When I worked at the News & Record, I wrote three columns a week, and at times, that could be some kind of tough. See, I was always looking for columns that said something who we are and how we live — or try to at least.
But no matter where that search took me, I’d come back to the newsroom full of mentors who knew their way around a noun and verb. In a few minutes, they could give any one of us the good word on writing, reporting and the need for the solid tale.
And yes, Don Patterson was one.
I wrote this column back in 2012 when Don announced he was retiring from chasing stories after 43 years in a Greensboro newsroom. I wanted to because of what Don gave me, gave all of us in the newsroom.
And when I ran into him on this afternoon, in all places a grocery store, I went back to that column from six years ago.
Yes, he is still a natty dresser. He was wearing a seersucker suit, fresh from Sunday morning worship, talking about the next journey he’s going to take.
It’s not Africa, this time. That was about 18 months back. No, this time it’s north Myrtle Beach with his wife, Linda, to relax and watch the tide ebb and flow.
Do love that man.
Our Man Don
The year: 1969. That was a big year for Don Patterson.
He was a farmer’s son, fresh out of UNC-Chapel Hill , and he began his journalism career as a copy editor at The Daily News .
It was a storied time to be an ink-stained scribe in Greensboro, a time of characters, typewriters and two daily newspapers — one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Over the years, Don worked for both.
Now, 43 years later — many positions, many awards later — Don retires. Today is his last day.
But don’t call him a journalist. Sounds too pompous, he’ll tell you. He’s just a reporter who loves the chase of a good story.
“Do you think you can get it?’’ an editor asked him a few months back.
“If I can’t get this story, I might as well take early retirement,’’ he replied.
And now, he has. He had one more year. But after turning 65 last week , he plans to travel and see places around the world none of us in the newsroom can hardly pronounce, let alone spell.
He’s come a long way from Sampson County and the speck of a community called Piney Green . Like his paternal grandfather, the professional bike rider , he’s always up for an adventure. But like his dad, he has a busy mind.
Just look at his desk. It’s a marvel — and a fire hazard.
There was a time mounds of paper at least a foot high covered every inch, and cardboard boxes containing all sorts of research looked like mountains beside his desk.
“My desk is perfect,’’ he would tell you. “I’ve heard people say, ‘The fire marshal isn’t going to like this.’ But this is the way I want it. It makes me comfortable.’’
And then, there’s his wardrobe. Sweaters of all colors and stripes of all types. At 6-foot-3 , 168 pounds soaking wet, he’d speed-walk through the newsroom looking like a long-legged toothpick wearing a rainbow.
His wife, Linda , knows. She’s seen his closet. Both closets.
“You have all those stripes and plaids and colors and they are all crammed in there with all those ties,’’ she says. “It’ll dazzle you.’’
Plenty of times he’s dazzled us in the newsroom. We call them Pattersonisms. So many Pattersonisms.
“You’re stronger than train smoke!”
“You’re as slick as boiled okra!’’
“I’m happier than a duck on a June bug.”
“I’m doing journalism.”
“As my dad always said, ‘If it was easy, anyone could do it.’ ’’
Don always mentions his dad, Thomas. In Sampson County, they called him Mr. Tom. A respected farmer, a deacon in his Baptist church, he coached Don in Little League and got him up hours before daybreak to work the farm.
By day’s end, Thomas had read three newspapers in his chair by the stove, and Don would be splayed on the floor, poring over the box scores in the sports sections and dreaming he was Mickey Mantle.
His mom, Oleta , she was what Don called “Aunt Bee funny .’’ One time, she heard a doctor tell her to lay off the sugar, and if so, she could drink all the unsweetened tea she wanted.
Straight-faced, she responded, “I won’t want a lot of unsweet tea.’’
She was a storyteller, just like Don.
“I like the chase rather than catching the car,’’ he’d say. “Catch the car, and then, you’ve got to write it.’’
