New Bern’s silent sanctuary

Growing up in New Bern during the late 1970s and early ’80s, I always thought of Cedar Grove Cemetery as the center of my riverfront hometown. For reasons having little to do with geography, the roughly two and half acre plot of land seemed to represent an unofficial demarcation point between New Bern’s fascinatingly derelict historic district and the newer city of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, mall arcades, and auto dealerships.

Behind its walls embedded with shells, mollusks, and other river invertebrates was a world older even than the city’s towering Masonic Temple and Harvey Mansion (though not quite as old as Tryon Palace). The Spanish moss draped cedar trees that gave the cemetery its name and the archaically alien mausoleums stood in even starker contrast to a modern society that seemed increasingly infatuated with surface gleam, entertainment and “that new car smell.”grave12

If I had known even a portion of Ceder Grove’s history back then, I would have had even more reason to be enchanted with the burying ground. Established in 1800, the cemetery was owned by Christ Episcopal Church until 1853, when it was transferred to the City of New Bern. According to local historians, it’s almost certain that the cemetery was established in response to the yellow fever epidemics of 1798-99. During the epidemic “so many persons succumbed that at night trenches were dug in the Christ Episcopal church yard in a line near the adjoining property to the northwest… and the bodies were buried there indiscriminately,” reads one contemporaneous account.

After 1802 the cemetery became the major New Bern burial ground. The grave markers and cemetery records read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th and 20th century North Carolina’s most influential citizens: William Gaston, congressman, writer, state supreme court justice, and author of the North Carolina state song; William Williams, a portrait artist who painted from life the only Masonic portrait of George Washington; Moses Griffin, who established a free school and served the state throughout his life; John Stanly, lawyer, politician and public servant; and Mary Bayard Clarke, 19th century New Bern poet and writer.

With a good map a visitor might even locate the grave of perhaps New Bern’s most famous son, Caleb Bradham, who concocted his Pepsi-Cola formula in a local drugstore in 1893.

Cedar Grove Cemetery also bears witness to the region’s brief but lethal engagement in the Civil War. At the cemetery’s mid-point a bronze Confederate soldier rises 18 feet above its granite column, parade rifle at rest, a canon ball propped by his right foot and a sword slung at his side. The monument sits above a vault where approximately 67 Confederate soldiers are interred. A Latin inscription at the statue’s feet reads, “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori,” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

But for all its famous dead and memorials to history’s murderous advance, Cedar Grove Cemetery may be more well known among tourists for its looming black entrance arch than its celebrity occupants. Built from the same “shell stone” as the cemetery’s wall, legend has it that if the arch “weeps” or “bleeds” its sticky, rust colored ooze on a pallbearer passing beneath, the unlucky individual will soon be the guest of honor at his or her own funeral procession.

Inscribed over the arch gates is a hymn composed by Francis Lister Hawks, grandson of Tryon Palace architect John Hawks:

“Still hallowed be this spot where lies

Each dear loved one in earth’s embrace

Our God their treasured dust doth prize

Man should protect their resting place.”

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In 1972, Cedar Grove Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, three and a half decades after I first toured its grounds as a young boy, the cemetery is part of a downtown that has seen massive revitalization, as the city long ago embraced its heritage and earmarked funds to preserve its historical structures.

For me, the cemetery now feels more than ever like a sanctuary, from the renovated old homes and parks that draw the tourists and from the big box stores that have invaded New Bern’s business district. An island, for the living and the dead, carved from an older and stranger world. I drive past its walls sometimes just to remind myself that it’s still there, and that I am too.

 

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Been Here and Gone: The fading structures of SE North Carolina

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“Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.”

―Thomas Hardy

It all goes to dust, eventually.

They’re everywhere now, maybe they always were, the irrelevant works of the past, cobbled together from sand and stone and brick as if to defy the unceasing tide of the world. Day upon day they gather in plain view, unseen, fading before the bright, the new, the modern, like sepia revenants among the Technicolor present.

Some were doomed simply by their location (location!, location!, location!) while others have merely outlived their usefulness, their intended purpose no longer relevant to 21st century profit margins, fashion edicts or calculations of convenience.

The change can be seen far from our glittering cityscapes, in the crumbling tobacco barns framed by shinning new solar fields, in the highways rerouted around the frayed remains of once bustling downtowns, in chamber of commerce boards left holding their heads and grasping for new ideas to revive the empty storefronts, empty sidewalks, and empty-eyed young men on the corner. Eventually, the shuttered restaurants and deserted hotels become indistinguishable from the plastic flowers and crosses along the roadsides.

