Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Trouble at Slim’s

Change at the old country hideout

By Tom Bryant

It was one of those early spring Sundays when the weather was doing its North Carolina thing, frosty in the morning, heading toward summer by sundown. Dogwoods were almost clear of their blooms, and the leaves on the hardwoods were about as full and green as they can be in what my grandma used to call God’s time.

I was still kinda out of sorts, tired of nursing along a knee replacement and ready for a road trip but knowing that it was still too early to hook up the little Airstream and head to the beach. I can take house arrest for a short time, but after a while I begin to get a little restless. Just ask my bride and caretaker, Linda. She jokingly said, “Why don’t you go somewhere, sit in the sun, find some of your good buddies to talk to?”

There. I had as good an excuse as I’ve had in a while to set forth on a little adventure. But where to go? Slim’s Store, if it’s still there, would be something I could handle, decrepit knee and all. The problem was I hadn’t visited my old country hangout in a couple of years, and it might not be the same as it used to be.

Located in the north central part of the state, Slim’s Store was almost a household name among the folks in that part of the country who are partial to the outdoors. Hunters, fishermen, campers or farmers, everyone was welcome at Slim’s.

Slim’s grandfather built the store in the early part of the last century, and it almost immediately became a huge success. Like stores at that time all over the country, it was a meeting place, a place to see what your neighbors were up to, and the place to buy the goods you needed around the homestead. Everything was there from a barrel of tenpenny nails to a pair of boots or coveralls. If it wasn’t in the store, you probably didn’t need it. It was also where local farmers could sell their goods, like H.J. Johnson’s Angus steaks and roasts, and fresh corn and collards from Aunt Mary’s garden. These amazing country stores came along way before the A&P or the city hardware store appeared downtown.

Eventually Slim’s grandfather passed away, and the store declined. It sat in disrepair for years until Slim made his fortune out West and decided to revive the business. He did it, as he put it, so all his “reprobate” friends would have a place to go.

It was more like a hobby than a place to make money, although I later found out that it did break even. More importantly, it did give his friends a place to go and be recognized, a place where everybody knows your name.

It became a proper store with everything that an enterprise of its day had. There were barrels of hardware stuff from nails to door hinges. Overalls, jeans and work shirts hung from racks toward the back of the open space. On the right as you entered were the counter and cash register. The glass-fronted counter displayed all the knickknacks, everything from pocket knives to reading glasses. On top of the counter were big gallon jars of pickled eggs, sausages and pigs’ feet, a gourmet’s delight.

A good example of the stock in the store was the white rubber boots, the kind coastal commercial fishermen wear. Slim had four or five pairs lining the top shelf behind the counter. We were a couple hundred miles from the coast, and when I asked Slim why in the world he stocked something he probably would never sell, he replied, “You never know when a fishery worker might show up and need a pair of boots.”

Nothing stays the same, though, and when Slim went on to join his grandfather at that Heaven’s gate store that never needs restocking, we regulars of the old country emporium were afraid we had outlived a favorite way of life. But thankfully, along came Bubba.

Bubba and Slim had a lot in common. They both had a lot of money. Slim made the store a hobby. Bubba, who bought the store from Slim’s cousin Leroy, who had inherited it and didn’t have a clue what to do with it, kept it going because he said, “I like the people, my favorite rocking chair, and the coffee. As far as I’m concerned that’s enough to be successful.” Leroy stayed on as manager.

That afternoon I gave Leroy a call at the store to alert him that I might pay him a visit and to see if he could round up some of the other regulars.

Leroy has never been very loquacious on the phone, so I was ready for a one-way conversation. “Hello,” he answered on the second ring. That alone was a surprise. Usually the phone will ring off the hook before someone, usually a customer, answers.

“Hey, Leroy. It’s Tom Bryant. How you doing?”

“OK, I guess.”

“I’m thinking on riding up your way this Friday and hoped you could call a few of the old-timers and we could have sort of a reunion.”

“Mr. Tom, I’ll try, but most of the old customers are dead or maybe dying.” If nothing else, Leroy always cut to the chase.

“How about Bubba? Is he back from Costa Rica yet?” Bubba had been saltwater fly-fishing in Central America.

“No, sir. I think he’s supposed to come back any day now. I do remember he said before he left that he wanted to talk to you.”

“Leroy, what’s the matter? You don’t sound like your usual cheerful self,” I said jokingly.

“Naw sir, things are pretty much a mess around the old ’stablishment. You’ll see when you get here.”

“Now you got me worried. I’ll see you Friday. Try and round up a few of the live ones.”

“Yessir.” He hung up leaving me wondering what was going on in Leroy’s environs. Friday couldn’t come soon enough.

About mid-week, before I was to head out to the old store, Bubba called. I could tell by his clipped conversation that he was in a disgruntled mood. It seems that a problem had developed with one of his businesses, and he had to make a fast trip to New York.

“Bryant, Leroy said you were coming up here Friday. Do me a favor. Check out things and when I get back from New York, we’ll get together up here with the girls for a steak dinner and talk about what you saw. I don’t know if I’m going to keep the place open.”

“OK, Bubba.” I had a thought that perhaps the ancient business wasn’t long for this world. We hung up after a short conversation with Bubba lambasting everything from the state of the dollar to the mess with foreign imports of every kind.

I told Linda about the conversation and she said Bubba was probably just tired from all his travels. “Yep,” I said, “but you know what? When I go up there this Friday, I’m gonna buy me a pair of those vintage white fishing boots and eat a pickled egg and maybe a pig’s foot while I still can. It’d make Slim proud.”PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Small Town Life

A little piece of paradise

By Tom Bryant

The Old Man always used to say that a smart feller knew when he was well off and was a goldarned fool to change it for something he didn’t know about.           — Robert Ruark from The Old Man and the Boy

Back in the day, John Mills and I didn’t know we had it so wonderful growing up in Pinebluff. Mr. Eutice Mills, Johnny’s dad, was mayor from 1952 until 1956, and the little village never had it so good.

I recently spent the day with my old friend Johnny, better known by locals in the know as the Pinebluff historian. As boys my home was about a block from his on the same road that we called the “lake road.” It was really New England Avenue. That’s a funny thing about Pinebluff. Most of the avenues are named after Northern cities like Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago, I guess to sort of entice the folks from up North who wanted to relocate to the sunny South. They could do that and still live on an avenue that reminded them of home.

The cross streets are named after a fruit of some sort, like peach, cherry or apple. Yep, Pinebluff in its early planning was aimed at making new residents feel right at home and comfortable.

As a youngster living a block from the Mills family, I got to know them pretty well, as they did me and my family. It was like that all over town. Everybody knew everybody, and their pets’ names. We didn’t have a downtown, just a service station on one corner of the main thoroughfare and a motel across the street. The post office was located on another block, and that was about it as far as the business district was concerned.

