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Business North Carolina magazine recently voted downtown Lenoir’s motto as the best in the state.

I had thought that “Together We Create” was a great motto the first time I read it, blending both the area’s focus on the arts and the city’s manufacturing legacy, so it is nice to see it win acknowledgement from the high-powered marketing and communications experts who did the judging for the magazine.

To be fair to most of the rest of the state, though, it seems that most places didn’t have a motto in the running. The magazine says “roughly 20” entries were received, and from those it selected the top five.

And it would seem that many of those that were sent in don’t exactly sing. The motto voted fifth-best was “Well-centered.” I can imagine the session that came up with that:

Group leader: “What does our town have to brag about?”

Member one: “Well, we’re kind of smack in the middle of everything.”

Member two: “The schools are OK. Well, my nephew isn’t, but I think that’s on him.”

Member three: “The meth use seems to be dropping.”

Leader: “Let’s go with the first.”

Maybe most of the towns around the state don’t have a motto. That could be on purpose. Adopting a motto can be a perilous thing. The chances are very good that the motto will come in for ridicule.

I remember nearly 20 years ago when I was living in Winston-Salem and that city adopted the motto “O! Winston-Salem: Now that’s living.” The city spent $65,000 for that, according to an article in the Winston-Salem Journal, but few people liked it, and it mostly faded away.

It didn’t help that around that time a doctor in the city made national news for a medical treatment he developed for women that turned out also to have a genital-stimulating side effect.

Most elected officials don’t want to spend taxpayer money to come up with a motto that everyone may hate anyway.

So in the spirit of the “infinite monkey theorem” – which says that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare – here are some free suggestions for county and municipal officials around the state to consider.

“You could do worse.”

“Our town appears on all quality maps.”

“What you see is what you get.”

“You may not like us now, but wait until you get 20 miles down the road.”

“If that’s your attitude then just keep driving.”

“Misery loves company.”

“At least as honest as the median town.”

“Most likely above average.”

“Better than you’ll remember.”

“Better than good enough.”

“When it’s time to settle, we’re the place.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee.”

“When your dreams fade, we’ll still be here.”

“Keeping up appearances.”

“Closer to paradise than you deserve.”

“Few regret staying.”

I’ll keep working on the list. They may be terrible, but at least no taxpayer money was spent to produce them.

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A man who called the News-Topic on Friday didn’t dilly dally.

“You ought to send a reporter over,” he said without any preamble. “Ricky Skaggs stayed at the Comfort Inn last night and he’s still there. I just saw him.” Then he hung up.

Skaggs, the famous country and bluegrass musician, performed Thursday night at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and after the show his tour bus headed up the highway to the hotel. Clearly, he preferred to spend the night in a stationary bed rather than on a bus.

No reporters were available, so I grabbed a camera and headed to the hotel. I thought I might get a photo of Skaggs and his band boarding their bus to leave.

When I got there, the bus was parked at one edge of the parking lot, clearly still in “night” mode – the bus’s sleeper compartment was still extended, and a roll-down shade covered all the windows at the front of the bus. There was no activity. It seemed unlikely anyone would be leaving soon. The deadline for checkout at the hotel was still two hours away.

I briefly contemplated hanging around to wait. It would be a nice shot to have.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea made me feel like Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who would lose his mind and all sense of proportion at the mere suggestion of a celebrity showing up in Mayberry.

Did I really want to stake out the Comfort Inn? After all, he probably would be dressed like anyone else in that situation: in casual, comfortable clothes, all set to spend the coming day on a bus.

And that’s what it comes down to. Skaggs is a famous person, but in all the ways that matter he’s a person like anyone else. Yes, it’s notable that he was staying here, and people would like to know – and now you do – but lurking outside hotels is what paparazzi do. Does anyone want a stranger shooting their photo first thing in the morning?

And I had another consideration. There’s a saying in football and other sports that is intended to discourage excessive celebrations over small accomplishments: Act like you’ve been there before. There must be a corollary for situations like this.

If there’s a celebrity in our midst, maybe we should act like we’ve seen a celebrity before. “Oh, hi, Ricky. How’d you sleep? How about some coffee?”