These structures have been swallowed by modernity, by indifference, by corporations reaching their numb, brittle tentacles into small communities and towns. It’s there in the plywood sign across the front window at Town ’N Country grocery in Oriental, spray painted with the sardonically angry (Thanks, Wal-Mart!; Welcome to Oriental) and the sadly pleading (Please come back! Meat Gone. Love The People.) And just down the road, the plain plastic sign on the big box express store that put the local grocery of 42 years out of business and then closed up shop two months later: “THIS WALMART STORE WILL BE CLOSING.”

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Change, of course, is a process neither malignant nor benign, simply inevitable. And in time’s inexorable scheme, stasis can destroy just as surely as the wrong action, only more slowly. Standing before the vine draped folding seats and leaf carpeted stage of Kenan Memorial Amphitheater in Kenansville, it’s difficult to reconcile its vault-like stillness with the boisterous sturm und drang of the historical drama “The Liberty Cart,” which played there throughout the 1970s. Was there actually a time when families sat together, outside, and enjoyed idealized tales of their ancestors, two centuries buried?

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However improbable, the amphitheater holds an air of expectation within its classic contours, as if to say, “All is not lost here; time remains.” Those words are long since consigned to the wind for many such abandoned historic sites. Last January, real estate developers in the city of New Bern imploded a 150-foot-tall white silo, the last vestige of a long-closed fertilizer factory. In a matter of seconds, one of the tallest structures in the city was reduced to a few yards of concrete, twisted steel, wire and dust. Windows shattered nearby and the city shuddered for miles from the reverberations of the impact.

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Of course, whatever is planned for the riverfront site will surely draw more tourists, and their vital lucre, than the mold and graffiti covered relic that was destroyed. Mourn for the loss of the antique and handmade, the rare and unreconstructed, but these things are as they should be. Let them have their time, wither and be replaced. Not simply the way of all flesh, but the way of all things.

 

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Lost Coin Church, Trenton, N.C.

Kinston Motel

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Motel, Kinston, N.C.

Maysville Milling Co.

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Feed Company, Maysville, N.C.

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Mr. Waffles, Kinston, N.C.

Boogies

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Boogies, Trenton, N.C.

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Gas Station, N.C. 11 Near Greenville, N.C.

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Fertilizer Silo, New Bern, N.C.

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Walmart Express, Oriental, N.C.

 

 

 

Jerry’s journey: Learning to live with autism

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“I kind of want to invent a time machine so I can go back in time and stop me from doing the stuff I do. And I would like to see what I become after I invent the time machine. I would want to go forward and backwards in time, but make sure not to mess with time.” — Jerry, 2015

I first met Jerry in 2007, when he was four years old. I had recently started dating his sister, Becky, and she was eager for me to get to know this tiny whirlpool of chaotic energy that had come into her life unexpectedly when she was 16. So on a bright, early spring afternoon I met them at a park near my apartment in Roanoke Rapids and said hello to a chubby, smiling little sprite in red shorts and ankle socks. After a few minutes, Jerry proceeded to leap up onto a picnic table and do an extended Pee Wee Herman dance before sailing off with stuntman abandon and sprinting towards the swingsets.
“Higher, higher!” he laughed crazily, a small bundle of ecstatic life framed against the cloudless sky, sailing farther and farther away from me and then swinging back into my arms. “Higher, higher!”
It was a voice I would come to know as well as my own in the coming years, in all its goofy delight, earnestness and shrill rage, as my relationship with Jerry grew from that of a friend, to a brother-in-law, to something resembling a father.
But on that day at the park, he was simply another part of the warmth and sun and budding life of a new season, and a possible glimpse into my future.

How would you describe yourself?
“I’m Jerry and I like playing video games and I like watching TV and I like playing games on my phone like Minecraft and all sorts of stuff. And I like to learn stuff and play some basketball…” — Jerry, 2015

Jerry was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) when he was two years old, an extremely young age. When he was 10, he was diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behavior. Though its causes are not well understood, autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize.
From our initial meeting, it was obvious that Jerry was different than other children his age: louder, less verbally advanced and given to outbursts of sudden, nearly uncontrollable anger. He was also adverse, in the extreme, to changes in his routine, especially in regards to his diet. It was pizza, macaroni and cheese, and McDonald’s chicken nuggets (never Burger King or Wendy’s!! And never, ever chicken FINGERS!! ) or it was nothing. No discussions allowed.

