Obsessed with RC Cola and baseball, and how it all went wrong

It was the summer of 1978 and I discovered RC Cola and baseball. My daddy? Well, he found Billy Beer.

In the summer of 1978, I discovered RC Cola and baseball.

I guess the soda that was a cheap knock-off of Coca-Cola had always been around, as was baseball, but that summer I consumed as much of both as humanly possible.

The reason? The collector cans that featured the RC logo and its slogan “Me and My RC” on one side and a photo of a Major League Baseball player on the other with his signature, stats and other pertinent information, such as was he right-handed or left-handed.

The collecting became an obsession and the stack of royal blue 12-ounce cans soon filled a wall of my bedroom. While I was always hopeful of an All-Star, such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson, it was multiple cans of little-known light-hitters like Freddie Patek and Bobby Grich that made up my shrine. 

These ballplayers were the ones I heard Jack Buck talk about at night and on Sunday afternoons, his voice stretching from the St. Louis Arch out across the corn fields of Southern Illinois and the cliffs of the Shawnee National Forest, across the Ohio River and into our little pocket of western Kentucky.

We lived “out in the country” as they said back then and my momma said it was too far to drive into town for Little League baseball. So, one day, I took a can of black spray paint and drew out a square strike zone on the side of our new brick home. I picked up a rubber ball and stood 12 feet away and threw as hard as I could, over and over, aiming for perfection. My daddy came home, saw what I did, spanked me good and gave me a can of turpentine and told me to scrub. And I did, until my fingers ached, but that black box remained, now part of our home.

And, inside those brick walls, the monument of tin cans grew larger and larger as I drank more and more RC. And, as you can surmise, an 11-year-old boy hopped up on caffeinated soda is going be clumsy and careless and the temple would often come clanging down, oftentimes at night when I’d stumble making my way to the bathroom.

Maybe collecting the cans was a gene thing, like a widow’s peak hairline, passed down from generation to generation.

My dad cherished a can of unopened Billy Beer, a beverage known more for being endorsed by the beer-guzzling brother of then President Carter than for its taste. And he proudly displayed that single can of Billy Beer on our living room mantle next to the family Bible handed down by the teetotaling Robinsons on my mother’s side. I’m sure he saw fortune in his future and a day when that can of Billy Beer would be worth thousands of dollars.

But maybe it was more than that.

Billy Carter, the brother to former President Jimmy Carter, is shown with a can of Billy Beer that he endorsed and promoted in the late 1970s.

Eventually, my RC cans were dispatched to a grey, weathered barn that was starting to lean more than it was upright with a good part of its rusty tin roof curled back like the shavings from an apple’s peel.

That summer I remained true, continuing to drink RC and adding to the collection, the cans climbing the slats around a feed crib that contained more rats than healthy ears of corn. But the rains came, as they do, and the bottom of the cans began to rust. And I picked up football in the fall and then basketball in the winter and spring. There would be girls and then a driver’s license and the cans would topple and fall when the winter winds blew between the ever-widening planks of oak.

Eventually, the rust spread, covering the faces on the cans, and I could no longer see if I was looking at Freddie Patek or Pete Rose. One fall day, the cans were thrown into black plastic bags and tossed in the back corner of the corn crib, that darkest part down where the rats made their nest.

But the can of Billy Beer remained. For a while. 

More than 40 years later, the homeplace remains, as does my mom. She’s like the maples she planted in that western Kentucky dirt. Still strong and rooted in place. The old barn has long been torn down, replaced by a shiny red, two-story building built by the Amish from down Crittenden way that is more guest living quarters than it is a work shed. 

The RC Cola cans are also long gone, dispatched not soon after my father left when most of his blue jeans and those country western shirts with the pearl snap-on buttons were taken from the closet and dumped in the backyard, doused with lighter fluid and a match was struck.

I don’t know if I ever asked my mother if she took the cans to a recycling center or just simply put them in the burn barrel, their sides blackening, indistinct. Just another can in a smoldering mess of household garbage. Forgotten. 