After all, why shouldn’t Ricky Skaggs stay the night in Lenoir after a concert? What’s the alternative? The hotels here are no different than their counterparts in the same chains in Hickory, and after a long, tiring performance would anyone really want to drive an extra 20 to 30 minutes when there’s a perfectly good hotel just 4 miles up the road?

And I’d rather that a famous person decided to stay here rather than felt an urgent desire to get as far away from Lenoir as possible just as soon as he could.

I can think of several reasons a person not only wouldn’t want to avoid Lenoir but might prefer staying the night here. For one, people here are friendlier than they are even just one county over. That’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from many others. Also, nights here almost always are truly quiet. If what you want is sleep, you are better off trying it in a small town. Maybe one reason he stayed is we don’t have paparazzi here.

I had mostly made up my mind during my one drive around the parking lot. Driving back out onto Blowing Rock Boulevard, I only became more sure.

By the time I got back to my office, I had an answer ready if anyone else called about Ricky Skaggs staying the night.

Well of course he spent the night in Lenoir. Why wouldn’t he?

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A Canadian family rocketed across the internet this past week for something I would have thought only an American family would do.

They posted on Facebook the photos from a family photo session, all wearing … well I guess you have to say they were wearing biodegradable costumes.

They posed on hay bales, and among colorful fallen leaves under a tree, and with a rusty old tricycle.

These could be scenes from anyone’s family photo session – if every member of that family were mostly naked.

Not entirely naked. That actually would have been less remarkable. And I bet the photos would not have spread so far.

No, each member of the family – mother, father, elementary-school-age daughter, and infant child – wore a pumpkin. A real pumpkin.

I don’t use the word “wore” as a euphemism. Each one literally wore a pumpkin that had been hollowed out, with leg holes cut through it at the bottom. (Except for the infant, who was placed inside a pumpkin that had just an opening at the top.)

And that’s all any of them wore, so far as you can tell from the photos. Well, the baby had an orange blanket too, and with his head jutting confusedly from a giant hollow gourd, that photo was funny, as was what appeared to be a candid shot between poses of the young girl and the baby, with the young girl looking cranky.

The rest were varying grades of disturbing.

Particularly one photo of the father lying on his side on top of hay bales, seductively eyeing the camera, evoking the famous Joe Namath nude photo from “Playgirl.”

The mother’s hands were full during this photo session – in each hand she held a hollowed-out top of a small pumpkin, one clutched over each breast.

So many questions came to mind as I reviewed the photos. “Why?” was the least among them. For instance:

The pumpkin leg holes are clearly oversized, so did these people take off the pumpkins after each photo, move to the next place, put them back on and pose? Or did they grab their pumpkin-pants with both hands and waddle over?

Whichever way they did it, who helped the mother keep herself covered? She has only two hands, but alone in the family she requires three pumpkins for each shot.

Did they let the pumpkins dry out before wearing them?

Did they wear underwear?

If not, does pumpkin chafe?

Are they the only people who have worn these pumpkins, or are there more photos like this of other people who at least had the sense not to post them publicly to be shared around the world?

If anyone else wore these pumpkins, did they have to be sanitized before the next family arrived?

How much money would it take for me to get naked and wear a pumpkin?

What would my wife do if she came home and found me in the foyer wearing nothing but a pumpkin and smile?

Actually I ran that last one by my wife, with just a little hope that maybe some fun and games would be in our future.

Instead, she said, “All I can think about is the awful smell of pumpkin! I’m glad I didn’t see those pictures.”

I’m a little tempted to try to get answers to some of the other questions myself, but I’m afraid I’d smell like pumpkin for the rest of the day and my wife would make me sit outside, drawing fruit flies and frightening the neighbors.

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Young life unfolds in essays

While clearing out emails about a week ago, most of them spam, an unexpected name popped up.

It was a young cousin – very young, a high school senior, making her about 37 years my junior. I had seen her in person perhaps 10 times since she was born, and other than exchanging “hi,” I’m not sure we ever spoke. She and the other cousins about her age popped into the room, awkwardly said their hellos and ran outside to play. I knew her primarily as a young girl, and now a young woman, with movie-star good looks in her mother’s photos on Facebook.

