207 E. Edinborough Avenue today
Fifty years ago, Christmas was on a Saturday. My family went to see my grandmother, who lived an hour’s drive away, for part of the weekend. Our home was full of moving boxes, mostly packed.
It was a subdued Christmas, that one of 1965. We were moving, on the 28th, to Shelby, North Carolina, 165 miles northwest. My dad had left his job with Burlington Industries in the late summer, and was in and out, between interviews arranged by an executive search service. He ended up taking a post with Dover Textiles, then a well-established, significant regional company. Burlington, of course, was the biggest textile company in the world, but not for much longer.
So there was no tree that Christmas. I think the presents went with us to Ellerbe and got opened there.
When my dad left his job, it was pretty upending for a nine-year-old boy. I couldn’t remember our last move, and really had no idea off anywhere beyond a fifty-mile radius of Raeford. In truth, childhood world was pretty much encompassed in sixteen square blocks of the town of Raeford. I could walk to the library unattended, and to choir practice at the Presbyterian Church. My grade school, John W. McLaughlin Elementary, was around the corner: our backyard adjoined the park that included the school playground.
I was in the fourth grade. The school year had started dramatically, when I was assigned to the class of a teacher whose son, a student at the University of North Carolina, had been involved in a drug scandal- one of the early cases in which the right to use peyote was claimed on religious grounds. In a striking example of the sins of the son being visited on the mother, mine walked over to the school and demanded, successfully, that I be transferred to another teacher’s class. It seemed a little odd to me, but life, generally, was a little odd in Raeford. There was always, it seemed, a shoe ready to drop.
In 1962, my grandfather died in a farm accident; my mother was ill, as she had been for portions of the previous year, visitable occasionally, and briefly, in hospital. The Cuban Missile Crisis roared over our heads in October, as thousands of planes went in and out of Fort Bragg and Pope Air Base (Fort Bragg owned about a third of Hoke County, so we were constantly the object of mock invasions and parachute drops, but October 1962 was odd, even to me. My mother had a son that month who only survived a few hours.
1963, of course, was when school was dismissed and we were all sent home because the President had been killed, and went through the long, strange, televised weekend that followed.
After I got removed to Mrs. Roberts’ class- a jovial woman who looked like Margaret Rutherford- my mother had another child in October, a girl. Three weeks later, as we watched, horrified, out the windows of my bedroom, John W. McLaughlin Elementary burned to the ground. The heat from the three-story fire was so great, we could feel it, a block away.
So we were out of school for a week, and when things reconvened, I spent my last few weeks in fourth grade in my Sunday School classroom at Raeford Presbyterian. My birthday rolled up December 13, and A couple of friends were let to come over for lunch and some touch football in the backyard. They left, and in another week school let out for the holidays. Church on Sundays became a sad business as people queued up t wish my parents farewell. y dad was immensely popular in that little town; Raeford was only fifty years old and you could still make a name for yourself on your own. He had multiple job offers in Raeford, but had his hat cocked for bigger things.
I remember we spent a week or so at my grandmother’s in mid-December; my dad went into town to help out at my uncle’s Firestone dealership. A time and motions studies man, my dad set to rearranging things in the store in a modern, efficient manner. My Uncle Joe didn’t much care for modern and efficient; he liked already knowing where stuff was and knowing it was still there.
We left Raeford late on the afternoon of December 28. I remember when we passed through Charlotte, along Independence Boulevard; I’d never seen buildings so tall as Uptown had. Now, of course, they are mostly gone, replaced by vastly taller ones.
We got to Shelby and checked into a hotel. There we were under a sort of house arrest.There was no playing out in the parking lot. You didn’t know what sort of people there were out there, or, more particularly, what I as a ten-year-old boy might get up to, to the eternal shame and discredit of the family.
There were delays in moving into our new home. It developed that my parents’ realtor was in financial straits, and the proceeds of their home sale were not immediately available to be put down on the new one. This introduced a general air of tension into life above the usual level, much less the new mark set by my two-month-old sister.
My dad got that sorted out after what diplomats today would have called a free and frank exchange of views with the realtor. His son, one of my close friends, was banished from mention or letter-writing. It was a one-strike world in which we lived.
The moving truck arrived, and we occupied our new home, in a new subdivision surrounded by farmland and woods on three sides and a highway on the fourth. It was the ultimate kid-management setup. Without a car and someone to drive you, there was absolutely nowhere to go beyond the four streets of Meadowood.
I was dropped into fourth grade a week into the January term. Making friends was not something I’d had to do before; I knew everyone in my Raeford classes pretty much before I even started school. Now there were neighborhood kids to meet at home, and a very large- for me- school filled with strangers to face every day.
There was also a class system I’d never encountered before. Shelby was a town of some consequence. Vast cotton fortunes had been made in the first half of the century; a powerful political machine had, within living memory, produced two governors, a US senator, a speaker of the state house, a federal judge. People remembered the authors W.J. Cash and Thomas Dixon as local boys. Who you were, and how you counted, was a function of who your people were.
Things, I realized, were not going to be easy there.