In the 1960s and 70s, everybody smoked, everybody but my mother, who didn’t smoke, drink, or do anything that Ann Landers wouldn’t have approved of. She still doesn’t, although I seem to recall that she once drank a pina colada on a cruise, long after the children were grown, of course. No, she didn’t smoke, which made her all the more remarkable since almost everyone else did. Finding a young person who didn’t smoke then would be like finding a young person now who doesn’t have a tattoo, a rare and wondrous creature.
My family photograph albums are filled with old photographs of relatives engaged in all sorts of activities, all performed with the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from lips, or attached like another finger to their right hands. My uncle, hovering over the grill, flipping hamburgers, smoking a cigarette. My grandmother, sitting on the front porch, breaking beans, smoking a cigarette. My father, standing in the front yard with a garden hose, spraying something or someone, smoking a cigarette.
I flirted with smoking off and on from the time I was 13 to the night I quit for good, in a bar called — and I am not making this up — Tobacco Road on Christmas Eve of 1984. I was sitting at a table with my best friend, Stewart, nursing a Michelob and a broken heart, watching the smoke drift into shreds beneath the stage lights where Nantucket had just finished their third encore and called it a night.
It was somewhere between one and two in the morning, and most of what was left of the crowd had already dispersed and vanished into the night. We were pondering a move on a table of four girls and two guys — Stewart had been asked to dance by one of the girls four or five times over the course of the evening, and now they were playing the “I see you, and I know you see me” game of staring that inevitably led to dancing, kissing, and leaving, one car following the other who knew where?
But my heart wasn’t really in it, and neither was his, I could tell. I killed my beer and stubbed out my cigarette just a bit dramatically. I was upset that a girl I liked had decided to go back to an old boyfriend. I was also upset that I was upset about it.
“That’s it for me,” I said, twisting the butt of the cigarette into the tray longer than necessary for an exclamation point. “That right there was my last cigarette.”
I can’t be absolutely sure, as I was tilting a little toward drunk just then, but I think I felt that quitting smoking was symbolic, since the girl was a smoker. I was giving cigarettes up. I was giving her up. Rather, I was giving the idea of her up. Poof. Up in smoke. It made sense to me at the time.
I haven’t smoked since. Most of those relatives from the photographs have also quit or passed away, many of them from smoking-related causes — heart attacks, cancer, diabetes. Stewart quit, too, just a year or two ago. He promptly gained 30 pounds, got disgusted with himself, and then turned to bike-riding to shed the weight. Now he competes in triathlons.
Yes, these are different days, different ways. There aren’t many places where a person can smoke inside, or even on the premises of many places. Many campuses are tobacco free. Smokers have become outcasts, even pariahs. It is difficult to comprehend how much smoking was just part of the culture then, not just something people did but part of who they were. Where I came from, you either farmed tobacco or knew people who did. My high school had a smoking area, and not just for the teachers. A lot of the guys who didn’t smoke chewed tobacco, usually Red Man. It was easy to buy cigarettes or chewing tobacco regardless of your age. After all, you were just supporting the local economy.
These days, most of the tobacco farms are gone from that area, many replaced by acres and acres of Christmas trees. I don’t know what percentage of people in the county are smokers, but it is a tiny fraction of what it once was, and that is a good thing. It is also a good thing that most people now wear seat belts, which they didn’t used to do, and avoid laying out in the sun all day on the weekends getting a tan, which they did use to do.
You do not see many pick-ups out on the highway with a bed full of children jostling around, which was pretty common back then. You don’t see many people on bicycles without a helmet. I cannot recall ever seeing a person on a bicycle wearing a helmet in those days.
By almost any sort of reckoning, we are smarter, safer, and healthier now than we once were. Would it sound crazy, then, if I admit that I kind of miss the general recklessness of those times? Have we somehow become too cautious, too buckled up, too protected, too insulated from the big, bad world?
Maybe it’s just the people in those pictures that I really miss, breaking beans until after dark, blowing smoke rings at the moon.
I was recently among a group of friends who were discussing habits — what they are and why we have them. Something I noticed pretty quickly is how those of us participating in the conversation, me included, tended to justify those habits we want to keep no matter how destructive they are for our health or emotional wellbeing.
