15th Post: 2nd N. CAROLINA: DEFENDING YURP

Cider with Bosie: Continuation of the trip to North Carolina.

My second lodgings in Pinehurst

My hostess Elizabeth drove me back into Southern Pines later in the afternoon.

“After where you’ve been staying, my home will seem very humble.”

In fact, it was an attractive house about three times the size of a normal London residence and it contained food.

That evening I sat in the garden and heard the low blare of a distant freight train whistle. Another magical moment of true Americana – it was the first time I’d heard it outside of films and the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ album.

Half an hour later, this was followed by another distant sound, that of a bomb explosion.  Elizabeth explained that it came from the military exercises happening over at the large army base about two miles away – Fort Bragg.

This was somewhere I had heard of. Fort Bragg, named after the Confederate General Braxton Bragg, was the home of the US Army Special Forces. It was the centre for ‘unconventional warfare’ – the Psychological Operations Base – the operations later described in the film ‘The Men Who Stared At Goats’. It had also been the base where Manuel Noriega had received his US Army Psy-Ops training, prior to becoming the dictator of Panama. Hmmm?

Symbols of North Carolina – Tar Heels

2001 March: Monday

I had a couple of days to kill before the show on Wednesday evening. To pass the time, Elizabeth drove me into the village to check out the local library. Like much of Pinehurst, the library had the feeling of being a stage set. It was the over-tasteful oak-panelling in the rooms, the quietly ticking grandfather clock, and the finely bound sets of handsome but unreadable Victorian volumes – the sort of books that the nouveau riche order by the yard to bulk out their shelves. No matter, it was undeniably comfortable.

Pinehurst Library

Settling into an armchair, I skip-read a history of the area. Pinehurst had been the invention of one man, James Tufts. Having made a fortune producing soda fountains in Boston, Tufts arrived in Southern Pines in 1895 and bought 5000 acres of local land at $1 per acre. He was able to acquire the land cheaply because it was so sandy that the only possible crop was pine-trees. He hired the designer of Central Park, New York, to landscape the area and added a large hotel and a replica New England-style village. With the arrival of the golf course, the place flourished and such literary luminaries as Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and John Galsworthy became enthusiastic visitors.

I also discovered that North Carolinians are known as ‘Tar Heels’ and the state nickname is ‘the Tar Heel State’. Although the origin is disputed, this name was meant to have arisen during a Civil War battle, when only the North Carolinians had refused to run away The famous General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had declared that they ‘must have tar on their heels’.

During a stroll through the village later, I met a tough looking teenage skinhead striding towards me. With a wide smile, he ducked his head and said:

“How yuh doin’ today, suh?”

An ancient lady gave a wave from her porch rocking chair.

A full church bell peel of ‘Glad Tidings to You’ echoed through the trees across the village.

This was weird.

At a small drinks party at Elizabeth’s house that evening, I chatted with an old US Air Force officer. He told me:

“In the Second World War, I was an aircraft instructor in the USA. During the Korean War, I was sent to France. And during the Vietnam War, I was sent to Mexico. That’s the way to manage a military career, son.”

 2001 March: Tuesday

Next morning, Elizabeth dropped me off at the local TV station for a pre-arranged interview with the star of the eponymous TV show ‘Mark! My Words’, Dr Mark Evans. Immediately engaging and bubbling with intellectual enthusiasm, he seemed an odd fish in this world of military Psy-Ops and golf.

The TV Interview – Dr Mark Evans

Generally speaking, ‘culture’ in the USA struck me as being like an optional extra at school – a bit like woodwork. Not with Mark Evans. He was a pianist, conductor, and composer; a collaborator on film star biographies; the founder and owner of the main TV station for the region, WYBE-CA; and, seemingly, a one-man crusade for the Arts of Pinehurst. He was also a fount of good stories about old Hollywood: I learnt that the original choice to play the part of the TV private eye ‘Columbo’ (eventually played by Peter Falk) was the patron saint of Pinehurst himself – Bing Crosby.

