Monday, September 27, 2010

The Penguin, version 1.0

Our friend Diane Suchetka was in town over the weekend, and we had to spend some time at the beginning catching her up on the drama over the Penguin. (The great Helen Schwab has Chapter 37 here.)

Most people in Charlotte, if they know the Penguin, know it as the hip burger joint in Plaza-Midwood, the place with fried pickles and long waits at lunch. But the Penguin had a life long before that as a neighborhood bar -- a true dive, but a place where everybody really did know your name.

Diane is now a prize-winning reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but she wrote for the Observer for 19 years and I think she's the best who ever worked here. Back in 1995, she wrote about the Penguin. Here's her story about what it used to be.

Camaraderie's on tap at Penguin

By Diane Suchetka
Dec. 23, 1995

Her name was Margaret and every Saturday night she'd wiggle into one of her long evening gowns, clip huge rhinestones to her ears, fix her rouge and lipstick to hide the years and tuck her bleached blond hair up under one of her fancy hats. Then she'd grab the camellias or gardenias she'd picked from her yard and walk to the bar at the end of her street.

Like most of the regulars at The Penguin, she didn't mind that the words had nearly worn off the rusty sign on the roof, that at least one window always seemed to be broken, that the message on the front door was losing its meaning.

"Welcom to The Peng i "

"Good ood"

"Cold Drinks"

"Boiled Peanuts"

She would arrange her flowers in vases on the tables or hand them out to whoever was around the smoky pine-paneled bar.

She did not come so much to be seen as she did to see. She'd find a seat, order a beer from Jim, listen to the jukebox - it worked back then - and watch.

The place'd be packed with locals, guys from the boarding houses across the street, a painter or two who would come after work and stay into the night. Of course, there'd always be some guy in khakis, maybe a tie, and a few women - but none like her.

Then one Saturday - just after Thanksgiving - she didn't show up. It wasn't long before everybody heard what happened, that she just died one day.

Jim passed the hat just like he always did. He sent flowers to the funeral home, with a note, "From Your Friends at The Penguin."

There are people who think the old flat-topped building at Thomas and Commonwealth - with its Dumpster out front and burned-out neon signs - is just another dive.

But they haven't been coming since Jim bought the place back in 1954, they haven't stopped in on an afternoon and met Harry and Pat and Gene and the rest of the gang, they never talked to Margaret and they certainly never happened by on Christmas Day, when Jim gives Charlotte a gift just by opening up.

You could smell burgers and fries, hear "Earth Angel" or "Hound Dog" blasting out of convertibles and pickup trucks, see the teen-agers hanging out before you ever pulled into the parking lot of The Penguin.

That's how it was in the years after the soft-spoken Jim Ballentine bought the old ice cream shop, when kids respected a guy who was 28, who had fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge with the 101st Airborne when he was only 18, who had earned a Purple Heart and Soldier's Medal and who spent all day, seven days a week, cooking for them.

"It was just like Happy Days,' " says Betty "Ziggy" Ziegler, who grew up right down the street on Commonwealth Avenue, and graduated from Central High in 1952. She hung out there in the '50s. Now she owns Bride's House of Originals across the street from The Penguin.

Back then, Otto and Wiley curb-hopped - running orders out to cars while the neighborhood gang hung out and cruised around Charlotte, stopped back to hang out again and then cruised some more.

"If you were all dressed up," Ziggy says, "you'd have to stop by and let everybody see you.

"And it was always the last place you stopped on your way to the beach - tell everybody you were going."

It was Ziggy's mom who nicknamed the place - she always mixed up names and was always trying to get Ziggy to come home from that dang Bird. Then Ziggy and her friends started calling it The Bird and pretty soon everybody was.

Everybody started coming by for beer too, back then. Jim started selling it not long after he bought the place and by 1956 or '57 he was selling so much Schlitz - 10,000 cases a year - the company sent some guys over from the head office to figure out how he was doing it.

But he never allowed trouble.

"If y'all are going to fight, you've got to go over in the field - get off my lot," he'd yell to guys who'd start roughhousing.

It was like your dad was yelling at you, says Pat Mulligan.

"He was the boss. Everybody knew that. If you did wrong, you weren't coming back. You were banned. That's why he's lasted 41 years."

Jim's wife, Jean, will tell you that Pat's come to The Penguin every day of every one of those years. Pat shakes his head no.

"There were those four years I was in the service," he says, " '56 to '60. But even when I was on leave, I'd come back here. And I came right back here in the '60s. The Penguin was still the same."


Trouble in the night

But over the years the neighborhood changed.

Sure, the old gang still came around, but mixed in with it was trouble, some nights.
There were so many break-ins in the late '80s that Jim started calling home before he left. Jean would answer and they'd both set down their receivers so they could listen for strange noises at The Penguin on their phone at home. It was a baby monitor for a bar.

Then one night in 1990, just a week before Christmas, Jim locked up. It was 1:30 in the morning. He was about to drive away when he remembered he'd left the heat on. He went back. He opened the door and a guy came at him. Jim fired the pistol he keeps to protect himself - hit the guy in the shoulder. He still got away.

When the police picked him up later, they charged him with breaking and entering and larceny and told Jim he was the man who'd broken into The Penguin 15 times in 15 weeks. They never charged Jim.

A regular was found dead behind the building, hypodermic needles around him, and some kids stole Jean's purse this May, as she left the grocery store two blocks away.

One of them slammed her into the pavement and broke her hip. Jean still needs a cane to get around. So Jeannie, their oldest daughter, works in her place.

And just a few weeks ago one of the guys from the boarding house got mad, came over and busted out nearly every one of Jim's windows.

But Jim keeps opening, seven days a week, doesn't matter that he's 69 now.

"I ain't got nothing else to do - nowhere else to go," Jim tells you, shrugging and rubbing his hand over his short white hair.

But if you stop in The Penguin, you'll see for yourself what really keeps him coming back.


Characters at the bar

It's Friday night at 7. The gang at the end of the bar is flipping quarters to see who'll win the privilege - as they put it - of buying the rest a beer.

There's Lucky Larry - he never wins - and The Buddhas of the Bar - Eric and Mark - who show off their matching bellies in one synchronized move.

Actually, there are four Marks, they tell you. "Just call us a dog with a harelip," one of them yells. "Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark" and the whole gang laughs even though they've all heard it 100 times.

All night long, they're telling stories and buying beers - even for people they've never seen before. Jeannie's handing out cans and bottles as fast as she can. And Jim's in the back, cooking, never saying a word.

Even when he comes up front to take an order, he just points at a customer, nods, peers over his reading glasses and waits for them to ask for a Bud or a draft or a Miller Lite.

Ask him a question and he smiles and waits and rubs his hand over his head and then answers in a voice so quiet, you can barely hear him over the crowd.

So you've got to count on the regulars - the stockholders, they call themselves - to tell you about Jim.

"He don't put up with no trash," says Gene, who's 91-1/2. "He knows where the door is."

"He runs the place with an iron fist," says Ray. "He always has."

"I just feel safe coming in here," says Larry.

"Everybody's the same here, I don't care who you are," says Harry. He's 79, comes every day between 2:20 and 2:45, has a stool reserved for him at the end of the bar.

They're all afternoon regulars, in flannel or blue work shirts, who'll tell you it's a family place and point to the "No Profanity Please" sign or tell you it's got a heart and show you the collection box packed full of Christmas toys for needy kids.

The stockholders know who comes to The Penguin. They spend their afternoons with all of Jim's customers - painters whose faces are splattered, businessmen in suits, south Charlotte women who've read that Jim makes the best hot dog in town, drug addicts, the homeless, men dressed as women, poor people who buy a pack of cigarettes so Jim will cash their $20 checks from the Plasma Alliance around the corner.

And they all know the joke - the first place guys come when they get out of jail is The Bird.

They also know what happens at The Penguin when the holidays hit.

Pat Mulligan will finish dinner at his mom's, then drive down to see if Denny McKinnon or L.D. Weeks or Jerry Gerard or any of the rest of the old gang is home for the holidays. If they are, they'll stop by The Bird. Everybody does at Christmas.

Ziggy'll be there. She comes almost every year.

There'll be the guys who don't have family or a place to live, who know there isn't much open on Christmas and certainly no place where you can get a burger for 85 cents, a draft for 90 cents, a spaghetti dinner for $3 - including tax.

They're the reasons Jim gets up every Christmas after breakfast and says "I've got to go."

"There are people depending on me to be there," he tells Jean and their five daughters and five grandchildren.