The little village didn’t have much commercial success, but for the residents, it was enough. Aberdeen was right down the road. That’s where we went to school and our parents did most of their shopping. Beyond that was Southern Pines, a slightly more sophisticated town. And a little farther down the road was Pinehurst, a location most of us gave no thought to. We knew that it was a destination for rich folks from the North who came to spend part of the winter, play golf and do whatever we thought rich folks did when they came south. It really was of no consequence to us, and we just let that part of our county alone.

In those early years when Johnny and I came along, Pinebluff had a population of maybe 300 residents, a little more if you counted the dogs. Not many families had television. I think I was a freshman in high school when my dad bought our first one. Most of our entertainment was what we could devise, and mostly it took place in the great outdoors.

Every kid had a bicycle, our main mode of transportation. Mine was usually leaning against the front porch of our house, ready for a quick getaway.

In the summer the lake was the destination for all the young folks, and that’s where I learned to swim. It was only five blocks from my house, all downhill. I could jump off our front porch, hop on my bike, push off and coast all the way to the lake without pedaling once. Getting back home was a different story. Usually, I would time it so Dad could pick me up, load the bike in the back of the station wagon and give me a lift to the house. Sometimes this worked, depending on how busy he was at the ice plant. In the summer when peaches were being harvested full blast, Dad hardly had time to come home for lunch. Then I had to muscle my bike back up the hill on my own.

Our telephone system was Mom and Pop Wallace. The Pinebluff phone company was at their house, and the switchboard was located in their living room. When our parents wanted to find out where most of their kids were hanging out, they’d give Mom Wallace a call. She usually had the scoop on what was going on in the neighborhood.

When Johnny and I met that day, we reminisced about old times until lunch and then decided to grab a bite at a new restaurant in Aberdeen. On the way back to Pinebluff, we rode by the Aberdeen Railroad Depot, where Harriet Sloan maintains the Aberdeen High School Museum that’s located in one end of the ancient building. It’s amazing the job she has done accumulating all the historical information and artifacts about a school that no longer exists. The depot was closed but we’d already seen it several times, so we drove on by and headed back to Johnny’s house.

Johnny is fortunate to have acquired his family home place, and little has changed since we kids used to eat lunch sitting at the Mills’ kitchen table. Mrs. Mills would fix us sandwiches and listen as we made plans for the rest of the day.

Today was déjà vu all over again as Johnny and I relaxed around the same table remembering Pinebluff as it used to be under the direction of his father, the mayor.

“Think about the folks who used to live here,” he said, and began running down a list of people, some of whom I had forgotten.

“Colonel Cleary. Remember he lived right on the corner with his two boys? He taught math at Aberdeen High. And there was Mrs. Townsend, your neighbor. She was a traveling editor for The Christian Science Monitor. It’s rumored she roamed the world on tramp steamer ships.

“Around the corner and a couple of blocks away was Manly Wade Wellman. A famous author, he wrote the book, The Haunts of Drowning Creek. We should surely remember that because it was about two boys who set out on a canoe trip on the creek to find Confederate gold.” (Maybe the book gave three young Pinebluff boys the idea to take the same trip and float to the ocean. But that’s another story.)

“And there was Glen Rounds, another famous author and illustrator. He lived here for a while before moving to Southern Pines. The village was loaded with famous people in those days, not counting us, of course.” We chuckled a little as Johnny continued to pay homage to past residents who had had such an impact on our lives.

“Mr. Deaton, the town constable. He looked after all the young people and kept us out of trouble. Dot and Nan Brawley, who owned and ran the Village Grocery. How many cold Cokes did we drink from her cooler? Of course, Mom and Pop Wallace and the phone company, and that’s just a few of the folks who made the little town work. Yep, Tom, we grew up in a fantastic place.”

As I sat there at the same kitchen table where I had rested so many years ago, I thought that it’s good that some important things don’t change with age, like this wonderful home and my good friend Johnny Mills.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

An Ambitious Plan

And the ducks did their part

By Tom Bryant

The Old Man said you couldn’t set too much store by a fire; that a fire was all that separated man from beast, if you came right down to it. I believe him. I’d rather live in the yard than in a house that didn’t have an open fireplace.   —Robert Ruark from The Old Man and The Boy

The low grey clouds were close enough to almost touch, or they seemed that way as they scudded southeast before a gusty north wind. I was hunkered down in the first blind on the number one impoundment at our Whistling Wings duck club. It was mid-November, almost Thanksgiving, and I was all by my lonesome, escaping the chains of civilization. The plan was to do some writing, hopefully interspersed with some duck shooting.

There are six of us in the duck club, all of us seasoned in a lot of ways but more so in the mysteries of duck hunting. The varied group includes a couple of textile magnates, a lawyer, a judge, a textile broker and an itinerate writer, myself. I was behind on several writing projects, including a past-due novel, thus the reason I was holding forth alone at the club. The other members were planning to show up after Thanksgiving for a group hunt. Successful or not, anytime we got together it was a good time.

My plan was to get a little writing done after an early morning hunt, eat lunch and work a little more before the evening shoot. Then repeat that for three or four days and head home to enjoy Thanksgiving with the family. After that, I’d make it back to the club to meet up with the rest of the boys. An ambitious plan, but I hoped to make it work.

Our lodge is really a small two-bedroom house that sits right on the marsh where the corn impoundments are located. Impoundments are fields of corn that are flooded before duck season, their purpose being to bring in the ducks. The cabin and the impoundments are about a half mile from the Pamlico Sound. As the crow flies, or better yet, as the duck flies, our farthest blind is right on the water, and it is exactly 8 miles across the Pamlico to Ocracoke Island.

The day I arrived the weather promised a good blow out of the northeast. The temperature took a nosedive so things were looking just right to bring in a few early ducks. I hustled unloading all the gear and left most of it lying about in the kitchen so I could make it to the blind before sundown and the end of legal shooting hours.

Low clouds and a squally wind brought dusk on early. I missed a couple of fast-flying teal that came right at me, corn-top high. The gale added to their speed and I shot way behind them. I grinned as I unloaded my shotgun and slung my gunning bag over my shoulder. “Come back tomorrow, you little rascals, and give me another chance.”

I fast-marched back to the lodge, before black night settled in, to unpack and sort through the cooking box. I had bought eating utensils that needed to be stored in the right place. There is a gas fireplace in the living room, and I turned it on. With the northeast wind whistling around the cabin, it added a cozy feeling to offset the early cold of the evening.

I put a pot of venison stew on the stove to heat for supper and laid out items to take to the blind in the morning. It promised to be an interesting day. I was pretty tired, so I opted for an early evening, promising myself to catch up on writing tomorrow.