She emailed to ask me to review the drafts of her college application essays and make suggestions. I had done the same for her older brother a couple of years ago.

The experience was not quite like reading a young woman’s personal journal, but her conversational writing style felt almost like hearing her speak, and the essays in many ways fleshed out a picture of someone I would not have recognized as matching the Facebook photos.

This beautiful, dainty-looking girl turns out to love power tools and construction, things she was introduced to on church youth group mission trips.

“I happened to have a knack for the power tools!” she wrote. “I became proficient in using the table saw, circular saw, nail gun, and my personal favorite, the chop saw.”

I pictured her in goggles, heavy gloves and a hard hat, her blonde hair tied up tight in the back while she – petite and thin, perhaps weighing 100 pounds, perhaps not – wields a nail gun.

On one mission trip to Laredo, Texas, she chose to work outside on construction with the boys, the only girl not to choose indoor work teaching Vacation Bible School. Outdoors, in summer heat reaching over 100 degrees, her group nailed siding to a building and drilled a new well.

Now I added to my mental picture dirt streaks on her cheeks and sweat soaking her shirt and hair. Such a different look than I saw on Facebook last spring, when her mother showed off her prom dress.

Her construction work on mission trips got her interested in taking drafting classes in high school. She took all three that her school offered – the only girl in all three classes. Before long she realized she knew about as much about construction and drafting as the boys. She also experienced the sexism that women in a man’s world so easily still find.

Further running counter to all the girly images from Facebook, I learned she has been working as an intern at a veterinary hospital. But this is no pet-the-kitties gig.

“I have learned how to squeeze anal glands, conduct heartworm tests, analyze fecal samples, etc.,” she wrote, and now I may never be able to unsee the mental pictures that sentence brought to mind. “In addition to this, I have gotten to watch surgeries, including spays and neuters.”

Of course, what these essays really showed me was a series of snapshots of the blossoming of a soon-to-be-adult, full of complexities and experiences that defy your expectations. She’s not fully there yet, but she’s well on the way.

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The little town of Rhodhiss lost the businesses and industry that gave the town its name (from cotton mill owners John Rhodes and George Hiss). But it still has a legend that came out of them, the fate of some unusual fabric spun in a now-closed mill.

Four years ago, in July 2015, one of my reporters was doing a more or less routine story related to the legend, and I Googled part of her story and found something that indicated the legend was wrong. I had her look into it.

What she wound up writing made her feel bad because it made the News-Topic a villain in that town, but it didn’t put much of a dent in the legend, which the town is celebrating on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

One of the famous movie lines related to journalism, from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a good line, but it’s not journalism. I don’t know whether many journalists would do what the newspaper editor in the movie did, reject running the real story told by U.S. Sen. Ransom Stoddard, and I don’t think it makes sense to ignore the facts that fly against Rhodhiss’ legend, as satisfying as the legend may feel.


And as the main source in the story said, this doesn’t mean there is nothing at all to the legend, only that some research is needed to find out exactly what was done with that fabric. Maybe, for instance, the bag under the lunar lander …

 

 

 

 

 

Read the story and decide yourself.

Rhodhiss’ point of pride called into question

By Lex Menz

RHODHISS – As you drive into Rhodhiss, the road signs show an astronaut in a space suit over the words “U.S. Moon Flags Woven Here.”

An astronaut also appears on the town seal.

It’s common knowledge throughout town that fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon, if not more, came from Burlington Industrial Fabrics, which once had two factories in town but left in 1983.

A scrap of material sits folded up in a drawer at Town Hall that came, it is said, from the same batch as the moon flag material.

Town Manager Art Delaney never even considered that the story could be wrong until he recently called the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh about getting a historical marker for the town about the flag fabric having been made in Rhodhiss. The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.

“She said they were pulled off a shelf at a post exchange in Washington, D.C., and just handed off,” Delaney said. “I nearly fell off my chair.”