Mark’s main venture though was this interview programme with almost anybody with a claim to fame who passed through town. Not all of them were helpful – he mentioned that recently he had one of Winston Churchill’s relatives on the show. She had agreed to appear only as long as he didn’t ask any questions about Churchill.

Dr Mark Evans on TV set

Our talk took place in a corner of a studio that had been mocked up to resemble an elegant Old Colonial drawing room, with very tight camera angles to avoid the decidedly modern breeze-block décor surrounding it. As my previous experience of TV interviewers mostly had been restricted to bored trainees with one eye on the crib sheet and the other on the clock, I was surprised and flattered at the intelligence of Mark’s questioning. But the really amazing thing was the sheer length of the interview. With the advert breaks, the chat show went on for well over an hour. I emerged at the end having been allowed the time to expand my thoughts on the world that in Britain would be offered only to an in-depth BBC4 retrospective on Charles Dickens or Bono from U2.

I emerged from the TV studio to be met outside by my next contacts, Vince and Peggy. They were relatively young (by Pinehurst standards), were widely travelled, and easy to get along with. We stopped at a local shopping mall and parked in front of a bank.

Vince: “Parking is getting difficult even in the small towns. There are now car parks where only cars of a certain make are allowed to stay. So you get Ford car parks, then Jaguar car parks, and so on. It’s crazy.”

Almost as a hint towards an alternative, the local rail track ran along the centre of Southern Pines main street; there was even a rather decorative little station in position. Peggy said that although it was obviously convenient, the real rail traffic was freight. The one passenger train was an Amtrak special per day. “The problem is that it only stops here once. At 3am. And then you’ve got to dodge the muggers.”

Vince added: “It’s also very slow. We can’t have fast trains here in the States. If you had a train doing 180 miles per hour through Southern Pines, it would take the whole town with it!”

NJT at Ed’s Gun Shop. Pinehurst

The main destination of the afternoon was to Ed’s Gun Shop so that Vince could stock up on ammunition. I noticed a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the door as we walked in. It was a large shop with hundreds of assorted weapons displayed along the walls. Vince was friendly with Ed the owner, and he introduced me as being an English actor. Ed gave me a steely gaze:

“Oh, so he’s from Yurp, is he? I hear that’s the place where they don’t allow guns, huh.”

He gave an assault rifle a reverential polish.

“See, this is the way the world should be run.”

I knew that I’d been consigned to the lowest depths of wimpdom – and Euro thespian wimpdom at that. As they strolled between the display cases discussing the relative firepower of Uzis and Kalashnikovs, I tagged along behind them feeling like I’d been blackballed from the adult world.

NJT with the guns, Pinehurst

Then I spotted it. Incredibly, in a ‘museum’ display rack, it was there in front of me. A Lee-Enfield 303 rifle.

Now, although I’d totally avoided anything military for decades, at school I had perforce spent seven years in the Combined Army Cadet Force. Between the ages of eleven to eighteen, twice a week, my fellow pupils and I were sent off to fire already veteran Lee Enfield 303s at the school rifle range. Even more memorably, after each target practice we had to strip and clean the rifles. Twice a week for seven years! I knew the innards of a Lee Enfield better than I knew my home address.

Vince and Ed turned to watch as I extracted the rifle from its stand and nonchalantly but expertly stripped out the bolt and adjusted the sights.

“Seems in good shape – for its age,” I murmured quietly as I replaced it.

There was a silence from the other two; the balance had shifted decisively. There was a certain swagger in my step as we left. Even if in modern warfare the Lee Enfield would have been about as much use as a pike, I’d still managed to salvage the honour of Yurp.

NJT at one of the 35 golf clubs in the Pinehurst region

Next week on Sept 19 – the climactic first show in the USA and a major disaster to boot. 

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