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AND NOW the rolling gentle hills of northeastern Mecklenburg, the warm red clay of his native county. Home again, and good to be home.
All the way the flight had been pleasant. The shrimp cocktail had been appetizing, the filet mignon tender and juicy - broiled just enough, not too done, not too rare. The baked potato au gratin, the tossed salad, the tiny green limas, the hot rolls, the coffee, the ice cream, the champagne, everything had been prepared and served perfectly. Down through Virginia, his dinner finished and his stomach pleasurably filled, his whole frame comfortably relaxed, he had leaned back to enjoy the swift, smooth passage southward. And then they were over North Carolina and beneath them in fast procession had sped the green fields, the villages and small towns bunched so closely together that he was never out of sight of several at once, and the cities.
But now with sharpened interest he leaned forward and pushed his forehead against the pane to search out in the deepening twilight sights that surely in the not so long ago would have been to him easily recognizable. Yes, that would be Davidson and Cornelius, to the right and a little behind, stretched along the railroad. Peering, he picked out the dome of the college's Chambers Building and, high above the oaks and the elms of the campus, a church spire new to him. And ahead, coming to them from under the right wing, so that in a moment they would cross above it, that would be Huntersville, and just the other side of the village, the Mecklenburg Sanatorium.
He lifted his eyes to search westward to the snaking line of the Catawba River. Soon, he had read in a Charlotte Observer forwarded to him on the Continent months ago, a tremendous lake in this area would impound water for what would be the largest of all Duke's power plants. He narrowed his eyes to pick out, a mile or two east of the river, a white farmhouse on a green knoll; the farm after 200 years continued in his family's possession. Two full centuries of change. But there had been more change in his own lifetime, he told himself, than there had been in all the years of his Mecklenburg forebears. Since his birth, within the twentieth century, Mecklenburg's population had multiplied five times - some day he would look up the figures - and Charlotte's must have increased ten times over. In other developments the changes would be even more evident, and amazing. This airplane, for example. His thoughts flashed backward from the great Golden Falcon Electra on which he was flying three hundred miles an hour to that old World War I Jenny that had lifted him, with Meb Long at the controls, from a broomstraw field on Queens Road West for his first venture into the air. Yes, and the radio. He remembered when WBT, the third station to be licensed in the United States, was but a tiny amateur broadcasting station in Fred Laxton's basement. And television. Why, many promoters of modern Charlotte had not lived to see Gunsmoke.
But up front the light was flashing and the stewardess was announcing their approach to Charlotte. Fasten seat belts, crush out cigarettes. He glanced at his watch. Two hours and five minutes non-stop from Newark airport In another four minutes, right on the schedule's nose, they should be on ground. Two hours and nine minutes. George Washington came down to Charlotte, too, but from Philadelphia to Charlotte and on to Georgia and back to Philadelphia had required months - he would look up the facts on that journey.
He turned his head to look downward. Lights flicking on now in the thickening gloom, ribbons of lights lining what must be roads and streets, clusters of lights dotting the fields and woods. Charlotte already? He leaned against the window. No, not yet, for there are no tall buildings, no narrow lighted canyons that would be Tryon and Trade Streets. But over there, beyond the wing on his side, beyond the left wing, too - he raised his head and turned to look out in that direction - a flame was growing and lifting, and suddenly below him and all around were lights coming on as the day gave way to the night, lights everywhere, myriads of flashing, glowing lights. Charlotte now, and what a city it had become in the years since his leaving. Then straight ahead over his wing he saw a huge red sign:
And in another moment they were down, and the great plane was taxiing toward the gate at which he would disembark.
His thoughts sped back to the day he had left Charlotte, and the long days before that momentous one. The Douglas Municipal Airport was Morris Field then, a sprawling wooden-barracks Air Corps training base, with what they called "the line," a string of frame structures skirting one side of a vast asphalt apron, as headquarters and operational buildings, and scores of fast Army planes parked on that apron. Fast planes. Fast then, yes. He thought of today's planes that do two or three times the speed of sound. And only some sixteen years ago, wasn't it?
His mind began to recall long-gone days. Once when he was a youth - it was the summer when he had finished his first year at Chapel Hill - he had spent a week with a friend on a farm down here in the country. It was the country then, a long way down in Steele Creek, six miles form downtown Charlotte, four miles from where the Charlotte buildings started. Reece's home had sat right here, right at the end of the runway on which the Golden Falcon had sped to a stop. Now Reece is a doctor, dean of a great medical school.