“I don’t do this, so I should be able to do this,” the line of reasoning generally went. Or, to bring the thought from the abstract to the concrete, the logic seemed to follow this pattern: I gave up smoking (substitute your favorite addiction) so I don’t worry about eating five gallons of ice cream a night. If that’s what it takes not to smoke, oh well, I earned that right.”
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that there’s no great scorekeeper in the sky keeping tabs on our giving-ups with our substitutings. Just because I quit smoking the two packs of cigarettes a day I once smoked doesn’t mean that devouring bowls of ice cream or eating entire packs of cookies won’t kill me, too.
I have what’s commonly referred to as an addictive personality, mixed with an attractive sprinkle of obsessiveness. Anything I like a little, I soon find myself overdoing and wallowing about in excess. This extends to the obvious habits: smoking, drinking, food. But I have to be wary of over-exercising when I’m exercising, or reading one book by an author only to find myself trapped in having to read every book ever written by that author.
Which brings me to a digression: If you have a personality similar to mine, do not, I warn you, make the mistake of “sampling” Henry James. I fell into this trap because I long felt a certain need, an itch that needed to be scratched, of filling a James gap in my education. I’d read and enjoyed James’ The Portrait of a Lady in college, but that was about my only exposure to this great writer. That being the case, last summer I decided to read “a bit” of James. Four or five months later, and I’m trapped: James was horrendously long-lived and prolific, with three distinct writing periods that included some 20 novels and what seems an endless number of shorter works.
It took me — and I’m a fast reader — about eight weeks to wade through The Wings of the Dove. I’m still not sure I even liked the damned thing. I’ve been eyeballing The Golden Bowl, but haven’t yet been able to make the mental commitment to read it. But given my personality, this isn’t as much about choice as one might think and hope. This last James novel must, at some point, be read — and I might as well admit it and start.
Recent scientific studies show that some people literally might be hardwired for addiction.
The BBC last week reported on a study of addiction that recently finished up in the United Kingdom. The news service noted it long had been established that the brains of drug addicts have some differences to those of other people. But experts were unsure whether drugs changed the wiring of the brain or if drug addicts’ brains were wired differently in the first place. Researchers studied the brains of cocaine or crack addicts with brains of “clean” brothers or sisters. They found abnormalities in both, suggesting, they said, that addiction is in part a “disorder of the brain.”
But the study, by revealing identical abnormalities in both the addicts and their “clean” siblings, indicates more than just hopeless acceptance in the face of addictions: self control plays a role, too. The non-addicted siblings had very different lives despite sharing the same susceptibilities.
Cocaine and crack use aside, where the application of these findings are obviously of the greatest import, the study I think contains hints about behavior for the rest of us.
It’s easy for a person like myself to simply give in to my wants. But like it or not, there is an element of self-control at play. I might want to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps, yes — but do I have to? Do I need to? Of course not. And nor have I “earned” the right to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps by not having done something else. Something to perhaps chew on the next time I get a late-night eating urge.
(Now if only I could reason my way to not reading that final, very long, James novel ... of course, maybe if I do read and finish it, I’ve earned the right to eat those gingersnaps after all …)
A good friend of old came to stay last week. A great respecter of proper etiquette, she provided ample warning of her pending arrival, noting that she planned on getting in midweek and staying for the foreseeable future.
That bold presumption of welcome might seem strange unless I explain how close and intertwined we are as friends. This is someone that I truly can refuse nothing. We go a long way back — there are decades of intimate times and shared memories. This is a friend who has helped mark the passages of my life; we are so close as to be virtually one.
I don’t mean to imply that she’s overstayed her welcome, though between you and me I do keep dropping hints that perhaps it is time to call this visit to an end — there are things I want, even need, to do. A guest, no matter how inconspicuous in habits and unassuming in manners, still requires attention and care.
But I admit that she really isn’t a bad houseguest, as houseguests go. She is amazingly patient regarding the three cats, for example. I know they must keep her up some nights, with their chasing and romping and determination to curl up on top of any available lap, particularly a lap as ample as hers. She is a big woman, huge even. Despite her looming presence she takes up surprisingly little room in the tiny cabin that, these days, I call home. Her baggage, however, is something else again.