Come to think of it, I don’t know if we’ve ever really discussed the divorce much.

The separation stung at first, but eventually as you get older and perhaps wiser and maybe forgiving, you learn to accept the betrayal and loneliness. Like the collector cans, the pronouncement of “till death do us part and forever and ever” was something that was just taking up space and needed to be thrown out. The connection gone.

Still, there are days, like today, when an overheard bit of conversation or a question about obsession takes me back to those cans of my childhood. It’s those memories that remain. Good and bad. 

It’s your mom going to the IGA, picking up a six-pack of RC Cola and there being two more Freddie Pateks in the bunch. You disappointed, but not saying anything as you pull the tab and drink the bland soda, hopeful for another day.

It’s spray painting a black square on the side of a brick wall. And bits of that square block still clinging to that sturdy brick, 40 years later.

It’s clinging to the past and hoping that what you hold will only become more precious as time goes on. But, more importantly, it’s realizing when it’s time to just take it out to the burn barrel, light a match and move on.

I do an Internet search and find that you can buy six of the RC Cola baseball collector cans for $20. Another seller is offering 53 of the used RC cans for $150.

A pristine can of Billy Beer, unopened, can be had for $21. 

But nobody’s buying.

High school principal by day, Walmart stocker at night

We all could learn a little something from Henry Darby.
He spends his days as the principal of a high school in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
At night, he stocks shelves at an area Walmart. His pay goes to help needy students and families.

Henry Darby is shown in the hallway at North Charleston (SC) High School, where he serves as principal. Photo by Mic Smith.

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared as a SC Stories feature in the April issue of South Carolina Living magazine, which is distributed monthly by the South Carolina Cooperative Electric Association.

Students at North Charleston High School in the Lowcountry of South Carolina often gaze at the wall of awards principal Henry Darby has amassed over the past 40 years. He’ll ask them what they believe is the greatest honor among the stack of plaques. They never pick the starched white shirt hanging in a box.

“it reminds me of my humble beginnings,” said the North Charleston native. “It’s not the height that you reach, it’s the depth that you come from.”

The shirt came from cloth his mother gathered from an area dump. Florence Darby took the fabric home, boiled it in a kettle in the back yard and made the material into a shirt. He wore that shirt to school two to three days a week for the next four years.

Darby knows poverty, but also the value of education and willingness to work.

He recalled a day when he was 10 years old and his mother was given food stamps.

“My mother put both her hands upon my shoulders, pulled me near to her and tore up the food stamps in my face. Her words were, ‘Boy, you’re going to learn to stand on your own two feet.’ I have never forgotten that lesson.”

And he also knows there are times when others need help.

“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”

“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling. I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”

Henry Darby, principal of North Charleston (SC) High School

In addition to his full-time duties as principal, Darby works the 10 to 7 overnight shift on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a local Walmart. His pay goes to help North Charleston students and their families struggling to buy groceries and clothing, pay rent and keep the lights on. 

“The first six weeks or so it was pretty rough,” he said of his job as a stocker. “Just standing, standing, standing. Muscles I hadn’t been using before. Feet swollen, knees swollen. But I’m not a quitter. I’m one of those Vince Lombardi guys. ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’”

His story has garnered state and national attention and there’s been a spike in donations. That’s been heartening, Darby said.

“Americans came together to support a cause to help children. It’s almost as if we want to forget about our differences… It’s a beautiful example of how Americans can help Americans.”

Some of his friends, worried about his age, have urged him to slow down. He proudly points to the 40 pounds he’s lost over the past seven months and said he has no plans to stop.

“Whenever I can’t teach or can’t help someone, I’m just gonna say, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot. You can carry me home now.’ I just love helping people.”

Whenever I can’t teach or can’t help someone, I’m just gonna say, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot. You can carry me home now.’

Henry Darby, principal at North Charleston (SC) High School

Getting to know Henry Darby

Age: Born on Nov. 28, 1954, Darby is 66 years young.