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There were also other, more disturbing behaviors. Jerry would sometimes use the bathroom in his closet, the same place where he would hide food and candy. He would draw on his bedroom walls and carve ruts in his furniture.
But it was also very apparent that, despite his obvious quirks and limitations, this kid was smart. Give him an electronic gadget and he would have it mastered in a matter of minutes; put him in front of a puzzle and he would entertain himself for hours piecing together table-sized landscapes and cartoon characters.
By 2008 I was spending more and more time with Jerry. By now, Becky and I had moved in together, leaving our cramped apartments for a ranch style house in the country. Soon, Jerry was spending weekends with us, tagging along on nature trail hikes and trips to the Roanoke River. One morning, while Becky and I slept, he snuck out of his room, opened a bag of chocolate Easter candy, and helped himself. Whatever he didn’t eat he fed to our two dogs.
Standing there in the early morning sunlight filtering through the blinds, his brown liquid eyes staring down at the shiny foil candy wrappers scattered on our floor, it was all but impossible to be mad. Jerry was fine; the dogs were fine.
But, it was a scary moment, the first time that I fully realized that Jerry’s actions — and just as importantly his misunderstanding of those actions — could have dire consequences for himself and everyone around him. I think it was the first time I truly understood that Jerry wasn’t a “normal” child.

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If you had to pick one thing, what would you say is the most important thing in the whole world?
“I would say school, because it’s how people get good educations and they don’t…see, see if we didn’t have school we wouldn’t know how to talk, we would still be like, cavemen.”  — Jerry, 2015

In 2009, a few months after we were married,  Becky and I moved three hours south to my hometown of New Bern. Jerry, who lived with his parents in Jarratt, Va., was still a frequent guest, staying with us for long stretches during spring breaks and holidays.
But as much as we enjoyed having him, the visits became harder and harder. As he grew older, the irrational behaviors and outbursts became magnified. What we once had been able to laugh off as adorable idiosyncrasies were now becoming hardened, intractable elements of Jerry’s personality: the screaming fits; the inability to sufficiently bathe himself or practice proper bathroom hygiene; the near pathological fear of new foods and experiences. One night, while watching TV on our couch, Jerry’s eyes rolled back in his head and he began to shake in what looked, terrifyingly, like an epileptic seizure. It turned out to be simply an extreme reaction to the sight of blood (something he shares with his sister), but it came out of nowhere. There was nothing remotely funny about any of it.
In 2012, after several months of late-night discussions and soul searching, Becky and I decided to do what would have once been unthinkable: approach her and Jerry’s parents about the possibility of him coming to live with us, permanently.
The decision was partly based on my wife’s training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) special needs therapy and the improved education opportunities Jerry would have in our local school system. But the most important factor was that we knew his parents were completely overwhelmed. Jerry had come into their lives late and with enormous challenges that would have taxed the resources of even the youngest parents. They were at the limit of their physical and emotional abilities to handle him, as simple as that.
If we don’t do it now, we reasoned, we’ll wake up one day and be faced with an out of control 16-year-old. It will be too late.
I remember sitting in the courthouse in Emporia, Va. with Becky’s father, waiting as she and her mother went before a juvenile court judge. When they came out, Becky and I were Jerry’s legal guardians. It was strange for us. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it was for the parents that had shared their lives with him, nearly every day, for the last 10 years.
A few weeks later, Jerry came home with us to New Bern.

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Do you ever feel like you get out of control?
“Yeah, a little, sometimes. It feels like I’m being possessed or something.” — Jerry, 2015