At 4:30 a.m. I eased the door of the little lodge shut and headed to our number one blind. The early morning wind still held out of the northeast, but the cloud cover was gone. It was clear as a bell, and a nearly full moon was settling in the west. Hopefully, the gusty blow was strong enough to keep ducks moving off the sound.

As I trudged down the dike that led to the blind, loaded with shotgun, gunning bag and a few more decoys to add to the spread I had put out the afternoon before, the thought occurred to me of the many times I had enjoyed this same adventure. Never, in all the many hours spent in a duck blind, have they been the same.

I could hear hundreds of ducks as they got up out of the corn and headed out to the sound. I swear, it’s almost as if they have a timer in their little duck brains that enables them to leave the impoundments just before legal shooting time — a half-hour before sunrise — and arrive back for their evening corn feast an hour after legal shooting time, sundown.

I’ve been fortunate on a few occasions to catch them confused about timing, but that always involved weather. Rain, sleet or snow and a dark sky with the wind blowing hard have sometimes made for a memorable shoot. Not this day, though. It looked to be one of those bluebird mornings.

And it was. By 10 o’clock I had seen a few high-flying snow geese. A couple of mergansers landed right in the middle of the decoys, swam around a bit, then swam on into the corn and disappeared. I figured it was time for breakfast.

After a morning in the field, breakfast is the best meal of the day, and I had come prepared. As I walked back to the lodge, I mentally put together the morning feast. Preparing it is almost as good as eating it. Not so, says my good friend John Vernon, our usual lodge chef. He’s the main cook when the group is together, and it’s a real grin just to watch him prepare one of his culinary masterpieces.

My breakfast on the first day of the hunt didn’t hold a candle to what John could fix. But even he, I think, would have smiled in appreciation. Six extra-large eggs, cooked over medium; a platter of link country sausage; biscuits, a half dozen bought from Biscuitville (I picked up two-dozen before leaving town. I’ve found you can’t have too many biscuits.); and a pot of yellow, stone-ground grits cooked slow and steady over a low heat.

After that feast, I settled in at the kitchen table with my iPad and did a little work on the never-ended novel and surprised myself with the amount I got done.

The rest of the week went by in a flash. The routine I had set worked, and on the last day, the lords of the duck marsh smiled on me. About noon it started raining — hard, so hard it blew sideways. I put on all my wet weather gear and sloshed out to the impoundment. Just as I crawled into the blind and loaded the shotgun, a flurry of teal buzzed the blind so close it seemed as if I could reach up and catch one. I hunkered down, knowing they would be back. Sure enough, they circled and came back, afterburners wide open. I led the group as far as I could, pulled the trigger and three teal splashed down right outside the decoys.

While wading out to pick them up, I looked up just as a pair of widgeons dropped out of the sky, wings folded, yellow feet fixed forward like landing gear. I snapshot at the lead duck and got him but missed his companion twice. I picked up all four ducks and made it snappy back to my hide.

The rest of the day was like that. I already had four ducks and the limit is six. I had to slow down so I just watched and waited. Ducks were everywhere. Just before shooting time was over, I shot my last one, a magnificent pintail almost the size of a snow goose.

Later, after I got back to the lodge and put on some dry duds and relaxed in front of my fireplace, gas logs blazing, wet hunting gear hanging everywhere, I celebrated with two fingers of good Scotch. I remembered Robert Ruark’s quote about loving an open fire and thought even he would put up with our little gas effort after the end of this wonderful duck hunt.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

A Sentimental Mood

Riding the wave of memories

By Tom Bryant

“Things,” the Old Man said, “certainly ain’t like they used to be. It’s the penalty we pay for getting wise. About the time a man decides what he likes or don’t like, either he can’t find it, can’t afford it , or can’t handle it.”

—Robert Ruark from The Old Man and The Boy

I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day, sitting around the house, not doing much of anything. Linda, my bride, was visiting a couple of her longtime friends in Burlington, so I was sort of at loose ends. To have something to do and to get my mind off yard work, which I really needed to do, I decided to ride down to the little farm I lease for hunting to see if the doves were flying.

The weather was unsettled, threatening thunderstorms later in the day, so I was in no hurry to get to the farm. As I drove by the location of our old high school, I made an impromptu turn into the drive that led to the little rise where the ancient halls of learning once stood.

The night before, realizing  that our high school class reunion was coming up, I pulled out my aged annual from 1959, The Timekeeper, and flipped through the well-worn pages. So I was in just the right sentimental mood to look around the location that had shaped so many young lives, mine included.

Of course the high school was long gone, having been demolished in the ’60s when consolidation of schools became the touchstone of the new education system; but the elementary school, gymnasium and auditorium were still there, although vacant and desolate.

There were a couple of Aberdeen police officers standing around a K-9 pickup truck, and I remembered reading in The Pilot that they were using the school for training purposes. The other buildings were locked and battened down tight. I eased by the officers, waved and continued out the far drive. On the way, I noticed that the shop building, where Mr. Farrior tried to teach us how to use an electric saw without losing several important digits, was still hanging on the side of the hill. It seemed to be in remarkably good shape.

Where have all the years gone, I wondered, as I drove down the little road that led to the old football and baseball fields. We had a good year in football in 1958, our first year playing 11-man football. Up till then we had competed in six-man ball, almost another sport entirely. In ’58, out of 10 games, we won five. Our losses were close with the exception of our game with archrival Southern Pines, 26 points for them, zip for us.

When I pulled up beside the embankment of the vacant sports fields, I paused, got out of the Cruiser, leaned against it and looked out over the green acres that meant so much to so many budding young athletes. The football field and the baseball diamond were adjacent, efficiently utilizing the space as only our head coach, Hugh Bowman, could do. Now the fields were smaller. The tree line had crept in over the expanse where we used to play, and I couldn’t recognize where the two fields used to be. I understand that the small grassland expanse remaining is used for soccer.

Later, Robbie Farrell, the longtime mayor of Aberdeen, told me by phone that Aberdeen has big plans for the gym and the auditorium that the city purchased from the school system, but the old elementary school and the fields behind it would be sold to developers who would probably use the space for housing, closely supervised by the zoning and planning folks of the city.

Robbie also graduated from Aberdeen High School and has been a prodigious supporter of anything Aberdeen, probably the reason he has been the unopposed mayor for so long. It was a pleasure talking to him and reminiscing about the old days.

There have been several reunions of the class of ’59 since that momentous day when we walked confidently out of those small halls of learning into the real world. At one of those get-togethers, a good friend and I wondered why high school remembrances mean so much when other events, probably much more influential in our lives, didn’t seem to be as important.

“Tommy, I think it’s because in those days, especially at our small Aberdeen school, we were almost like family,” he said. “We knew each other, we knew all of the faults and qualities of each and every one, real or perceived, and it was a pivotal time in our lives. Those days, like them or not, meant something.”