She’d emphasized that I wasn’t to go to ANY SPECIAL TROUBLE in an email I’d received about her impending visit (she likes a little drama, not too much but just enough to spice up situations, hence the capital letters). The futon downstairs would be FINE for her, and she’d SHOP FOR HERSELF and perhaps even COOK ME DINNERS in the evenings on those nights I didn’t have meetings. It would be FUN, she wrote, a lot of REALLY GOOD FUN to sit around and chat and reminisce.
She knows my ways of old, and asked if I believed still that chicken potpies are the proper diet of the gourmand. If so, she’d make some for me from scratch. She’d roll out the dough, use free-range chicken and organic vegetables, and generally do them up right. Perhaps, she wrote, they’d rival those I’d eaten with such relish years ago in Pennsylvania Dutch country, land of the greatest potpies on earth. Not many people, only this true friend in fact, know these sorts of details about me; or care to know them, for that matter. Who else would remember I’m a fool for chicken potpies made by the Amish in Lancaster County, Penn.?
I could tell that she really wanted our visit to be special and unforgettable.
Reluctantly, I wrote back to let my friend know that I’d sworn off meat. Chicken potpies, unfortunately, were taboo to my dinner plate for now. I made sure to emphasize how generous her offer truly was, particularly the whole chicken-potpie-from-scratch-bit. But I suggested that this might not be such a good time to visit. I was really busy, I wrote, what with work and exercise and reading and trying to write beyond what was strictly required for the newspaper. I finally felt that there was some space in my life to get stuff done, those things that she knew I’d dreamt my entire adult life about doing: running trail races, hiking and camping, writing fiction, playing music again.
But she wouldn’t be deterred. She was absolutely, irrevocably determined that we spend some quality time together, one-on-one, catching up on all those good times we’d had and creating some new memories together. It had been too long, she wrote, for friends such as us to be parted.
I was to expect her. It was simply no good to argue. And she indeed arrived, with an immense amount of luggage, piles and piles of it. There was so much baggage I couldn’t conceive of where we’d store it in the cabin. There were perhaps six bags and two or three trunks. The bags and trunks seemed really heavy when I helped carry them in through the door.
“What in the world did you bring?” I asked her a bit nervously. “Oh,” she replied airily, “nothing you’ve not seen me in before. Though there are a couple of new things that I believe you’ll enjoy.”
I felt her presence in my life immediately. Even during those times without her at work, or while attending dinner parties or other social events that had been prescheduled before her arrival, I could, as of old, feel my good friend right there with me.
Perhaps, I thought, this is how twins feel. That even when apart, they are never really separate — it has been a familiar feeling, at times even slightly seductive, to once again experience such a truly intimate relationship. I haven’t experienced deep understanding like this in quite some time.
As I write this, my good friend remains in my cabin, with her bags and trunks stacked high. There is just enough room for me to walk and find my own space apart from her. Although the paths are narrow and hard to navigate, I’ve dealt with piles of her luggage before. I know that there are ways through the baggage. Perseverance counts in situations like these, a bit of grit and get-up-and-go, some faith, hope and confidence.
My friend, I’m happy to report, recently put nametags on her luggage, the only trouble being that she has always gone by so many different names: Melancholia, Gloom, Despair, Woe, and others. Now I know why she carries so much baggage.
At least, though, this leads me to believe that she might intend to take them up and depart sometime soon.
In this country built on capitalism, it’s a constant source of antagonism among politicians and citizens. I’m talking about the intersection of government aid to private businesses, and when is too little and when is too much.
Jackson County has had a poor record of success in this arena. It has a revolving loan fund that lends money to private businesses that the county thinks can create valuable jobs. County leaders have helped nine businesses over the last 18 years, and seven of them are out of business. Five of those that went out of business still owe the county money, dollars that likely won’t be repaid. Two of those still doing business owe the county money, and two who went out of business had paid in full prior to closing their doors.
There are two loans pending: one to the prospective new owners of AM radio station WRGC and one to Jackson Paper.
Critics say the money was given out with too few parameters. Supporters, like Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan — the longest serving commissioner on the board — say the whole plan was job creation at any price.
“The whole purpose was to create jobs,” Cowan said. “Whether you made money, you didn’t, or even if you lost a little.”
