Carolina On My Mind

I have very fond memories of North Carolina, having spent six of the first
eleven years of my life in Durham, all but two school years prior to Junior High there, and after ten years of being an only child, was blessed with a little sister while there.

Mom, Dad and I, first moved to Durham from Indy in the spring of 1963. Arriving in advance of Dad, Mom and I found Poplar Apartments in an area along Erwin Road near the Duke Medical Center where Dad was to continue his Medical training. The original unit shown to us was a complete disaster area, which I still vividly remember though only three years of age. Mom asked to see one in another building which was the one settled on. That unit, on Louise Circle, is still in use to this day, which is amazing since it was fairly dilapidated at that time – over fifty years ago.

We lived in that apartment through the remaining Mercury launches and the following Gemini missions of the US manned space program, the Kennedy assassination and funeral and the funeral of Winston Churchill. Watching it on TV, I remembered how Churchill’s horse-drawn caisson, as it approached Westminster Abbey, was reminiscent of the Kennedy procession fourteen months earlier, but with a Union Jack draped over the casket instead of the Stars and Stripes.

I spent two years at the Mary Cowper Preschool before proceeding to Lakewood Elementary, where Mom taught second-grade, for my first and second grade schooling. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hobgood, disciplined me one day for whatever reason and made me stay behind while the rest of the class went to lunch. Sitting alone in the classroom, I looked up through the open door to see Mom directing her class to the lunchroom. When she looked up and saw me alone in the darkened classroom, she did a “triple take”. Had it not been for consistent “C”s in conduct, I probably would have been a straight “A” student.

Our sole vehicle was a mint green, 1960 Chevy Biscayne until Dad bought himself a red Triumph TR3, much to the chagrin of Mom (Dad forged her signature on the bill of sale and I was to be an accomplice). It broke down on the way home with a busted radiator hose right in front of the children’s clinic I would frequent when struck by typical childhood afflictions. Dad finally got rid of the oil leaking Triumph (I missed that sports car smell) and we bought a brand new Olds Cutlass, a solid vehicle which we used through the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s without a single problem.

Popular TV programs of the day included Daniel Boone, I Spy, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, Man From U.N.C.L.E. and my favorite, Wild Wild West.

In the central “piedmont” region of the state, we were in close proximity to all kinds of attractions. We would take a few days to travel to places like Cape Hatteras on the outer banks, Tryon Palace near New Bern, the USS North Carolina on the Neuse River in Wilmington, Biltmore House in the mountainous area of Asheville, Kerr Lake Reservoir on the North Carolina/Virginia border and to Orton Plantation and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Nearby was Bennett Place, Hillsborough, the Museum of Natural History in Raleigh, and in the city proper, Duke Gardens and the beautiful campus. Being Methodist, we often attended Duke Chapel, the centerpiece of the university.

As the Viet Nam conflict escalated, Dad’s number came up, so he decided to enlist in the Air Force. We were preparing for Lackland AFB in San Antonio but were redirected to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, which worked out well since it was only about an hour and a half drive from our family hub of Muncie, Indiana.

While serving as Captain in the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson’s Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, Dad purchased a plain, white, 1968 Ford Falcon, which served him until we returned to Indiana in 1971.

After Dad’s two-year stint in the Air Force, we returned once again to Durham. This time to our own home just west of town in Colony Park, which was just being completed as we moved in. It was the coolest place imaginable with several acres of backyard, a log cabin from the tobacco days about twenty yards southeast of the house, a barn full of hay at the rear of our property and the expanse of Duke Forest across the street. It was paradise for a kid at my age.

That summer, while Mom was pregnant, Dad and I cleared out two to three acres of waist-high grass, always keeping a watchful eye out for snakes. We then had to take out several trees, the smaller ones we handled, but the larger oaks were contracted out to be felled and sectioned with chainsaws. We then split the sections for use as firewood. One morning as I was walking out to the back yard to split wood, a bird attacked the top of my head. Startled, I ran into the carport and looked back out to see the bird’s nest, full of young chicks, in the branches of one of the oak tree sections. By mid-morning, they were gone, and I resumed my work.

From my bedroom window, which faced east out of the back of the house, a heavy-gauge iron chain protruded from the trunk of an oak tree only a few feet away, the tree having grown over most of it. It always made me wonder about the hidden stories of the land before it became Colony Park.

Mom and I visited the neighborhood pool quite a bit that first summer, where we met the Booth’s – Barbara, her daughter Susan and son Bobby, who became close family friends for many years. The Booth’s were over to our house the night of the lunar landing, which Susan, Bobby and I watched on the GE black and white, portable TV in my bedroom. While history was in the making before us, we played Monopoly and discussed whether I was soon to have a little brother or a little sister. Susan, who had scored extremely high on the extra-sensory perception tests that Duke’s Parapsychology Laboratory was so well-known for, felt strongly that it would be a girl.

In addition to Bobby Booth, whose father, Bob, was the head of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, my Colony Park runnin’ buddies included Mike Waters, whose father, “Bucky“, was the Duke basketball coach, and Lane Llewellyn, who lived in the farmhouse on the corner that once belonged to the family that owned the land where Colony Park was developed.

In the autumn of 1969, I would walk down to the Llewellyn’s house weekday mornings where Lane’s Mom would fix us a good country breakfast before catching the bus to school. One chilly morning, Mrs. Llewellyn said she had a gut feeling that Mom would go into labor that day. Lo and behold, by nightfall I had a baby sister. On October 23rd, Kimberly Susan Dowell was born. Both, Mrs. Llewellyn and Susan Booth nailed it!.