Sometimes they're depending even more than Jim realizes, like the guy who came in a couple of years ago from out West.


Honoring a family member

Jean was working up front then. It was a Saturday night. The booths were full.

She had never seen the guy who took Harry's stool on the end and ordered a beer.

He was quiet, didn't talk to anyone but her.

"Seems like everyone here knows everybody else - like a bunch of friends getting together," he said.

"That's about what it is."

"Well, give everyone what they're drinking. Set the house up."

Jean thought it was weird, a stranger buying a round especially when so many people were there, but she handed out cans and bottles and drew drafts and didn't think anything more of it - until he did it again.

After Jean made sure everybody had the second free drink, she went back to talk to the stranger.

"Do you know anybody here?"

He shook his head no. "I just wanted to do this for my mom. She used to come here. She loved this place.

"Maybe you remember her," he said. "Her name was Margaret."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Woody Cooper, a brave man

Woody Cooper made himself part of Charlotte history, first for what he didn't do, and then for what he did.

He was a good man who died Thursday at age 70, after fighting off cancer for almost two years, and I want to tell you about him.

Woody was in the crowd at Harding High School on Sept. 4, 1957, when a 15-year-old black girl named Dorothy Counts integrated the school. The white kids taunted her, spit on her, threw things at her. The abuse continued for four days, until her parents pulled her out of school.

That moment -- and especially a photo taken that day by Observer photographer Don Sturkey -- became news around the world. The great writer James Baldwin, who had moved to France to escape racism, saw Dorothy's photo and decided he had to come back home to fight.

Over the years the story would come up from time to time, or the paper would publish the photo again, and it always haunted Woody. He wasn't one of the people who insulted or threw things at Dorothy that day. But he didn't try to protect her, either. And he came to decide that there wasn't much difference between hurting and failing to help.

One day in 2006 -- 49 years after that day at school -- Woody showed up for his regular Sunday-school class at Assurance United Methodist. That morning the lesson was about sins of omission. The teacher, Sam Smith, asked if anybody had a sin of omission to talk about.

Woody raised his hand and said: Dorothy Counts.

Smith happened to have a book with him -- Frye Gaillard's "The Dream Long Deferred," a history of school integration in Charlotte. Don Sturkey's photo of Dorothy was on the cover.

Woody pointed to a boy in the photo and said: "That's me."

And the very next day, the Observer ran a story catching up with Dorothy Counts.

Woody saw this as a sign. He got an e-mail address for Dorothy, who now goes by Dot Counts-Scoggins. He sent her a letter that said in part: God works in mysterious ways. It was the first time any of the other students had tried to contact her.

The next year, I wrote a story on the 50th anniversary of that day in 1957, looking at it through that famous photograph. I set out to find some of the white kids who were in the photo, and of course Woody's name came up right away.

He and Dot had been corresponding. She had been upset at first that Woody waited so long to contact to her. But she saw that he was genuine. What she had done as a 15-year-old took tremendous courage. But when he reached out nearly 50 years later, that took some courage, too.

After my story, and Steve Crump's documentary on that day at Harding, Dot and Woody became close friends. They spoke at churches and schools together, talked by e-mail or on the phone.

"It made him feel so good to make that connection after all those years," says Woody's wife, Judy.

Woody had been in and out of hospitals, had multiple bouts of chemo and radiation, and finally last weekend went into hospice. Wednesday, the night before he died, Dot came to see him.

"He didn't know I was there," she says. "But we spent two and a half hours together. He and I became such good friends. I loved him and I know that he loved me."

Woody Cooper's funeral is 11 a.m. Saturday at Assurance United Methodist. Judy is going to try to speak. And Dot will be there, in the crowd.

Woody Cooper (2007 staff file photo, GARY O'BRIEN -

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Video of the day: Bat vs. centipede

Via the great, this is like seven bad dreams rolled together. It could also be a great Metallica video.

And to think we freak out at a roach.

The lady and the gator

I keep going back and looking at the picture. The gator is so huge it doesn't look real. It's like a plaster caricature in the dinosaur exhibit at a museum. But it is real and very dead. The blond woman crouching in the back killed it.

Her name is Maryellen Mara-Christian, she lives in Massachusetts, and hunting is her hobby. Her husband is a bear-hunting guide. They hunted gators in Louisiana on their honeymoon. But she didn't get one then. They came to South Carolina looking for a gator to kill.

They found it at Lake Moultrie, one of the two Santee Cooper lakes between Columbia and Charleston. The lakes are known for great fishing, underwater stumps that can wreck a boat, and a healthy population of gators.

Here is how you legally kill a gator in South Carolina. You can't just shoot one swimming free. You have to hook it, usually with a stout fishing rig. They hooked this gator several times. Then you're allowed to shoot it, but this gator was so big, a shot from a .22 didn't do the job. But by then, pierced and shot, the gator was weak enough for Mara-Christian to finish it off. She took a knife to the back of its neck and cut its spinal cord.

The great hunter is 5-5, about 120 pounds. The gator was 13 1/2 feet, 1,025 pounds. It's the biggest one I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of gators.

My dad used to bass fish with a guy named Nick who was a little crazy. They'd come around a bend in the river and run up on a bunch of gators on the bank. Nick would cut off the motor, flick his fingers in the water and make a little clicking sound in his throat. Sure enough, one or two of the gators would slide off the bank and head their way.

My dad would say, "Nick, that motor better crank." But most of the time the gators lost interest. They don't mess with you unless you mess with them.

I don't get the point of hunting one down and killing it just to say you did.

Hunting to feed your family is fine, even honorable, considering how most of our meat gets to the table. I don't hunt, but most of the men in my family have at one time or another, and we all fish. But taking a big, magnificent animal off the books, just for the thrill of it, seems worse than cruel. It's a false show of dominance. It's ending a life just because you can.

Or maybe it's so you can get on TV.

It's been a week since the woman killed the gator, but I keep going back and looking at that picture. I watch a lot of nature documentaries, and the common theme is that the natural world is ruthless. To survive the first day out of the nest is a tremendous lucky break. To make it to old age, for most animals, is beating lottery odds.

Alligators live to be about 50 on average. Scientists know of a few that made it to 70 or more. They can be vicious, of course, but only when feeding or protecting their turf. This gator was so old and fat that only 40 pounds of its meat was worth saving. It survived for decades in the wild only to be killed for a trophy. Human nature can be ruthless, too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Video of the day: It's the dad life

You know you're bad when you find something to rhyme with "ornamental turtles." And the brief Disney interlude is priceless.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Taking stock, four weeks in

So I've been doing my new job for four weeks now. (If you're just tuning in, read this.) A month or so into any new gig is a good time to take a breath and see how it's going.

I've been having a ball, and I hope you're enjoying reading some of the pieces we've come up with -- and contributing to them.

We've found out that sometimes it's hard to say one good thing.

We've talked about our scars.

High-school seniors have provided smart advice to first-graders.

We've told tales of rescue.

We've remembered where we were on 9/11/01.

We've shared our toy stories.

All those posts are still live -- you're welcome to add your stories and continue the conversation. I'm also looking for some more stories for the Cut Day project, about the time you didn't make the team. We'll have a compilation of those ready to go shortly.

Here's a couple of questions some of you have asked along the way:

-- Are you ever going to write regular stories again?

Absolutely. I wanted to spend some time getting these projects launched so y'all could see what I was trying to do (and so I could figure out the best way to do them). But I've always planned to keep writing, and my goal is to have a couple of pieces a week of my own stuff. I did do a Panthers preview a couple of weeks ago -- I said they'd go 6-10, and after watching the first two games, I might've been too optimistic.

I've also been scouting some long-term stories, and a couple of them look really promising for down the road.

-- Is there stuff I'm missing if I read you mostly in the paper?

A little. So far we've put versions of all these projects in the printed Observer, but online we've got room to add more of what readers have sent in. I'll also post smaller things online, such as links to videos and other great stories I've run across. But most of the bigger stuff will find some place in the paper.

-- What's the best way to find out when something new comes out?

If you have an RSS reader like Google Reader, you can subscribe to this blog -- the button is on the right-hand side, just above my picture. Every time I post something new, it'll show up on there. I also post links on Facebook and Twitter when there's something new, so if you friend or follow me, you can find the stories that way.

We've been toying with the idea of having an e-mail alert that you could sign up for -- you'd be notified whenever I posted. I'm not sure if people would like that, or if it's just one more e-mail on top of a big stack. Let me know what you think.

-- How do I send ideas your way?

