Sunday, December 30, 2012

A good time for firsts!

Looking ahead            “It was like sitting on the floor,” Sue said, as she explained the sensation. It made me think it must have been like sitting on a carpet of sheet metal when she described her ten-lap ride in Ray Hendrick’s vintage racer driven by his son, Roy, at the Occoneechee/Orange Speedway in November, 1911.

“He warned me when we were about to hit the ruts.” Sue grimaced, but only slightly. “I was only supposed to ride for one lap, but I didn’t want to get out.” Due to the car’s Spartan interior, she’d had to climb into it through the front window. She finished the race of historical cars that was actually more like a fast parade.

“This is for you,” she said proudly, as she handed me an Official Souvenir Program, Volume 6, from the Celebration of the Automobile Car Show and Racers’ Reunion in Hillsborough on September 29, 2012. “I put it together,” Sue said in a way that told me she regarded her task as an honor.

On the cover was picture of Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first (and, for a long while, only) black race car driver. Inside were articles about Scott and pictures of his sons and his cars. Since he and his family have had connections to ours for years (they live in Danville), his picture, given to me by his son, Wendell, Jr., long ago, hangs along with our favorite photos on our store’s memory wall.

Sue had met a contingent of Scott’s offspring in Hillsborough at the September show.

Sue brightened. She reflected on the racetrack’s status as being entered in the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior (May 2, 2002). “Just wish we could remove some of the trees that grew up on the infield in the almost thirty years since its registration.”

I’d walked parts of the track; what had been a clearing surrounded by the .9 mile uneven oval-shaped tracked now looked like an overgrown park. “It’s no longer as wide as it was,” Sue told me. Trees had encroached.

Nonetheless, it’s a cherished site. “My sister still lives in the neighborhood that is closest to the track. We had been able to see past its border, the Eno River, then into the track from our yard.” All of that is overgrown too.

Some of the trees are now part of the track. “When I rode in Hendrick’s car, we actually had to drive through them. It was a little scary. I could have reached out and touched them.”

I asked what could be done about that.

She shrugged. “We’ve been told we can’t clear any more trees.”

It was my turn to grimace; Sue showed me the 1949 picture of the track taken at the first NASCAR race there. I saw the spot where I’d entered the raceway when I’d visited it the week before; in the picture, not a single tree blocked the racers’ view.

I wanted to help brainstorm a solution to ensure that more of the ambience was restored. A landscape compromise was necessary. I wondered whether that might be on Sue’s list of resolutions for the New Year.

But I didn’t have time to ask. She was at work at the Eno Gallery; customers had arrived and they were asking questions.

I waved goodbye and slipped away. I knew I’d return to the Speedway in 2013. But that wasn’t the biggest question I had to answer before the New Year.

A last minute customer on Saturday had invited me to his church in Martinsville. More than 800 people will bring in the New Year at the Shiloh Way of the Cross Church in a most impressive way. Superstar Vickie Winans [Vickie Winans | Free Music, Tour Dates, Photos, Videos Vickie Winans's official profile including the latest music, albums, songs…] along with the church’s 100-voice choir will usher in 2013.

“She doesn’t perform in places as small as ours,” my customer informed me. “But she told us she felt moved to join us!”

He was beaming. “Please come. We’ll have a special place for you!”

Such a kind and generous invitation was hard to ignore. “You ought to go,” said Sue, after I’d told her about the concert. “I would,” she said, as if attending the event would be a meaningful addition to her list of thrilling firsts.

And I might. Midnight may find me at 938 Brookdale Street in Martinsville. I may be the only white Jewish male at the church. That might prove to be the most auspicious welcome I’ll ever give to any New Year.

Maybe I’ll ask Wendell, Jr. and his sister, Sybil, if they want to join me…

                                             B. Koplen 12/31/12

                                           Happiest of New Years!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A season of...

Good will toward men       When I work with Lloyd, my carpenter friend, I know he’ll turn on his fist-sized, battery-operated, portable radio. In the mornings, I know we’ll listen to his favorite show, Trading Post. Callers offer items for sale or ask for items to buy. Lloyd listens regularly; he knows almost every caller by name and phone number. His commentary about them is at least as entertaining as what they offer for sale.

That’s what I enjoyed most this Friday morning when Lloyd and I built cabinets. He didn’t know I wanted to buy a radio. Nor did he recognize the elderly man who struggled to describe the eight-band short wave he was offering for $25. When I called the man to ask about it, he couldn’t remember his house number. Because I knew his street, I asked what his house was close to.

