A chronological memoir of sorts, ongoing in this pandemic time as I empty boxes collected and carted around from place to place over the years it took to finally get to Fountain . . .
Born April 20, and subsequently grew up in Graham, the second of four children (Anne, born 1946; Jane, 1955; Jim, 1960) born to Iva Ruth Buckner of Graham & James Alexander Albright of Mebane. Although born in Burlington, at Alamance General, I was given dispensation by Jack Henderson so that I, my siblings, and others of my generation could claim Square Miler status, a distinction that previously had required one to be born and reared within a square mile of the courthouse. Our generation of hospital born babies, then, would only need to be reared within that space for such an honor, which could only be bestowed by Mr. Jack.
These days, though, for $3 you can buy a sticker (not from us) that says you’re a Square Miler.
And Graham, they say, is the new Mebane, which once was the new Hillsborough. The Graham court square–one of the original roundabouts in North Carolina–is still bustling, still dominated by its Confederate soldier looking North for Yankees (and the focal point, in the summer of 2020, for weekly protests) that come these days from every direction. When I go home, one of the few places that’s still the same, it seems, is Jim’s Tastee-Freez. And one of the best new places is a Christian bookstore, Things Above, opened in early 2020 by my sister, Jane, on the northwest quadrant of court square, near where our grandfather, James M. Buckner, used to have his justice of the peace office.
As the school year ended, so did our Jim Crow lives. Graham High School had had three African American students in the three years I had attended, and in the fall of 1968 we would experience court-ordered full integration. Robert Canady had entered as a senior when I was a freshman, recruited from Central Alamance, the consolidated school for African-American students in Alamance County, by our basketball coach, Herb Hawkes. I know nothing of what Robert went through that year, but I remember being surprised at how a ball player so clearly the best on our team could so nervously screw up during a game. What I’d have done in a gym full of black players, fans, and referees, with me the only white boy there, I never contemplated; but at practice, when it was just us, jayvees and varsity running scrimmages, he was always a show, always the strongest rebounder, impossible to stop on a drive to the hoop. At any rate, we were all white again my sophomore year, before my junior year when two brave young women, Brenda Foust and Jessie Warren, transferred from Central Alamance to attend Graham High for their senior year. Of their treatment, I remember very little but for the mean graffiti that would show up on walls from time to time. It would be many years before I’d begin to realize what all must have gone on to get Brenda and Jessie to embark on this perilous adventure–and even still I can only imagine: were there other kids considered for this “honor,” and why did they pull out–what threats might have been made here, like throughout the South when white communities felt threatened by blacks wishing to vote or go to an integrated school? Why were none selected for the previous year? What kinds of deals and promises? Under the list of “senior accomplishments” in our school annual that year, both had noted only “transfer from Central Alamance, 4,” their previous years of accomplishments disappeared completely. Did they refuse to fill out the senior statistics form? Were they even asked to do so?
Meanwhile, I had the best summer job ever: operating a summer “open gym” for locals, and it was here I met Jody Hooker, who’d turn out to be leading scorer on our coming year’s basketball team. I had grown up on the white side of McAden Street, Jody, just a block away, on its other side, but we hadn’t met until that summer. He had such a sweet jump shot that it was difficult to ever take one of my own, and we looked forward to our first year of playing on a team together, with coach Hawkes, who had been quick to embrace the idea of integration and was excited to see the nucleus of our team working out together on a regular basis at the gym I ran, a couple of blocks from home. “Running the gym” meant, really, playing pick-up games pretty much non-stop all day, and sometimes having one of the local twins, Ronald or Donald, retrieve balls during my free-throw practicing.
Then, in August, just before school was to start, coach Hawkes stopped by our house and had a brief and very serious conversation with my father, in our driveway. He had been told by our new superintendent that he would keep his job for the coming year as a drivers ed teacher but that his status as a coach was still uncertain; coaching was what he wanted to do, and he couldn’t stay without a guarantee; and he had been offered a coaching job in Greeneville, Tennessee; and he had accepted. My father reported that he had wanted to tell me all this in person but was too emotional to do so, and I watched him drive off in his VW bus, unaware that within moments I’d learn that he was no longer my coach, that I’d never see him again.
I graduated from Graham High School: Top Ten senior, a Morehead Scholarship finalist, and captain of the Red Devils’ tennis and basketball (co-captain with Brad Evans, who went on to play basketball at North Carolina Central and later elected to the Alamance / Burlington Schools Board of Education) teams. I was also president of the student body during Alamance County’s first year of integration, which, among other thing, wiped out high school sports records for GHS and Central Alamance High School, the previously all-black county high school. Alamance was one of two school systems in the state that used the local African-American high school after integration as a high school.