E-mail me at, call 704-358-5227, or send me a Twitter or Facebook message. Always glad to hear good ideas.

We're also working on a page of some kind that would make it easier to jump into current projects, browse my archives, highlight great comments, post video, that sort of thing. If there's something in particular you'd like to see along those lines, holler.

The bottom line is, this is something new for me, so I'm sort of walking through the woods in the dark. I'm bound to trip over roots and run into trees now and then. But it's still a lot of fun. Thanks for all your stories so far, and let me know how to make this better.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Your Toy Story -- director's cut

Our childhood toys are some of our strongest memories -- whether they're a scale-model train, a beat-up doll, or just a cardboard box and a kid's imagination.

The memories that readers shared as part of the Your Toy Story project are even better than I expected. You can read them (some with pictures!) below. I'll add a few more later, and you can see more in the comments on the original post. Some of these will also end up in the newspaper -- right now a story is scheduled for Saturday, but those things sometimes change when news breaks.

Thanks to everyone who participated; if you're just now hearing about this, add your memories in the comments. I'm also still taking submissions for another project; if you've ever not made the team, send me your thoughts on Cut Day.

Now to the toy stories...

Clancy the Roller Skating Monkey was the love of my life when I was about 3. I named him Glem Campbell (I couldn't say Glen, and Wichita Lineman was big on the radio).

"Glem" was about my size, plastic, with movable arms, and on roller skates. Hold his hand, and a button would allow him to walk beside you. Place his hat in his hand and toss coins into it, you could make him walk to you. Glem and I were inseparable.

For some reason, I told my husband and daughter about Glem a couple of months ago. That day, Bill spent three hours on the Internet trying to find him (more difficult because I could not think of the name Clancy; I could only think of Glem). Bill surprised me by bringing Glem home two weeks ago.

Though I'm 46 now, Glem brings a smile to my face every single day, and gives me the feeling that life should not be taken so seriously.
-- Melissa Hutchinson

My favorite toy growing up had to be my Hot Wheels cars. I had a few Matchbox cars, but Hot Wheels were the best in my opinion because they could roll on their own better and longer than any others. I had the plastic race track pieces also, along with a motorized “garage” which would shoot the cars out and around the tracks.

One of my earliest memories is playing with my Hot Wheels cars on the front step of my house. We had two steps out of brick and the stoop was, from my young perspective, a vast square of flat road rivaling the salt flats in Utah. Many of the cars had competitions to see who could jump off the steps and over the walkway to land safely in the soft grass, and many of the cars carried the scars of coming up short.

I can also vividly remember hours, days and weeks playing with the cars in the summer time around the trees at the lake house. We didn’t have a TV there, just loads of time and endless imagination. I had some Hot Wheels cars that matched classic pop culture of the 70’s – a “General Lee” Dodge Challenger, black ’78 Pontiac Trans Am with T-tops like in “Smokey and the Bandit”, and of course a few generic police cars that split duties as Roscoe P. Coltrane or Sheriff Buford T. Justice. The roots of the trees would provide the perfect landscape for country chases, hideouts and all sorts of other action scenes from the movies or shows I’d make up as I played along.

I still have some of the cars today and shared them with my own son, who is now 9. My wife and I had a daughter first, and were also hoping for a son but were going to be surprised again by not finding out before delivery. I remember many trips to the local Target during his first year of life where I would find myself groggily wandering into the toy aisle and pick up a Hot Wheels car or two for him when he got older. On his first birthday, I gave him a case full of about 30 cars of his own, and I believe he now owns over 200 different cars – none of which are in their original wrappers and most of which have their own scars from various close calls over the years.

My son has played with them for hours, days and weeks but also loves a lot of other distractions as he’s grown up a little. Just like I did, he’s now graduated more towards Legos and video games but does pull out the Hot Wheels cars to play with every so often.
--Doug Lang

I grew up right at the foot of Mt. Pisgah in Western North Carolina during the
depression. One of the few toys that I ever had was a doll called Betsy Wetsey. I
sold vegetables and flower seed packets to neighbors and extended family to earn this doll as a prize when I was about eight years old. After I sent off my order, it seemed to take forever for the doll to arrive in the mail. I was happy to walk the fourth of a mile to the mail box each day to see if the doll had arrived. When it finally came, I ran all the way home; I was so excited. Betsy came with a tiny
baby bottle, and when I gave her water she wet her diaper. After a few weeks of giving her just water, I decided to give her some milk as I thought she might be tired of water. Afterwards, Betsy always had bad breath from the soured milk. I still loved her just as much and enjoyed playing with her until I was too old to play with dolls. If I still had her, she might tell me that I gave her colic.
--Patsy C. McManaway

Bobo was much bigger than me, but I loved how he took all kind of abuse and popped right back up. He seemed to be perpetually blown up and always in good shape despite the abuse. I wonder if my parents replaced him a few times and didn't tell me... he did seem to last longer then my other toys. I teach elementary school and I sometimes troll the toy aisle for treats and I don't think I have seen a blow up punching doll in a long time. Has the political correct movement wiped them out because they promote violence? I don't feel like I'm violent and Bobo and I had regular knock down drag out sessions.
--Laura Phelps Brosi

My sister and I lived with my grandparents due to my parents' divorce and Mama had to work far away. She could not come for Christmas but she sent a large box of goodies for us. I don't know how old I was, but one year my best toy was a Teddy Bear and next favorite was a large bar of dark chocolate - I ate the chocolate as fast as I could, then threw it up all over the Teddy bear -- goodbye Teddy! I'm 72 now and have never forgotten that Teddy.
--Sandy Blume

Long before video games, around 1968, my favorite toy(age 9-12) was my electric football game. I would go to my room and relive many an exciting game as I had the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings(they came with the game). This game not only took me into the fantasy land of NFL football but also helped hone my skills as an amateur announcer.I would sit for hours playing, staging, drawing up plays and executing the now famous "tuck rule." At the time I didn't know what it was
called though. I also purchased more teams, Oakland and Kansas City, put a gold Eagle decal on the 50-yard line(very patriotic) and after hours when it would get dark I put a small spot light above the field and had"night games." The players have long been lost in one of our moves but the field lives on in my shed covered up in a box. I'm now 51 and still cherish those early memories of NFL football in simpler times.
--Jeff "Pantherman" Pintea

In the 1930’s when I was a child most children’s favorite toys were Shirley Temple dolls, Elgin bicycles, or Flexible Flyers. Not mine. I loved my old, ordinary roller skates. These were not the skates we know today with their fitted, laced up boots and attached skate mechanisms. We might wear our metal skates out, but they could always be adjusted to fit. We attached them to our leather school shoes with clamps at the toes adjusted with a skate key and leather straps around the ankle. Every kid wore a skate key around the neck on a grimy string so the
skate could be put back on when (not if) it came off. Many a day I came home from school and spent a couple of hours skating up and down the hill in front of my house.

I grew up on Westminster Place, a long one block hillside street with sidewalks. There was at least one skating rink in Charlotte, but this was during the Depression of the 1930s and I never went there but once. I just loved skating up the hill to the top, then flying down the whole length of the street at full speed. What a sense of freedom! Then I would get rid of my childish energy stored up from sitting at a desk all day by forcefully skating back up the hill and doing it all over again. And again.

Falls were an expected part of the whole activity. The sidewalks were not even, sticks and dirt were often lying there and skates would come off. My knees were skinned up over and over. Knee scabs were common and red Mercurochrome decorated my legs more often than not. I did not care. I certainly was not the only one with this badge of honor. Many of my classmates had the same. I had scars for many years and probably could see some now if my eyes were better. I am now 82 years old and have many, many happy memories of my growing up years. But few experiences equal the exhilarating feeling of rolling at full speed all
the way down my hill on a beautiful afternoon.
--Betty Ervin

I grew up poor, and one of my few toys was a pre-Barbie doll. I would play for
hours dressing her in the clothes my mother knitted and sewed for her. My favorite outfit was a black silk gown and white angora evening sweater with mini-buttons. As I visited my dying mother at home in 1998, I came upon her button box and the card of leftover buttons. I shared my fond memories with my mom, and we cried. The doll and clothes, like her, are long gone, but I can't get rid of the buttons.
--Sheila Peltzer

My favorite childhood toy I received for Christmas in 1972, I believe; I was in first grade! It was a Flip Wilson/Geraldine rag doll with a pull-string. Depending on which side you turned it on, you'd pull the string, and it would say hilarious
things. The sad part is, I only remember the things Geraldine said, like 'The devil made me wear this dress," and "I smell a rat, and it's coming from your direction!" The coolest thing is a friend of mine found one on eBay a few years ago and that was my Christmas present some 24 years later. One of my best gifts ever, to say the least.
--Kevin Grooms

My favorite toy was a car dashboard manufactured in 1961 called a ‘Playmobile’.
It looked like the dashboard of car in miniature. It had working lights (on the dash), working windshield wipers (you can see in the picture that they are ‘on’ as I am driving the car), turn signals, and horn... Red dash with a white steering wheel and lots of Chrome. It had a key and when you put the key in and turned it the ‘car’ came to life and the ‘motor’ came on. It looks very much like the dash of a real 1963 Eldorado I now own. Wish I had a better picture of it but alas none was taken except from this excerpt from 8mm home movies.