Delaney wouldn’t be the only one falling off of a chair. Many people around town have personal stories about their connection to the flag fabric.

Carl Compton, who lives on the Caldwell County side of Rhodhiss, worked at Burlington Industrial Fabrics as a weaver right out of high school in 1961 and eventually was promoted to loom fixer. The company made special materials, including material for the Goodyear blimp and fabrics for NASA. Among the fabric made on the 64-inch looms was one that Compton said was extremely heat-resistant and involved Kevlar, a fabric best known for its use in bulletproof vests.

Shortly after the flag was unfurled on the moon in July 1969 by Apollo 11, the mission carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Compton said, Burlington Industrial’s employees were informed of their accomplishment.

“We didn’t know what we had done,” he said. “It really surprised us.”

Compton said the company’s announcement was a proud moment.

“We were just working. That was our job. We weren’t trying to crow about it. But, if I had known, I would have gotten some pictures,” Compton said.

But Rhodhiss’ flag story doesn’t fly, according to Anne Platoff, who wrote a research paper in the early 1990s, when she worked at the Johnson Space Center, about all six of the flags that were taken to the moon.

“It’s an interesting story, but it’s unverified,” Platoff said of Rhodhiss’ story.

Her research paper, “Where No Flag has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” details considerations that went into the flags and flag poles and where they came from, and no part of that story includes Rhodhiss. Her sources included a press release from NASA in July 1969 stating that the flags were ordinary nylon flags ordered from a catalog.

“I went through the evidence there was at NASA, and the only documentation I found at NASA was that it was purchased from a government stock catalog,” Platoff said. “As a historian, I will only go with what facts I have. I have found absolutely no evidence that points to who made the flag on the moon. I found no indication that it was a specifically made flag.”

However, she said Rhodhiss may have been involved in the Apollo 11 mission, just not in the way residents think. Possibly the material woven there was used for the flag patches on the spacesuits or some part of the ship. But that would take some research to find out.

“Maybe this is one of those cross stories with some truth,” Platoff said.

Delaney said the state will send him an application for a historical marker, which requires a packet of information to back the town’s claim.

“We’re going to send it back and see if we could get something,” Delaney said.

Ansley Wegner, a research historian and the administrator of the Department of Cultural Responses’ historical marker program, said the decisions on applications for historical markers are made by a committee of 10 history professors. Stipulations include that the information supporting the marker request must have a secondary source, such as a historical non-fiction book.

“It’s hard to say what the committee is going to approve,” Wegner said. “It’s up to them to decide whether it’s state historical importance and not local historical importance.”

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I learned a lot about bats and rabies the past few days.

The main thing I learned is that many people are not rational about bats.

A bat got in my house. We don’t know quite how. When we eventually found where it hid, I was able to cover it with an old T-shirt and get it out of the house.

That, to me, was that.

Some well meaning friends and coworkers disagreed. They urged us to get rabies shots.

“If bats are rabid, they shed the disease as they fly,” one said, so we probably had been exposed.

This seemed unlikely to me.

And yet, the urgency of those warnings lingered in my mind and made me finally call a doctor – who agreed with me and, it turns out, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says, “People can’t get rabies just from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave, at summer camp, or from a distance while it is flying. In addition, people can’t get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine, or from touching a bat on its fur.”

Further, bats rarely contract rabies, the CDC says: Even among bats submitted for rabies testing because they could be captured, were obviously weak or sick, or had been captured by a cat, only about 6 percent had rabies.

Merlin Tuttle, one of the world’s leading bat conservationists, wrote in an article on his website, “Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation,” that the risk of humans getting rabies from a bat – even a rabid bat – is highly exaggerated:

“Given the consequences of a wrong decision, it is appropriate to take each possible exposure to rabies extremely seriously, … . However, simply being near or even touching a rabid animal is not considered to be an exposure, … . An exposure requires a bite or contact between an open wound or mucous membrane with saliva or nervous tissue from an infected animal.”

Regardless of these assurances, some people argued that it would be better to be safe.