But it was years after that summer before air transportation in Charlotte got its wings. He was on the newspaper then. He well remembered the old airport over on the Tuckaseegee road, and Johnny Crowell and the other old-timers who were Charlotte's first flyers. He shuddered when he recalled the old flimsy crates in which he had flown with those hardy pilots. Quickly he listed nationally famous flyers who had exhibited their skills before marveling thousands at the old airport: Post and Gatty; Ruth Nichols; the Hunter brothers, refueling aloft champions; Amelia Earhart; Frank Hawks and his famous little white speedster No. 13, which would do three hundred miles an hour, an unbelievable speed in that day; the Navy's Captain Al Williams, whose only crackup was at the old Charlotte airport when he pancaked his plane into the side of a hill rather than endanger a crowd watching his stunting. And Tex Rankin, the incomparable stunter, and his outside loops.
And now - he was telling the smiling stewardess good-by and preparing to descend the steps - only the asphalt apron remains, unless some of those structures over there are parts of the old Morris Field facility, and this tremendous new airport building must testify to a phenomenal expansion of air travel into and out of Charlotte. When he got settled, he told himself, he would call the Chamber of Commerce and get the figures.
His friend was waiting at the gate. When they had greeted one another, they walked along the north concourse into the terminal lobby. As the glass panel closed behind them, he paused, looked about, exclaimed. The friend laughed. "We've grown up a bit since the old Morris Field days, eh? Actually, this section here has been added within the last year. And already they are talking of a second airport for Charlotte." He pointed to the marble stairs at the other end of the lobby. "Have you eaten? If you haven't, we can go up to the Dogwood Room on the mezzanine." He said he had had his dinner on the plane. "How about a cup of coffee? We can drop in the coffee shop over there while they're unloading the bags." But he didn't want any coffee either, he said, and they walked on past the Eastern Air Lines counters along the length of the right wall and around the corner and down the corridor to the baggage claim area.
"It's amazing," he said, as he handed the porter his check. "I haven't been away so long, and look at this!" He turned to confront his host, eyes narrowing. "What sort of traffic do you have out here anyway, John?"
"I don't know the exact figures," John replied, "but it's more than 700 movements each twenty-four hours. Eastern Air Lines alone has seventy-two flights, and Piedmont, Delta, United, and Southern mainly daily schedules. And then there are companies doing charter flights, and the Air National Guard is based here. And there's considerable private flying. It's a busy place out here." He paused, nodded his head toward the people still claiming baggage. "It's the same old story it was before you left Charlotte, except it's multiplied - now they're using the airplanes more and more. Business people coming into Charlotte and heading out, traveling men, salesmen, you name 'em. Charlotte's business, retail and wholesale, is expanding fast. We're growing. Went over 200,000 in the last census. Or did you know that?"
"Yes," he said, "I saw it in the papers. But it's hard to believe this is the place I left back in World War II days."
"Wait until we start for town," John said. "It's built up almost solid from here in. And it's like that almost all over the county. Mecklenburg is definitely urban now. An, in another decade, everybody is saying, the town's going to double in size - be 400,000. In fact -" his grin widened - "there was a story going the rounds some time back - they said it came from Lloyd's of London - that by the year 2000 Charlotte will be eight million population and one of the largest cities in the world! But" - he gestured, palms up - "I don't take too much stock in that." He hesitated. "I will tell you one thing, though, that maybe you don't know. Since you left here we've started two colleges in Charlotte and already they're booming. Charlotte College and Carver College, both coeducational. Already Charlotte College, which right now is a junior college but before long will be a full four-year institution, they say, is almost as big as Davidson. In another ten years it'll be one of the biggest in the state."
"John" - gently he nudged his friend - "by any chance are you working for the Chamber of Commerce now? I know Clarence Kuester would be proud of you."
"No; not paid, anyway." His expression sobered. "You knew Clarence was dead?"
"Yes. Been dead ten or twelve years, hasn't he?"
"He died two or three months after he retired. Yes, about '48, I think." John shook his head slowly. "I wonder what Clarence would have thought of Charlotte today. He'd have been mighty proud. He was the greatest booster we ever had, and that's a fact."
