It’s been a really weird week down here, particularly the last 12 hours or so. As a writer, I was tempted to title this essay, “You’re not in Kansas anymore” but that wouldn’t really tell the story. For what it’s worth, the essays you read here and other places are often sweated over for hours, days…and more. And then it hit me: Neil Simon would have had a ball down here in Old Fort, NC. Whether you know his name by heart or not, he’s written scores of hits that you’ve watched…but possibly never known. I could fill the rest of your screen with his creds. Just a handful: The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers, Barefoot in the Park …and a little three-act play simply called: Plaza Suite. Each act takes place in room 719 of the Plaza in New York. Three different stories…same place, funny, bittersweet, insane…vintage Simon. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a five star cast and…oh, the humanity.
Which brings us to a funny, weird, bittersweet, vignette, which played out in the last 12 hours or so right in front of our house. Settle in, grab a cup of something that’ll chill you out and take a look at the beauty and strangeness of humanity on one small country road.
A tiny bit of background so that this will all make sense, right from the start. Dragonfly, the place we bought down here wasn’t at all what we thought we were buying…not even close. It’s on Catawba River Road which snakes along the river for three miles and dead ends at 350-ft. waterfalls.
It looks like a super sleepy little road in the middle of Nowhere…and it isn’t. It’s people from all over, locals, visitors from places I’ve never heard of, and to steal a line from Steinbeck, you’ll see wise men, prophets and holy men…as well as pimps and con artists and God knows what else. In other words, all of mankind. Since we put in the sculptures…all over, things changed. Every day, two or ten or twenty people pull over, and ask very politely if they can walk around and look at the sculpture. We always say yes, and as a result we meet some extremely interesting people.
ACT ONE of Catawba Sweet: Yesterday morning: I’m on my Kubota dragging branches and limbs to a big bonfire to clear the property next to the road where we already have a Pterodactyl’s Nest installed, plus a new sculpture titled: Wizard Lessons. A nondescript car pulls over and out steps an older man who looks like the father of all forest rangers. Olive drab uniform and hat and more badges than I’ve ever seen on a human being. I kill the tractor engine and prepare to get a ticket for…God knows what.
He walks up, we introduce ourselves and begin talking. I’m paraphrasing but it’s pretty close. He says, “I’ve been coming up here for the last few months. Today is the 12th time. I stop by your sculptures, have some tea, chill-out a little, just enjoy looking at nature, your stuff, the falls.” I look at him. I see the story in his eyes. I say, “Twelve times, that’s a lot. What’s your story?” He says, “I’m getting radiation treatments. Twelve so far and I got about 20 to go. After the treatments, I have to chill-out…so I come here.” I ask what treatments. “They’re for my jaw.” I ask the 64-dollar question: “So how’s it goin’?” He smiles. “It’s goin’ pretty well!” And then we talk for about an hour, just standing there leaning on the tractor.
He makes gorgeous walking sticks and he’s going to show me how to carve one. I’m going to show him how to braze. His name is Wayne…and he has a bronze medallion on the top of his hat with a picture engraved with John Wayne’s image. He says, “Sometimes I introduce myself as John Wayne…just for fun. You see, I haven’t done all that much, and sayin’ I’m John Wayne makes people smile.” I bite my lip and try not to go heavy right then. And I tell him truthfully that his walking sticks are the prettiest ones I’ve ever seen. That was a guy who just pulled over to shoot the breeze. Got a new friend now. So does Wayne.
ACT TWO: Yesterday afternoon: Pam and I are pouring a concrete pad at that same place near the road so that the Wizard Lessons sculpture won’t get knocked down in a windstorm. We are muddy, and filthy with grey concrete and a little car pulls over in about the same spot where Wayne did. Two women are smiling and telling us which sculptures they like. Turns out they are professors over in Asheville and we get to talking. The plot thickens a bit.
They currently have a large class of “mature” students who are getting back into life, making the”Third Act” of their lives as fun and exciting as they can. I ask, “How mature are they?” The answer: “Pretty damn mature,” and I joke with her, “When you go on an outing, do you have an ambulance following along?” The answer is, “Not so far.” And then she asks if she can bring all SEVENTY-FIVE students over to Dragonfly to spend the afternoon? Pam and I say, “Sure” at the same second. I’m not sure how it’ll turn out…or whether our plumbing will survive 75 mature men and women, but we’re going to give it a shot. This sort of meeting is actually a lot like the conversations we have every day, every week.
ACT THREE: Pam and I are back up at the house, cleaning the mud and concrete off ourselves, and still another little nondescript car comes idling up our really, really long driveway. At one point, they stop, not sure whether to keep coming, but I wave them up.
There are four 20-somethings in the car: two gals in the back, guys in the front. Except for the driver, they look like actors out of central casting for a Woodstock bio. The driver…not so much, a lot more conservative. True to form, of the three hippy-types, one is a painter, one a singer, one a guitar player. No big surprise there.
The driver, however,hesitates when I ask him what he does and then says, “I’m getting ready to go to life-insurance school.” From his hesitation, I say, “You don’t sound too psyched.” He says, “I’m not. I don’t want to do this. I just want to make a lot of money…and once I do that, I’m going to do what I want to do.” And then the conversation begins in earnest.
Nearly an hour goes by in the driveway, and by the end of that hour, things have shifted slightly for the driver. Friendships have been sewn and who knows what they’ll grow into? Keep in mind, this was about 12 hours worth of what is rapidly becoming a mind-blowing life down here. In the 30 years we lived at CrossBow in PA, this has never, ever…ever happened.
This last part will sound a little Walt Disney, but after the “hippy” foursome left, Pam and I went out on the deck to watch the truly weird cloud formations down here…sorta like over the Gulf when I was in pilot training, only today we saw something we’ve never seen before. Gorgeous clouds drifting by, but at one certain area, each one became a cloud-rainbow. It didn’t just go on for a few minutes. It was half an hour. We took movies, we took stills. Just amazing clouds colored like a brilliant rainbow. Maybe my original title for this blog wasn’t so bad after all. “We’re not Kansas down here. But we’re in a very weird very special place.”
I have no idea and no theory why people here are so open, gracious and friendly. I truly don’t. But, it’s been close to a year now, and this isn’t just a freak day, week, or month. It’s every day. And yeah………the book I’m writing about this place is requiring frequent re-writes to keep up with it all.