Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Friday, May 14, 2010

coming home to a place i'd never been before

The photo at the top of this page and the one in the middle of the "Happiness is..." page (check it out; it's gorgeous!) are of perhaps my favorite place on earth: my hometown of Wilmington, NC.

When I say Wilmington is my hometown, I don't mean it in the sense most people do. Although I was born in Wilmington, I didn't grow up there. My father worked for IBM in the days when those three letters stood for "I've Been Moved." It got so bad, or so the story goes, that I looked up from my books one day when I was 4, surveyed our house with a disparaging air, and declared "this place is getting old." We'd lived there less than six months.

With all that moving, I never visited Wilmington until I was 21 and about to graduate from college with a degree in journalism. The economy was bad in the late 1970s, the newspaper business was in a severe recession, and jobs were tough to come by. But my adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, the legendary Jim Shumaker (yes, that Jim Shumaker, the inspiration for Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strip) was friends with Charles "Andy" Anderson, executive editor of the Wilmington Star-News. Andy was doing a great job of turning the one-time rag into a scrappy and fast-growing paper, in part by hiring cheap, hungry, young talent. Andy had a job opening for a cub reporter. Shu, God bless him, got me an interview.

As I drove through the ninety-mile swath of scrubby farms, scrubby pine forests, and scrubby trailer parks that lay between Raleigh and Wilmington in the late 1970s, my hopes of landing the job turned to depression. Especially after four years on the lush, green campus of UNC-CH, this did not look like a part of the world where I wanted to spend my twenties. As I tooled down the last ten miles of U.S. Highway 421 -- flat, sandy, and barren, except for a couple of hideously ugly chemical plants -- I wondered what I'd ever done to Shu to merit being banished to this wasteland. This was how he helped his star pupils?

And then I drove onto the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

It was a blistering-hot day. The air had shimmered above the pavement and the endless stretches of sand for more than two hours as I drove, and I was half blind from it. So when the tires of my popsicle-orange Pinto began to sing on the bridge's metal span and Wilmington unfolded before me, I knew it had to be a mirage. A wide, placid river. Charming brick and wooden buildings lining the shore. Historic houses in cool shades of blue, green and yellow, set among the soaring trees that climbed the bank. And above it all, the stunning spire of First Presbyterian.

I was craning so hard to take it all in, I'm not sure how I managed to cross the Cape Fear without causing a major pileup. But by the time my tires hit the pavement on the east side of the bridge, I knew that I would convince the editor I was the gal for the job -- or die trying.

Well, the interview nearly killed me. After grilling me for more than an hour (it only seemed like four), Andy told me I had to pass one more test just to remain in the running for the job. I want you, he said, to recite the chorus to "Drop-Kick Me, Jesus." Stunned into silence, I stared at him. I'd never even heard of it. I left the interview convinced I'd blown my chance to live and work in the town that had already stolen my heart.

Lucky for me, Andy has a quirky sense of humor and an eye for talent. Somehow, he spotted talent in me even though I was shy, insecure, and painfully unaware of the fact that he'd been pulling my leg. Or maybe Shu's recommendation was all I needed, and the interview was just a formality. Or a frivolity. Whatever the reason, Andy hired me.

My love affair with Wilmington -- and my gratitude to and affection for my first and best executive editor, who took a chance on a scared kid when no one else would -- endures to this day. Next Up: The assignment that inspired a novel.

Editor's Note: The Wilmington photos were taken by (and are copyrighted by) my friend Jamie Moncrief, a colleague at the Wilmington Star-News in the 1980s who is now staff photographer at UNC-Wilmington. Jamie dug these out of his voluminous portfolio just to decorate my blog. Now that's a friend! If you ever want to purchase photos of the stunning Cape Fear Coast (Wilmington and the beaches at Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure) and the people and places that make it so special, check out Jaime's portfolio on Flickr at: jmoncriefuncw


  1. Hi Bernie

    nice to read you. Brings back our youth memories, we sure were different... God the bless the one trusted us enough to give us our first job...

  2. Hey Bernie! I'd no idea what Wilmington was like till I read this. Now I'm gonna visit :)
    So glad to hear you're a novelist (well, officially at least - you were one when we last spoke, just not in the technical sense)

  3. If you ever get anywhere near Wilmington, Andrew, you'd better let me know in advance. John and I will take you and Janet to dinner and we'll get caught up. And when we pass through London on our way to Scotland (in a year? maybe two?) , you can definitely expect a call. :-)