Up Front: May 2010

Homeward bound

Shaking, she poked a shotgun in my face. They called her “The Witch of Micro,” a stooped old woman in a flour-sack dress, living in a shack with several rheumy-eyed dogs and some chickens. “Better not go messin’ round out there,” the Johnston County sheriff had warned me. Boys sneaked through the woods to throw rocks and cherry bombs at her. Now I stood in front of her, stammering. Slowly, she lowered the 12-gauge. I petted her dogs, and we sat talking until sundown. Then, alone and scared that the night would bring back her tormentors, she begged me not to go. My newspaper story provoked enough outrage that she finally got protection.

That was 1970. We don’t stone witches any more. You can get liquor in a restaurant or bar, not just from a brown bag or Mason jar, and you can shop on Sunday. Most places abolished blue laws by 1980. Nurseries that grow bushes for suburban yards make more money than farmers who grow tobacco for cigarettes. Banking is big, but don’t be surprised if the future is small, as in a science called nanotechnology that rearranges molecules one at a time, making them do miraculous things. They do right smart of that up in the Triad. You can take an interstate to Wilmington but not Piedmont Airlines, our once proud, homegrown success story. When it was folded into what’s now US Airways in 1989, I rode the last flight.

North Carolina has been a state of change for the 40-odd years I’ve been a newspaper and magazine writer here. When I came, Cary had one stoplight. Now it has 134,000 people.

My wife and I always planned to return to southwest Virginia, where we grew up and still own the family farm, plus a couple of others nearby. We’ll live 15 minutes away in the little town of Bedford, circa 1754, where the 4,000-foot Peaks of Otter start shooting up into the Blue Ridge out of our new back yard. Growing up there, I hardly noticed.

Maybe that’s why it was good I came to North Carolina. An outsider sometimes appreciates things natives take for granted. How big it is — Murphy to Manteo is farther than Raleigh to Philadelphia — and rich in places like Micro, Hanging Dog and Terrible Creek. And how over time it changed, particularly its commerce and medicine, which I’ve been writing about the last 20 years. In the early years, for a story, I rode a river barge pushing aviation fuel up the Cape Fear River almost to Fayetteville, eating the cook’s collard greens washed down with RC Cola and praying nobody struck a match. I’m now as likely to write about goings on in the 58th-floor executive suite of the nation’s largest bank, praying I don’t make a fool of myself.

What hasn’t changed? With the state growing like a weed, they’re rarer than they once were, but I’ve seldom met a native Tar Heel who wasn’t genuine, down-to-earth and likeable — before they made it, while they had it and, sometimes, even after they lost it. That’s one reason I’m pleased that I’ll continue as a contributing editor for Business North Carolina, I hope traveling around and writing about the state as much as ever. I’m going away, but I’m not leaving.