Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 1914

Seems like this month has been chocked full of "anniversaries" of significant world events. Forty-five years since the man on the moon giant leap and already the press is gearing up for the fiftieth in five years down the pike. There's always the Fourth of July to recognize and following that, the fourteenth of July, Bastille Day. 

This morning I saw one more to add to the list in these waning days of July, 2014.

The beginning of World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars. Sigh. H. G. Wells wrote essays about it. Woodrow Wilson borrowed the term, used it once in his argument to save Democracy by leading the US into the fighting. 

Book Title page from Wikipedia

President Woodrow Wilson Photo from Wikipedia
One hundred years ago, following the assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand, tensions boiled over into battle. July 28, 1914. A hundred years later and now we know. The war to end all wars didn't. Sigh.

What is it about July? The heat? The weather? The climate? Maybe that's where the catchphrase "political climate" comes from.

1914 in the South Mountains of North Carolina, the political climate was being reestablished after The Civil War fifty years before. The War Between the States. The War of Separation. The War of Northern Aggression. The Brothers' War. Mr. Lincoln's War. And my favorite, the Unpleasantness. Sigh.

The parents of the students who eventually attended Pilot Mountain School were just beginning their lives around 1914, a hundred years ago, babies unaware of the troubles across the pond, babies depending on adults to make the world right. The school was not even considered until 1925, not built until 1942 in the midst of yet another great war. Amazing how life can be sectioned by the wars of each generation. 

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing, long time ago? 

Those song lyrics come from my generation's war and much of the Pilot Mountain School era as well. VietNam. Sigh.

When will they ever learn?

Catch of the day,


Monday, July 7, 2014

On Editorial Cartoons

As I was driving this morning I tuned in to NPR and heard an interview with Ed Williams, the former editor of the editorial page of the Charlotte Observer, discussing his new book, Liberating Dixie: An Editor's Life from Ole Miss to Obama. This was, in case you missed it, as I was driving. One of his statements early on I wanted to remember and so I dug around for a pen and paper to jot it down. As I was driving.

I could only rummage so far.

I found a brown Subway napkin, left over from an earlier meal. I drew circles on it (the broad airbag spot on my steering wheel as a desk) with the ink pen I found in the door pocket, but I couldn't get ink to flow. Meanwhile, traffic flowed around me and I could do nothing but flow along with it. I began chanting the sentence over and over and over. It almost became a mantra:

The job of the editorial page is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Or something to that effect since I was doing it from memory. Over and over I said this, overlaying the conversation on the radio, waiting for a stop light to catch me, which for the first time ever, it didn't. When I pulled into the bank parking lot I wrote hastily, before I forgot, while he was still talking.

The quick research I did when I came home attributed that quote to Finley Peter Dunne, an editorial writer in Chicago. It's a far leap from the audience and the needs of the comfortable and the afflicted in Chicago's south side to the audience and the needs of the comfortable and the afflicted around Pilot Mountain School of the south mountains, but I'm going to make it, thanks to the superintendent of schools in Burke County from 1925 to 1963, who couldn't help but stir the pot with his editorial cartoons. He saw what the world didn't, the underbelly of mountain culture and how it affected his students and his teachers and his community. So he did what all activists do. He stood up for them. Through his drawings he gave an insider's view to the political situation in North Carolina and offered a glimpse of his dealings with legislatures who controlled the budget.

How much has changed since the 1950's?

When I was writing this book I went through stacks and stacks of original editorial cartoons now in the possession of the History Museum of Burke County. Looking back with that quote in mind, I see how the afflicted were comforted in the fact that at least one person understands their tribulations. I see how the comfortable became afflicted (and enraged, I'm sure, at some of the cartoons I was privileged to see) when their actions were questioned.

So today, and every day, read to become comforted. Read to become afflicted, too, in case it's speaking to you.

Catch of the day,


Tuesday, July 1, 2014


So many times I've run across people who have some connection to Pilot Mountain School, but were not in my radar for interviews. The stories they tell could fill another book, Lessons Learned, the Sequel.  

The same goes for people I interviewed, who are mentioned and whose stories already enriched the book. They approach me and tell me of something else they remembered. Lessons Learned, the Sequel. I really ought to do it. But no. I'll just post them here.

Last week I was sitting in an outdoors venue, Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton, NC, listening to Bluegrass Music at the eleventh annual Red, White and Bluegrass Festival. 

A sample photo from the 2007 performance
 from the Red, White and Bluegrass website photos
Just before dark, when the lightning bugs would be the only visible form of illumination beyond the stage lights, I recognized a man I had interviewed on the school project. Yes, he remembered me. And yes, he had a story he had forgotten to tell, but not about the school. This particular memory was precipitated by my asking him if he knew a particular moonshiner I mentioned in my newest book.

Yes, he did and that man's family made the best banana brandy ever. While I was mulling that taste over in my mind, he went on to tell a story.

Since his mother was the only local medical person living in that part of the South Mountains in the late thirties, people often came to their home for assistance. Late one night a knock came at the door, rousing the family from a deep sleep. It was a neighbor from further back in the hills. He had been in a drunken argument that ended in a violent fight. His enemy had bitten his ear, tore at it, nearly pulled it off, left it dangling. He came to this nurse, begging her to cut it off. She refused, but he persisted. Finally she woke her husband, told him to build up the fire in the cookstove and boil some water so she could sterilize the kitchen butcher knife. She whacked off the ear, threw the evidence in the fire, patched him up and sent him on his way. I don't know who really learned the lesson that night, but it was well remembered seventy years later.

I admit, some stories fit into a sequel about lessons learned at a school better than others, but this particular story gives a glimpse into one thing that I found over and over at Pilot Mountain: community. Reasons don't matter. Compassion does, caring for neighbors, helping them through rough patches. What a lesson this man learned as a small child that night. We should all be so fortunate.

Catch of the day,