And write, he did. He was the professor in our newsroom. With his hands steepled, his voice no louder than a Sunday morning prayer, he’d tell us to avoid adverbs, play with words, and write with authority and verve.
He did. So we did. Or tried. And now, he leaves.
On Monday, during a 90-minute retirement ceremony with his wife by his side, he gave the newsroom gifts to remember him by: a disco black shirt with flowers and a sweater with so many colors you could close your eyes — and still see it.
“I’ll miss seeing my name at the top of a big story,’’ he said at the ceremony’s end. “But I believe I’ll get over it.’’
We won’t. At least not for a long while.
Sure, we’ll miss his Pattersonisms, his dazzle of color. But mostly, we’ll miss him. He was our colleague, our teacher, our friend, our Mickey Mantle.
So, Don Patterson, thanks. Many, many thanks.
Counting The Minutes
Today is Valentine’s Day. And Drew Sykes and Amanda Bullock, they do have a love story.
They barely knew each other at Grimsley. Amanda was simply the cute girl who once built forts in the Sykes’ living room and wore the pajama bottoms with stars. That happened during sleepovers with Cara, Drew’s little sister. Cara and Amanda had been best friends since seventh grade.
Fast forward to the scary life after college.
It’s 2008, and Drew is 23. He comes home from N.C. State with a degree in creative writing with a minor in journalism, and he has no clue what he’s going to do.
He gets a job waiting tables at Sticks & Stones, a pizza restaurant near his childhood home, and he tries to figure out what to do next.
Meanwhile, with the help of Facebook, he reconnects with Amanda. She’s 20, a UNCG student working on a degree in communication studies.
Drew invites Amanda to a John Mayer concert in Raleigh. She can’t go. He asks her out again. Again, Amanda can’t go. Finally, he asks her out for a third time, and they hit Natty Greene’s Brewery downtown and sit in the corner by the window.
So it begins, their courtship. She graduates. He gets a master’s in interactive media from Elon. He gets a job as a community manager for a social media company and moves to Raleigh.
She gets a job as a recruiter for a marketing company and moves to Raleigh, too.
They talk about what they call the “M-word,’’ and Drew wants to put on her finger a quarter-size engagement ring once worn by his paternal grandmother, a woman named Jamie who was married to Marvin for at least a half-century.
But he wants to do it at a special place, and he has an idea — onstage at the Cat’s Cradle with Walk The Moon, a band from Ohio that he and Amanda love. And he wanted to do it right before Walk The Moon’s “I Can Lift A Car,’’ a tune about meeting someone and feeling you can do anything.
That’s how he felt about Amanda.
But would Walk The Moon say yes?
He knew them. He had become friends with them. Matter of fact, when Walk The Moon played the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, they played in front of 40,000 fans with a stage banner hanging behind them that Drew had created.
So, he asked Nick Petricca, the group’s lead singer. But ever the procrastinator, Drew asked Nick on the Monday before their Saturday show in Carrboro at the Cat’s Cradle.
“Man, that’s heavy,’’ Nick told Drew. “Let me run it by the other guys, and see if they’re cool with it.”
For two days, Drew heard nothing. Finally, on the third day, Drew got a call from Nick. Drew got the news he wanted to hear.
So on Saturday, Drew stuck a box containing his grandmother’s ring in his jeans’ left pocket. The thing was huge. He untucked his shirt to hide it, patted it constantly to make sure it was still there, and after seeing the band’s set list, he stood inside Cat’s Cradle and counted tunes.
Three songs to go.
Two songs to go.
Four minutes to … it.
Drew stands backstage with Amanda and hears Nick go on about the banner hanging behind them and “our friend, Drew.’’ Now, Drew knows.
“OK, this is it,’’ Drew tells himself. “You can’t mess this up.’’
He walks out and beckons Amanda to follow. At first, she says no. Trust me, he tells her.
Drew had written what he was going to say, and he had practiced constantly in his bathroom mirror. But out there, in front of at least 1,000 fans, he wings it. He pulls out the box, and Amanda starts to cry.