So here we go. Another, perhaps the last, reunion for the class of ’59 because so many of our group have already crossed the river, a trip we will all make. But I keep remembering the closing to a column I wrote about one of our reunions over 20 years ago:

“In the late ’50s, the country seemed to pause and take a break from the horrors of the ’30s, ’40s and early ’50s. The Depression was over, World War II and the Korean War had just ended. It was as if we were riding the crest of a huge wave, not knowing when or where it would break. Around the bend were the ’60s and flower children, drugs you couldn’t buy in a drugstore, the Cold War, and a heated one by the name of Vietnam. But in the summer of 1959, I was cruising in a 1957 Chevy with all the windows rolled down and the radio turned up to The Tams and beach music. I had just graduated from Aberdeen High and was ready to take on the world.”

It has been a while since that day in 1959, cruising in the Chevy, nothing any more important on my mind than college and playing baseball. A lot of water has flowed under that proverbial bridge, and there have been some bumps in life’s road along the way; but all in all, as we get closer to the end of the trip, it has been a good ride.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

The Old Home Place

Where have the small farmers gone?

By Tom Bryant

As I slowly rocked back and forth in one of Mama’s old rockers, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know a single solitary farmer anymore. It was quite a revelation in as much as my father was the first in our family not to make a living on the farm.

Linda, my bride, and I were visiting my sister who lives in the old home place in South Carolina. We had been reminiscing about old times and catching up on the latest news from the family. It was mid-July and hot, as only July can be in the low country. The ladies were inside putting together a light lunch, and I was suffering through the heat on the front porch of the ancient Southern house.

Built in 1830, the vintage old home was constructed to handle the Southern heat. A long rain porch supported by columns stretched across the front of the house. The structure was constructed so that it faced east to utilize the prevailing winds. It also rested on brick foundation posts about 5 feet off the ground. Inside, 14-foot ceilings dispersed the heat, and 6-foot windows helped what breeze there was to circulate.

It was still July, though, and hot. My sister had installed air-conditioning when Mom was still alive, and it made all the difference. But I remembered earlier times when the only real way to cool off was to take a dip in Black Creek, a little stream that slowly meandered down the northern border of the property.

My Uncle Tommy was the last to plant the cleared acreage of the farm, growing corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton. As a youngster, I can remember cotton stretching to the horizon like a new snowfall, and then later, there was a green sea of tobacco.

Tobacco was the money crop in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. My granddad planted many acres of tobacco, and I used to follow him around as he checked on his growing crop. He often said that the best fertilizer a farmer could have are his footsteps in the field, and we sure made a bunch of those.

I never really understood how tobacco allotments were given to growers — even though Granddad tried to explain it to me a time or two — but after doing a little research, I found that, like with a lot of things that involved money, the government held forth. They imposed production limits on individual tobacco growers but guaranteed an artificially high price for the crop. That policy maintained order in the tobacco growing business for years and kept many small farms alive. A farmer in those early days could realize an average profit of $2,000 an acre, enough to keep him down on the farm.

Farming has changed in tremendous ways. A good example would be our own homestead, which was broken up and inherited by different members of the family. No one actually works the land, but the cleared farm acreage is leased to huge conglomerates who bring in giant agriculture equipment and plant hundreds of acres in a short period of time. When harvest season rolls around, they gather the crop in the same way, in and out quickly with little manual labor involved.

In the days of tobacco growing on Granddad’s place, I learned the hard way how much work it took to grow a good crop and, more than that, how much real labor it took to harvest. Priming tobacco, or picking the leaves for curing in the barn, was designed to make men out of boys, or so said Granddad. I never had to do a lot of that dirty, mind-numbing labor, just enough to satisfy me that I wasn’t cut out for it. After a day in the field, I would return to the kitchen porch of the old house, sticky and black with tobacco tar. Grandmother greeted me, saying, “Hose off all that dirt before you come in and mess up my kitchen.”

Over the years I’ve had baths and showers in wonderful places, but nothing could beat the pleasure of standing under that cold, streaming hose after a blistering day under a South Carolina summer sun.

Nothing stays the same, and agriculture is no different. The days of small farms are gone forever.

A soft breeze began to blow out of the east, offering a little relief from the July sun, and as I watched a big red-tail hawk fly lazy circles in the cloudless sky, I thought back to an encounter I had with big tobacco when I was still doing my day job.

Business North Carolina magazine hired me after I decided to come out of early retirement. I realized that I needed something constructive to do other than fish and hunt. Linda agreed with that decision whole-heartedly. The organization made me regional sales manager of the Triad area of North Carolina.

My territory included Danville, Virginia, home of Debrell Brothers Tobacco, an old established company going back to 1873. This tobacco business purchases, processes and sells leaf tobacco, and operates as an importer and exporter. They do business in 24 countries throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and South America.

I learned long ago in the selling business, if you don’t ask, how can you tell if a potential customer wants your product? It took several months of phone calls and messages, but eventually I wrangled an appointment to meet with the marketing director and a couple of his assistants about a special promotion that BNC had in the works.

I was up and at ’em early the morning of our meeting. When I’m in a new area I try to be a little early. A few extra minutes sometimes can save you a lot of trouble. Today would reinforce that notion.

I pulled into Danville in plenty of time to get a cup of coffee at the local McDonald’s. I sat in the old Bronco sipping coffee and going over the presentation I had put together the evening before. My briefcase was open on the passenger’s seat, and noticing the time, I put everything back in the case and eased into traffic heading to the Debrell office. As I neared a railroad track crossing, the car in front of me stopped suddenly. I still had half a cup of coffee, and the abrupt stop dumped it right into my open briefcase.

Disaster.

What to do? My appointment was in 15 minutes. I pulled in the parking lot of the office, hopped out, got the soggy media kits out of the case and used a wad of Kleenex to try and sop up the rest of the coffee that was staining everything. It was time for the meeting with people I had never met before.

Well, I thought, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The receptionist was sitting well back in the corner of the entrance to the offices. A hall led down the center of the building. Everything was mahogany and polished brass, accented with deep oriental rugs. The entire place reeked of money.

After I introduced myself she said, “Your meeting will be in the central conference room. I’ll walk you back there.”

The marketing director and his assistants were waiting and cordially greeted me as I entered the opulent space. Paintings of farm scenes, mostly featuring tobacco, were on the spacious walls.

After everyone was settled, the receptionist asked if she could get me some coffee. The other folks were sipping theirs from china cups and looking at me expectantly.

“Well, ma’am,” I hesitantly said, “I just had a cup. Most of it is still in my briefcase.”

I then pulled the soggy media kits from my case, holding them so they wouldn’t drip on the rugs. After I explained the particulars of the mishap, it took a while for them to stop laughing.

They bought a six-month contract with their first ad to appear in Business North Carolina’s special promotion. It proved my theory: You never know what to expect in the selling business.