Now Macon County is considering using taxpayer money to create its own revolving loan pool, wanting to help entrepreneurs gain footing in today’s tough economy. And so those leaders too — if they go this route — will face hard questions in deciding who to help, and why, and for how much. But what the heck, it’s a tough economy and businesses need help, right?
Today, everything is about the tough economy, or so it seems. Interstate 40 closed due to rockslide, how will it affect the economy? No snow in the mountains this winter, how will it affect the economy? New trail plan released by forest service, how will it affect the economy? Macon County considers land-use regulations, how will it affect the economy?
Last week I had an email dialogue with an old friend who has strong opinions about the automobile industry bailout and whether the government should have gotten involved or just them go through bankruptcy. Two weeks ago a Charlotte Observer article called into question training programs at North Carolina’s community colleges that are geared specifically for industries, industries who might just up and leave the state as their business fortunes change. Remember Dell Computers, which shut down five years after getting millions in tax breaks and incentives, including millions in worker training programs paid for by North Carolina taxpayers?
All governments are in the business of taking our money and spending it. Or, looked at from the other side of the coin, all of us are voluntary members of a society in which we agree — through who we elect — to hand over a certain amount of our earnings in order to receive certain benefits.
This is where political ideology gets into the mix. Wall Street bailout or auto industry bailout? Which suits your idea of where the government ought to get involved?
At the local level, it seems support for helping out the private sector cuts across party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans at the county level defend their revolving loan program even though on paper it seems a dismal failure.
It’s the entrepreneur in me that has a hard time swallowing government aid to businesses of any type, whether it’s a direct loan or a recruitment incentive. That’s because I can walk out my door, look up and down Church Street, and then take a few steps and do the same on Main Street and see dozens of small businesses who could easily take a low-interest $100,000 loan and turn it into several new jobs that would lead to increase revenues for that business.
That would increase local consumer spending, put money into the state and federal government pipeline through payroll taxes, and help those businesses succeed and thereby boost the local economy.
But those businesses up and down Main Stret won’t get that money. It will go to some unproven entrepreneur who may or may not succeed. So I don’t support local government loans to small businesses. As Jackson’s track record shows, these leaders aren’t equipped to determine who should get these loans, and in the end the process just smacks of favoritism.
Macon County residents, indeed all local history buffs, are about to receive a great gift from Barbara McRae, editor of The Franklin Press.
Barbara is a noted regional historian with unmatched knowledge, in particular but not exclusively, of Macon County. Whether you’re discussing current events or those happenings that took place long ago, she is the eminent, go-to source.
Though journalists such as myself generally shy from making pronouncements such as “the very first” or “the most qualified” out of fears such bold assertions will prove incorrect, I am confident in asserting no one is more qualified to record Macon County’s history than Barbara McRae — and that she’s both the first word and the last word on this topic.
She has done an exemplary job of compilation in her soon-to-be-released Placenames of Macon County, N.C. Users of The North Carolina Gazetteer by Williams S. Powell will recognize his influence on the construction of Barbara’s book: a place name followed by description and history.
The title of Barbara’s book, though accurate, doesn’t begin to do justice to the quality of research and impressive, nowhere-else-to-be-found historical data. A tell-on-myself personal note is in order: readers would have had Placenames of Macon County, N.C. much sooner if I’d worked more quickly on proofreading the draft. Though woefully late in my delivery of the manuscript (try six months, I believe), I’m thrilled that I had the pleasure of finding an occasional point-size variance or a rare inconsistency in style usage. I beg Barbara’s forgiveness here, in print, for my shameful procrastination.
Barbara is an amazing historian who has, literally, spent years and years researching her topic. No fact is safe with Barbara on its trail. She has pored over old records at the Macon County courthouse, conducted interviews and gleaned what seems every old tale ever related about Macon County for the benefit of us, her readers.
A taste of what you can expect include this notation under “Peek,” a familiar place name and family name in Macon County. I’m distilling Barbara’s 10-column inch or so recording of all-things Peek to a few paragraphs to, I hope, provide the flavor of the book and her distinctively succinct, yet personal, writing style.
“Zachariah Peek (also spelled Peak and Peake) and his wife, Sarah Anne Moore, came to Macon County soon after the Cherokees ceded the area by treaty in 1819. He and his brother David were listed in Buncombe County in the 1820 census but apparently moved west the same year … Zachariah obtained several tracts of land, mostly on Ellijay, before his death in 1845. He had eight children, including William Comer “Panther Bill” Peek, who was born in Macon County in 1822.
