Friday, June 23, 2017

The pun is mightier than the sword

     We're having a headline party over at my other blog, The Stoneman Gazette.
     Feel free to drop in. Bring your own pun. (Because the pun is mightier than the sword.)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Riddler on the roof: When did N.C. stand tallest?

When Frenchman Andre Michaux stood here in 1794 and declared Grandfather Mountain "the highest mountain of all North America," he overlooked the obvious: The blue ridge on the distant horizon to the right is Mount Mitchell, which was actually the highest peak in the United States for 56 years.
     Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings writes a blog called Maphead where he posed this question: Before Alaska became a state, where was America's highest mountain?
     It's really more of a riddle than a question. Because for most of our nation's history, no one was sure.

     The answer is California, which owned America's rooftop from the day it became the 31st state in 1850 until 1959 when Alaska became the 49th. Yet Jennings points out that well into the 20th century, atlases mistakenly listed Washington's Mount Ranier as the nation's highest mountain.
     In fact, California was 75 years old before surveyors verified that Mount Whitney was the highest point in the Lower 48. (Even then, there may have been a 10-foot error because the engineer was in such a hurry to get home to his fiancĂ©.) 
     Early topographic maps that used 100-foot contours show a virtual three-state tie among California's Whitney (14,495 feet above sea level in the 1925 survey), Colorado's Mount Elbert (14,431), and Washington's Rainier (14,408). All three have inched up in the latest satellite surveys: Whitney 14,505, Elbert 14,433, and Rainier 14,410.
     Before California, which state stood tallest? Texas had the highest peak in the nation* for five years after it became the 28th state in 1845, though I doubt that anyone knew it. (*I'm not counting the Louisiana Territory, which included Mount Elbert.)
     And before that? The whole country assumed New Hampshire's Mount Washington was highest until this news broke Nov. 3, 1835 in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette (back in the days before headlines were invented):

     The editor's note (above right) promoted a lengthy front-page article written by Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a professor of geology at the University of North Carolina. (If this link asks you to subscribe to newspapers.com, email me and I will send you a copy.)
     Dr. Mitchell surveyed several mountains in western North Carolina before concluding than an unnamed peak in the Black Mountains was the highest. He measured it at 6,476 feet above sea level, which underestimated Mount Mitchell's actual height of 6,684. Still, that surpassed Mount Washington, which then was believed to be 6,234 feet and is now listed at 6,288. 
     Dr. Mitchell's barometric measurements were generally shorter than the summit elevations we know today. He measured Grandfather Mountain at 5,556 feet (it is now known to be 5,946), the Roan at 6,039 (Roan High Bluff is 6,285), and Table Rock at 3,421 (rather than 3,920).
Following Dr. Mitchell's footsteps
     He came closer on Yeates Knob (5,895 then, 5,920 now), which is important because that is one of the viewpoints he used to triangulate the peaks of the Black Mountains. (Yeates is now known unfortunately as Big Butt.)
     Dr. Mitchell was aware of other high mountains further west in North Carolina, including the Great Smoky Mountains (where Clingman's Dome rises to 6,643 feet, just 41 less than Mount Mitchell) and the Great Balsams (where Richland Balsam reaches 6,411 and the Blue Ridge Parkway crests at 6,047). His newspaper article said that the Unikee Mountains (the Cherokee name he used for the Smokies) "appear to the eye to be lower than the Black."
     Grandfather, on the other hand, appears to the eye to be even higher than it actually is, because of the way it towers almost a mile above the North Carolina Piedmont. When French botanist Andre Michaux climbed Grandfather on August 30, 1794, he broke into song and wrote exuberantly in his journal, "Reached the summit of the highest mountain of all North America, and, with my companion and guide, sang the Marseillaise and shouted, 'Long live America and the Republic of France! Long live liberty!'"
     From that hyperbole, we can assume the skies were relatively clear and Michaux had a view to the horizon. If so, he overlooked the obvious: Just 36 miles to the southwest, Mount Mitchell stood over 700 feet higher.
Lying here "in the hope of a blessed resurrection,"
Dr. Mitchell has a head start on Heaven.
     Through his 1835 trip and subsequent research, Dr. Mitchell was the first to prove conclusively that North Carolina had the highest ground in the 24 states that existed at the time. This had been the case since we became the 12th state back in 1789. 
     In 1857 (when there were 31 states, including California), Dr. Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains to verify his measurements and settle a dispute with one of his former students, Thomas Clingman, who insisted that his professor had not reached North Carolina's highest peak.
     On June 27, 1857, hiking after dark on the way down the west side of the Blacks, Dr. Mitchell slipped over a small waterfall and fell to his death. The following year, his body was laid to rest on top of North Carolina's highest mountain, and in 1882 the peak that had been known as Black Dome was renamed in his memory as Mount Mitchell.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Anderson's Dr. Anne welcomed 10,509 of us

     Dr. Anne Young of Anderson, S.C., delivered 10,509 babies in her 71-year medical career.
     In the pre-dawn hours 62 years ago today, I became one of them.
     Reminiscing with my mama about the blessed event, she reminded me that I arrived later than expected (setting a lifelong pattern), that Daddy delayed checking into the hospital until after midnight (to avoid an extra day's charges) and that Grandmama Essie was so overwhelmed that she told everyone I was 21 feet (rather than inches).
     When I was born, Dr. Anne was 62 years oldthe same age I am today. When she retired in 1983, she was 91the same age as my mom today.
     On the occasion of Dr. Anne's final delivery, my friend Deb Richardson-Moore did a wonderful job putting her life into perspective: "A girl who will graduate from high school in the 21st century delivered by a woman pioneer of the 19th century."
     If you can't read the clipping below, try this link.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

I'm proud of you, Daddy

Two days after I wrote this, my dear old Daddy died at the age of 88.