She knows. The crowd knows. Drew feels his body turn into Jello, and he worries that if he shakes too much, the ring will fly off his fingers, into the crowd and be lost forever.
So, Drew does it quick. He puts the ring on Amanda’s finger, and as the crowd screams, they kiss and scoot offstage. Then, Drew stops.
“Wait a minute,’’ he says. “Did you say yes?’’
Amanda nods. That’s all Drew needs to know.
Her Name Is Jeannie
GREENSBORO — Maybe you’ve seen her.
She’s 15 feet tall, as willowy as a spiral of smoke, with steel rebar as her skeleton and steel metal trimmings for her skin, hair and legs.
And appropriately enough, she now stands at the spot known to some of us as the Whiskey District and Greensbo-hemia. But mostly, we call it The Corner, the intersection of Walker and Elam, a place where you’ll see anything — if you hang long enough.
It’s a spot with four restaurants, three bars, a Laundromat and a grocery store. You can do your laundry, people-watch on a patio, grab a beer and some grub in your flip-flops and spy a homemade flier about a lost cat named Stripe.
So, the 15-foot girl fits. Let’s call her Jeannie. She went up Wednesday in front of the Lindley Park Filling Station to give The Corner an introduction to something new called Art Attack!
Yes, exclamation mark included.
It’s an art show, and it’ll take place Saturday at the Filling Station. If Hanna cooperates.
Rain and wind from Hurricane Hanna could postpone the show for two weeks. But artists are gamblers at heart. So, Art Attack! will go on with Jeannie on the block as part of the area’s first art exhibit of this scale.
Thank The Fish Guy. It was his idea.
If you’ve been to The Corner, you’ve seen his school of metal fish swimming both inside and outside Fishbones. The Fish Guy is Lawrence Feir, the metal sculptor who organized Art Attack!
He talked to Sarah Keith, owner of the Filling Station, and she jumped at the idea.
Plus, she knows Feir. She calls him Larry. He hangs often at The Corner because he lives down the street, and he figured an art exhibit in his neighborhood would be “pretty cool.”
Pretty cool, indeed.
There are few places in Greensboro where you can see this: a skateboarder walking his dog, a family pushing a stroller, and a trio of barefooted musicians, on a bench, playing everything from Weather Report to Van Morrison.
Now, here comes Feir’s Art Attack! He rounded up some of his art buddies who work with wood and metal, and they’ll bring in their own quirky creations that’ll add to the built-in Bohemia of The Corner.
Reuven Fields will bring steel-necked horses; Jay Jones, his aluminum mobiles of manta rays; and husband and wife Ernie and Lois Rich, their steel-ribbon musicians they call the “Big Guys.’’
Meanwhile, wood carver Paul Nixon will bring in the cedar pole that carries the faces of his childhood: fairies, goblins and gremlins. Those are the characters told to him by his grandmother, a woman who lived beneath a mountain in Ireland where oil lamps were the only man-made light.
So, Jeannie will be far from alone Saturday at The Corner, that spot in Greensboro that captures that elusive aura of … well … something.
Huh? Ask Ernie Rich. Like Feir, he and Lois live down the street, and no day goes by that he doesn’t head toward the intersection of Walker and Elam, with smoking pipe in hand.
“The whole Elam-Walker aura,” he said. “I don’t think it’s art and food, but whatever it is, it’s got it. It gets you off the couch. It’s got that indefinable something. It’s cool.”
From late June 2013.
The Flag-Waver Off Lexington
HIGH POINT — In his sloping front yard that seems no bigger than a postage stamp, David Headen Jr. displays an American flag.
Or really 14.
He lives beside busy Lexington Avenue, just beyond the blue-collar commerce of High Point’s Five Points section. You can see his flags from nearly a half-block away.
His daughter tells him he has the Fourth of July in his front yard. But David has Fourth of July in his front yard year-round.
And it’s not just the flags.