“Panther Bill got his nickname after killing a panther in a remarkable way. His dogs had the cat penned under a overhanging rock; Bill threw his ax at the animal and killed it instantly, nearly severing its head …
“Peeks Creek took the national spotlight on Sept. 16, 2004, when the community along the creek suffered a disastrous landslide. Heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan fell on soil already saturated from the Sept. 7 Hurricane Frances storm. The slide, or debris flow, claimed five lives and 15 homes and left its mark on the mountain.”
Another entry relates the origins of the name Wayah Gap, which the Cherokee called Atahita, “Where they shouted.”
“The name comes from the myth of a giant yellow jacket that once preyed on the Indian children,” Barbara notes. “Sentries posted at the Gap were the first to spot the marauding insect. They gave the shout that led other braves to the beast’s lair. This gap is one of a series of openings in the great wall of the Nantahalas. Historically, it provided the most convenient passage to the west. Tradition (again retold by (Margaret) Mrs. Siler) claimed that during a battle at the gap between Rutherford’s forces and the Cherokees in 1776, one of the slain warriors was found to be a woman.”
It occurs to me that in addition to Macon County residents and general aficionados of local history such as myself, those with family roots in Western North Carolina will find Barbara’s book invaluable. Particularly those living in Swain, Jackson and Cherokee counties I believe, because there seemed to be so much intermingling of people and families from that area. And I learned that salient fact by reading Placenames of Macon County, N.C.
Shame on you, Smoky Mountain News, for making fun of my attempts at public service and, in so doing, potentially deterring other qualified individuals from running for public office.
We need more interested young people to run for elected office, not less. Your “joke” was hurtful and mean-spirited to me, personally. More importantly, however, it very well may serve to discourage others from putting themselves out there and running for office for fear that they will be ridiculed if they should lose.
When you run for office, you make yourself vulnerable because there is always a chance you could lose. (Even if you are uncontested, there are always the write-in candidates.) I knew this when I put my name out there for Maggie Valley Alderman a mere four months after losing an election for District Court Judge. I knew people would say, “Oh, she can get appointed, but not elected,” should I lose the Maggie Valley Town Board election.
Nonetheless, I sought the appointment and subsequently placed my name on the ballot out of a sense of duty and loyalty. I strongly felt that my talents were needed on the board at that time. Obviously, the board agreed, because I was appointed; however, I lost by a mere 28 votes because, as a novice to the Maggie Valley political scene, I failed to get out the vote.
Getting out the vote is extremely difficult any time, but particularly in non-presidential election years and in municipal races. To say that 2010 was a rough year for Democrats and incumbents would be an understatement. When I began campaigning for District Court judge shortly after President Barack Obama and Gov. Bev. Perdue were each inaugurated in January 2009, no one could have predicted how far our economy would fall and how fast. (By the way, I had my first child that January, as well.)
When I was appointed a District Court judge by the governor in June 2009, there seemed like there was hope to be elected to the same position when I came up for election in November 2010.
By then, however, there was little or no hope for a young, incumbent judge with little or no political experience who was so closely associated with the Democrats. (Oh, and I gave birth to my second child a mere two weeks before the election.) In a seven-county district, I proudly received over 22,000 votes.
Turn the page to 2011. I had two small children, a husband, and a law practice on which I was focusing. That was a quick and easy recipe for not enough time to campaign properly to get those necessary 28 votes. If you think that is laughable, go right ahead. But do not publicly ridicule a hard-working wife, mother and young professional for desiring to give more of herself to her community. It may seem like a harmless joke, but it could have the undesirable effect of deterring other interested, qualified individuals from seeking public office for fear of failure and ridicule.
Running for public office is a noble and honorable action, and I encourage others to run. Even if you don’t win, you learn a tremendous amount and meet wonderful people in the process.
My heart was, and still is, in the right place. I am not ashamed of losing two elections in two years; in fact, I am immensely proud of my accomplishments and have been enriched by my political experiences. I am in a good place with my family, my business, and my career. You can’t laugh at that.
(And I’m still proud to be a Democrat!)