“Right next to a rock house,” he said.

I knew exactly where he was; his home was just up the hill from my Mom’s. When I handed him my check, he asked whether I wanted to hear the radio. I told him that wasn’t necessary.

I looked forward to hearing foreign stations, listening to news, perhaps, as it happened. So far, however, my radio mostly sits like a silent companion. The only stations I’ve found featured American-sounding evangelists from a source somewhere in Italy.  Their topic was greed.

Disappointed, I turned off my radio. I’d wanted to hear stories about peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Since leading our Temple service Friday night, I’d been moved to hear more about brotherhood and brotherly love.

That had a lot to do with my sermon that became more of a lecture. Based on the story of Joseph being reunited with his brothers in Egypt, I decided to make my presentation at the beginning of the service rather than at its end. If that inversion worked, I reasoned that the service itself would be more meaningful especially because many times our service refers to Jews being freed from captivity in Egypt.

It seemed to. All of the four attentive souls who’d braved a cold, blustery night wanted to know more. As a result, my ‘sermon’ lasted much longer than planned. In a very real sense, I was talking about brotherhood, but not only the brotherliness that was shared by Joseph and his brothers.

I spoke about the unrequited kind, when the person you want to befriend won’t befriend you. Of course, I wasn’t referring to Face Book.

Instead, I spoke of the subservient position of Jews in Egyptian society. Considering Jews to be slaves and/or second class, they were rarely welcomed the way Joseph (and his brothers, after their reunion) was. He’d proven himself useful; still he served at the whim of the Pharoah.

Thousands of years later, in Egypt and the Middle East, Islamic neighbors regard Israeli Jews the same way. They’re taught that in the Koran; it also follows from the example set by Mohammad. Jews (and all other non Muslims) are infidels, part of Dar al Harb, the world of war. According to the Islamic faith, non-Muslims must convert to Islam or accept their second-class citizenship. If they don’t, war is inevitable.

I explained why there have been no peace treaties with Gaza; they can’t even say Israel is a Jewish nation. To the Gazans, it is the “Zionist entity” and all of Israel belongs to the Palestinians, i.e., the Muslims who once took over the area.

Then I referred them to a fact sheet from and I read the list of six countries that have populations that are 100% Muslim. Eight more are 97-99% Muslim. Six more, 90-96% Muslim.

“How did that happen?” I asked. The answer is clear: non-Muslims aren’t welcome in those countries. All of them share laws that do not and cannot contradict the Koran; they are theocracies.

Ultimately, the Islamic goal is to make the world Dar al Islam; it is to be ruled by a caliphate. As they vie for leadership in that steady progression (Muslims comprise 25% of the world’s population), Egypt is attempting to lead the way by forging its new sharia constitution, based on the Koran.

Egypt’s Muslim population is growing as Coptic Christians are under attack [What is the Muslim population in Egypt - The Q&A wiki  the population of Muslims in Egypt stated between 91% - 94.5% out of a total population also varies from 80 - 85 million all are Sunni Muslim ...]

As for Jews, one of the oldest religious groups in Egypt, by 2004, there were less than 100 remaining [The Jews of Egypt - Jewish Virtual Library - Homepage
1948 Jewish population: 75,000 2004: Less than 100...

Brotherhood there has a much different meaning than mine. Hopefully, I’ll find someone on my radio who understands my version. And yours?

                                             B. Koplen 12/26/12
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

looking for why's...

A dirt track and other surprises        Often I am asked about my writing, “Where do you get your ideas?” Or, “How do you find (or see) these connections?”
Usually, I answer, “I don’t know,” with a shrug. I truly don’t know, but it happens so often even I think I should. This piece is one of those.
Late in the evening last week, after a busy day helping holiday shoppers and putting my shop in order for the next day, I went to the Old Dutch market to buy a steak. Ravenous, I hurriedly found one and almost ran to the checkout lane.
“Barry, how are you?” asked the woman in front of me. She was paying for a cart full of groceries.