My grandmother gave it to me because I was fascinated with her 1961 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. This is me at the steering wheel in Nov 1961.
--Bill James (Mecklenburg County commissioner)

Are you telling me that plastic rosary beads and a white bath towel weren’t every
six-year-old's favorite toy? Perhaps the Catholic school I attended influenced me. But I dug wrapping that white towel around my head like a nun’s veil and draping those rosary beads around my neck. I loved playing school.

It didn’t matter that most of my students were plush or plastic. There was no prejudice in my class. It didn’t matter what breed of animal you were or if you were a cute, new doll or a worn out, old doll. Everyone was welcome. I just wanted to teach.

I adored lining them all up, calling role and checking them off, here or absent. I taught them everything I knew, which couldn’t have been too much at that age, but it was more than they knew.

I’d scribble on my chalkboard, erase it, hush them when they became noisy and scribble some more. I could play school for hours. I still love learning and passing it on. It’s true, some things never change. We still are who we were once upon a time, before we grew up and lost ourselves.
--Karen Tomas

Sometimes a mother does something over and over. She doesn’t know why. But then, one day, it all becomes clear when the pieces come together. Time would tell. Piece # 1: I had a typical mother's wish. One day I wanted to give my children a special gift – something that would be significant to them - a treasure. I looked in shops for years.

Piece # 2: Nightly, after tucking in the children, I would make a quick sweep of the upstairs playroom, picking up toys and books, placing them back in boxes or on shelves. Inevitably, the question came up what to do with the mismatched, broken, and lone toy items. For some unknown reason, I could not throw them out!! I did not know why, but instead I tossed them into a bag I kept in the “Closet of Dreams” (art supplies, dress up clothes, etc) . After 8-10 years that bag had grown into 3 large trash bags!

Piece # 3: There on the bedside table sat a 3” clock mechanism that we needed to replace in an old family clock stand. One day, I kept thinking, I would get to that. Meanwhile, the clock part, now relocated to the office desk, sat many years waiting for its mission.

Piece # 4: Standing in the check-out line at Marshall’s, bored and impatient, eyes wandering. There it was! Over on a sales table – an odd tower shaped box, 6 x 6 inch and 2’-2” tall, crowned with a roof top shape, and a tall door on one side – it was storage for CD cases. It went into the Closet of Dreams.

The kids, now in high school and off on separate spring break trips, offered me some precious time alone. I spread out all of the bags of broken toys on the work table, started picking through the junk, and selected the best. Cutting a hole in the back of the tower box made a perfect place for the clock face…Voila… a miniature grandfather clock! Then I started creating synthesis with the glue gun. This timepiece was going to say something else!

Headless Barbie doll figures, a whirligig, California Raisins, Old Maid cards, one Micky Mouse earmuff, Pez containers of Garfield, Bugs Bunny, curlers, cars, Lego men & blocks, a Barbie head with a Mohawk hair cut and a ring in her nose, Dracula teeth, Dr. Spock ear, a kazoo, Transformer arm, a troll, farm animals, a train caboose, a hamburger yo-yo, a flashlight, plastic French fries, heart beads and rings, space water gun, army man, guitar, skateboard, lipstick container, My Little Pony, monster drawings, dress-up earrings, naked Ken doll with only his pilots coat on, hinged snake, a watch, eyeball, Olympic coin, motorcycle, sunglasses, magnet letters, airplanes, baseball cards, crayons, YMCA Indian Guide metal, palm tree, NC tourist spoon, Santa Claus eraser………all came together in a
unified whole.

It is amazing to see teenagers forget their composure, squeal with delight, and laughing together with their old friends while sharing the memories this clock holds.

And now, with them out of college and in their own homes, the new problem stands – who gets the clock?!!
--Lindsay Daniel

My favorite toy, which I received as a Christmas present when I was 6 years old, is a Marx Electric Train set. Marx was the low cost producer of electric trains, for folks who could not afford the expensive Lionel brand. My folks were not well off, my sister and my parents and I lived in my grandparents' attic after WWII and money was scarce.

I kept the train and tracks in a cardboard box, and got it out many times during the year, and set it up on the wood floor in the attic and played with it for hours. Although the train was inexpensive, it was bulletproof. Click clacking around the figure eight pattern, sparks flying, acrid smell of ozone in the air, the occasional electric shock (in the time before the Consumer Product Safety Commission) it was wonderful. I can't think of another toy I enjoyed so much. 60 years later, old engine 999 and its cars are sitting above my desk now, where I
can stare at it and think of the many happy days of my childhood. --Dave Winkowski

In the 1940s we were quarantined because of the polio epidemic. My sister and I made "houses" out of cardboard boxes. We made rooms and a home for each of our families. We used a Sears catalog to provide the props. We had Moms, Dads, and children. We furnished our home with the newest and most modern furniture. We had changes of clothing and plenty of ways to redo our homes. We had tea parties and outdoor games.

Because we could not go to church, we had a "stained-glass" window with a cross so we could have a prayer place.

As difficult as that time was with all the fear, I still hold these memories as very dear.
--Johnnie Farris

For Christmas when I was 5, I received a toy airplane that I could ride in. Heavy sheet metal, red wings, gray body. When you pedaled, the wheels would go, the propeller turned.

We lived on a hill so I could drive the plane down the sidewalk(over two blocks). The hard part was going back up. The plane never took off! People asked my name, I always said "Charles Lindbergh!" I wore a helmet and goggles. I remember a photo from that Christmas day.There is snow on the ground, I'm sitting in the plane wearing a Navy dress hat and P-coat.

In December 1941, I joined the U.S. Navy and flew in PBY-5 Catalinas(no landing gear) all over the South Pacific. I remembered that old plane that would not fly.
--C. A. Weber

It was 1984. The year of the Cabbage Patch Kid. What more could a fourth-grade girl want? Exactly. Every parent all over the country was literally fighting for Cabbage Patch Kids for the holidays that year. It was all over the news. It was brutal. My mom told me right up front that she was trying very hard but did not want my heart to break if I did not have one to open for Hanukkah. I think right then, my heart did break.

We are Jewish but have spent every Christmas Day my whole life with my Godmother and her family. It was one of those years where part of Hanukkah overlapped Christmas. We took our menorah over to their house along with our gifts for that night to share our Hanukkah with them. We opened presents and mom's warning that there may not be a Cabbage Patch Kid came true. But what I did get was a snow white Gund polar bear whose tag told me his name was Snuffles. He was the softest, most cuddly stuffed animal in the entire world, this I was sure of. I loved him immediately as he warmed my broken- no Cabbage Patch Kid- heart. We were meant to be. True Love. The funny part is, hours later, to make a big splash, my Godmother brought out a gift for me she just happened to find hiding in her bedroom. It was a red headed Cabbage Patch Kid, just for me. Me, Bear (as Snuffles came to be called), and Melinda (my new Kid) slept together that night in true nine year old happiness.

My favor for the Cabbage Patch Kid wore off in due time. But Bear continued to be my constant companion. He had a soft brown velvet nose I rubbed while we hung out watching TV or when I couldn't get to sleep at night. I took him everywhere. He went to sleepovers, on beach vacations, camp, long car rides. He made me feel safe and content anywhere. As I got older, I wasn't so comfortable with others knowing I needed my Bear. I remember once my mom having to stop the bus for my 10th grade confirmation trip to Ohio in the parking lot because I forgot Bear. She drove home and brought him back before the bus could leave. He went to college, and also abroad on my 6 month trip to Europe. By then I didn't really care what others thought of Bear. He was my buddy, my place of comfort, my moment before I fell asleep that made me feel like the world was an OK place.