A baseline of normalcy.
That’s the best way I can describe our goal for Jerry during the first year he was with us. The plan was simple: get him to the point where he could do the bare minimum to take care of himself, eat what was put in front of him at the dinner table, and accompany us to a restaurant or grocery store; in short, do anything other than sit in front of a TV screen or play video games without having a panicked, screaming meltdown.
There was also the issue of Jerry’s various medications. There is no one-size-cures-all prescription to keep autism at bay. Stay on one pill too long and it ceases to work; get the dosage wrong and you’re left with a nearly unrecognizable, zombie-like child.
At best, the medications help mitigate some of Jerry’s most extreme symptoms: the hyperactivity and tendency to speak out in loud bursts at inappropriate times; the inability to stay focused on one task without becoming distracted; the repetitive motions and tics such as pencil shaking, foot kicking, and teeth chomping (this is nearly unbearable some days.)
The lowlights have been numerous: the screaming, sobbing, violent outbursts over food such as broccoli, meatloaf, and tuna fish sandwiches; the constant, seemingly unmotivated lying; the candy and food wrappers hidden beneath couch cushions, under beds and behind major appliances; the wanton destruction of shower curtains, walls, bed frames, and ceiling fans; the e-mails and calls from school officials telling us Jerry simply refuses to do his work (or, when asked a question by his social studies teacher, responds  “Your momma!”); the hours and hours spent prompting Jerry to concentrate long enough to finish One. Simple. Homework. Assignment.
And then there was the time he peed in a plastic container of Legos and blamed it on a ghost. Other than the smell, I have to admit it was pretty funny.

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There’s simply no way to reach him. Nothing we’ve done, nothing we’ve said, has made one bit of difference. He’ll fall further and further behind, until one day he’ll just give up completely, and place himself beyond our love, beyond our protection, beyond hope. These are the thoughts that  come at the worst moments, when I look into his uncomprehending eyes and see nothing there to reason with or fight for. There are days, weeks, when he falls so far from us that he almost vanishes.
But then there are the other times, fewer and farther between, but in the long run, so much more significant. In the four years since Jerry came to live with us he’s grown to not only tolerate new foods, but actually look forward to trips to Mexican, Chinese, and Indian restaurants. He’s learned to ride a bike, taken Taekwondo lessons and played in a basketball league (he even scored a few baskets!). He’s learned to swim, sort of, in the Atlantic Ocean and been kayaking on the Bay River. Maybe most important of all, he’s made friends who understand and look out for him.
All of these accomplishments have given Becky and me glimpses of the smart, independent young man Jerry could one day become. All of which makes the setbacks so much more heartbreaking.
The last year has been rough. At 13, it’s hard to know what percentage of Jerry’s obstinance is the autism and how much should be chalked up to normal teenage rebellion. He’s defiant, infuriatingly so, and tends to ignore even the simplest requests. The lying has reached absurd new levels, as have the temper tantrums.
If Jerry wasn’t high functioning, if he was like other, severely autistic children who I’ve met in the past….well, I can’t even contemplate that life.

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Do you remember the huge crying battles we used to have with you just to get you to eat anything besides pizza and macaroni and cheese?
“I think that that me’s gone. Say hello to the new Jerry Dale Lotts, Jr.” — Jerry, 2015

I thought I knew how this article ended: not on a depressing note, but not an overly optimistic one either. But then…
But then, Becky and I come home last Friday night and Jerry is sitting in bed, not playing a video game, or conducting Lego action figure battles or furtively hiding candy beneath his pillow. What Jerry is doing is something that, in the nine years I’ve known him, he has never willingly done on his own. He is reading. Not for a school assignment, not to fulfill the terms of yet another punishment, but for pleasure, for the pure fun of it.
I know there will be disappointments and setbacks in the future, but this felt, this still feels, like a turning point, like something new and hungry has awakened in Jerry’s mind. I hope he feeds it until it’s near to bursting.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
“ I want to be a game designer. To be honest I want to make games like no one’s ever seen before.” — Jerry, 2016

I can’t imagine what the future holds for Jerry. As hard as I try, I can’t picture him as a fully functioning adult, driving a car, holding a job, taking care of a family of his own.
What I do know is that Becky and I have done everything in our power to give him a fighting chance in life. I’m sure we’ve made mistakes, been too lenient or not lenient enough, pushed him too hard or allowed him to spend too many hours playing videos games instead of studying. At some point, physical and mental exhaustion waylays even the most determined plans to shape a child’s life, to spend hours on homework or helping them memorize flashcards every night.
But, he’s ours. No matter how many times I may have wished him away or questioned mine and Becky’s sanity for bringing Jerry to live with us, he’s ours.
I can’t imagine what the future holds. And I can’t imagine our world without him.

Sound and Motion

Dylan cloud music graphicIt begins with the cutting of a cord, the severing of a tie between two worlds — the soft uterine world of sleep and dreams, and this other too bright, too defined reality. And you think, this must be some manner of witchcraft more than biology, that a mere nine months could produce… this.