He has stacked bricks that spell out U.S.A. In front are three dog statues and two statues of cherub-cheeked girls. The dogs act as guards, and the girls represent the women in the military and the wives at home.
At least, that’s what David tells me
Off to the side is a rock with a cross with the Lord’s Prayer etched into its concrete. The rock is slightly bigger than a basketball, and David found it in his side yard. That, he says, represents a soldier’s grave, the ultimate sacrifice.
Beside the rock is a statue of three firefighters, no bigger than G.I. Joe action figures. They are raising a tiny American flag at what we all know as ground zero.
All that is in David’s front yard.
People notice. They drive by, honk and wave. Some holler. A few stop.
For months, I’d be driving somewhere, and I’d see this patriotic tableau beside Lexington Avenue. Every time I’d pass, I’d always wonder about the who and the why.
I found out this week.
David is a Smith High grad, Class of 1971. He turned 59 in May. He takes the bus to and from work — he has no car — and he manages the warehouse for the Salvation Army in High Point.
On July Fourth, he plans to do yard work for a family in Greensboro and throw something on the grill.
He is also a military veteran. I figured that.
He served eight years in the Army, and he got out in 1983 after rising to the rank of sergeant
The two-bedroom house he rents is like his front yard. By the front door, he has what he calls his “military wall.’’ It has a faded American flag on the wall and another American flag in a shadow box.
In his kitchen, he has flag dishcloths and flag potholders. In his bedroom, he has a flag hat, a flag shirt and a flag jacket. In his spare bedroom, he has flags in the closet and flags on the arm of a chair.
In all, David has 13 American flags inside his house.
But his life is no John Wayne, rah-rah Army movie. His life may be full of patriotism. But it is also full of pain.
“I was one of 17 children, and my mom got fed up with daddy selling white liquor, she moved to New York, and he was left with all the kids,’’ he tells me. “He turned all of us over to foster care. I’m the baby, the only boy.’’
At the time, David was 9 months old. He never saw his dad again.
By age 6, he had been in 15 foster homes. He stayed with the Chavis family in Greensboro. Robert and Florence Chavis had no kids. They fostered kids. David stayed until he graduated from Smith High.
By that time, David had seen his mom only three times.
After Smith High, David joined the Army and worked all kind of odd jobs. He also became addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine. He has been sober six years. Back then, he didn’t know his daughter. He does now. He knows her kids and her grandson, Travon Hokett, the 8-year-old full of questions about the flags in the yard and in the house.
The one in the shadow box is a gift from a friend. The faded one on the wall is from the man David called his dad, Robert Chavis, the World War II veteran. The other flags, David tells his great-grandson, are a part of him.
His patriotism. His pain. His pick-me-up for anyone who passes.
“This all comes from searching my inner being and finding out who the real David is,’’ David says. “It’s not about what the world owes me. It’s about what I can do for the world. I’m not going to blame anyone for what happened to me
“I’ve got to keep going. All positive. No negative. And thank God for putting my feet on the floor every morning.’’
From January 2012
Dimes, My Dad & Me
It’s that time of year, the first Sunday in January, when I have all these ideas of what I’d love to do.
I’d love to cuss less and pray more. And by God, I’d love to find a decent bag of boiled peanuts somewhere in central North Carolina. No can, please. I want them fresh, salty, slimy, damp as a swamp. Do miss that.
But moreover, I’d love to never miss the importance of a dime. Let me explain.
When I was young with a bowl cut, my father drove me and my mom everywhere to see relatives, friends and his buddies from World War II. With every exit, I heard the same conversation.
“Nat, be careful,” someone would say to him.
“Don’t worry,” he’d respond. “I have $2 million and 10 cents in the car. Meg’s a million, Jer-Boy’s a million, and I’m 10 cents.”
I hated it. I was so embarrassed that I’d slink in the backseat, hoping no one would see me leave. My dad never seemed to notice. He drove on. He embraced his goofiness and always called me “Jer-Boy.” Hated that, too.