Son of a gun: My dad Robert Dwight Layton bequeaths his rifle to my son Robert Holcombe Layton. I'm Robert Thomas Layton, my granddaddy was Robert Dewey Layton, and his daddy was Robert Herman Layton. We're proud of our name.
     One thing I will never forget about my high school graduation is my daddy finding me in the crowd outside the new gym at old T.L. Hanna, shaking my hand, and telling me, “I’m proud of you, son.”
     Daddy has never been one to make speeches, so those words have resonated with me.
     Today I cling to every last word as I clutch his hand and sit by his bedside at Anderson's Hospice House, which is just a mile from that gym. It’s 5:30 a.m. and he is curled up in his bed, his breathing labored, and his aching knees numbed by morphine. Occasionally he raises his left hand to his gray eyes as if he could still see the wristwatch on his leathery arm.
     “Is it time to get up?” I hear him say. Most of his words the last few days have been indecipherable, hoarse, snippets of dreams. So these lucid moments are precious.
     “No, Daddy, you don’t have to get up today,” I tell him. “You can sleep in.”
     This is the first time I’ve ever sat through the night with someone who ishard to say it about my Daddydying. A million thoughts and prayers and memories race through my mind. Above all, I have the comfort of knowing that Daddy is about to meet his Lord and Savior and hear that wonderful greeting, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
     Daddy wasn’t showy or preachy in his service, and none of us are perfect, but his heart is as good as gold, and his soul is in the hands of Jesus.
     About his heart: Daddy almost worked it to death back when he was raising our family. I had to stand in for him at my little sister’s graduation because he had suffered a heart attack at age 51. A few weeks later, he had a second heart attack and had to retire from Owens Corning Fiberglas.
     That was also when Daddy retired from smoking. It was important to him that none of his kids fall for that nasty habit, and we didn’t. When I was about 12, he promised that if I made it to 18 without smoking or drinking, he would give me a car. Those vices never tempted me, and I was so content and mobile on my Schwinn 10-speed that I didn’t even bother getting my driver’s license until I was 18. But Daddy was true to his word, and not long after my graduation day, we found a gold '68 Mustang at a used-car lot on South Main, and he gave me the down payment.
     The nurse has just come in to reposition Daddy so he doesn’t get bedsores. We remove the nest of pillows he has assembled and start to lift him, but he cries out, “No! Please don’t!” He dreads the stabbing pain that will come with the slightest movement of his knees. The nurses here are merciful, and repositioning can wait until morning.
     Even in his pain, in a moment most of us would cuss, Daddy still says Please and Thank You. He raised us to say Yes ma'am and no sir.
     Daddy showed us how to live, and now he's showing us how to die. Unselfishly. Humbly. Responsibly. His generation wasn't much for public displays of affection, yet in his later years we saw more and more glimpses of his love for Mama. He instilled in his children simple proverbs that we call Dwightisms, like "You learn more by listening than you do by talking," and "If you're not gonna finish it, don't start it."
     Daddy knew how to fly. He joined the Army Air Corps as World War II was ending and became a flight engineer on a B-25 bomber. For his 80th birthday, we gave him a ride on a T-6 Texan two-seater, the same plane he had trained on more than 60 years earlier. Daddy amazed the pilot with the details and secrets he knew about that aircraft.
     He built model airplanes that are works of mechanical art: shaped by his hands, prized by his friends, and brought to life by radio-controlled servos and glow-fueled engines with propellers that could lop off your finger.
     Daddy also got to experience the cockpit of one of the world’s largest planes, the Soviet-built Antonov 124. Samaritan’s Purse chartered these to deliver shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child to children around the world. Mama started the OCC collection center in Anderson, and Daddy gladly helped, so I took them to Atlanta one December to see the jet being loaded. The cockpit is on top of the massive cargo hold, and to get up there you have to climb a two-story ladder. Daddy went right up, bad knees and all, so he could hear the Ukranian crew explain to him how they flew it.
     Speaking of Atlanta, Daddy used to take us down there to see the Braves play, to camp at Stone Mountain, and to eat at The Varsity (but never at Lum’s, because their hot dogs were steamed in beer). One of the first games we saw around 1967 in the old Fulton County Stadium featured Hank Aaron against Willie Mays. The last Braves game we attended together was in 2007 at Turner Field, when Tom Glavine pitched for the Mets against John Smoltz.
     Daddy was never a ballplayer and didn’t push me to be one, which was okay. We enjoyed watching the games, and I was able to make a career out of that.
     Our last game together was just five nights ago, when he sat up way past his bedtime to listen to the Clemson bowl game on the radio. (He can’t see the TV.) As a surprise for Daddy, I asked the Clemson announcer, Don Munson, if he could send out a personal greeting during the game. Don made it happen, and Daddy’s face lit up in a proud grin. “Yeah, I heard it,” he said. Basking in the Tigers' victory, he went to bed that night and since then has not had the strength to get back up.
     Daddy went to Clemson for a couple of years but “turned pro” before he graduated. When Fiberglas opened its new factory in Anderson, he was among the first men they hired. They promised him a pension that he still gets today, 37 years after his last day in the shop. He made the platinum nozzles that produced the glass threads that keep houses insulated, fishing rods limber, and oil flowing through the Alaska pipeline.
     Now he’s resting and breathing a little easier. Dawn is breaking.
     I’m proud of you, Daddy. I love you. I'm going to miss you.
Daddy has been a Clemson man for nearly 70 years. We took this last photo at the end of the Ohio State game on New Year's Eve. The night before his funeral, Mama and the children gathered in the same room to watch Clemson beat Alabama for the national championship, just as he predicted.