piss off Jesse Helms?” I asked the editor who'd told me to call the senator.

“What happened?” he asked.

“He hung up on me twice,” I said.

“Oh, don't worry about that. He always hangs up on us. Just say he couldn't be reached for comment.”

For all of Jesse’s peevishness and outright nastiness, however, he did have a well-deserved reputation for helping his constituents. Sometimes he’d help even if he knew they’d never vote for him. He did a huge favor for a friend in Chapel Hill when my friend’s wife was trapped in Poland when martial law was declared there in December 1981.

My friend said he'd tried to contact North Carolina's congressional delegation for help, but they'd all ignored him. I suggested that he contact Helms's office. He did, but after his earlier experiences, he wasn't expecting any response.

But Helms's office gave my friend access to the U.S. diplomatic pouch to Poland, which allowed him to send his wife the documents she needed to leave.

There are lots of people in North Carolina and elsewhere who loved Jesse Helms and the way he forced his will on state and national politics. But I can't say that I was grief-stricken when I heard a few days ago that Jesse died.

Still, one of the things I learned growing up in that small town near Helms's home is that it's just not a good thing to rejoice at anyone's death. One of my favorite works by the 17th-century poet John Donne is “For Whom the Bells Toll”, his meditation on the universality and ultimate tragedy of death.

Donne says that we are all diminished a little when anyone dies, and every death is a reminder that our own time will come sooner or later. And I guess that means that we’re all diminished a little by the passing of Jesse Helms.

So goodbye, Jesse, and may God have mercy on your soul. No doubt you did good things in this life that I'm unaware of. But I’d love listen in on the conversation when you stand at the Pearly Gates and try to explain some of your other actions to Saint Peter. That would be an interesting conversation.


The 232nd anniversary of 202 stirring words

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

(Photo: Independence Day celebration, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, July 4, 1939; by Marion Post Wolcott, from The Library of Congress American Memory Collection, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsachtml/fsowhome.html)