I started summer school at Carolina a couple of days after high school graduation and began writing the “Ramblin’ Ram” column for the Tar Heel with the byline “Donovan Albright.” One of my English profs (B.O. Harder) complimented some poetry I’d submitted in a journal, calling my verse “Skeltonic,” which I had to look up.
In the fall, for the Daily Tar Heel, I covered fencing, gymnastics, and freshman football.
Steven Michael Allen, my high school best friend, committed suicide on September 27; he was 19. Someone came to my English 21 class, taught by Wallace Kaufman, to tell me to call home. At that point, Zeus was still alive at Duke Hospital but had died by the time Dickie Dixon drove me and other Graham friends from Carolina there.
Later in the semester, after Kaufman told us he was canceling class for the next session as he was going somewhere to present a reading, I asked him whose poems he would be reading. This small scene was after class, as he was gathering his books and notes to leave; he looked at me like I was a country-boy idiot (imagine that!) and said, “Mine, of course.” This was the first time I had thought of someone I might know as also being someone who could be a poet, and the last time I spoke to him.
In October, I was cut from the Carolina freshman basketball team and, early that afternoon, with my friend Jack Deason, hitchhiked to Greensboro to see Easy Rider at the Janus Theater.
Fall semester, I pledged Tau Epsilon Phi along with my Graham Dorm roommate Paul Steiger and, likely because no one else wanted the “job,” served as pledge class president. These were not the glory years of the frat system but the house on Rosemary Street with a private room sure beat dorm life–excellent cooks and plenty of folks to play hearts or spades with until the Durham Morning Herald arrived: “the bulldog’s here,” someone would announce, sometime around 4:30 a.m.
Outside my first floor room was our basketball court, and the room next to mine was Jame Hunter’s. He was part of a Durham crowd (noted in part for their rock n roll Thanksgiving parties) that I hung with some, and James and I became good friends–took a few road trips together and I was awakened most mornings to his copy of Neil Young’s Harvest blasting, “Think I’ll pick it up and pack it in.” Things went bad for James and he bought a one-way ticket to Philadelphia where he committed suicide in a hotel room. I was playing tennis in Graham the day Paul Steiger stopped by to tell me the news; James had been buried by then.
As part of my “entry” into Carolyn Kizer’s poetry writing class, we had to present her with a portfolio of our poetry and then go to her house to talk about the poems. Our conversation was short. She asked who my poetic influences were; I replied “Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Rod McKuen” (Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind a gift from my sister Anne, and McKuen’s volumes favorites of my girlfriend Cathy Ray). As I recall, Kizer kept a straight face and gently recommended that I stop writing poems for a while, until I had absorbed some further influences.
Later, at a reception for her at Peter Makuck’s house in Greenville, I tried to tell her how smart that advice had been but she denied ever having said something like that to a student. I wanted to clarify that the poems were really bad (am pretty sure I burned them somewhere along the way), and I should not have been in the same room as the rest of the young poets, but the conversation in Peter and Phyllis’s kitchen drifted away. As the years passed, I would meet several of the poets who’d stayed in that class, all represented in an anthology of class writing: Robin Brewer, who would be my supervisor at Henry Thorpe & Associates; Tim Tarkington, who’d become one of my best friends at UNCG (and whose couch I’d live on for a period of my homelessness); Martha Mac Harris, from Mt. Gilead, my future wife’s best friend from childhood.
Chapel Hill. A.B from UNC-CH, with a double-major in English and journalism.
Anxious to be out in the world, I managed a December graduation, moved back to Graham and began substitute teaching, and by March had my first job.
Rocky Mount. Worked as publications assistant at Henry Thorpe & Associates. Our clients were Hardee’s, City of Rocky Mount, Coastal Plain Insurance, and Carolina Enterprises. I got to interview Norman Rockwell on the phone, in a futile attempt to get him to sell to Hardee’s a painting that could be used on the cover of the annual report. The company got instead a blurred photo of me and a couple of others “hurrying on down to Hardee’s,” shot by our local contract photographer Charlie Killebrew.