Occupation: Principal of North Charleston (SC) High School; 17 years as councilman for Charleston County (SC); associate at Walmart since August 2020

Book smart: A collector of rare historical books, his favorites include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and a first edition copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” by Jefferson Davis.

Music to the ears: He’s been playing the piano for the past 40 years and has been recognized several times for his talent. He loves to listen to jazz composer Charlie Parker.

The GOAT: There was a time he had a herd of domestic goats. “Goats will keep your yard clean, manicured. And since I was working three or four jobs at a time, I didn’t have time to cut my own grass. I loved my goats.”

Corner of Elm and Second

He sees her every day at the corner of Elm and Second.

The following is the result of a writing prompt as part of the Pen to Paper Live sessions hosted each week by the Charlotte Lit organization. The sessions are free and held Tuesday mornings. You can register here.

Corner of Elm and Second

She never disappoints. She’s always there.

The U.S. Postal Service may well splash the words “through rain, sleet, hell or high water” the mail must go through. But in my world, it’s the lady on the porch who is as constant as the sun rising and the sun setting.

She’s there at the corner of Elm and Second streets, her house sitting perpendicular to the stop light that always seems to catch me, a road block to my morning rush.

I usually curse, looking at the dash, the clock showing me I’ve got 3 minutes to get somewhere that’s going to take me at least 15. And I sit. One hand fast-tapping a rhythmic beat on the steering wheel, keeping time with the wasted seconds, the other pushing the buttons on the radio, pulsing, rock music filling the cab of my 15-year-old Honda. 

I glance over and she’s there, often in a faded aqua blue house dress, her hair pulled tight in a severe bun, her gaze forward, where to I have no idea. In her wooden rocker, she methodically rises and falls, her feet flexing, hands and fingers still, except for a slight startle when a horn from the impatient driver of the black Suburban behind me sounds. 

It’s funny that I think of her when my boss hands me my pink slip later that day. “I warned you,” she says, watching as I clear my desk, tossing a calendar from the year before into a small box of my meager belongings. “You’ve got to show up to work on time.”

I think of the woman on the porch. And of time.

And I know that tonight when I inevitably stop at that intersection, there at the corner of Elm and Second, she’ll be there.  And I wonder if I will raise my hand and wave.

For there will be time.

The gift of the glove

What’s the promise of a new baseball glove bring? Characters from my work in progress “River Bottom” are unveiled in this latest writing exercise.

The following is the end product from a writing prompt as part of the Pen to Paper Live sessions hosted each week by the Charlotte Lit organization. The sessions are free and held Tuesday mornings. You can register here.

The Gift of the Glove

The smell may have been the first thing he noticed. The scent of rawhide leather escaped the package as he pulled the baseball glove from the box wrapped in red paper and green ribbon. 

Teague ran his fingers over the interlocking weave of leather, the stitches wound tight, strips of rawhide hanging loose like the leaves of the weeping willow that stood watch in the back corner over their 30-acre farm in the river bottoms.

The leather was stiff in his hands. Teague balled his hand into a fist and punched once, twice, three times into the pocket, seeking some give, yet the leather unforgiving. He knew the warmth of spring and summer and the sweat from his hands would loosen the rawhide; the glove bending, conforming to Teague’s 15-year-old fingers.

For nearly five years now, he’d used his father’s hand-me-down when he and the other boys gathered to play ball on summer afternoons, swinging and sliding until the western sky turned a burnt orange, chasing them from the field. It was a battered, dusty glove that had been duct taped together and had seen its fair share of ball games back when his daddy would knock baseballs 350 feet over the old strip of coal mine belt serving as an outfield fence. 

“Figured it was time for your own,” Big Robbie had said when he slid the box across the kitchen table earlier that morning. It was just the two of them now. Rains had fallen that summer and the corn grew tall and green, but money was still tight.

