Monday, February 25, 2013

The Movies

Last night was Oscar Night on the far side of the country. I watched the highlights this morning, complete with First Lady Michelle Obama's announcement of the Best Picture award - Argo - and with Best Actress Jennifer Lawrence's tumble up the steps in her haute couture Dior gown. I suppose even glitter, glamour and glory doesn't forever keep away reality.

Yet isn't that what the motion picture industry is all about? Elevating us to a different plane, allowing us to escape reality if only for a few snippets of time.

Imagine the 1950's and the best picture winners. All About Eve. An American in Paris. Greatest Show on Earth. From Here to Eternity.

Now imagine children from the South Mountains where electricity was only a decade old, where neighbors gathered at the one home in the community equipped with a television and where the big attraction on Friday and Saturday evenings was going to the Pilot Mountain School auditorium to watch a movie for a dime. Back in the forties, the PTA had purchased a film projector and by the fifties, teachers were showing films not only on weekend evenings for fund raisers, but also during school hours.

Niagara (1953) Poster
As I interviewed former students from that era, my eyes were opened to the power the movie industry had to influence a sheltered culture. The children were exposed not only to films with educational themes, but Hollywood films, Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe for instance. A former student told about watching it during school hours. Educational, I'm sure.

High Noon (1952) PosterAnother spoke about the first movie she had ever seen, a western, where gunfighters shot and killed each other. This impressionable child cried at seeing a death for the first time ever and even her mother's assurances that it wasn't real couldn't convince her to watch another movie for years to come. When the class went to the auditorium on film days, she opted to remain in the classroom and do extra work instead.

And then there was the elderly gentleman who told of another point of view:

It didn’t make a difference what the movie was, but on Saturday night, Friday night, one of them, I’d ride my bicycle down to the school and see the movie. They’d draw a pretty good crowd, because there wasn’t nothing else to do. They had a preacher down here that started out in a brush arbor. He’d have revival. We’d go and he was talking one night, he says, “Here they got a damnable movie machine up there at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse that’s people going to see. You oughten be going to see such as that.” I didn’t quit going. It was his problem, not mine.

I'm not all that convinced that Hollywood was unaware of the possibilities of their culture altering media. This was a case of the proverbial genie out of the bottle, no way to return to the innocence before. The outside world had arrived in the South Mountains and life was never the same.

Catch of the day,


Monday, February 18, 2013

Elvis at Pilot Mountain School

Ever since the renovations at Pilot Mountain School were completed, the auditorium has been used for a wide variety of receptions, family reunions, bluegrass shows, gospel sings, Bible studies, even a pocketbook auction.

Last week on Valentine's Day I attended a sweetheart supper, with catered dinner, impressive decorations, tables and tables filled with friends I've made since I began this journey, and for our entertainment, Elvis. Well, sort of.

Brittain as Elvis
Meet Steve Brittain, aka Elvis, in this picture I borrowed from a News Herald article about him.

His wife Pat was my go-to person when I first began interviewing community members. She found phone numbers. She made lists. She called ahead to let people know I was for real. Valentine's Day she showed me a different side of her life: hostess, emcee and organizer.

Her husband Steve is an Elvis impersonator. I knew that because I had eaten lunch with him several times at the coffee shop. My photographer, Andrew Pitts, even took a picture of the two of them for possible use in the book. I call this pose, "Elvis Unmasked."

What I didn't know was how much fun an evening with Pat and Steve and Elvis would turn out to be. Remember the concept readers use, willing suspension of disbelief? When the music started and Steve/Elvis entered, yes, we willingly entered the suspension of disbelief.

Reality check message to the ladies in front rushing the stage, dancing along, putting money in his pants. This is not really Elvis. Elvis is dead. But for a moment, an hour and a half, this was Elvis and we were teenagers again and we suspended all reality and had fun.

Life is good!

Catch of the day,


Monday, February 11, 2013

Non-Saturday Morning Post

Last week the US Postal Service announced the decision to discontine regular deliveries on Saturdays. That makes me wonder if the pony express made a similar announcement upon their demise or if that service just faded away, unnoticed when something better came along.

Once again, something better has come along, email and pay online and skype. 

Progress, it's called. Maybe. But in the back of my mind, I remember a well quoted verse:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.


So the mailman won't be around on Saturdays, not because of rain nor snow nor gloom of night. It's all about the money!

Thanks to Life Magazine's archives for these photographs.

But wait. This is nothing new. There were days and even a few weeks back in the late 1940's and 1950's when no delivery service was the usual rather than the unusual. This had nothing to do with saving money, but more to do with road conditions. In one word...


Note that the poem quote above left out that minor detail! During rainy stretches, the backroads of the Pilot Mountain School district in rural Burke County, North Carolina were far too often impassable. The deep ruts carved by the logging trucks on their daily runs collected the rain into puddles, massive puddles. Puddles that stopped even the most skillful of drivers.

Mail delivery would be suspended on particular routes until the roads cleared. Sometimes that would be days. Sometimes, weeks.

No mail on Saturday? Piece of cake.

Catch of the day,


Monday, February 4, 2013

All about the "Set"

I heard the other day that the single English word with the most distinct definitions in the dictionary is "set." I checked and sure enough, there's an abundance of usages. The entries for "set" fill almost a whole page (fine print) of my old faithful Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, college edition.

Out of curiosity, I thought I'd check my final, last chance to change, manuscript of Lessons Learned. A simple word find, whoa,  and oh, my, there were twenty-nine! Three hundred, eight pages in the book and twenty-nine times I used the word "set." More than I imagined! Here's a few examples starting with a quote about the Glen Alpine Springs Hotel:

Glen Alpine Springs Hotel
courtesy of
The History Museum of Burke County

My great grandfather was building superintendent and also did the surveying. He surveyed with a tripod, stood it on one leg, jabbed it in the ground, set the compass on it, took readings.

Children who had difficulties were set aside and held back to repeat the grade the next year. There was no social promotion. 

As the 1944-45 year began, the oldest students were not set to graduate until the spring of 1946.

The teacher frequently brought a jar of green beans as her lunch and set it on the window sill to heat in the sun.

It was just the mindset then that when you get sixteen you’d quit school and go to work in the shop.

He set a really good example, the way he lived and the way he treated us.

Those kids were pinto beans and livermush kids, but they would set out bowls of black olives on the tables.

The board set a special election for Saturday, April 6, 1963.

In the fall of 1967, when a new couple moved into the principal’s house, the community didn’t have to learn a new set of names.

The things that I did or the things that were said here those first two years set my tone to my teaching for the rest of the time of my career.

On rare occasions the principal brought the television set from the principal’s house and exposed the children to national sports.

Just as building the school in 1942 presented difficulty after difficulty, the renovation in 2005 presented its own set of issues.

At the front entrance was a set of tall double doors leading onto a portico and the familiar two white pillars.

An interesting catch of the day,