Married Hilda Haithcock of Mount Gilead, at University Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, Rev. Langell Watson officiating. He had been our pastor for a large part of MYF days at Graham Methodist Church. I met Hilda on a blind date arranged by her double-first cousin, Sammy Haithcock, who lived on my dorm hall at Carolina. We honeymooned at the Watergate Hotel in D.C. and then at Ocean City.
Back home in Rocky Mount, I read the Washington Post daily as it reported on Nixon’s downfall. It arrived every morning at the nearby train station and a copy was delivered to our offices.
Working for 50 weeks to get a couple off didn’t seem like the way to go, so I started thinking about graduate school, an MFA, hoping to be somewhere else by January. U Mass, a top choice, didn’t have spring semester admissions, but Iowa, the other top one, accepted me. I got my student ID card and started subscribing to an Iowa City newspaper so I could shop for apartments. UNC-G had also accepted me, and when Hilda balked at leaving NC, it became an easy second choice. It would be many years before I’d realize I should probably have let someone at Iowa know that I wasn’t going to arrive.
Meanwhile, I drove to Chapel Hill once a week for an advanced fiction writing class that met in Louis Rubin’s house and was co-taught by Max Steele. When Rubin told us in December that he would see us in January, I realized that it was a year-long course, not a semester-long one.
Greensboro. Began graduate studies at UNCG. We lived in a $50-a-month Walker Avenue apartment, a block off of Tate Street, where Liuza’s became one haunt, the Pickwick being the other.
Clerk, Waldenbooks, a part-time job helping set up Waldenbooks in the newly constructed Four Seasons Mall, with Ray Johnson my boss.
Greensboro. MFA from UNCG, in fiction writing.
Winston-Salem. Assistant manager, Waldenbooks.
Athens, Ga. Clerk, Barnett’s Newsstand.
Also worked as circulation manager for New Arts magazine, as a sports official calling football games for the Northeast Georgia Officials Association, and wrote “The Weekly Reader” column of book reviews for the Athens Observer.
Greensboro. Quality crew chief supervisor, US Census.
Chamette, La. English/U.S. History teacher, Chalmette High School while living for nearly a year at 1213 Bourbon St., a short walk away from the Port o’ Call, Buster Holmes’, Snug Harbor, the Dream Palace, Sweet Willie’s, Molly’s at the Market, the Abbey. . .
Greenville, NC. English Department, East Carolina University.
Soon after moving to Greenville, in August 1981 to begin a one-year appointment teaching freshman comp at East Carolina University, I discovered the fun and thriving music scene that was centered around the New Deli, the Attic, the Treehouse, JJ’s, and the Rathskellar. The Lemon Sisters and Rutabaga Brothers were one of the most popular band in the region, and it wasn’t unusual for dancers at the New Deli to spill out onto Fifth Street. The Amateurs were the other local band that, like the Lemons & Rutas, were good enough to have had a break-out national moment. Bill “Shep” Shepherd was their lead singer and community spirit whose weekly pot-luck suppers at his big rambling home on West Fifth Street were always festive and full of artists and musicians and the kinds of eccentrics that hang around such folks. It was at the New Deli that Shep asked me if he’d ever shown me the old movie that he thought had been made in Greenville, and at one of these pot-lucks that he showed me the actual 35 mm reels, piled up in a hall closet. The reels turned out to be several copies of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” in varying degrees of condition, and a reel of advertisements.
Meanwhile, in the English Department, I got re-hired and my contract extended.
Edited two collections of poetry: Dreaming the Blues: Poems from Martin County and (co-edited with Luke Whisnant) Leaves of Greens: the Collard Poems.
Began restoration work and research on “Pitch a Boogie Woogie”
Wrote and co-produced (with Susan Massengale) the UNC-TV documentary Boogie in Black and White.
Named founding editor of the North Carolina Literary Review
While the second NCLR was at press, I was in New Orleans at Jazz Fest, having left my office (and the computer with the issue files on it) in charge of an assistant editor, Jane Ashford, a lovely going-back-to-school now-that-the-kids-are-all-grown kind of lady, smart, meticulous and efficient, proper, pleasant, a sharp dresser and model citizen. My new office computer had a cool voice command you could use to make it speak in your own recorded voice when you made a mistake, so instead of a little beep or something when you made an invalid touch on your keyboard, mine would say, in my recorded voice, “Fuck, shit, what the hell is going on?” Somehow this seemed funny when I installed it, just before leaving for New Orleans. I had a fantastic office in what we called Austin City Limits, a cute little old-brick building that had first been the university’s laundry (with a drive up window through which I could watch the Big House, where the rest of the English Department hived) and then its police department (mine had been the chief’s office, long, spacious, old wood, big windows on two walls) before being ceded to English. Jane had her own computer in the office complex, so while I was gone for a few days, there’d be no reason for mine to even be turned on.