Snow was on the ground now. The field bare except for the rotting husks that dotted the back 30 acres like remnants from a Civil War battlefield, the stalks like the limbs of Confederate dead. 

Spring would come. And with it, warmer days and the sound of song birds. The ground would be broken, the plow leaving streams of rich, loamy, black soil in its wake, and there would be work. Lots of it for the seed needs to reach the ground.

Yet, in those few short moments before day turns to dark and the sun sets below the Ohio, there would be time. Time for a game of catch between a boy and his father, the rhythmic pop of the baseball hitting the pocket of the glove marking the seconds, minutes and hours.

Editor’s Note: The passage includes characters and settings from “River Bottom,” my work-in-progress novel that tells a story of a teenage boy living along the Ohio River bottom land in the summer of 1983.

‘The Climb’ to Ruby Falls during a year that wasn’t

Is there a certain memory that has stuck out in 2020?
For myself, it was a grueling hike up a mountain in the South Carolina Upstate.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, most writers have opted to not write about the virus that has killed thousands and led to even more division in our country. The reason may be simply because most writers prefer to use writing as an escape, says Paul Reali, one of the co-founders of the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts organization.

“It’s particularly hard to write about the pandemic, especially when we’re sitting in the middle of it,” Reali said during a Tuesday, Dec. 15 Pen to Paper Live writing session, which is a weekly gathering where writers are given a mini-lesson and writing prompt. The sessions, which will resume in January 2021, are free and preregistration is required.

Writing can lead to revelation, Reali says, noting that “we write to make meaning.”

Sometimes a subject — such as Covid-19 and as he calls 2020 “the year that wasn’t” — may seem way too big to tackle, Reali says. It is those times when a writer must “chip away” and document those things one has witnessed and felt over the past 12 months. These pandemic experiences can be documented through short vignettes similar to the recollections told in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary.

As part of the Pen to Paper Live session, Reali encouraged the nine participants to write a moment from their pandemic experience. The following is my story.

The Climb

We stop halfway up the mountain. The air is thinning as we’ve climbed another 1,000 feet and our lungs are burning and our legs heavy. It’s a quiet Thanksgiving Day afternoon. If we listen closely, we can hear the Middle Saluda far below, its water weaving around and over boulders draped with green, clingy moss.

“Do we continue on or just turn around,” my wife asks. 

She is in much better shape than I and has always had more energy and spirit. In a lot of ways, I feed off of her and love her for that. But here and now, my ankles hurt and there is a gnawing tug along my muddied and bloodied right calf. I’m close to calling it quits.

There’s been job loss, death and multitude of change in 2020. We had decided to flee to nature as we considered how to give thanks in a year of Covid-19 and had mostly hiked the 4-mile trail at Jones Gap State Park alone. 

As we sit trying to capture our breath and lower our heart rate, we see two hikers carefully picking their way among rocks and tree roots on the narrow trail to and from Ruby Falls. They are much younger and hipper and the couple pulls up their neck gaiters as they near. 

We step back off the trail and we’re enclosed by the rhododendron and mountain laurel, a near disappearing act. They see us, husband and wife, hands held and maskless.

“You’re nearly there,” he says.

“Trust me,” she says, “it’s totally worth all the pain.”

After they pass, we stand on the trail. We look upward, a steep stair stepper of unforgiving rock awaiting.

“You lead. I’ll follow,” my wife says.

I look at her and smile. I turn and then we climb together.

Getting creative with Pen to Paper: Jelly and whiskey in the Mississippi Delta

Stuck in your creative work? Why not try Charlotte Lit’s Pen to Paper Live!
I ended up with “Jelly and Whiskey in the Mississippi Delta.”

Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, I took part in a Pen to Paper Live! creative program offered by the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, commonly known as Charlotte Lit.