— By Danya VanHook
In the newspaper that is published on the last week of the year, The Smoky Mountain News gives out what we call our “Annual Newsmaker Awards.” It is our attempt to look back at the stories from the past year with a different slant than the typical newspaper tradition of doing a “Year in Review.” The awards are marked by sarcasm, humor and, hopefully, a small dose of wit.
Danya VanHook was given the “Public Service Award” in this year’s edition. Here’s what we printed, in its entirety, about VanHook:
Danya VanHook of Maggie Valley gets an “A” for effort when it comes to her desire to serve in office. Twice in two years, VanHook put her name in the ring to serve in a public capacity when elected seats were vacated mid-term: once as a District Court judge and later as a Maggie Valley alderman. Both times she secured an appointment to the seat, but when it came time to officially run with her name on the ballot, she lost the election.
“[I] discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it ….
— Novelist William Faulkner
What makes a good newspaper? That’s a complicated and subjective question, one that an increasing number of people don’t care much about as they switch to digital sources for their news. But one trait, it seems to me, remains important for news sources no matter whether it’s online or in print: the sense of place.
When you are surrounded by writers, editors, designers and computer geeks — and yes, sales people and administrative types —who like working in a creative and dynamic setting, advice is never in short supply. In an idea business, everyone has plenty to say about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what needs to happen and how someone else screwed up. The trick is to get good at latching on to those ideas that work and let others fall by the wayside.
My former publisher at The Mountaineer had one of those axioms that I grabbed hold of and still value. He used to tell me that people in this mountain region are fiercely proud of their culture, perhaps more so than in any place he had lived. He said it was the newspaper’s job to reflect and embrace that truth.
I’m paraphrasing, but the challenge went something like this: you should be able to obliterate the name of the paper and the city in which it is published from the masthead, and still know from reading the stories that you are in the Smoky Mountain region. In today’s world, that would also mean you should be able to happen upon our website and have the same thing happen.
That’s more difficult than you might imagine. In covering politics or county board meetings, courts, law enforcement, and education, stories have similar content no matter whether you are in Montana, Maine or Florida. The stories that reflect the history, culture and values of a region are usually more difficult to find and to write. It’s relatively easy to go to a county board meeting and regurgitate what happened, but much more time-consuming and intellectually challenging for reporters to interview a local personality and turn that into a readable story that reflects the sense of place to which I’ve been referring.
It was last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News that drove this point home. Every now and then you get it right, and even less often do you hit a home run. If there was a press award for capturing a sense of place, last week’s paper would have won first place. Our editors, reporters, designers and everyone else involved in the production of the paper got it right.
Here’s a list of some of the stories that made it into last week’s paper: Caitlin Bowling’s cover story about Bob Plott’s family and the Plott hound breed (the state dog), and the publication of his new book called Colorful Characters of the Smoky Mountains; guest columnist Brent Martin’s opinion piece about bills before Congress that would threaten protection of valuable natural resources; Quintin Ellison’s feature on Anne Lough, a prominent traditional musician who led a shape-note singing program at Lake Junaluska; and another story by Caitlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Balsam Mountain Trust, which puts on educational programs and runs a nature center in the upscale Balsam Mountain Preserve development.
Add to that list of quality stories about the Smoky Mountains the regular, weekly contributions of columnist Quintin Ellison, book reviewer and columnist Gary Carden, naturalist Don Hendershot and Back Then contributor George Ellison.
With the digital age of news upon us, the scope of place that large news outlets cover has never been larger. Newspapers like the N.Y. Times and USA Today, along with national or international websites, are vital to our knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.
But small, regional outlets like The Smoky Mountain News still take great satisfaction in putting out a product that illuminates that little “postage stamp” that Faulkner so ably describes. And every now and then we do it pretty damn well.
When the legendary — and former — Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno died on Sunday morning, the first thought I had was of Oedipus the King. Like Paterno, Oedipus was much beloved by his subjects and, like Paterno, his moral blindness resulted in tragedy. There are those who say that Paterno, who was diagnosed with lung cancer not long after the news of the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and an empire 46 years in the making began to crumble, died of a broken heart. I don’t doubt that it hastened his death.