Another editorial assistant, Tim Hampton, was also a writer for a local lit rag, and he wrote a pre-release story about how great the new NCLR was going to be, and it came out on the second Friday of Jazz Fest. One of the book review essays in that forthcoming issue was by Sparrow, the East Greenwich Village poet and activist who’s now living in the Catskills. He was an old pal of Adam Schonbrun, also a poet and a new colleague of ours at ECU, and through Adam I had gotten Sparrow to respond to recent poetry collections by Michael Chitwood (Saltworks) and William Boyd (Poetic Penguins). Tim loved Sparrow’s eccentric review and somehow managed to get into his article mention of Sparrow’s having entered a bad poetry contest with a submission titled “Why I Pick My Nose,” including a few lines of it quoted. It also just so happened that our DEAN was named Sparrow, Wendell Keats Sparrow to be exact, a usually jolly but sometimes insecure fellow who had first conceived of NCLR and given its editorship to me. He had busts of both Robert E. Lee and Faulkner on his mantel and had once asked me earnestly to explain to him what exactly a roman a clef was, he’d been hearing so much about it lately. So when Dean Sparrow read Tim’s review, he somehow imagined that we were publishing a satire about him, ascribing authorship of a nose-picking poem to him. And o did Dean simmer. He was outside the main English department office at 8 a.m. Monday morning when the first secretary came in, and she had to immediately call Jane, my office keeper, to come in to work and help Dean find the issue file so that he could see exactly how mean we had been to him, with, as she’d report later, a grumbling insistence that the press was going to be stopped, and they went to my office where the very nervous Jane repeatedly made mistakes trying to find the right issue and then the right file, all the while Dean listening to me say Fuck shit what the hell is going on? Finally she found Sparrow’s review and gave Dean my nice old swivel office chair, and he soon enough realized his foolishness, blushed and stammered, and made her promise to never reveal to me what had just transpired.
On my return from Jazz Fest, I was coming out of the Big House English office when I saw Jane far down our long hall and she came running with a story that had to be told.
Irwin Kremen’s got his hands in chokehold position as he says to our art director, “I oughta strangle you, young man.”
We’re at press for cover proofs for a Black Mountain College special issue of the North Carolina Literary Review. May 1995. It’s our fourth issue but the first to be produced on computer-driven presses, and as we arrived, their low hum-and-churn filled the cavernous and brightly lit pressroom at Walker-Ross as we gathered around one machine to test our cover.
Soon enough, though, all work has ceased, the other machines turned off, and ours on pause. Stanton Blakeslee, who designed the cover—it features a beautiful image of one of Krem’s collages made from scrap paper, “La Villerna”—has been patiently watching as Krem discards one freshly printed cover after another: too brown, too orange, not black enough. No one’s asking how expensive this is becoming as full color pages gather on the floor beside the press; we’re all just wanting Krem to be pleased. At first it had been just him, Stanton and me, the pressman and his boss, but as the pile of rejected covers has grown, so has our audience, now a dozen, all watching and waiting to see when Krem will be satisfied.
And finally he is.
But as the pressman is locking in the mix of inks and we’re all feeling easy at last, Krem has kept hold of that finalized cover, studying it. “But it’s crooked,” he finally announces. “Let’s run it again.”
Stanton, a burly but amiable fellow, long dirty-blond hair and bright blue eyes, is in truth associate art director, still an undergrad, not yet 21. But today he’s in charge of this last step before we can get going on our many-times delayed project. He doesn’t miss a beat: “How can you tell?” he asks drily.
Krem’s quick rage is nearly palpable; his chokehold freezes, at the end of his threat, within two inches of Stanton’s throat, thumbs not quite touching but fingers all wide and extended, frozen, ready to grasp as he threatens to strangle him. Stanton, though, calmly replicates the move, looking down narrow-eyed at Krem as he says, his own hands now in chokehold pose–they look almost like they could be slow-dancing: “Yeah, and I’ll strangle you right back, old man.”
[this was the original first section of my essay for the Appalachian Journal’s Black Mountain College issue (2018); its title then was “And I’ll Strangle You Right Back, Old Man.” After this section was cut, it became “We Were All Famous, You Just Didn’t Know It.”
Fountain. Retired from ECU.