The marketing director walked me to the door, and on the way we talked about the future of tobacco.

“Tom,” he said, “since the government has done away with the allotment program that guaranteed tobacco prices, there’s nothing a small farmer can grow that will replace that income. You remember all those small tobacco farms you passed on the way up here? In five years they’ll all be gone.”

Linda came out on the porch. “Time for lunch.” she said. “What have you been doing out here in the hot?”

“Thinking about farming.” I replied, “and small farmers and wondering what they’re doing now.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

The Next Adventure

And the gift of mentoring

By Tom Bryant

“The only thing crazier than a duck hunter or a mountain climber,” the Old Man repeatedly said, “is a really dedicated fisherman — a man who will fish where he knows there are no fish, just as long as he’s fishing.”    — Robert Ruark in The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older

We were all grouped around the kitchen table, more or less in a relaxed mode after a full morning of duck hunting. The kitchen table was in the duck-hunting lodge that we lease along with five corn-planted impoundments right on the Pamlico Sound and only a few miles from Lake Mattamuskeet. It was the last day of duck season.

There were seven of us, not exactly the Magnificent Seven, unless you talk to us after a successful day in the duck blind. Then you would surely think we were the most proficient duck hunters and outdoorsmen in the whole South.

This was not one of those days, unfortunately. Duck shooting had been sparse. We saw ducks, but they were working over the Pamlico and refusing to drop into our impoundments. “This ain’t exactly how I planned to end duck season,” Bubba said as he pushed back in his slat-back chair and ambled over to the refrigerator. “I’m gonna end the pain a little with a cold beer. How ’bout you guys?”

“I’ll join you,” I said. “Then I’m gonna take a nap.”

Bubba handed me a beer, “Well, maybe the fishing will be better this spring. Art, I hear you’re going down to Belize to try your hand at saltwater fly-fishing.”

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I brought my fly rod so you could give me a couple of lessons.”

Bubba is an accomplished fly fisherman and has fished Costa Rica as well as Belize. “Well, this ain’t exactly the right kind of weather,” I said, since the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping, “but get your rig and we’ll cast a little in the backyard.”

We all trooped out to the yard right off the miniature enclosed back porch where we kept our guns and wet waders. Art had his fly rod all put together and ready to go.

As he limbered the rod back and forth slowly, Bubba said, “Art, it’s all in the wrist.” He had tied a small weight to the line to imitate a tiny fly and commenced to let line out as he moved the rod in rhythm with the line.

A pickup truck slowly eased down the drive toward the barn camp — an old barn converted into living quarters located a couple of hundred yards behind our lodge. The guys who lease the camp are some of the finest duck hunters in the area, and they do it the hard way. They hunt on the Pamlico Sound in powerful jon boats in all kinds of weather. None of that impoundment hunting for them.

There were three of them in the group, and they have become our good friends, sharing meals, libations and hunting stories . . . some of them even true. We always look forward to their company.

The truck slowed to a stop, and we waved at the pair in the front seat. Two black Labs were in the bed of the truck, and they were watching us intently.

Art continued, with Bubba’s instructions, casting the fly out into the yard, and he was really getting the hang of stripping line off the reel when Jim Overman, sort of the ringleader of the barn camp crew, hung his head out the driver’s window and shouted, “Hey Art, I really think you’d have better luck if you got closer to the water.”

That was the way it was in those days, and it hasn’t changed much even today. We’re either hunting and thinking about fishing, or fishing and planning a hunt. The outdoor group I hang out with is never far from an open air event/outdoor entertainment.

For me, this love affair with sportfishing started at a young age and was as natural as breathing. Like so many sports in the outdoors, there’s often a driving force, most of the time an older individual or a host of friendly, experienced sportsmen. With me, it was my family. My dad, for sure, and my granddad, along with several uncles who took me under their wing and let me go with them when they were heading to the woods hunting or to the creeks and rivers fishing. I learned by watching and obeying instructions, not as a kid, but as someone really interested in learning how to do it right. They never talked down to me, but I was expected to act in a manner respecting their age.

One late summer afternoon, my dad, granddad and uncles were gathered on the long front porch of the old home place making plans for a fishing outing to Florida.

“I figure if we go down there in mid-March it won’t be too cold, and maybe we can hook on to that big bass that Tom keeps talking about,” Dad said. Uncle Tom fished the St. Johns River at Astor where Granddad had a fish camp, and he was constantly talking about the 8-pounder he pulled in after only an hour on the river.

The conversation drifted from when the best time to go would be to what kind of fishing gear to take. Meanwhile, I was sitting in the corner rocker like a bird dog on point. The more they talked, the faster I rocked, hoping against hope that they would let me go with them. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Can I go?”

Dad looked over at me and said, “Son, you’ve got school and we’re gonna be gone a week or more. I don’t believe Mr. Workman would let you miss that many days.”

Mr. Workman was the principal of Aberdeen Elementary and a kind, likable man. I was sure I could convince him that I should make the trip. Convincing my folks sitting on the porch looked to be another matter entirely.

Granddad was sitting in the swing listening to all the plans and after a while, he said to the group, “Let the boy go with you, that is if he can clear it with the school folks. You can take my truck, and while you’re there, I want you to pick the remainder of the fruit on the orange trees next to the house. We never get it all when we’re there right after Christmas, and this would be a good opportunity to finish it up. Tommy could climb the trees and get the high fruit.”

Granddad had planted a small orange grove right after he bought the Florida property, and it was just beginning to produce enough fruit to share with the family.

So that’s how I got to go on my first major fishing outing with the adults. Mr. Workman said I could go, the only requirement being that I write a paper about my experiences on the river.

We had a grand time on that trip, and I often think back to my conversations with Dad and my uncles on the St. Johns. They treated me as a trusted member of the party, and I learned a lot about fishing. But more importantly, I learned the value of close family ties.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Remembering Wild Places

And finding a project for spring

 

By Tom Bryant

“So what a man has got to do is take a little time off as he grows older, and devote the waste space to remembering the things he did that he maybe won’t never do again.”

        — Robert Ruark, The Old Man and The Boy

It was one of those after the New Year, late winter, hoping for spring kind of days when the frosty wind was out of the northwest, blowing hard enough to keep most everyone, animals included, close to home. I had a pretty good case of cabin fever, so I decided to ride down to the little farm I lease, close to Drowning Creek, and check out the cold weather doings.

I’ve been using the farm to do some dove and turkey hunting, but mostly as just a getaway from civilization. I pulled the Cruiser into the pines and cut the engine near the fallow fields that the farmer was getting ready to plant. During a lull in the wind, I decided to get a little exercise and walk around the perimeter of the pine grove, a circle of about a mile. No game was moving, not even birds. Too cold. Everybody’s trying to stay warm.