And then you’re turned out, back into the world, with this helpless, squalling ball of muscle and bone and translucent flesh, to begin gathering the necessary and ridiculous things of its life, to mix with the necessary and ridiculous things of your own lives. And you wait for him to transform one day or night or sunlit second, to become a creature that you can laugh and rage and protest life with; someone who…understands.

But that’s the future. Here and now you’re faced with a child who won’t sleep. So you remember: sitting on the floor of your parents’ bedroom, you’re six, maybe seven, and the music is moving like smoke through the house….and so, in desperation, you put on the same album (Emmylou Harris), the same song (“Poncho and Lefty”) and your son, Dylan, this raw burst of life and confusion, instantly quiets down, his small blue hands tracing the air like the conductor of a spirit symphony.

You remember: moving down the highway at night in the back of your father’s Oldsmobile, summer air through a half-cracked window, the wave like motion of the car and a Beatles 8-track playing into infinity. So you take Dylan on night rides, and he smiles, stares out the window and sleeps.

And it all floods back: your father lying on the couch with his eyes closed, the music of Hendrix or Neil Young on the turntable, shaking his head in wonder. “When I grow up,” he mumbles “that’s what I’m gonna do.”

When you’re older you discover that music, hidden away in closets, at the bottom of bookcases, and sit staring at the album covers, the inside sleeves, taking in the smell  of mildewed cardboard and vinyl. You listen to the Beatles again, especially “I am the Walrus” (“Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye”!!) and you know you’ve found a portal to other worlds, that there are mysteries here that can never be fully understood. Who would want to?

But that’s the past. Your father’s albums are now mingled with your own. Maybe they’ll fascinate the grandson he never met the way they once entranced you. Maybe music will expand Dylan’s  world, unlock the textures and shadows of his own heart.

Maybe, someday, it will save his life.

For now there’s the calming effect of white noise; the sound of rain; the slow frazzled guitar textures of My Bloody Valentine; the rhythmic, automated soul of Kraftwerk. Bach and Chopin.

Now, at three months old, Dylan is a world of sound unto himself: grunts, moans, bleets, screams, gurgles, burps, snores and, almost, laughter. He creates his own music — the rude music of life.

And who is this changeling, someone new each day, each hour? The shifting of tectonic plates; the merging of weather systems; floods and eerie calms. The violent upheavals in those blue/grey eyes, like cut glass at the bottom of a pond, reflecting its depths back at you, holding the sky, your face, the world.

And here you are, rocking him as you walk, singing to him. The smells of sour milk, tiny fingernails making tiny scratches on his soft skin. You hold his chest to your ear and listen, his face to yours and watch.

And you come to know that life is not a circle at all, but a kaleidoscope of constantly changing patterns merging into one another, shapes reappearing and then fading again: my wife’s nose, my eyes, long fingers from someone long forgotten…It all comes back again, like a river of song, moving and merging with the ocean and the sky and falling to earth again as someone new, who will join with life and create their own patterns, their own sound and motion.

And you won’t be able to stop him or save him from this world anymore than you were stopped or saved. So you hold him and watch him watching you, and you say remember, remember….

Abandoned

Hwy 903 outside of Magnolia

Hwy 903 outside of Magnolia


I’ve always been drawn to the abandoned, the old places and solitary remains of the past that inhabit the modern day landscape like forlorn phantoms. Isolated in their decay, somehow grand and echoing with the hopes, follies, lusts and fears of those who once dwelt there, they now murmur endlessly for those willing to look and listen: This is what it comes to in the end, for everyone and everything (flesh, brick, wood, and steel).

Maybe it’s the Irish blood or a childhood spent traipsing through the woods and back roads of southeastern North Carolina, but my fascination with these discarded structures has remained. Like some addled archeologist rooting around in the remains of a civilization yet to pass from history, I’ve rarely turned down the opportunity to walk, climb, or crawl my way into the near past by way of the weather-rotted porches, insect-infested door frames, and fractured windows of these uncared-for artifacts.

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Within their walls, the ones left standing and the ones that have vanished, there is the same sense of excitement and unease that must have accompanied those early explorers of ancient tombs: the impression that, as you take in the exquisite disrepair and strangeness, something is looking back as well. Left to their own devices and the vagaries of time and decay, once insignificant items take on new meaning, like objects arranged in a precisely choreographed art installation: a light switch meticulously covered in cobwebs; a ceramic portrait of a young woman propped on a water stained couch framed by broken glass and leaves; the exposed innards of a rusting gas pump splayed in chaotic yet subtle asymmetry.