“Here’s the scary thing: by the time you have symptoms of rabies, it’s too late and almost always fatal,” one wrote to me on Facebook.

Maybe. But 100 percent assurance carries its own cost.

Last year, a woman who encountered a bat in Georgia and wasn’t certain whether it bit her got treatment, which cost $17,000. A woman in Maryland paid $11,000, and one in North Carolina paid $22,000.

In all of those cases, though, there was either a bite or a suspected bite, and doctors recommended getting treatment.

In our case, the only thing that bit me may have been karma. My mother was quick to assert that the bat in our house was divine justice because once, many years ago, while my parents were away from home I took a furry, toy bat and thumbtacked it to the ceiling in their bedroom.

If having a bat in my own house was punishment for frightening my parents, and I had it to do over, I’d tack that sucker to the ceiling again.

It was hilarious.

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What are you afraid of?

Most of us are afraid of things that very rarely happen, according to a recent poll of nearly 1,500 North Carolina residents by Elon University.

Well, except for being shot in a public place. That USED to be pretty rare, but a majority — 51 percent — perceives that it’s at least somewhat of a possibility now, and more than a third, 37 percent, feel they are very much at risk.

The poll asked people how safe they personally feel about 37 hypothetical risks. “Shootings in public” topped the list of what people felt least safe about. Only 7 percent said they felt very safe.

But close behind that was terrorism, with 33 percent feeling very unsafe and only 7 feeling very safe.

What’s most odd about that is that there is very little difference how people in our state’s big cities feel about the risk of terrorism and how those in sparsely populated counties feel. In fact, more rural residents — 34 percent — than urban residents — 30 percent — feel very unsafe, even though there has never been a terror attack in a rural part of the United States for the very obvious reason that in order to inspire terror, there have to be a lot of people hurt and a lot of TV cameras nearby to broadcast the news. It would take over an hour for some TV crews to get to Pineola in Avery County from Charlotte.

Things make a little more sense if you combine the “very unsafe” and “somewhat unsafe” answers.

Then the thing that the most people feel at least somewhat unsafe about is walking along roads that don’t have sidewalks, 66 percent. Only 5 percent feel very safe about it.

People are very slightly more afraid of snakes (a total of 56 percent feel either very or somewhat unsafe) and ticks (57 percent) than tornadoes (51 percent).

The same amount of people, 16 percent, feel equally unsafe about dogs and deer, but more (31 percent) feel very safe about deer (only 27 percent feel very safe about dogs).

And again, urban and rural residents feel exactly the same level of risk about deer — 4 percent very unsafe in both, even though there are a lot more deer in Kings Creek than Raleigh.

People are least afraid of trains: Only 4 percent feel very unsafe about trains, and just 8 percent feel even somewhat unsafe.

On the other hand, people feel pretty darned safe about driving — only 5 percent very unsafe and 20 percent somewhat unsafe — even though there are literally hundreds of traffic accidents each day across the state and being a good driver has little to do with it — at least half of the drivers involved do nothing wrong. Some multi-car wrecks have only one driver at fault, and if something falls onto the road — a tree, a jumping deer, a big rock thrown by an angry teenager, a fish dropped by an eagle — then no driver is at fault.

But the poll left a lot of areas of risk uncovered.

For instance, what about your coffee shop exploding, not because of terrorism but plain old natural gas? It happened in Durham on Wednesday and killed the shop’s owner, injured nearly 20 people, destroyed one big building and damaged several others.

What about losing your job by accident? Just happened to a judge in Texas because he told someone he planned to run for higher office, and the Texas state constitution says a candidacy announcement by anyone holding a judicial office amounts to an official resignation. (Seems like a judge ought to be familiar with that, though.)

Perhaps most importantly, what about the risk of bees living inside your eyes? Just this past week a woman in Taiwan went to her doctor about pain in her eye, and the doctor found four sweat bees had somehow gotten into her eye socket, surviving there by drinking her tears. We have sweat bees in every county in North Carolina — you stand far more chance in Sawmills of encountering sweat bees than terrorists, and now they know humans are edible.

Good luck if your eyes don’t itch for the rest of the day.

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