I thought how fortunate I was to have had so many wonderful wild places to hunt, fish and camp, beginning with growing up in Pinebluff. Not saying that Pinebluff was wild, but a short bike ride could take you to the woods where wildlife was abundant. There was a sandpit area close to the railroad tracks where we used to camp, and farther south toward Addor were more undeveloped acres that were ideal for a young person with a vivid imagination to roam at will and imagine that he was deep in the African veldt searching for roaring lions or charging rhinos. As I grew older, I hunted the woods on either side of the tracks for squirrels, rabbits and doves.

My granddad had a fish camp on the Little Pee Dee River. It was nothing real fancy, a one-room shack with a tin roof. Inside there was a homemade double bunk bed with ropes holding thin mattresses. A small alcove off to one end was the makeshift kitchen where granddad kept a small gas cook stove. A shelf on one side held all the cast iron pots and skillets used to fry untold numbers of bream and redbreast fish. It was a wonderful place with smells of swamp and river.

One of my most cherished memories is of granddad swimming in the fast-moving river, a Mae West life preserver tied around the big girth of his shoulders and his ankle tethered to the dock with about a 15-foot rope. He floated in the river like a small whale, laughing and blowing like a geyser. It was, he said, his Saturday night bath. I had to do the same but in the shallow water where we docked his fishing skiff.

We were usually on the river for a week or 10 days. When granddad was ready to go fishing, he went for a while. He said to me many times, “It takes a day or two just to get the lay of the land and get used to the ways of the swamp.” Later, when I was a few years older, he built a first-class river house more like something you would find at the beach. I was 16 with a driver’s license, sports had entered my picture, and I had discovered girls. I put fishing on the Little Pee Dee River on the back burner.

Nothing stays the same, they say, except death and taxes. Time rolled on faster than anticipated and I was ready to head off to college. Not much chance to enjoy the great outdoors, as I was doing all I could to make the grades so I could play baseball. I was lucky, though. I was in the middle of the mountains right next to the Pisgah National Forest with miles of wild land to explore. As soon as I became acclimated to the rigors of actually studying, I began to explore Pisgah’s beautiful natural resources.

I was driving an old 1940 Chevrolet Deluxe that my dad gave me my senior year in high school, and I outfitted it to be my SUV long before some Detroit auto designer coined the phrase. If someone wanted to interpret my lifestyle, all they had to do was inventory the contents of that ancient conveyance. I kept a small backpack loaded with all the necessities required to survive a couple of nights in the woods. A good knife, a hatchet, candles, eating essentials, including a cook kit saved from my days in the Boy Scouts, and of course, waterproof matches. In another duffel bag were a pup tent half and two wool Army blankets suitable for sleeping.

During the seasons, the inventory would reflect what was happening. In the spring and summer, fishing gear would hold forth, and fall and winter would usher in hunting paraphernalia. Of course, the seasons would overlap, and from time to time, my collections of gear would have to be purged and started over again. This in itself was a monumental job.

Cold was settling in, and I decided to give it a little more time and then head home to build a fire. I had a shabby camouflage duck hunting coat in the back of the Cruiser, and I grabbed it and put it on to ward off some of the chill. I bought the coat many years ago from a good friend and hunting buddy who owned a sporting goods shop, and it has stayed with me and become part of my hunting wardrobe. It was with me while hunting Currituck, Mattamuskeet, the Haw River, Black Creek and other fields and swamps too numerous to remember. The old coat is like a good luck charm. I can put it on and it automatically brings back memories of special times and good friends.

The hazy late winter sun was beginning to settle in the west and promised a moonless dark night, so I started up the little Cruiser and drove out of the pines on the narrow sand road that passed by a miniature pond nestled back in the woods, almost out of sight. On a whim, I stopped the vehicle as silently as I could and sneaked quietly, using the pond bank alders as cover, to check out the waterhole for wildlife.

I peeked over the brush and saw that the little slough was empty, but just as I turned to leave, a pair of wood ducks, wings whistling right overhead, softly splashed down in the water under a towering cypress tree.

Wow, I thought, that made the day. I need to come down here in March and put up a couple of nesting wood duck boxes.

It’s good to have a new project, and I thought back to the not so distant past and the numerous boxes I had positioned around lakes and beaver ponds. I usually do this in March because that’s when the wood duck, in my mind nature’s most beautiful duck, begins nesting.

I silently eased up to the vehicle, cranked her and headed home to a warm fire, also maybe a little libation, and a search to find my plans for building wood duck boxes. It’s gonna be a good spring.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Called to Order

The gang gathers for good times

By Tom Bryant

The best friends in the world are the ones you don’t need to meet every day. Whether it’s been a day or 10 years, the conversation is the same.  — Anonymous

 

Left: Dell Meekins

Right: Tom Bryant

The members of the old Sleeping Black Duck Order were falling by the wayside. The organization, started many years ago on a brant goose hunt on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, was still honored by what was left of the active members, but probably on a much more sedate level than those early years.

The club was created after a successful day’s duck shoot on the Chesapeake Bay. The group was sitting in front of a blazing fire talking about the day’s events, who did what, good-naturedly ragging missed shots and bragging about good ones. There were seven in the party, good friends all, having known each other for years, hunting together most of them. Idiosyncrasies, good and bad, were acknowledged and overlooked when needed. In essence, they were more than friends; they were a lot like family.

The conversation drifted here and yonder, mostly about how great the day was and how the hunt was over too soon. The gang was to load up the next morning and head home. Jim, the sport who had organized the hunt, was talking about hunting over the hand-carved black duck decoys provided by the guide and how well they worked.

“Just look how beautiful that black is on the mantel.” He pointed to a sleeping black duck decoy that our guide, Grayson Chesser, had carved. Chesser is famous on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for his carved decoys.

“I’ve got a great idea,” Jim continued. “Let’s buy that decoy. We’ll take yearly turns keeping it, celebrating at the end of every duck season with a dinner, passing the decoy on to the next member in line. If we miss a year’s duck hunt, the decoy remains with the preceding associate until the next season.”

That’s what we did. Over the years, the sleeping black duck decoy became the starting point of many conversations, even though time and infirmities slowed down many hunts and even canceled a few. We grew older and the glory days of the group drifted away like a migrating duck. We’d known for a while that our best days together were gone, but just like that wandering duck, we hoped those good days would show up again in the near future.

Art called me early in the fall. “Hey. Tom, I’ve talked to John and Jack about a trip to Mattamuskeet, maybe in the early winter. You know, just to get together, hash over a few memories and maybe do some fishing. Remember the last time we were there, Dell said he would take us if we wanted and if it worked in his schedule.”

Dell and Karen Meekins are the owners of the Hyde County Lodges, beautiful cabins sitting on pilings right on the Pamlico Sound. We used their facilities several times in the past when we were actively pursuing the noble waterfowl and even a time or two when all we did was get together and, as Art so aptly put it, “hash over old times.”