When I first started dating my husband, I had him to my apartment to make him dinner. He was exhausted and was working 2 jobs. He asked if I minded if he took a short nap while I made dinner. I knew he was only getting about 5 hours of sleep so I said it was fine. I had a twinge of fear as he went on my room to lay down knowing Bear was on the bed. Would a grown man think Bear was lame? He is grey and matted, long since lost his snow white coat. His brown velvet nose was rubbed off so many years ago exposing chipped hard white plastic. I went in to wake Jeffrey
for dinner and he was asleep with Bear hooked under his arm. My heart melted and I thought I might be in love. I took Bear on our honeymoon.

Bear still sleeps in my bed every night and goes on any trip I do. Silly as it may sound for a 36 year old, I love that Bear. He has seen me through every stage in my life thus far. He is a big part of me. He is my constant. Threadbare and no longer the bear he once was but somehow even better, he reminds me of me and all I have seen and learned. And what is yet to be.
-- Buffy Skolnick, Asheville

The prize goes to LEGO blocks, hands down. Not Tinker Toys. Not Lincoln Logs, Not an Erector Set. Nope, My favorite toy was and still is LEGO blocks. Everyone had them - we had them at home, at my cousins' houses, at the neighbors' houses. Often, a friend or cousin would start playing with me, but they got bored. I didn't. I loved them because I could make spaces and shapes. I could match colors and mix colors. I could dream. This really doesn't come as a surprise, because I grew up to be an artist and graphics designer, and more recently, work with Web sites. Would have loved to be an architect, but the math was a wee bit too much to handle. This translates further into my enjoyment with HGTV and DIY shows, as well food challenge shows - because of the overall creativity involved at every level.

Did you get that? 'Every Level.' LEGO blocks were the beginning to take my creative bent to many more levels. But that's not the end of the story. During my last year of college (when I was in my late 40's), the Web was really getting lots of participation. One site was for people to say what they wanted to be when they grew up. I cried when I read the story about another woman who loved LEGO blocks so much, she wrote the company and said they should hire her to design structures for trade shows. They did! She does! But that is still not all. I'm a grandmother
now. As soon as my grandson was old enough to put things together, I bought LEGO blocks for him. We have spent more than a few hours playing with them. Same deal with my granddaughter. It's fun to watch them play, because they do it so differently. I learned early on that my grandson likes to build garages with LEGOs. So every time I he has come to visit, I build a big LEGO garage in the living room, and put all his cars and trucks in it. The look on his face when he walks in the door and sees it is priceless.
--Marty Folsom, Statesville

The memory is fuzzy but most beloved. My dad, Saxon Cotney, was a natural musician with the mandolin and fiddle being his instruments of choice. In the spring of 1959 he entered a fiddle contest at our rural high school and won my beloved treasure. I was just three years old and waking to see his prize still resonates with me, even today. This prize was a beautiful doll, dressed in a sparkling emerald gown that was a perfect compliment to her pretty face and hair. She was simply enchanting and immediately became my trusted companion. She was loved beyond measure and endured the mischief, tears and delights of childhood. What made her so special was the spontaneity of her arrival. You see, we were of modest means. My parents were textile workers at Russell Mills in Alexander City, AL. To receive such a glorious gift and it not be Christmas morning was indeed memorable. Of course, that awareness was not mine at such a tender age, only the pure joy of receiving "Susie." Susie is with me still today. She resides in my Davidson home and I see her daily. Daddy is gone but his spirit glows in the face of my sweet Susie. I am grateful for the love of a wonderful daddy that gave his little girl a joyful unexpected treasure.
--Sandra Whitten, Davidson

I still have my Lionel train set which I received from my parents for Christmas at age 10. It is in need of a minor repair but otherwise is in working order. I have the original layout of my train track, including an elevated track running through a tunnel made of papier mache. My layout was on a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood.

At one time I had two engines running on the same track. I designed a “parking track” where I could cut off the current to allow one engine to run at a time. I seem to recall that Lionel had some type of switch to disengage the current on the “parking track” for a cost of $5-$10, which was a lot of money. Following in my dad’s inventive abilities, I removed the metal pin from the middle rail of a track and inserted a toothpick. I connected small wires to the middle rail on each side of the toothpick. I bought a toggle switch for ten cents at the local hardware and
connected the two wires, using this to de-activate current in the “parking track.” My fellow playmates with trains called me the “train brain.”

Continuing with my inventive instincts in my adult life, I went on to develop three inventions in my medical career. I had patents on one of these inventions in the U.S, England, Canada (Whelan-Moss T-Tube; U.S #4,142,528, British # 1,593,931, Canadian # 1,118,311).

Nearing retirement in medicine and having an interest in hummingbirds, I invented DR JB’s hummingbird feeder, and formed a family business in North Carolina, DR JB’s Hummingbird Products, LLC, in 2004. JB stands for “Jaybird”, which is and was also my nickname as a child.

All of the above started as a “train brain” at age 10. I treasure my Lionel train and my original track layout, still in my possession!
--Dr. Joseph G Whelan Jr.

My favorite toy was the Flexie. It was a kind of sled that had wheels and was used on the street instead of the ground. It was made of tiny shiny wooden slates with red decals and was shaped like an arrow. It had pull brakes on the handlebar. When I close my eyes I can still feel the wind in my face as I flew down my street, my feet hanging over the edge, holding on for dear life.

As I got older, I lost track of the Flexie and for years I wondered about it but not one person remembered it.

I was beginning to believe that Daddy had made it himself until I saw one hanging on a wall at a hardware store in Prescott, Arizona! I was struck by the sight of it, like my old friend just waiting there. It looked EXACTLY like I remembered it! It was only $40 but I was traveling on a plane and had to leave it behind. Now I know it was really real and from my mind’s eye I can still feel the exhilaration of my Flexie!
--Freida Short

You asked your readers in today’s Observer for stories of their favorite toy. I have one, but it does not deal with a GI Joe, or a special cars, etc; but something that I made up.

Growing up, my mother would purchase the box of Velveeta cheese and every Sunday evening, she would make grilled cheese sandwiches for the family. Once the box was empty of the cheese, she gave it to me. I would then take my box of crayons and draw the outline of the Safety Motor Transit Bus Lines colors on the box, along with the windows, doors, and any other markings that was on the bus. Once done, I would play with that bus box for hours on end in the house using the various wood floors as my bus route. I have dreamed at that time of being a bus driver, but I never achieved that dream. That box of Velveeta cheese gave me more enjoyment that any toy that my parents ever purchased for me. Eventually, the box would wear out, but I needn’t worry. My mother would eventually purchase another box and I would start the process all over again.
--Gene Tayloe

My Pop was a Senior Vice President for a plumbing and HVAC company. He was on the road quite a bit. When he was on the road for more than two nights, he always tried to bring me home something from the region he was in (even Italy and Saudi Arabia). My brother and sisters (all older than I) said that I was spoiled. I wasn't: I was his "Little Buddy"...So Nyahhh! I'm now 47.

On one return trip; Pop had been in the mountain areas "cutting a deal". He had flown straight there from Florida selling supplies to NASA for the launch platform. I knew that I was going to get some NASA "stuff"! When he finally arrived home he had a Whimmey-Diddle or Dimmey Widdle (depending upon whom you ask). I was heart-broken. The toy was a simple piece of carved wood with little notches carved into the stick. It also had a simple "propeller" at the end and another stick to create vibrations to make the "propeller" spin. Oh boy. What a rip.

Pop spent many, many hours with me on his lap trying to show me how to use the strange toy. He was laughing and I was struggling to make it work for more than fifteen seconds. I wouldn't trade those many hours for all of the gold in Fort Knox.

I am now a traveling salesman (unemployed) and have bought both of my boys the exact same toy from the exact same mountains. The looks of frustration and then jubilation are priceless. They are my "Big Guy" (Grayson now 15 and driving), and "Little Dude" (Jameson now 11 going on 30).
--James E. Bodenheimer, Stanley

Giraffee is the not-so-creative moniker that I attached to my stuffed giraffe at an age too young to recall. My two brothers would tease me for years - even at my own wedding - about the early genius displayed by their baby sister in naming her favorite toy. Giraffee was really more than that. She was a faithful companion who accompanied me everywhere for several years, then waited patiently on my bed for many more.

Giraffee traveled widely. Casually tucked under her girl's arm, Giraffee rode in the family station wagon from Indiana to Grandma F's house, the Carolina coast, the Rocky and Blue Ridge mountains, and frequently to nearby Chicago. On one Chicago trip, our wood-paneled wagon was just a few blocks short of the interstate when we heard the constant honking of a car horn behind us. There, being waved
wildly from the driver's window, was Giraffee. I had thoughtlessly left her behind at our friends' house, and knowing her importance, they tore off after us to reunite the girl with her giraffe.

