Durham News

Jim Wise: Past, present and Boo!

Some years later the details are kind of fuzzy but the impression remains perfectly clear. It was one Saturday afternoon about this time of year, making the monumental rounds at Manassas Battlefield.

(That’s Bull Run, for you all from the yonder side of the Mason-Dixon Line.)

At this one particular point, if you looked off in one direction you’d see an open field rolling off a ways toward some trees, and if memory serves it was a spot where an outnumbered Federal unit made a heroic last stand. It was a moody kind of view, just the grass and trees and sky, you could think what you were seeing was pretty much the way it was back then.

It made you feel right reverential, and that was the way you ought to feel at a place where a lot of people died, whichever side your ancestors were on.

That’s if you looked one way. If you turned around and looked the other way, you were looking square at a shopping center’s loading dock.

That view was not exactly one to inspire timeless reverence. It was more like a ghostie or a goblin or a popup ad springing up and going, “Boo!” and it was pretty irritating to get jolted back into present-day banality. Such is the march of time. Maybe by now some trees have grown up to screen the view.

On another hand, it was comic absurdity – not quite as absurd, maybe, as our impression upon visiting the Sphinx some years ago and finding that what one was looking at was a Pizza Hut and a KFC on the far side of a parking lot. Here’s to globalization.

What brings all this to mind, of course, is the situation of Durham’s own Civil War historic site, Bennett Place, with the prospect of a loading dock or worse in full view of its Unity Monument.

There’s a two-acre plot for sale, right across Bennett Memorial Road from the monument. Now, it’s covered with trees and helps give the site about as effective a buffer from the 21st century as you can get these days.

But at some future date you might be looking one way at the restored farmstead, the dirt track that marks the old Hillsborough-to-Durham’s Station Road, the monument and imagining what went on right there in 1865: the Confederate surrender that for most intents and purposes brought an end to the Civil War.

Then with those thoughts in mind turn and look the other way at a loading dock, a warehouse or some other light-industrial installation. Suddenly, it’s a whole lot harder to keep history in mind, or to feel any kind of connection with it.

Why bother with feeling any connection? Well, an occasional sense of reverence never hurt anybody and it’s a vulnerable state of mind. Think about a cell phone going off during a funeral.

That’s because the state historic-site folks have an option to buy those two acres of pine trees, but they need to come up with $310,000 by the end of the month – that is, by Halloween.

That’s a good bit of pocket change, and here’s wishing them good luck. We can’t help thinking about that loading dock next door to the battlefield. Or the Sphinx, after 4,500 or so years, looking across a parking lot at the smiling face of Col. Harlan T. Sanders himself.


On another note

Shifting tone and mood, we’d like to give some credit where it’s due.

Last Sunday morning, patrons of the Northgate Dog Park got a different sort of disconcerting view. Sometime during the night, someone had come along and stolen part of the fence. Scrap metal, prank, who knows why.

There it was, a gaping gap between two posts where a chain-link vehicle gate had been. A dog park with a hole in the fence is a use-at-your own risk proposition; but before anybody had to go chasing a pet on the loose, a good Samaritan showed up with a roll of fencing and made a stopgap repair on the spot.

As we heard the story, this fellow was someone with the city. Nobody got the name, though, and checking with the city hasn’t uncovered his identity either – so here’s to let one diligent public servant, whether he’s on the public payroll or not, know that he is appreciated.