Jack, the guy who arranges reservations and details whenever the group decides to take a road trip, put everything together with Karen, and we were scheduled to meet at the Lodges for four days of good times. Best of all, Dell agreed to take us fishing.

The trip to Hyde County is a pleasure in its own right. The county’s motto is “The Road Less Travelled,” and it lives up to that. Once you cross the Pungo River, you’ll meet a few cars, but very few. And the ones you do meet wave as they drive by. Hyde County is a friendly place.

Art, John and Jack arrived a little before I did, even though they stopped at Whole Foods in Raleigh for some needed supplies. The lodges are extremely comfortable, decorated in an outdoor motif that would make any sportsman happy, and we were in the two side-by-side units. The guys were already unloading food and coolers where we would headquarter and cook and have all our meals. John, being the head chef, called out marching orders on where things went. In no time we were relaxing on the big front porch.

John and Jack decided not to fish, but Dell agreed to take Art and me the next morning. The plan was for us to meet him at 7 a.m. at the little canal behind the lodges where he docks his skiff. Art handled all the particulars of the trip for the following morning; and that evening, after John had put together a fantastic meal, we kicked back comfortably enjoying a glass of wine that our connoisseur, Jack, selected. When a special wine is needed, we always consult him.

Art and I were up early the next morning to meet Dell at the dock. He breaks the mold when you think about a Down East waterman, although that’s how he grew up. He had all the gear needed so all we had to do was show up. Talk about a Hyde County success story, Dell and Karen Meekins could write the book. Both grew up there, fell in love and married early. They built the lodges in 2012, and their bookings have been growing steadily. Dell says that Karen handles all the reservations, and he does the mechanics and upkeep. Dell, a North Carolina State graduate, is also part owner of Engelhard Seafood, a wholesale supplier to restaurants.

A beautiful sunrise met us as we motored out of the canal into the Pamlico Sound. Dell was in a jovial mood and kept talking about how we might not catch anything, but probably would. I was sitting next to him as he kicked the motor into high gear and we roared out into the bay. A slender, tall man, he moves with the confidence of an athlete, handling the boat effortlessly.

I’ve not fished with many guides, usually doing it on my own. And, in all honesty, Dell is not a guide — he just loves to fish and loves to take people fishing. It’s not his profession, but he is good. That morning we caught between 30 and 40 fish, everything from flounder to red fish. It was a catch-and-release morning, except Art and I decided to keep a couple of redfish and trout. All and all, thanks to Dell, it was a wonderful morning on the sound.

Before we could blink, the three days on the Pamlico went into the journal and it was time to load up and head home. We hadn’t done much, fished a little and rode around to visit spots where we used to hunt, but we accomplished the purpose of the get-together with flying colors, and that was to enjoy each other’s company.

We had to leave early the final morning. John had a meeting at his law firm that afternoon, so we were awake at sunrise. Loaded up and ready to move, we stood around in the parking area and watched the day come alive over the sound. Clouds banked before the sun and looked like another horizon. Goodbyes were said, and I watched as the crew motored down the driveway heading home.

Each lodge sits up high on pilings and I sat on a swing located  in the below deck parking area, determined to catch the first rays of the morning. The sun slowly came visible over the clouds, and I watched as it rose majestically over the Pamlico. The Sleeping Black Duck Order has been whittled down a little, but we’re strong where it counts. Good friends and good times. I fired up the little Cruiser and headed home. What a pleasure.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Traveling the Blue Ridge

A solemn stop on a road trip

By Tom Bryant

It was early fall, summer was gone and I was at loose ends. It always seems to happen to me during the change of seasons. It’s still too hot to do any serious fishing, hunting season is in — dove season, that is — but after the opening-day hunt there’s not much to do here in my neck of the woods. The local doves have moved on, and the migratory ones aren’t here yet. The same with ducks. With the mild weather, they’re still lounging around somewhere up north.

Linda, my bride, and I finished our last trip to the beach in the little Airstream. Nothing to do now but winterize and park it until February, when we head to Florida for winter fishing. But right now, like I said, I’m at loose ends.

Trying to write a little on my never-finished novel, I was up in the roost, what we call the small apartment over our garage, waiting on the muse to arrive. While plundering through some papers in an unused drawer of my desk, I ran across a brochure I’d saved about the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s amazing how things come together, I thought. Next step, convincing Linda we needed a road trip.

The parkway has always been one of my favorite destinations, I guess because it’s beautiful and seems never-ending. It’s the longest linear national park in the country and runs 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. I’ve never driven from one end to the other, but someday I hope to.

Actually, there’s another reason for my interest in this monumental project constructed during the Great Depression. I closed out my newspaper career working for the descendants of Josephus Daniels, the early owner and publisher of The News & Observer in Raleigh. Without Josephus, the parkway probably would not have come through North Carolina at all.

My mind went back to early American history classes that I waded through while pursuing an education. If I remember correctly, back around 1917 during the World War I, the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, offered the job of secretary of the Navy to a loyal Democrat, Josephus Daniels, owner and publisher of The News & Observer, which was, at that time, the largest newspaper in the state of North Carolina. Daniels, in turn and needing help, offered the job of assistant to the secretary to another up-and-coming Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over time they became good friends.

When the idea of the parkway came up years later as a way to alleviate some of the unemployment during the Great Depression, Roosevelt was president. Tennessee was first in line to get the important revenue-producing project. Their idea was that the parkway was to run along the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Naturally, the folks in the know in North Carolina wanted the parkway to run along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and they had one great ally in Josephus Daniels, friend of the president. Josephus and his group of state promoters made several overtures to FDR, and he agreed to let the parkway come through Virginia and North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Parkway was born.

It’s ironic that I ended my newspaper career working for David Woronoff and Frank Daniels Jr., direct descendants of Josephus, the man who helped bring one of my favorite national parks to our state.

I explained to Linda that it was my duty to honor the legacy of my boss of several generations ago and visit the parkway. She laughed and said, “Any excuse for a road trip.” We planned to venture out the following week.

We were sitting around the kitchen table. “I say we head up to Virginia and hit the parkway there. We haven’t done any of the Virginia stretches yet,” I said. Linda had her atlas and I was scrolling through my iPad.

“How about the Peaks of Otter?” she said.

“The who of what?” I replied.

“The Peaks of Otter. I read somewhere that’s the Cherokee word for high places or maybe the area is just named after the nearby headwaters of the Otter River, whatever. It sounds beautiful.”

“And,” I replied showing Linda pictures on my iPad, “here is where we can stay, the Peaks of Otter Lodge.”