But I got used to it. He was a green-eyed, bowlegged jokester, and he always loved to poke. Even at himself.
“Jer-Boy, I’m so bowlegged,” he’d say, “I couldn’t hem a hog in a ditch.”
So it went with my dad – the Army sergeant major, the 28-year veteran of the military, the South Carolina farm boy named Nathan Alexander, the first to leave the family’s tobacco farm.
My father died 12 years ago from a weak heart. He was 80. Afterward, I wore out Bob Dylan’s 1997 release “Time Out of Mind.” I buried my grief in the words I heard, and a verse from “Not Dark Yet” clanged in my mind like a grandfather clock.
Feel like my soul has
Turned into steel.
I’ve still got the scars
That the sun didn’t heal.
That’s when I started finding dimes.
I found them where my kids sat. I found them on vacation, on long weekends. Once on a guys-only trip, I found two dimes on a beach house table in Myrtle Beach, in Horry County, the place of my dad’s birth.
I found them underneath a kitchen island I demolished and in the cushions of a couch where my nephew – my dad’s grandson – slept.
Five years ago, my family was buying a house from a retired probation officer, a man who had just lost his wife to cancer. He shared his story. I shared mine about the dime. The next day, he called.
“Jeri,” he told me. “You’ll never guess what I found.”
My daughter found a dime on her windowsill, in a drink machine, in her cubby at school. My son found them in his bedroom, in our kitchen, on his visits to Salisbury to see his maternal grandparents.
My wife – well, she has found more dimes than I have. Under chairs. In the couch. In the car. In the tablecloth as recently as a dinner right after Christmas.
We have a name for them: Bubba Dimes. My kids called my dad “Bubba.” The name stuck.
“Bubba is talking to us,” my wife likes to say.
I’d like to think so. But there’s no proof other than just a hunch, a longing. Over the years, I’ve interviewed so many people who would say they had prayed or hoped for a sign from a loved one they had lost.
So many times, they’d tell me they had seen a sign.
It sounds weird. So I asked Julie Peeples, my minister. She has heard those kind of stories, too.
There’s the one about the bird lover.
Peeples helped a family who had lost their father, their husband. After his death, a summertime bird appeared at his window. Peeples can’t remember what kind of bird. But she does remember the time of year the bird came: the middle of winter.
There’s the one about the dragonfly.
Peeples married a couple, and for the ceremony, she decided on a whim to wear a dragonfly pin. The mother of the groom saw it and came up to her teary-eyed.
“You don’t know how much that means,” the woman told Peeples. “My husband loved dragonflies.”
And there’s the one about the piano player.
That’s Peeples’ dad. He died 20 years ago. Peeples will be somewhere – in Scotland, in Israel – and she’ll walk into a bar or a pub and hear “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
That was her dad’s favorite song.
“If you believe in a God of love theologically, why would God entrust us to be in relationships and have them suddenly halt?” she asks. “That is a very unimaginative God, and I think God is far more creative and imaginative than that.”
But dimes and dragonflies, birds and songs. All signs?
“It happens too much,” Peeples says. “I think there is some sort of veil, some sort of crossing the boundaries that we don’t understand. Some of it is probably our imagination. We do start looking for things, and we see what we want to find. But that’s not all of it.”
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of my dime discoveries after a picture I received from my cousin. She included in her Christmas card an old, grainy photo of a tall, spindly man with long arms and a serious face. He reminded me of Ichabod Crane. But he was my Ichabod Crane.
He was our great-grandfather, and I had never heard of him before. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina at least a century ago. His name: Nathan Alexander Howell. He was my dad’s namesake.
Dimes. Family. For me, those two disparate things will always be connected.
I’m still finding dimes. But I don’t think of that Bob Dylan verse as much anymore. I think more about the last five lines of “I Happened To Be Standing,” a poem from Mary Oliver included in her new anthology, “A Thousand Mornings.”
These days, those lines seem to fit.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
Or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
If it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.