Perhaps it seems the height of hyperbole to cast Paterno’s fall from grace as worthy of Greek tragedy, but consider that Paterno was not only an icon at Penn State but a genuine legend in American sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore for college football coaches, Paterno’s face would not only have been on it — before the fall — it would have been the most prominent.
It was not only that Paterno had been at Penn State for 46 years and built a great football program that had endured over that span of time. It was that he was a symbol not just for succeeding, but for doing it the right way. If you had been asked to describe Paterno, you would have used words such as “integrity,” “honor,” and “loyalty” in a summary of his career and influence on the game. In a culture in which scandals, usually related to a “win at all cost” mentality, are all too common, Joe Paterno was the gold standard, the example you could point to if you wanted to demonstrate that there were still good guys out there whose character was beyond reproach.
The most bitterly ironic part of his fall from grace is that Paterno was the kind of coach you would want if you had a son who was planning to play college football. You would have trusted Paterno with your own child, and indeed, there are hundreds of players and former players who have stepped up to defend his reputation in the wake of the charges of serial child abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and allegations of a cover-up on the part of Paterno, the former president of the university, and several others. As scandals in American sports history are weighed and debated, this will go down as one of the very biggest ever.
Very likely, you already know the basic framework of the story. When Paterno was told that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in the shower on campus back in 2002, Paterno “turned the information over” to someone else internally at Penn State. Sandusky was ultimately not charged, and Paterno did not follow up. This was nearly 10 years ago. Last fall, Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of child molestation, for which he will soon stand trial. On Nov. 9, not long after those charges had been made public, Paterno announced his retirement, but he was fired along with school president Graham Spanier less than 12 hours later by the Penn State board of trustees, who had gone into full-scale damage control as the scandal dominated the national news every day and night.
It has been sad watching Paterno scramble to salvage what remains of his reputation at the same time that he was literally fighting for his life from lung cancer. Less than two weeks ago, Paterno spoke on his action — and non-action — to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
To say that this explanation is inadequate, or even pathetic, is not just an understatement, but a mockery of common sense and basic human decency. Paterno was not just some guy at Penn State who had to follow procedure and observe the chain of command. He was the king. Had he chosen to do so, he could have pursued these charges vigorously, relentlessly, not only for the sake of the 10-year-old boy who was allegedly raped by Sandusky on that particular occasion, but for the sake of all those future victims who might have been spared had Paterno acted with honor and integrity when it mattered most.
Instead, he passed the buck. The very best that can be said is that he buried his head in the sand and rationalized that he had done what was expected of him. It is unlikely that history will be so kind in its verdict.
For all the good he did for so many young men, his epic failure to do more than the bare minimum, to do everything in his considerable power to protect young boys from a predator, Paterno’s final legacy is not just tainted by tragedy, but defined by it.
In the end, like Oedipus, he simply could not bear to look upon the truth. What a crying shame.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” the woman — wild-eyed, disbelieving and somewhat hysterically — called over to where I was standing slightly hidden behind the next set of gas pumps.
Why, indeed? I asked myself before replying truthfully that I’d been afraid she’d resent my interference.
“I was being selfish,” I called back. “I feared you’d say something nasty in return.”
Lessons, when we’re open to them, can come in the strangest places. Even, I learned, at gasoline stations in Hazelwood.
I was making the trek from Sylva to Lake Junaluska one day last week when the light that indicates my car is low on fuel flashed red on the dash. I drove down the exit to Hazelwood and pulled into a gas pump at one of the service stations there.
I noticed the woman pumping gas in front of me almost immediately. She was worthy of notice — thin and harried looking, she was puffing, dragon-like, on a cigarette while fueling up her car.
‘Oh, gosh,’ I thought to myself.
(Actually, I thought ‘Oh, shit,’ but this is a family newspaper, after all. At least some sort of family, if not by any possible stretch of the imagination that traditional nuclear family editors and publishers are referring to when they stifle writers’ creativity and free speech rights with the ‘we’re a family newspaper’ warning. Even so, this publication certainly could be considered a newspaper for some strange dysfunctional family that really should be in therapy working on their weirdo issues … but I digress. And, I need my job, after all. But I do want it noted that I respected newspaper conventionality by writing “gosh” even though I’ve never used such a wimpy word in my life. But I’ve certainly said and thought “shit” on any number of occasions, so dear reader please mentally replace “gosh” with that Great Unmentionable curse word. Or you can mentally do the stupid newspaper bow of conventionality to those fictional sensitive traditional families editors and publishers worry about: ‘shxx.’)