The free weekly sessions offer a mini-lesson and and present a writing prompt. Though I have been a member of Charlotte Lit and its Author’s Lab for the past year, this was the first opportunity I had to participate in one of the writing-in-community sessions, which are usually held in person but were moved online with the pandemic and social distancing restrictions. This one was attended by 14 other writers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long meet-up and would highly recommend it for those creative sorts who are currently uninspired or stuck. Preregistration is required. For this non-coffee-drinking guy who can sleepwalk through the hours before noon, Pen to Paper Live! gave me a spark and led to me writing this blog and continuing work on my novel.

This week’s session was on Cento. Kathie Collins, executive director and one of the founders of Charlotte Lit, led Tuesday’s session and came up with the writing prompt from a recent article in the New York Times. You can read the article to learn more, but basically Cento is a sort of “collage poem” crafted from lines, words, phrases from other sources and then patching together those lines to create a poem.

It’s a way of allowing you to express some subconscious needs through someone else’s work, Collins said. “Consider it another tool for your toolbox,” she said.

I am far from a poet, as the following selection will absolutely prove, but I did find it a fun, creative exercise. For my assignment, I chose to pull from the writings of author Hank Burdine and his story collection “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The story “The ‘Britchesless’ Bachelor” is one of my favorites, especially hearing Hank read it in person with his Delta drawl and his deep baritone acquired via healthy amounts of good whiskey.

Below is my first attempt at Cento. Let’s call it:

Jelly and Whiskey in the Delta

White-coated valets and 15 blue-haired little ladies

Gather for sundry debutante parties in Beulah in the Delta

Me, a member of the Bachelor’s Club, a pool for the Delta Debs

Made haste to Dossett Plantation in my black two-door Pontiac Grand Prix 

I arrived in a hand-me-down tuxedo with cummerbund

Yet, about to pass out because my britches were too tight

My date, Blanche Shackleford, fled to the slough unencumbered

As the Budweiser had filled her holding tank, quite a site.

Meanwhile, my unhitched pants fell to my knees

And I’d forgotten to put my car in park

Blanche emerged from the slough and the trees, 

And so, Blanche gave chase, shaking and boogying

So fierce, her left bosom shimmied out of her dress

And there it remained, quivering like jelly.

“Blanche, my Gawd” the little ladies shouted

Upon which, she tucked it right back into the top of her gown

And I, on a quest to drink good whiskey

found Mr. Dixon Dossett where we told tall tales in his gunroom until dawn.

Compiled from “The Britchesless Batchelor.” A story from “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy” by Mississippi author Hank Burdine.

Flight of the hummingbirds

Hummingbirds travel great distances twice a year between the United States and Canada south to Mexico and other Central and South American locales.
One of their rest stops is a botanical garden in North Carolina.

North Carolina botanical garden a rest stop for the birds on their annual trips north and south

NOTE: An edited version of this story appeared in the Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, NC.

Similar to a fisherman on the banks of the Catawba River, Keith Camburn patiently held his string taut Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, waiting to spring the trap and reel in the mighty beast weighing all of a dime.

Camburn, a Gastonia, NC, resident, and Michael Leonowicz, who makes his home in Charlotte, were two of those responsible for capturing hummingbirds at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden near Belmont, NC. They were each seated in chairs watching a feeder inside a cage, which was constantly circled by a gang of hummingbirds.

The task wasn’t as easy as it seemed. A hummingbird can reach a speed of up to 49 mph when it dives and beats its wings, on average, 53 times per second. So, it’s not like you’re catching a turtle.

“It’s like fishing,” said Leonowicz, who has been helping to band birds for the past 15 years. “The birds have gotten smarter.”

Mike Leonowicz and Keith Camburn work to secure another hummingbird as hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

As of mid-morning Saturday, they’d captured five hummingbirds that had been delivered to researcher Susan Campbell, who identified and, with the skilled hands of a surgeon, had weighed, measured and applied bands to mark each of the birds.

“The habitat at the garden is excellent. There are plenty of things planted at the garden that are good hummingbird plants,” said Campbell, an Apex, NC, resident whose been holding the program at Stowe Botanical for the past 15 years.