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Those remains throw into bold relief the most obvious element at play in many of these miskept architectures: the works of Nature reclaiming the works of humankind. Allowed to remain indefinitely, there comes a time when the wild and the fabricated seem to merge in perfect balance, as vines trace themselves over windowpanes like fine calligraphy, mold works its way into the very grain and grit of floorboards and ceiling tiles, and limbs enfold roofs and penetrate eaves.

Potters Hill, Weston Rd off Hwy 41.

Potters Hill, Weston Rd off Hwy 41.


In the end, I suspect what truly draws me back time and again is the simple sense of peace found in these spaces, the perception that, whatever their past, here are realms where humans have vanished, and though their garbage and memories may remain, their noise and fitful energy have been expelled.

Rivers

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In my memory of the moment, a few brief seconds from a distant late summer afternoon, I never see the wave coming. I don’t feel its impact or have time to gasp in fear. I simply open my eyes and understand that I am submerged, held paralyzed to the bottom of the softly churning ocean floor by a force dumb, cold, and utterly indifferent to human life.

The awareness is instant and numbing: I cannot be here; I cannot move or even fathom if I’m facing sky or earth. I open my mouth in panic to the murky brine and in that moment I am released, thrown sputtering and senseless onto the shore. And no one comes, not my parents, not the other family members who have joined us for our day at the beach, not a single kind stranger runs to comfort me. No one saw; no one understood.

But I knew. The ocean was not my friend.

At some point in our lives we each have to define our own personal relationship with water. At an early age, I found that I belonged to the rivers, not the oceans. I grew up at the confluence of two rivers, the Neuse and the Trent in New Bern, and spent many childhood summers playing in or near a third, the Pamlico, in Oriental. During those years, I developed a kind of secret fascination with their sly, enigmatic characters, their personable yet mystic natures so different from the vast, alien hostility of the Atlantic and other oceans. There were early morning and midnight fishing excursions with my father and uncles, the moon on the water, mist rising over the pier, and I would fall asleep on the beach, dreaming, to the rhythmic, murmurous tide.

Along the rivers, there was no shortage of details to fascinate a young mind: the dried out husks of old fishing vessels abandoned to weeds and time; translucent jellyfish like pale spirits of pain and wonder; red and blue crab pots strewn in the waters around the homes of the “river people,” the eccentrics, dreamers and misanthropes that are inevitably drawn to the ramshackle edges of human society. And there was, always, the smell, a mixture of decay and newborn life, of creatures abandoned on the shore with the receding tide, storm debris and sulfurous mud mingled beneath the turbid surface.

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But I was also aware, as I grew older, that the rivers had another face, deceptive and deadly. Like oceans, rivers also claim their victims and demand their sacrifices. But what the rivers take, they often give back as well.

I worked for six years as a journalist in Halifax County, a part of the state known for the bass fishing along the Roanoke River and the popular tourist getaways of Roanoke Rapids Lake and Lake Gaston. Every year, as regularly as house fires, murders, or the wrecks along nearby Interstate 95, the water would take someone: a child, a careless adult, an inattentive motorist.

One night during my time there, a man driving two young teens to a basketball game turned down a road he believed led back to town, a road that terminated in a dimly-lit boat ramp. It was early winter, and there were no signs along the road indicating that just past the dull amber street light of the cul-de-sac and a low wall of rocks, only the black frigid water remained.

I tried to imagine their confusion, their terror as they found themselves enveloped in a cold darkness deeper than night, only a few yards from shore, but lost, irrevocably.

I was there when rescue workers pulled the empty car to the surface and searched for the boys’ with spotlights and diving gear beneath the river’s surface. And I was there several weeks later, when they pulled the youngest one’s body from the water a few miles away, placed him in a boat and brought him back to shore.

A cop told me that the boy, almost miraculously, was able to use his cell phone to place a call to his parents after he freed himself from the car that night, as he struggled to swim, to understand where he was and why this was happening. His parents were out, and so their answering machine picked up, recording the last words they would hear from their son, a message they would find days later. “I’m dying. I’m dying.”