That moment so clearly sticks in my sometimes foggy middle-aged mind today. As the youngest of three and the only girl, I was pretty used to being the last one considered. In that grand moment, though, I was the most important consideration. My dad said something like, "Oh gosh, we forgot Giraffee!" and quickly pulled over. Our friend, George, parked behind us holding a stuffed animal out his car window. The whole world seemed to stop for a second... just for me. And all because of Giraffee.
--Anne Vail

I'm 59 and a college professor and (this question) took me right back to age 8-9. All my girlfriends were playing with Barbie dolls and I was
playing with cars. I was fascinated by car shapes, models and colors. For Christmas, Santa brought me an authentic scale model of a Texaco gas station with a place to gas up the cars, an office, 2 service bays and of course the big Texaco sign. Santa also brought 3-4 authentic scale model cars. I spend hours in my bedroom with that Texaco station at one end of my bed, running the cars up and around all the bumps and hills of my bed (I made the appropriate "rhr-ooom" noises), eventually driving into the station for gas and servicing. It continued in different forms. I dated a guy once only because he had a '57 Chevy and I still pay attention to car shapes, models and colors. Thanks for the memory.
--Jayne D.Maas, Rock Hill

My favorite toy is still in my kitchen. Fifteen years ago, my son was in elementary school and for Christmas he wanted a Spider-man toy. He specifically wanted the Spider-man that had movable joints to bend into various action poses. I hadn't found this toy, but on Christmas eve, my sister was doing last minute shopping and found it. We were both so excited that we started playing with it ourselves. This Spider-man toy is such fun. He has magnets in his heels so he can stick to metal surfaces and not just his knees, and elbows, but feet, hands, shoulders, all joints can move for a ton of options. I did give it to my son on that Christmas Day and from that day on Spider-man started showing up all over the house in various action poses. By the time my sons were in high school, Spider-man lived in the kitchen and would turn up on the refrigerator, or shelf, or climbing out of a bowl or just anywhere, always in a new action pose. It would crack me up to walk into the kitchen and see where Spider-man had landed and what he was doing. He became almost like a member of the family. I started moving him around myself and I am pretty sure there were other friends and family who were in on the game. Spider-man can do just about anything. Today both of my sons are in college and Spider-man doesn't move around quite as much, but he is still in the kitchen and I still love playing with him.
--Sally Royster, Shelby

When he was born, my son Mark inherited one of those large Raggedy Andy dolls from his mother. He slept with it even though it was bigger than he was. When Mark was 4, we had a house fire and lost everything. After everybody was safely outside, Mark said "Where's Andy!!". The firemen thought there might be another person in the house but it was my son's toy. The fireman went in and got what was left of Andy which was pretty much just his head and a very smoky-smelling body. Over the years my wife has put a few different bodies on Andy. Eventually though he ended
up just being Andy's Head, which is what we affectionately call him. He's received a couple haircuts at some point and has worn many "hats," including currently sporting a Darth Vader helmet . My son is 21 now and Andy's head is still in his room. I'm sure when he finishes college and moves out that Andy's Head will be right along with him..
--Mark Darnell

He had the best laugh! I haven't heard it in 25 years, but its playing on repeat in my had as I write this. My dad was a Marine, stationed in Okinawa while I was learning to walk and talk. My folks had separated when I was just a few months old, and they weren't much older. Dad shipped off to see the world and Mom stayed home to raise a boy. I would get letters from far away lands in envelopes with the exotic blue and red ink trim, T-shirts, and questions about school, friends, and "being a good boy". He sent me a set of samurai swords once.

But the little Japanese laughing man...there was nothing obvious about it that said "5 year old boy". Maybe there were Okinawan commercials with boys he imagined as my size with big smiles. He was a plastic figure, about 6 inches tall, (made in China, no doubt) squatted in the lotus position. Green pants, white shirt, orange vest, and an orange hat that sat upon his ridiculous oversized head which rocked on a metal spring. Push his head down and he would unleash this contagious cackle, universal in any language. I thought he was hilarious! I thought he was unique. I thought he was the kind of toy my dad would like.

I kept him on my bookshelf and knocked his noggin once a day for years, long after my dad had left the Marines and commenced chasing himself all over this country. Sometimes, maybe, he laughed for me.
--Joshua McCorkle

When I was about 5, I had a 3-foot doll named Little Miss Echo. If you turned her collar button one way, you could speak into her, then turn it the other way and she repeated what you said. Since I was not allowed to "talk back" to my mother, whenever I was mad at her, I would speak into Little Miss Echo. I would tell her that Mom was unfair and that her children were a gift from God that she should appreciate. I would then go stand Little Miss Echo in the kitchen, turn the button and run. My thinking was that Mom could not punish me for what Little Miss Echo said to her. Fortunately, all my mother could do was laugh as she was being told off by a 3 foot doll.
--Deborah Beck, Iron Station

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Story of the day: Little Duck

Almost 25 years ago, when I was working at the paper in Augusta, Ga., we had a writing workshop. The guy running the workshop handed out a story I had never heard of, about a soldier who died in Vietnam and how his body was received in his small town back home. That story holds first place in my Great Stories folder, and I still read it every couple of months. But it hasn't been available online for years.

Until now.

My friends at have brought the story back, with a note from the author's daughter. I urge you, more than usual, to read this story. Share your thoughts in the comments.

(And FYI, if you love great stories, and great discussions about stories, go poke around in the Gangrey archives. You can get lost in there.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where were you?

Today is Sept. 11, 2010.

Where were you on this day nine years ago?

(Here's how people answered that question at the Washington Post. You can also go on Twitter and search the hashtag #wherewereyou.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Totally uninformed Panthers prediction

You should know right off that I don't know any more about the Panthers than you do, and probably less. I don't hang out with Tom Sorensen or Scott Fowler. They're great guys, but we just don't see one another that much... sportswriters spend 60 percent of their time on the road and 40 percent making up stuff for their expense reports.

I say that with admiration.

Also understand going in that, as long as I'm not covering the team, I'm not neutral. I want the Panthers to be good. I grew up in Georgia but I haven't rooted hard for the Falcons since Steve Bartkowski was quarterback. The Panthers are my team.

Which is why it hurts to say that I think the Panthers are going 6-10.

That's a lower prediction than either Scott (who says 7-9) or Tom (who says 9-7). The Panthers are actually a trendy pick to sneak into the playoffs; Sports Illustrated's Peter King calls them his "surprise team of the year."

He's right about one thing. It would be a surprise. For three reasons:

1) This team is young. Like, still-getting-carded young.* I looked up the ages of the starters from this depth chart:

Offense: 26, 27, 24, 27, 31 (Steve Smith), 23, 30 (Jordan Gross), 29, 25, 24, 24.

Defense: 24, 26, 26, 30 (Tyler Brayton), 26, 24, 25, 27, 25, 25, 24.

*John Kasay is 40. I thought I noticed, in one of the preseason games, that Kasay now has a bit of a gut. Maybe it was just a loose jersey. Not that there's anything wrong with a gut on a kicker. He could be Haystacks Calhoun as long as he can put it through the uprights.

That has to be the youngest team in the league, or close to it. My totally uninformed guess is that teams that young don't win a whole lot.

2) The most important player for the Panthers this year is Dwayne Jarrett.

The Panthers held off on making a big upgrade at the #2 receiver spot. They drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, who aren't ready (although LaFell might end up in the lineup anyway). They didn't chase (or at least didn't catch) available veterans such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh* and Patrick Crayton.

*Just wanted to pat myself on the back for spelling Houshmandzadeh right without looking. Well, except for the first "d."

So they've put the load on Jarrett, who has 33 catches and zero highlights in three years. It's fairly simple: If Jarrett proves to be a threat, that takes some of the double-teams off Steve Smith and opens more holes for the Panthers' running game. If Jarrett's a stiff, teams double Smith and crowd the line and dare Matt Moore to throw it Jarrett's way. This is the ruthless nature of football. Teams punish your weakness. Jarrett has to show he's not weak.

3) You know what? If your team is that young, and Dwayne Jarrett is your most important player, you don't need three reasons. Two is plenty.

Here's the good news. All those young players will get a year of experience. My (again, uninformed) guess is that the Panthers just had a great draft -- LaFell, QB Jimmy Clausen and DE Greg Hardy all look like future starters, and Edwards could be great down the road as a kick returner/slot receiver/Wildcat guy.