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

The hummingbird banding program, which was held Saturday and Sunday, is one of the most popular at the garden, usually attracting anywhere from 800 to 900 people, said Jim Hoffman, the interim executive director at Stowe Botanical.

Lake Wylie, SC, residents Eric and Allison Schaff are members of the garden and attended Saturday’s program with their sons, Noah, 14, and Benjamin, 9. Both brothers got to hold newly-banded hummingbirds in their hands before the birds flew off.

“I felt a very small vibrating because it was breathing,” Benjamin said. “I could see its eyes blinking. It was very neat.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell places a banded hummingbird in the hand of 4-year-old Aristotle Christopher on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Did you know?

The hummingbirds you see in your own garden may very well be repeat guests?

“It could very well be,” said Raleigh resident Steve Schultz, who was assisting Campbell during Saturday’s program. “They do have the ability to return to the same specific spot.”

Hummingbirds spend their winters in Mexico and South America, migrating to the United States each spring, where they’ll mate, build their nests and raise their young. In the fall, they return south.

Saturday at the garden, there was the rare experience of one of the birds they captured having already been banded. Schultz said the female bird, which was at least 3 years old, had likely been captured years ago at Stowe Botanical.

“That bird has flown to Central America and back, Central America and back. That bird’s got more frequent flyer miles than I do,” Schultz said. “This bird traveled thousands of miles. It’s amazing something that small can navigate that distance.”

A hummingbird flies about in front of the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on South New Hope Road.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

When will you commonly see hummingbirds at your feeder?

The hummingbirds usually arrive in early April and most have departed by the end of September.

Daily, you’ll usually see them at the feeder when they get hungry, which is typically in the morning and evening. During the day, they’re often snacking on insects, such as the gnats that linger near crepe myrtles, Schultz said.

“One of the myths is that they just drink nectar. In fact, they’re fly catchers. They mostly eat insects, which makes sense because they need protein, especially when they’re nesting,” he said. “And during the day, there’s tons of insects out.”

Hummingbird researcher Susan Campbell collected, measured, weighed and banded hummingbirds Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Which hummingbird are you seeing?

Most likely, in this part of North Carolina, you are seeing a female ruby-throated hummingbird. The male will have the red marking on its throat. They don’t stick around as long as the female, who is tasked with maintaining a nest and raising the young.

“I’ve been helping here five years and I’ve never caught a male,” Camburn said. “They just do their stuff and take off.”

A hummingbird flies about Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Nix the red?

Another helpful hint: Forego buying the red-dyed hummingbird mix at the store. Instead, make your own mixture with four parts of water to one part sugar. It’s much healthier for the birds and cheaper for the birder, Schultz said.

Keith Camburn keeps his eye on the trap Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. [Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

How many different types of hummingbirds are there?

Camburn said he’s been “chasing birds” for the past 40 years.

“I’m trying to see all the hummingbirds in the world,” he said of a list that has expanded to include 345 different species. “It’s never going to happen but I got to try.”

He’s seen all 11 of the species recorded in North Carolina. Only 17 of the species have been spotted in the United States.

“When I moved here 30 years ago, there were two hummers in the state,” Camburn said. “Now, I’ve seen 11 species, which is just nuts. I’m guessing Susan banded just about all of them.”

A horticulture volunteer at the garden, which means doing a lot of weeding, trimming and planting, Camburn also has taken on filling and cleaning the five hummingbird feeders at the garden.

A hummingbird flies Saturday, August 1, 2020, at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
[Mike Hensdill/The Gaston Gazette]

Flavor, flair of Argentina arrives with new Grand Bohemian Charlotte

The newest hotel in Charlotte offers something not seen before in the Queen City.
Come along with me and take a peek inside of the 16-story boutique hotel that celebrates the culture of Argentina and a Bohemian lifestyle.
It is the Grand Bohemian Charlotte.

Just a few short steps from the corner of Trade and Church streets in Uptown Charlotte, one can now quickly find themselves immersed in the culture of a South American country.