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There were others: the homeless man who washed up behind the residence of one of the wealthier families in the county, one arm gnawed away and his flesh like curdled milk; the jet skier that crashed into a buoy; others that have simply faded from memory.

Since I returned home to New Bern five years ago, the rivers of my youth have claimed their own casualties, their placid surfaces lulling the inexperienced into a false, and deadly, tranquility.

I know their moods, these rivers. I’ve seen them, like fickle children, sooth and then lash out unexpectedly.

And I know other things now, since I took up kayaking along the Bay River with my wife last summer. I know how the water can turn on you, in league with the wind, to set a thin, metallic note of terror coursing through your chest; how time on the river bends and ebbs like the current, receding from its landlocked counterpart faster and faster with each turn down another unmapped channel; how sound, a dog’s yelp, a drunkard’s cackle, doesn’t so much travel across the water as simply materialize in the brain, a pure ghost twin of its original source.

And I’ve learned to accept that the river cares not a damn for me, just another of its wayward spawn who lavishes it in myth and romance, even as it ravishes our homes, carries off our pets and children, and makes a sad joke of our pretensions of dominion. It would gladly suck us all down and seal us over, eternal, implacable, without a trace.

But I still love it out there.

I still come, again and again.

Like my father, grandfather and uncles before me, I still belong to the rivers.

Trains: a photo essay

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It was a ritual for all seasons, one that required no discussion, and even less in the way of thought or planning. We would push our chairs away from my grandparents’ dinner table, leave by the back door and enter the woods behind the horse pasture. Scraped and bloodied, we would emerge some time later into a clearing, a linear scar carved into the forest—narrow and unbroken—running east and west to both horizons.

Ascending the gravel embankment, we would fall to our knees in the shifting rocks, place our hands on the wood ties, and bend forward until our cheeks rested on the cool metal of the rail, our ears pressed to its smooth surface. And we would listen.
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Through all the childhood Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings, when my cousin and I would observe our pilgrimage to the train tracks behind my grandparents’ house, I never heard the sound, the one that, as our favorite Westerns had taught us, preceded the approach of an oncoming train. But there was something else, always, a distant echo that would reach the ear as if through water or subterranean depths; maybe a whisper of electricity, or only the wind coming through the pine trees at our backs.

Or maybe it was a memory, etched in steel, of the sound that I would lay awake and listen for on summer nights, the deep animal roar and metallic clatter that would echo through the house long after the train had passed, leaving the world in its wake too silent, too still.
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For someone of a certain age, from a certain place, the sound of a passing train conjures an entire world, an entire history and emotional universe that answers to no logic or sense of consequence beyond its own reality. A world of hobos and drifters, their arcane symbols scrawled on doorways and alleys, communicating a freedom barely conceivable to most. And the ghost stories: the dead conductor whose lantern light is still visible along the tracks in Maco; the screeching wheels and screaming passengers that some say can be heard each August along a railroad bridge in Statesville; and the unnumbered phantom trains and engineers that haunt our songs and literature.

Like most legends, those surrounding railroads are tied to the grim facts of everyday tragedy, of children losing limbs while attempting to outrun or climb aboard a passing rail car; of men and women who simply give up, pull their vehicles onto the tracks, shut off the engines, and wait.train5

That world, the real and fantastical, can still be glimpsed in the work of photographer Mike Brodie, who spent three years riding the rails and documenting the community of young vagabonds and squatters he encountered along the way; in the stories of Central American migrants passing through Mexico on a train, known simply as “The Beast,” that has become as much a symbol of death and desperation as freedom and escape; and in the intermittent talk of restoring the once significant rail line between Wallace and Castle Hayne, part of the original Wilmington to Weldon Railroad along which rebel troops transported supplies during the Civil War.train9

The tracks me and my cousin once walked, as well as my grandparents’ rambling, oak-shaded home, have long since been torn from their roots and leveled, replaced with mini golf courses and storage units. They can be added to the roll of the irreplaceable and the holy recently erased and scrubbed from the world.

In all our time along the tracks, I can only recall seeing it pass once. We hid, crouched in the woods, not in fear, or not merely fear, but more precisely from some sense of awe and reverence, as if to simply stand there and gawk at the gleaming engine and graffiti-streaked freight cars would have been a show of disrespect, a betrayal of the hours we spent walking aimlessly towards the horizon, kicking rocks, balancing on the rails, and stopping, every so often, to press our ears to the cool metal, and listen.train4