"I agree. All the time I knew him - and that was a long time - he was Mr. Charlotte."
They walked out through the main entrance doorway to the car parked among scores on the broad paved aprons to the right and left. "The ultimate in modernity," he said, shrugging. "Parking meters at the airport - in Charlotte. We used to park right beside the hangar at the old airport, free, and for a week if we wanted to."
"Sure," John answered, "one of the indisputable signs of progress. Park half a mile from where you're going, park in a restricted zone, and get your car towed off by the cops. And when you go to the police station looking for it, nobody knows you; you pay off, that's all. Progress, man!"
"I'll find it different, I know. I used to walk up Tryon Street and know one out of every three or four people I passed --"
"Today you could walk from Morehead to the Barringer Hotel and be lucky to know three or four," John interrupted. "I haven't been away like you, but I'd be a stranger right on the Square. Charlotte's a city now."
"But it must have the same old spirit, John. They say Mecklenburgers never change."
"Maybe not. But there are so many new people; they've come in from everywhere. Charlotte's got to be a cosmopolitan place." John shrugged. "You know, nowadays Charlotte even goes Republican on the slightest provocation."
"So I've been hearing. But we did back in '28, you remember."
"Sure. But they used prohibition as an excuse for voting against Al Smith. Now they just step up and vote republican, even proudly. There's been a big change in politics. They have a joke going around - and there's a lot of truth in it - that when a poor Baptist Democrat comes to town and begins to feel himself moving up in the world, he joins the country club, the Episcopal church, and the Republican party; he figures that gives him status." John laughed. "But most of these new Republicans still hang on to the Democratic label - call themselves Democrats-for-Eisenhower, Democrats-for-Nixon, for Jonas. Some even vote the state and county Republican tickets and call themselves Democrats. In that way, of course, they can vote in the Democratic primaries. But, actually, Mecklenburg is fast becoming a two-party county."
"Then you think that the traditional spirit of Mecklenburg is lost, that all these new people coming in have so diluted the thinking of the natives that we have a different genus Mecklenburgus nowadays?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. I'd say that more probably the original Mecklenburgers, the old-family citizens, are changing the newcomers to their way of thinking and acting. I suppose the Republicans could put up a good argument in support of the contention that the county's swinging toward the GOP is but another evidence of Mecklenburg's independence-mindedness."
They were turning now into Wilkinson Boulevard. "The old road's changed little except it's more beaten up, I suppose you'll notice," John said. "But they've promised us a new one, and they are about ready to extend the new Interstate 85 that will take a great deal of the traffic from this one. And you'll find a lot of new highways in and around Charlotte when you start looking the town over. You'll discover that many of the old landmarks have been torn down for new roads and streets, beautiful old homes for motels and parking lots. That, too, I suppose" - he shrugged - "is progress."
Past unbroken clusters of industrial plants, roadside chinaware displays, eating places, stores, groceries, Little Pittsburgh's steel plant, through a growing clutter of traffic, they approached and turned onto West Morehead. When they had driven along it a little way, his friend pointed to a building ablaze with lights high on the bluff to the right. "WBT," he said. "Moved here from the Wilder Building since you were home. They've got one of the finest radio and TV facilities in the whole country."
He nodded. And only a few years ago it had been in the basement of Fred Laxton's home. Charlotte is surely growing up fast, or time is indeed flying. Maybe both.
Now they were starting down the hill at Bryant Park, and a soft yellow glow, pin-pricked by a thousand-windowed checkerboard of bright lights and darkened offices, told him with a sudden nostalgic tightening in his throat that in moments now they would be in downtown Charlotte.
Once more the friend pointed. "There," he said, "over to the left of those others - that's the new Wachovia Building. See? The white one with the narrow tower-like structure at the side. It's on West Trade, across from the Selwyn. It's going to do a lot for that street. Already a block down, two blocks, at the corner of Mint across the street from the post office, they're starting a fancy new motel. And say, you should see the one recently opened up on North Tryon, the Manger. And on South Tryon --" he pointed again. "It's a little dark but you can make out the steel frame going up over there. That'll be the new American Trust Company building - only now it's the North Carolina National Bank, and a few months ago it was the American Commercial. The new building will cover the site of the old American Trust and the Commercial National. And, just across the street on Tryon, a fourteen-story office building is going up. But, say, you haven't seen the Union National Bank's new home - except now it's the First Union National - on the corner of South Tryon and East Third, where the old Mecklenburg court house used to sit. It's another pretentious structure for Tryon."