So, I think to myself: ‘Jiminy Cricket, that woman is smoking a cigarette. What should I do? Tell her?’
Then Selfish Me surfaced. I thought, surely Harried Woman realized that she had a cigarette dangling from her lips. Periodically Harried Woman reached up with one hand to whip out said cigarette and wave it about, gesticulating like some mad orchestral conductor, in emphasis to some point or another she was making to an individual seated in the car.
Selfish Me next thought, ‘Holy Cow, Batman. Am I far enough away that if she blows herself up I’ll be safe? Will the ensuing fireball incinerate me in a horrible conflagration? What if I step behind my Mini Cooper — is it big enough to protect me? Why didn’t I buy an SUV, or a Humvee? No, the Cooper is too small. I’ll shelter behind the gasoline pumps.”
Even in the moment I realized that sheltering behind gasoline pumps from a possible fireball was stupid. But Selfish Me felt more protected there than not.
What was interesting, in retrospect, is how quickly I had forgotten the lessons of a parable I’d just read and thought deeply about. It’s Chinese or Japanese in origin, and is very old indeed. It goes something like this: A bunch of vine squashes one day started quarreling and fighting amongst themselves in the field. A priest, hearing them bicker, came out of his hut. He ordered them to quit harassing each other. The priest taught them meditation techniques. After a time, the squash grew calm and quiet. The priest then told them to reach up and feel the top of their heads. The squash did as they were told, and discovered the vine that connected them together. Realizing their interconnectedness, that they were really one, the squash after that got along with each other very well indeed and worked to resolve any differences.
I was contemplating interconnectedness on my way to Lake Junaluska when I stopped to buy gasoline. Somewhere deep inside I believe there was a small kernel of self-satisfaction regarding my obvious spiritual growth and unique ability to grasp ancient parables.
Harried Woman squashed that glow right into the ground.
It turns out that Harried Woman became harried because she had such difficulty getting gasoline. She was irritated by having to go inside the service station to pay first before pumping.
Harried Woman, I believe, learned a lesson that day, too: a bit of mindfulness goes a long way, and walking 30 feet extra doesn’t seem such a big deal when you almost blow yourself up because of mindlessness.
Selfish Me learned something, too: I’ve gotta long way to go.
Western North Carolina residents will be well served by the merger of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
The merger undoubtedly makes sense from an administrative and fund-raising perspective, something employees and board members emphasized in an article in last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News. It will give the LTLT (the new organization will retain that name) added resources as it expands its scope in the six westernmost counties, particularly in the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee watersheds.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the merger is a manifestation of the progressive approach to conservation that leaders of these two organizations have helped promote during the last several decades.
“We already had plans to broaden our scope and the areas we touch,” said Ken Murphy, board chairman of the LTLT. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”
That concept — that protecting land in turns help protect the water resources — sounds like common sense. Making it happen in the real world, however, isn’t so easy. LTLT and LTWA volunteers and employees have put together an admirable record of achievement over the years. By researching and providing data on the unique characteristics of the Little Tennessee watershed, these organizations convinced government officials, granting agencies and private entities that protecting the Little Tennessee River watershed was worthwhile.
When I first started covering this region as a reporter and editor, two people who have played a critical role in the LTLT and LTWA became trusted sources and ultimately friends. Paul Carlson and Bill McLarney helped me to understand that in today’s world, conservation isn’t just about locking up land in it wilderness state. The idea that there can be multiple and varied uses and therefore creative ways to preserve land and water was new to me. That approach has made these two organizations more successful than most at bridging political differences and building coalitions.
The LTWA and LTLT aren’t out there alone, that’s for sure. There are many land trusts, environmental groups, watershed associations and individuals who have done yeoman’s work to protect land and water in this region. Ten years ago when development pressures had many of us fearful that much of the rural and wilderness land remaining in the mountains would soon by lost, these voices were often drowned out.
It’s important that the new Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the other environmental groups succeed in adapting to the changing fiscal and political landscape. That’s the only way these organizations will survive and thrive in the decades to come, and their continued success is necessary to preserve the way of life we cherish in Western North Carolina.