The following Monday found us on the road heading north, up through Greensboro on Highway 29. After an uneventful three-hour trip, we entered the picturesque little town of Bedford, Virginia, only about 20 miles from our destination right on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Peaks of Otter Lodge stretches out over 56 rooms with incredible views of Lake Abbott and the peaks beyond. There are several hiking trails geared to the expertise of the hiker, or you can do what I did most of the time we were not out exploring, and that’s kick back with a good book while relaxing in an Adirondack chair right next to the lake.

One thing on our must-do list was to visit the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. The next morning we were up and at ’em early.

The memorial sits majestically right outside town at the base of the Blue Ridge and encompasses more than 50 acres. When we drove up to the entrance — a 44-foot-tall arch embellished by the code name “Overlord” — a feeling came over me, sort of like the one you get in church when a special hymn touches your heart. That day it did the same to us as we walked around the site. We were silent, hushed as if at a funeral.

These 50 acres in the small town of Bedford, Virginia, serve as a remembrance of over 2,500 young men and the dedication of a nation that owes everything to the heroes who would never see past that day, June 6, 1944, on the French shore.

Why Bedford? Given the population of the town, they lost the most. By the day’s end, 19 of their young men had died. I found the following quote in a brochure: “Recognizing Bedford as emblematic of all communities, large and small, whose citizen-soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial here.”

That war, the second war to end all wars, is long gone. Without movies like Saving Private Ryan, there would likely be folks who don’t know what D-Day means or what happened or the sacrifices that took place on that amazing day. It seems that every generation has its own particular war. For me, it was Vietnam, for others the Gulf War, and others, Afghanistan. The list grows, seemingly interminable.

But looking back, I think about those true citizen-soldiers who fought in World War II: my dad in the Navy, my uncle Tommy in the Marines, and my uncle Hubert in the Army. They volunteered, knowing that they were in for the duration and this was the only way to help save the greatest nation, and perhaps the world, for the generations to come. The boys who gave all on D-Day were part of that group. It was indeed, I believe, the Greatest Generation.

The drive back up the mountain was subdued. Neither of us wanted to break the spell the D-Day Memorial had on us, but when we got back to the lodge we decided to celebrate our last day at the Peaks with dinner and a bottle of wine at the lodge restaurant.

The next morning we drove south on the parkway heading to Boone, pulling over at every overlook. The views were remarkable. The morning sun reflected off the russet-colored leaves of hickory and oak trees down in the valley.

At one overlook, Linda said, “This is really the greatest country in the world. Just look at this remarkable view. And think of all the people who made the parkway happen.”

“Yep,” I replied. “We have a lot of folks to thank for that.”

We loaded up and headed on south to Boone for a visit with our son, Tommy.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Sporting Life

Field of Dreams

Rekindling an old love affair

By Tom Bryant

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” — Yogi Berra

The  baseball World Series had the New York Yankees battling their archrivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I remember it so well because the final game was played on my birthday, Oct. 7.

I was 11 years old and had just come out of a Little League baseball season where I had hit my first home run. Everyone knew I was gonna be a baseball player, because that’s what I told every solitary soul who would listen. My hero was Mickey Mantle.

My daddy played baseball in high school and won a scholarship to play at Clemson University. Along came World War II and canceled those plans. He came home in 1946, put his baseball plans on the back burner and proceeded to raise a family of four children. I was the first, and the story was that before Dad left for the Navy in ’41, he bought me a toy baseball bat, ball and glove with the hopes that I would be a chip off the old block. I was 3 months old and Mother often said that the baseball toys were my favorite, sort of like the way other kids had a security blanket.

Pinebluff, the little village where we lived, was the perfect place for a youngster who loved the grand old all-American sport. There were enough kids to start our own competing leagues. The boys on the west side of Highway 1, which bisected the town, comprised one league, and the players on the east side made up the other. Most times, when we played at our makeshift diamond behind Virgil Carpenter’s home, we didn’t have enough players for nine on each side, so we would choose up, and sometimes the opposing west team would have to lend players to the east or vice versa. This was our way of fielding teams, but later, along came our first formal structure of organized baseball — Little League.

I was hooked. Many game-day mornings, I would sit on the steps of our front porch, looking toward the clouds, hoping and praying that it wouldn’t rain and shut down the afternoon game.

I met kids from all over the county who loved the sport as much as I did, and later some of us would be on the same baseball team in high school. There was H.B. Ritter who played center field and could hit the ball a country mile. Sonny Smith caught and pitched and was an all-around talent. Jimmy Veasy played third; Marvin Lewis, shortstop; and Billy Marts, second base. They covered the infield like a blanket. Not much could get by that amazing trio. Oh, I played first base and helped where I could. Our coach was Bill Russell, one of the best. He knew the sport and had as much fun coaching as we did playing.

Our senior year we almost won the state championship, losing that game to Southern Pines. I can’t remember the score, but it was heartbreaking. The day after that evening game, Mother and I left for Brevard College to see if I made the cut and could become a student.

It was a melancholy time, my last year of high school and the last year I would ever play baseball for good old Aberdeen High. I was afraid my baseball career was ended but I lucked out, got into college, and was able to play baseball there.

So what got me on this memory road trip about the days of old when baseball was such a big part of my life? It was a character I met recently, at church actually, named Bill Berger. In the Air Force Bill flew those huge tankers that refuel jets in flight. After retiring, he did several years of contract work for the government, having great experiences along the way.

Bill and his lovely wife, Bonnie, live in Seven Lakes, and both are very active in our communities. As a matter of fact, Bill introduced me to our church’s men’s prayer breakfast that meets at Sizzlin’ Steak or Eggs restaurant two Tuesdays a month. It was at one of those gatherings when Bill told me that he and Bonnie were going out to Omaha to attend the NCAA Men’s College World Series. I was entranced.

Baseball was my favorite sport, but after I aged out and laid my glove down and watched a few pro games, I figured I was done. It wasn’t the same. Today’s pros get paid a gazillion dollars to play. They move from team to team, traded at the whim of the coaches or wherever the money is greatest. It was hard for me to develop a loyalty to a team when you have to keep a roster to identify the players. So I let it go and concentrated on other outdoor pursuits.

Flipping through TV channels a day or two after Bill told me about his impending trip to Omaha, I came upon the network featuring the college teams, and I was hooked. I watched most of the competitors and marveled at the young talent on the field. Not only was there plenty of ability, but the players actually looked as if they were having fun.

I remembered the letter to The Pilot that Bill penned after he and Bonnie got back from their road trip out west. “Omaha is a long drive, but the games are worth the effort: not expensive, great new stadium, clean city, good food, and most importantly, exciting games played by the same old rules we all employed years ago. It’s a treat and a trip back to our youth.”

So there you go. Next year, if I can persuade Linda, my bride, we’re gonna head out to Omaha to enjoy a couple of games played by youngsters the way it should be, for the fun of it.

I guess it really is like my favorite baseball coach of all time, Yogi Berra, said in his own special vernacular, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.