Barry Saunders

Saunders: Happy days are here again on Main Street?

Voting blue amid a sea of red in rural North Carolina

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina is Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University and a politically and ideologically diverse population. Having voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and President Obama in 2008, the vot
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Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina is Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University and a politically and ideologically diverse population. Having voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and President Obama in 2008, the vot

Did I ever tell you about the time I got a job without getting out of bed?

One morning after dropping out of college for a year and returning home, I overslept and missed an interview at Sandhurst Hosiery Mill where my aunt worked. She had arranged the interview and called home to tell me I’d better get over there “with a quickness” if I knew what was good for me.

I didn’t rush over there, but after waking up around the crack of noon, I called, hoping to be told the job had already been filled. I instead was told to show up for work the next day.

Every day for the next several months, I crammed “L’eggs” – pantyhose stuffed into egg-shaped shells – into boxes to be shipped to retailers. The best thing about that job – other than it allowed me to go across the street to the Chicken Box each day for the best hushpuppies God ever fried up – is that it showed me I needed to get back to school.

Such stories in 1970s Richmond County weren’t unusual. Jobs were so plentiful that companies used to send representatives into our neighborhoods looking for people to fill them. That’s right: If you didn’t go to the job, the job would come to you.

Jobs – skilled and unskilled – were so plentiful that the public television station in South Carolina aired a weekly show in North Carolina called “Job Man Caravan” that mixed entertainment with job listings. You’d see listings for ditch diggers, pipefitters, secretaries and electricians in between seeing Luther Ingram singing “If Loving You Is Wrong” or O.V. Wright decrying a heartless jury of “Eight Men, Four Women.”

(Of course, after listening to “Eight Men, Four Women,” you were going to need a drink before you even thought about finding a job.)

How plentiful were jobs in little-bitty towns and cities such as Rockingham, Hamlet and Ellerbe?

This plentiful: Sometimes when we’re bored or the drinks start flowing and we turn nostalgic, my buddy and I see if we can count all of the textile mills that burgeoned in Rockingham when we were kids.

We can count at least eight which, for a city of 10,000 – a county of 42,000 – meant that just about anyone who wanted a job could find one.

You weren’t going to get rich, but with just a high school diploma or less you could buy a house, raise a family and take the kids down to South of the Border or to Myrtle Beach for a day trip once a year.

Sense of community

You could get “almost rich,” relatively speaking. They almost laughed my buddy T.K. out of the poolroom the day he came in telling us a whopper about a new company – Clark Equipment – that was setting up shop in Richmond County and paying the incredible salary of $9 an hour. “Man, you crazy,” we hooted.

Even if you didn’t work in the mills, you worked in a business – restaurants, clothing stores, movie theaters, auto dealerships – that thrived off the people who worked in them. Many of those businesses sponsored the Little League baseball teams that provided outlets for kids and fostered, invisibly, a sense of community.

There is no single, simple reason Main Streets across America died, but voters bought a simple solution.

A story in Sunday’s N&O talked about the economic devastation – some attributable to government policies such as NAFTA, some attributable to corporations that knew they could hire cheaper labor south of the border and import cheaper goods – suffered by small cities and towns across the South, throughout America. That devastation on Main Street is the main reason some formerly blue counties turned blood red.

There is no single, simple reason Main Streets across America died, but voters bought a simple solution. Despite the promises made during the presidential campaign, those days aren’t coming back, those textile and manufacturing jobs are gone forever – unless, that is, you believe the old Vietnam-era uniformed Army vet holding court Friday night with his similarly uniformed veteran buddies in the middle of a Chicago White Castle restaurant.

After Jan. 21, he told them as I tried not to laugh while downing my seventh slider, there are going to be so many jobs that even old men such as they would have to go back to work to help fill them all.

Why, I halfway expected him to tell them they’d be able to get a job without even getting out of bed.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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