Although I hadn’t seen her in years, I recognized Sybil immediately. She had the look of someone who was doing many things all at once; while paying, she appeared to be racing to the next.
“Can I help?” I asked her, since my package would fit in my back pocket.
She demurred as I held open the door. At her car, a PT Cruiser, I stopped as she opened her rear door. I could see why she didn’t want my help. Full as Santa’s sleigh, I had no idea where she would stuff six or seven grocery bags.
But she did. We talked about her family, about her Mom, how her health is slipping. I commiserated.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately,” she said, without explaining why. She said it in earnest, as if thoughts of me may have come in a vision of sorts. “Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about you,” she repeated as she hopped in her car. “Please give your Mom my regards.”
Although I had never met her father, famous racecar driver Wendell Scott, I imagined that she favored him. Her grin, her drive, and her intelligence; she must have been, I reasoned, his favorite tomboy. Chances are that it will be another few years before I’ll see her again.
That’s why I couldn’t begin to explain why she would have been thinking about me. By the next day, on my way to Hillsborough, NC to visit the Eno Gallery and my friends there, Mark and Tinka, I had compartmentalized Sybil’s remarks.
Surrounded by art in a gallery I loved to visit, I was greeted by a retired exec from Chapel Hill’s NPR affiliate who was standing in for Mark and Tinka. Since she and her husband had moved back to Hillsborough, she’d become a volunteer staffer at the gallery; I’d met her before.

“How’s retirement?” I asked, more than just a little envious that it had allowed her to spend time surrounded by art.
For twenty minutes, we talked about life without having a job she had to wake up to every morning. “Now I can work on my pet project,” she told me.
I didn’t have to ask her what that was. But I wasn’t expecting what she told me.
“I’ve been devoted to saving the old raceway, a dirt track that was important here before it’s last race about fifty years ago.”
I wanted to say that she didn’t look like any racecar fan I’d ever seen. An attractive and sophisticated woman, I found it easier to picture her as a docent at a Rodin exhibit.
Excitedly, she told me that the site has finally earned its historical registry and will be preserved for generations to come. “The last weekend of September, we have a Racers’ Reunion at the Celebration of the Automobile,” she announced triumphantly.
“Where is it?” I asked. I wondered how I could have missed it. For decades I’d visited Hillsborough without knowing the racetrack existed.
“About a mile from here,” she said, as she wrote directions.
Although I’d never known it was there, I knew exactly where to find it. Five minutes later, I was on my way. I had to visit the place, especially after she told me about their recent festival. Wendell Scott’s family had been the featured guests.
Under my feet, I imagined Wendell’s car sliding around narrow curves, only twenty feet wide. The packed surface was a mix of sand and dirt; the infield looked like an overgrown park or a forest that needed thinning. By climbing up the gently sloping banks on the side of the tracks, I saw the Eno River, a watery border of the property.
And I felt at home. Maybe that’s why Sybil had thought of me. Her Dad had known my Dad. Her brother and I had long been buddies. Maybe she was thinking of people and places that reminded her of home, of those wonderful days when everyone was up and running and trying to make changes in the way things were, changes that mattered and that needed to be made. Maybe that was it, I reasoned, as I checked my e-mail this morning, never expecting the surprise that would greet me there. 

This came as a gift from my younger daughter:
My picture's on the front page of Saturday's New York Times!!! I was praying at the Western Wall with Women of the Wall, practicing a bit of civil disobedience. Did anyone happen to save a copy?

                                    B.Koplen 12/23/12
                                    Happiest of holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


a tribute to Walter Chandler

This isn’t a good reason to miss the Christmas parade.
After all, floats are anchored to their numbered spots
in blocks of east and west feeder streets.

In the past, our sea of folks was split by marchers, trucks,
and bands before the ruckus, its raised eyebrows as Walter,
the gray-haired Afro strutter swished past all of us.

He’d been his own drum major, had led his Batonettes, aged
five to twenty-five, in fuchsia colored elastic shorts. Eyes stuck
to his swagger, often prompted mimics to strut alongside,

exaggerating his exaggeration. One reporter described Walter
as an X-rated Mummer without the feathers. Walter had a theory
about parades: parades were for showing it all.

For years, he’d done just that. No one else had provoked editorials,
had rattled do-gooders long after Santa’s waves. Masses swore, vowed
not to attend again, blocked their children’s cable access.

Still, that dread Sunday parade came and went. Crowds were thinner,
less awed. There were more skimpy-dressed majorettes on TV
at a Redskins’ game than in all of the parade.

Because this year Walter was a Hall of Famer, not a flame but a rider,
a celebrity in white, but for his red sash, a match to his hat and the shoes
no one saw. His seat, a kitchen chair in the back of the pick up truck

just didn’t sit him high enough.

               B. Koplen original 12/11/97
                                    Revised 12/18/2012