If I were a gambling man, I'd put some money on the Panthers as a bigtime sleeper in 2011. The problem is, first we have to get through 2010.

Not an expert opinion... just a fan talking.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

Storyteller Thursday

As I hear about really good storytelling online I'm going to put stuff up along and along... this one comes courtesy of my colleague Rich Mathieson. I'm not much for the whole spoken-word-poetry thing, but this guy mostly stays out of that trap, and the story is mighty moving. Plus he has a spectacular neckbeard. Here's Shane Koyczan, from a spoken-word festival in Canada. (Alert: PG-rated for language.)

(If you run across a good story we can post here, email me or drop it in the comments...)

Project #4: Cut Day

Lots of good stuff rolling in... we got some great responses to the 12 to 1 project, and a condensed version should end up in the paper tomorrow. I'm still sifting through some amazing stuff that came in about Your Toy Story -- there's some photos (and maybe video) in there, so that might take another few days to put together.

But I wanted to go ahead and launch another one because it's sort of timely. This project is called Cut Day.

The Panthers (as well as other NFL teams) had to make the final cuts from their roster last week to get down to the number of players mandated for the season. That's a big blow, of course, to the players who worked hard all through training camp but couldn't hang on.

Most of us have been in that situation, although probably not in that setting. That's what I want you to talk about. Tell me a story about a time when you didn't make the team.

"Didn't make the team" applies to a lot of other things besides just sports. Maybe it's a club you didn't get into, a part you tried out for and lost, a job you didn't get, even a relationship that didn't work out.

Sometimes those are crushing blows; other times, they're losses we learn from. I'd love to hear stories about both outcomes, and all the shades in between.

Add your story in the comments or email me at -- put "Cut Day" in the subject line. I'll also post this on my Facebook page and you can comment there. As always, be as brief as you can.

Let's hear your story.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

12 to 1: Director's cut

A couple of weeks ago I asked new high school seniors to give their advice to incoming first-graders on what the next 12 years will be like. I wondered if I’d get much response. It turned out the problem was having enough time to read them all.

We got more than 200 responses to the “12 to 1” project, from schools all over the Charlotte area. A few teachers made it a class assignment; other students wrote in on their own. The first several of these will appear in the printed paper soon; I've added a bunch of other replies here, and will put in more over the next day or two. Some responses are edited for space or clarity. I apologize for all the weird fonts and font sizes -- this was a lot to corral. Feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

Hold on tight

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember starting first grade. I wish I still held those precious memories of the playground, coloring, learning simple math, and good old snack time. All of those memories have been replaced by sports wins, getting my license and fun times with my friends.

Those years, especially the great ones, go by so fast that you will wish you could have held on just a little longer. I mean one day you will wake up and there will be so much hair on your face, so much muscle on your arms, and best of all so much knowledge in your head that you won’t know what to do with it. -- ShaMal Brown, West Meck

Be true to yourself

In the first grade, I was given a chance to be myself, and I failed miserably. My teacher asked the class to draw an animal to represent each of our family members. I chose a cat for my mom, tiger for my brother, and a bear for my dad. The only problem was the bear. I did my best to make every line on the bear perfect. After multiple crumpled up papers of attempted bear drawings, I couldn’t help but to cry and ask my dad to draw the bear for me.

The next day at school, the other students’ drawings were creative and bright with color. Then there were my animals, perfect in every way, but missing color and creativity. I chose trying to turn my pictures into perfection rather than using colors that I liked and represented me. The moral of the story is, first grade is your chance to be creative, different, color outside of the lines, and be yourself. -- Brittany Leffler, Piedmont High (Monroe)

The friends along the way

It’s been a long road to 12th grade and I have lost every friend I have known in elementary but... I found out that the more you lose the better friends you’ll find. I still remember my mom walking me to my first-grade class and as she was giving me my money and kissing me goodbye I cried and begged her to take me back home. But as much as it hurt her to leave me there crying, she knew that I had to learn how to be strong and meet new people. And even though my mom doesn’t walk me to school anymore I think it’s my experiences in elementary that made me who I am in my life now. -- Christian Garcia, West Meck

Love thy naps

Learn to ALWAYS enjoy naptime. You should believe in naps like you would believe in the Bible. Try to take naps religiously. At first I couldn’t fathom the idea of going to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, but the idea of napping soon became second nature to me.

Once I entered higher grade levels, classes and the amount of work I had to do for these classes became so brain tiring. I have stayed up late to do homework and then wake up early to go to school once again. That’s why I am telling you to embrace naptime. Once you get older, you won’t have naptime, but you will wish you did. -- Lauren Brizendin, Piedmont

Savoring the sweet

Half suffocated by my Pikachu costume/death trap, my vision was failing due either to a lack of oxygen or exhaustion after wandering for miles through uncharted neighborhoods. The king-size 3 Musketeers I so desperately craved wasn’t going to find itself…

A few houses later, I decided to give up and began the long walk home. Though I had more than enough candy to last me ’til Easter, I wasn’t satisfied because I didn’t have even a single 3 Musketeers bar to my name.

Noticing the sad look on my face, my dad inquired as to why I was feeling down on my favorite night of the year. “Because Dad, out of all the candy I have, I didn’t get what I wanted.” After I said this, my dad reached into the plastic pumpkin bowl which housed our give-away candy and handed me a king-size 3 Musketeers.

This being said, I only have one piece of advice for first-graders: cherish Halloween and the people who make it possible. Before you know it, you’ll be the one handing out king-size 3 Musketeers instead of receiving them. -- Drew Ryan, Charlotte Catholic (photos below)

Time’s a-wastin

Time is an object that can’t be controlled but only used. The middle school years will fly by like a bald eagle over the horizon, while freshman year creeps up on you like chickenpox when you’re 6. That tree you see outside in front of the school will grow and blossom 12 times in your educational career, while that bully you see in lunch who bothers you will soon cross that day when he experiences fear. Finally you grow up to be a wonderful senior just like me, who constantly reminisces on old times and wishes being 5 was something he could be. -- Jamil Ali, West Meck

You don’t know what you’ve lost 'til it’s gone

Often as a child people tend to be in a rush to grow up and act older than their age, but as they become adults they wish that they could enter back into their childhood years. Growing up in school I was always anxious to move to the next grade level, in hope that it would be easier and that I would have more fun. But little did I know that as I progressed through school things would get tougher and harder. As I look back, I realize that my elementary and middle school years were the most fun years of my life. -- Aja Purkett, Harding (photos below)

On nerves

I was in a country named Vietnam when I started first grade and I was very nervous. My daddy walked me to school on the first day and he was holding my hand the whole time. After he dropped me off to my class, he hugged me, kissed my forehead, and told me he loved me. He said to always behave myself.

School in Vietnam is so different from schools in America. My school had three classrooms: a kindergarten, a first grade, and a second-grade classroom. It was all built by wood and we had no air conditioning. The classrooms were always very hot. My classroom had one window with no glass and the floor was just dirt. The teachers spanked students that were being bad with a very big ruler.

Being nervous is OK, but try talking to another student. You never know: They might be as nervous as you, maybe more. Everyone needs a good friend, so be one. -- Chi H, West Meck

Embrace your mistakes

When I entered first grade I was 6 years old; now as I enter my last year of high school, I am 17. It feels like just yesterday I was sitting in my uniform at East Elementary learning about the solar system and the state capitals. There was no pressure to fit in, to be thin or to figure out the future; we just simply did what we were told.

I would tell you not to worry about what other people think, to be who you are because nobody really cares. I would warn you that you are going to get your heart broken, but to not let that stop you, to give your all to somebody when they come around because that is how you figure out who you are. But the most important bit of advice I could share with you, little first-grader, is to not give up. Everything is going to go by fast and you are going to be grown up before you know it, so do not be afraid to make mistakes because it is in those mistakes that you find out exactly who you are. -- Shelby Vegoe, North Iredell

I used to know a young girl who was just like you. She was coming into the first grade at a new school and didn’t know anyone. She was even moving to a new state. She was scared. This little girl was me. My mom just moved to Georgia and I was from North Carolina. My mom taught me a few tricks: walking up to a group of girls playing and join in, introduce myself on the playground when they were playing a game that I liked, and just being myself. It worked. I quickly made new friends. First grade became a breeze and flew by because I was able to have so much fun. Be yourself because people will love you for that. But when you are feeling down, just remember Dory’s song from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming.” It will be great. I made it all the way to my senior year and so will you. -- Victoria Flowers, West Meck
The start of school is the start of your life, where you start to become an individual, where you meet new people and meet important and meaningful people along the way. 1st grade is where you start you having your most memorable experiences. It’s hard to leave your parents that you love, but they want the best for you and your future. Have you ever thought about what you wanted to be? A nurse? The President of the USA? A fire-fighter? I remember that I’ve always wanted people when they were hurt. I am now close to reaching my goal and that is because I went to first grade. It inspired me to be the person I am now. You will meet new friends and develop long term friendships that last a life time. When I was in the 2nd grade I met a friend and for 10 long years we continue to be friends. Amazing, huh? School will be your 2nd home and what it has to offer us is amazing as a whole. It will fulfill your dreams. You just have to have faith in yourself, and you can go anywhere you want if you just believe in yourself and never give up.