"John, the Chamber of Commerce should hire you. You've got the sales pitch."
"And I haven't even mentioned the Coliseum. But tomorrow you must ride out and see it. Oh, it's in town, but it's a long way from the Square. The biggest dome in the world; more than three hundred feet in diameter. Say, did you know you could put the Wilder building's eight stories inside the Coliseum and it would just reach to the dome? Why, they come here from all over the world, literally, to see the Coliseum, to get ideas for buildings they are planning for other cities, you know." He had reached Tryon and Morehead, and he turned left. "And another thing -" he tapped his friend on the shoulder with his right hand, temporarily removed from the steering wheel - "the Ovens Auditorium - named for Dave - is said to be the finest auditorium in the world."
They were passing the Observer Building. "You recognize that place, eh?"
"I'll say," he answered. "But little change there since Curtis Johnson's days."
"On the inside, yes, almost completely. The Knight chain bought The Observer and, most recently, The News. Now they're both in that building."
Up through the South Tryon Street canyon between the tall buildings they rode in a blaze of light to Independence Square and across the bronze plaque commemorating the signing on that spot of the Mecklenburg declaration of independence. "North Tryon has changed considerably in the years you've been away," John began again. "Many of the handsome old homes have been torn down. The big Sears store stands where the William Phifer house used to be, the one, you know, in which they held the last meeting of the Confederate cabinet; and the Presbyterian College behind it is gone, too. And out beyond the Seaboard underpass WSOC has its new home - it's a TV station, too, now - and for miles along that street, out past Sugaw Creek Church, it's almost a solid mass of business places. But say, there's one building I want you to notice, and I hope tomorrow you'll get a chance to look it over." John pointed right. "The new library. Now, it really is something to boast about. Here's one place where they tore down a building - you remember the old Carnegie Library with the high steps up from the street - and put up a far better one on the same site. This library building, they say, is one of the best designed and most serviceable libraries in the whole country, really."
He laughed. "I'm not arguing. I agree; it certainly looks like it might be. But tell me, are they reading books in Charlotte?"
"Reading? Man, since this new countywide system got going, they've been putting out the books. After they began expanding the facilities, the circulation of books increased several times over. They also have new branches in Charlotte, three or four, maybe more, and new ones, too, in Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, Pineville, and Matthews - all well-designed, handsome buildings. Mecklenburg" - his grin was broad - "is going in for culture along with bank clearings and carloadings."
They were turning right at Eleventh Street when John ventured a glance toward the returning Mecklenburger. "Say, I've been giving you such a guided tour I haven't even asked you what you're planning to do and where you'll be living. Made any plans?"
"Well, John, for a few weeks I think I'll just take things easy - get around and look up some people. Then I may buy a few acres somewhere out from town and build myself a little house, maybe up there where they'll have that big lake. I've been thinking I might write a book or two." He paused, smiling. "You know, every newspaperman figures some day he'll write a book, but few ever get around to doing it."
John was thoughtful a moment. "But say, after you've done that, had your book published, and all -- Yes, by George, you're the very fellow to do it." They were crossing above the Southern Railway tracks now. "The very fellow!"
"To do what, John?"
"You're a native Mecklenburger; your roots go back to the county's earliest colonial days, even before it was a county. You've lived most of your life here; you know Mecklenburg - the people, history, traditions. But you have been away, too, just long enough to get a new, fresh look at us, to - to - well, analyze us, weigh the present, fast-growing, industrial, urban county against the two centuries of Mecklenburg's past." Now John was turning right on North Brevard on a course that eventually would see them in Myers Park. "By George, you're just the fellow to write a history of Mecklenburg County. We haven't had one in some fifty years, you know." His elbow nudged lightly. "How about it?"
"Well, this is pretty sudden. I've never given it a thought." He shrugged, for a moment was silent. "The story of Mecklenburg." He said the words slowly. "You know," he declared, suddenly warming, "Mecklenburg does have a great story, a unique, exciting, terrific story. Somebody ought to tell it. You're right, John. And I just may try to do it!"
Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.