The day Kim was born, our class had gone on a field trip to Moravian Village in Winston-Salem. About half-way through the day, I started feeling woozy and Mrs. Burgess put me on the bus (nice commercial bus, not a school bus) until the rest of the class was ready to venture back. By the time I got home, I had a high fever and was put under the care of the Waters, a couple of houses down from us. Before long, Grandma Peckinpaugh arrived and took me to the house, where we had to wait a couple of extra days before bringing Kimberly home so that I would be past the incubation period. It turns out that I had a case of the Croup, commonly referred to as “whooping cough”. I had to wear a surgical mask to view my new sister on the first several occasions, but eventually I took part in the feeding, diaper changing and other activities involved with the care of a baby.

Hope Valley Elementary, an old school a few miles to the south off Cornwallis Road, was where I attended fifth and sixth grade. About halfway through the fifth grade, Mrs. Burgess moved us to a classroom on the first floor after the second floor had been condemned by the city. Being a Cub Scout for two years in Huber Heights, Ohio, prior to returning to Durham, I realized pretty quickly that the local program was not nearly as well run and decided to drop out before making it to “Wolf”, the highest level in scouting. I did well in school and before long, had my own column in the school paper, my artwork featured in the school gallery, was the school Audio Visual (AV) technician, was a stage actor in several plays, and won a city-wide essay on “Fire Prevention”. I was awarded a brand new, red Stingray style bike with a banana seat and had my picture taken in front of a local fire station for the Durham paper. In the photo background, Mom with baby Kim in her arms are visible through the station window, watching from inside.

The first four years we were in Durham, we would usually fly home to visit the folks in Indiana once or twice a year. Though the two years in Dayton shortened the journey and increased the frequency of the trips home, the drives we would make from Durham to Muncie were especially memorable in that they would take us through the scenic mountains of Virginia and West Virginia accompanied by AM radio tunes like James Taylor’s Country Road and Caroline in My Mind, Lobo’s Me and You and a Dog Named Boo and all the other pop favorites of the era.

Having a pal whose Dad is the head basketball coach at Duke University has many advantages. Mike and I had free access to all of the Duke home games and some of the away games in the “triangle” area, we would tag along with the team to a local pizza parlor after the game, and have occasional pick-up games with a Duke player or two or three out in the driveway. Randy Denton, the Blue Devil Center, always took time for Mike and I, once joining us with an array of plastic soldiers we had set up on the living room floor. The University of South Carolina was in the ACC in those days and was consistently ranked among the top teams in the country alongside John Wooden’s UCLA teams. At one home game, I was able to get Johnny Roche’s autograph, one of the five Gamecock teammates that would go on to represent the United States in the Olympics.

At Charmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, Mike and I got to meet UNC coach Dean Smith, though neither of us fully realized the magnitude of it at the time.

We also got free tickets to the Raleigh/Durham Bulls games, the semi-pro team behind the movie Bull Durham, one of the best sports movies of all time in the opinion of many sports fans. As we were leaving the stadium after one game, Mike and I saw an old man beating another elderly man to a pulp with a broom handle out in the parking lot. People were looking, but nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. They appeared to be just a couple of drunken bums, but it was kind of a gruesome spectacle for us to witness.

Coach Water’s assistant at the time, was Hubie Brown, who would later make a big name for himself in the NBA coaching world. Mike and I signed up for Duke basketball Camp one year, which was run by Bucky, Hubie and other coaching staff with special appearances by some of previous Duke stars who had gone on to the pros including Jack Marin of the Baltimore Bullets and Billy Cunningham of the Philadelphia 76ers, who had been a standout at UNC.

Lane and I had a network of paths and forts throughout the dense woods across the street that extended into Orange County to the west. North Carolina has the largest number of snakes of any state in the country, six of the poisonous variety. I killed several copperheads, but refrained from carrying them home to show the folks following the demonstrative reception they once displayed.

I dragged Dad out into the woods one day, to show him an old cemetery I’d found arranged in a circle around an ancient magnolia tree. It was a fairly small cemetery, about thirty yards in diameter with what appeared to be anywhere from about thirty to forty graves marked with stones of varying shapes and sizes, hardly any of which were still standing. A faint wagon path through the heavy woods led to the site and encircled it, making only one way in and one way out. The broken down stone markers were covered in vegetation with their inscriptions worn and difficult to make out, but some family and individual names, dates and the initials “C.S.A.” were discernible on many of them.

In the Spring of 1971, Dad had an offer to go into practice in Muncie, marking the end of a wonderful childhood experience. Since we were to leave before I’d officially “graduated” from the sixth grade, my teacher “tested me out” and allowed me to finish early. The neighbors had a going away get together for us at the Water’s house, and Bucky spoke about recruiting basketball talent in Indiana. Bob Booth, Bobby’s Dad, would always address me as “Steffen”, knowing how it irked me, and continued to do so until we departed.

The Booths came to visit us in Muncie within a couple of years, then Mom, Dad, Kim and I, traveled to North Carolina a couple of times in the mid-1970s. We first met at Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains to spend a week and the second trip was a brief stop to visit them at their new home in Hope Valley as we continued on to Atlantic Beach, on the coast. After that, we all sort of fell out of touch. Dad made a visit to Durham several years ago and learned from Bob Booth that Barbara had succumbed to cancer a couple of years prior. I’ve spoken to Bob Booth and Bucky Waters over the telephone within the last few years and it sounded like things were going well for everyone, but I’ve since discovered Bobby (Robert Harrison Booth Jr. – age 53) passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 53 and that Bob (Robert Harrison Booth Sr. – age 83) passed on December 1st, 2014, less than 4 months prior to creating this post.

Over the years, I’ve always had the desire to go back to North Carolina. One of these days, I’ll make it back to the “Tarheel” state, but I realize that it just won’t be the same. Nothing could ever replace those memories of our Carolina days.

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