-- Cindy Fuentes-Diaz, West Meck

Back in the day when I was young the first grade seemed like the Boogie Man was becoming real. The Boogie Man, though, is not real, just like the first grade is not going to bite you. My first day in grade school I went the wrong direction and ended up in the fifth grade hallway. No, they did not hit me or laugh at me. One of them actually walked me to my classroom. I was so scared I just about peed my pants, but then I realized that they knew how it felt. At one point in time we were all first graders. So this year along with ones to come, hold your head up high and be who you are, because you belong.

-- Jenny Cornwell, West Meck

Mistakes have no age limit, whether it’s a middle school girl walking into the boy’s bathroom on the first day of school (which was a BIG mistake), or even a high school student spilling her drink in the cafeteria (which isn’t fun either). Anyway, mistakes are just a part of life; you live and you learn, and in the end you always do better! Nobody is perfect, which is why pencils have erasers! So always remember, you can’t learn if you don’t make a mistake. I wish you the best mistakes so that one day, you will be an inspiration to another.

-- Sarah Venn, Piedmont High (Monroe)

Dear First Grader,

Color outside the lines. When I was in First grade my class had to make and color houses. Well I had my mind made up that I was going to make a house made out of chocolate and have it guarded by an army of “Guard Penguins.” When I finished designing my house, I was so proud of it. I showed it to all my friends, and they thought it was the coolest house. When I ran up to show my teacher I expected her to take it and tape it to the wall like the other students’ houses. However, when she saw my house her exact words were “Oh, you didn’t make your house right. When I said your dream house, I meant a real dream house. Sorry.” She then grabbed my drawing and drew what the house should have looked like (according to her standards).

For the next couple of years whenever the class was supposed to create something with our creativity, I asked the teacher each time what it should look like. That was until I reached the fourth grade when the teacher gave me the same advice I am giving you now, “Use your imagination, think outside the box, and color outside the lines. You can make it any way you want to.” Remember this: Don’t live too cautiously, you only live once.

-- Jacob Sechler, Piedmont

Instead of writing a boring letter, I'm going to tell you a story. This is a true story about a girl going into the first grade, and she was scared to go to school. But, why was she scared? Well, she had to make new friends, see a new teacher, and learn a lot of new things. When the first day of school came around, guess what happened to this first-grader: she had a blast! She loved first grade, and she found out that it wasn't so scary after all. Well friends, I was this little girl, and here I am now in 12th grade...with new friends, new teachers, and plenty of new homework. I know going into a new grade may seem scary at first, but try to relax! If you do your homework, listen to your teacher, and be nice to your classmates, trust when I say you will have an awesome year.

-- Aniyah Pendleton, West Meck

I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t want to go to school, I want to stay home and watch cartoons with my mommy.” I felt the same way when it was my turn to start school, but look at me now. I’m a senior in high school. My school years are almost over! As you look toward school it may seem like forever and a day to finish it all. But when you get to my point and look back on it, going to school was the best time of my life. Also the best thing that my parents could have made me go through. I got to meet lots of people and make plenty of friends in the process. I’ve had great opportunities like going on field trips to places I never knew existed. Accompanied by all my different and wonderful teachers. School gave me so many experiences I never would’ve known if I stayed home watching cartoons all day. I’m here to tell you, school is not the worst thing in the world. Sure it may seem that way after having all that time at home and now having to wake up early in the morning and doing work. But school helps you grow, and what better way to start than in the first grade. It expands your imagination beyond what that tv can do for you. If you really think about it, the man that made the tv went to school first. The twelve years you have coming will be long, but worth every minute. No matter how old you get you always remember what you used to do in school. Ask your parents, they’ve been through it before. The world is hard without the knowledge of a teacher in mind.

-- Keyondra Johnson, West Meck

As somebody about to graduate from high school, I know how it feels to be in first grade. I remember being scared and excited at the same time. I couldn’t wait to get to class and meet all of my teachers and classmates but I was so scared I was going to get lost. Luckily I didn’t. Looking back I remember how fun elementary school was, but now that I’m all grown up, I can have even more fun.

I know twelve years might seem to be a life time away, but trust me, it will fly by before you even know it. School and life won’t always be easy, but stick it out and it will all be worth it in the end.

-- Merideth Wardwell, West Meck

Entering the first grade is tough, you're not sure what to expect because you're not used to school yet. You might have butterflies in your stomach and feel nervous but don't worry, first grade is very exciting. You meet new friends, and learn interesting stuff and before you know it first grade will be over and you'll be in second grade. These next twelve years are actually gonna go by fast and you should make every year count.
It's kind of like a puzzle, you need each piece to see what the picture is. Well, every year of school is like a different puzzle piece and after you finish all 12 years of high school you'll be complete. The different friends you make and experiences you go through shape you and make you into the person you'll become.
The most important thing to remember while in school, is try your best and never settle for less. And that to me will make you successful in high school. Also, have fun and always be yourself and find friends that like you just the way you are.
-- Morgan Crosier, West Meck

I hear school has started for you and that's great. This is the beginning of a glorious and hateful experience. School has it highs and lows. The best part of school is all the friends you'll make that share the same interest as you. Don't worry, its ok to be shy on the first day because that will all change once the year progress. The worst part of school is school itself and all the work that comes with it. In the end, School is a place where you will make lifelong friends and find your true identity or calling.
-- Martin Eban, West Meck

Hello upcoming first grader, my name is Connor McCullough and I am in the 12th grade at West Mecklenburg High school.
I know that you are probably excited and/or scared about going into the first grade. Well believe it or not, I was in the first grade too. I can remember the very first day, my mom walked me in and I had no idea where I was. I didn’t have any friends in my class either. Soon I started to play with the other kids and have a good time. Not too long after that, I even wanted to live at school because I enjoyed it so much. Going into the first grade is not as bad as you may think it is though. Just remember, be a good student, be nice, and do all of your work. If you make sure you follow those three rules, you will be on your way to being a big, tough 2nd grader.

-- Connor McCullough, West Meck

I knew older kids that were in high school and they gave me advice about school and encouraged me along the way to become who I am today, a senior in high school. So the advice I would give to a first grader is to listen to your teachers and your parents because they are here to help you. Always do your class work as well as your homework so that you don’t fall behind in school. Strive to do your best and be the best person that you can be. Keep dreaming because dreams mean that you have goals in life and the only way to achieve those goals is to stay in school and work hard. Make school your priority, focus and study. If you do those things, then you will succeed!!

-- Olivia Stinson, Mallard Creek High

You’ve never met any of those students before, and your teacher is not the same one from preschool, but she still smiles at you and greets you as though you’re the best of friends. It frightens you at first, and you shy away.

There are other downsides to the first grade, for one, play time is not the same, there is no more nap time, and now there’s this new thing where your teacher gives you work to do at home—how strange? First grade seems like a whole new world to you. An alien world and you wish you could go back to preschool.

In a few days’ time, you’ll get used to the new environment of the first grade classroom. You’ll grow to love your classmates and your teacher. Many wonderful memories will be formed inside of this classroom, such as your first time learning to read! You’ll grow to love first grade, and soon you’ll be looking forward to second grade.

Your Elementary years will fly by and suddenly, your middle school and high school years will have arrived. You’ll then be anticipating your senior year, the year you’ll graduate high school. The year you get your diploma and start your life as an adult!

But that’s in about twelve years from now. And though you’re only in the first grade right now, you’ll realize how important of a grade it is, as are all of the other grades that you will pass through. So, hold on, because this is only the very beginning of the ride. These next twelve years will be the most memorable and the most important years of your life.

-- Tatyana Washington, West Meck