The Kessler Collection unveiled their newest boutique hotel, the Grand Bohemian Charlotte, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The 254-room hotel is the newest addition to Mariott’s Autograph Collection, which feature captivating hotels, inspired dining, art galleries and signature spas.

Each of Kessler’s hotels, which now number 10, are artfully unique in their own way and feature a Bohemian twist. Other Kessler properties are the Beaver Creek (Colo.) Lodge; Bohemian Hotel Celebration in Orlando, Fla.; Bohemian Hotel Savannah (Ga.) Riverfront; Casa Monica Resort and Spa in St. Augustine, Fla.; Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville (N.C.); Grand Boheman Hotel Charleston (S.C.); Grand Bohemian Hotel Mountain Brook (Ala.); Grand Bohemian Hotel (Fla.); and the Mission on Forsyth Park in Savannah.

In Charlotte, that Bohemian twist is Argentinian. The South American country’s influence can be seen in the tapestries, the colors and the many pieces of art that adorn the walls of the boutique hotel.

There are two restaurants with dishes full of the exotic flavors of a South American country. Mico offers twists on Argentinian classics and is open for lunch and dinner. A favorite on the dinner menu is pan-roasted black grouper ($36) or the Lomo, an eight-ounce beef filet ($42), paired with a side of truffle roasted mushrooms and smashed sweet plaintains and coconut ($8 each) and complemented with a red wine, such as the Justin Paso Robles ($18 per glass).

The Bohemian Garden is currently open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Mezze Bowl — with grilled skirt steak, pita chips, hummus, sweet pepper muhammara, salt-cured olives, charred cauliflower, toasted pumpkin seeds and vincotto — goes for $17. Pair that with a Bohemian Lemonade ($11) of Stoli vodka, sweet lemon tea and Bold Rock cider while you sit at your table in the private park and garden bar.

A Starbucks is located on the ground floor of the hotel as well and will offer breakfast from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

The Buho bar will be a place to be seen once it opens later this summer. Located on the 16th floor of the hotel, the bar will offer views of Uptown and an open-air lounge to go with specially crafted cocktails. Buho is Spanish for Owl and this will be a perfect place for the Night Owls of the Queen City to gather as dark descends.

There is a Poseidon Spa offering tranquility and healing with an after-work massage or a romantic couples getaway. A fitness center is also available with free weights, Peloton bikes and cardio machines.

Here are some of the features that set the Grand Bohemian Charlotte apart from other hotels in the Queen City.

The entrance to the Grand Bohemian Charlotte off Trade Street is a tribute to the Vienna Secession Building in Austria. The three faces above the entrance represent painting, architecture and sculpture. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Valet parking awaits at the entrance to the hotel. Light fixtures in the “Kessler red” offer a mix of the traditional and new, a bit of “funkiness” once a guest steps from their vehicle. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The Buho Bar on the 16th floor at Grand Bohemian Charlotte. They hope to open the bar within the next month. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The wine cellar at Buho Bar, as well as the views, are something to see. {Photo by Michael Banks}
The interior of The Buho Bar. {Photo by Michael Banks}
An outside deck area at The Buho Bar includes fire pits. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Guests will be treated to a view of the northwest section of uptown Charlotte from the 16th floor of the Grand Bohemian Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}

A painting you see once exiting the elevator on the 16th floor at Grand Bohemian Charlotte.

The details of the outdoor seating area at the Buho Bar on the 16th floor of the Grand Bohemian Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}
A seated area outside the Poseidon Spa will offer guests open air and views of Uptown Charlotte. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The 4,000-square-foot palace ballroom at the Grand Bohemian Charlotte features authentic Murano chandeliers.

The 20-foot-long Venetian chandelier outside the grand ballroom. Nearby are hand-carved marble eggs and mannequins.

Grand Bohemian Hotels are known for their art and their pieces are thoughtfully chosen to pair with the architecture and hotel theme. In Charlotte, most of the artwork featured is by Argentinian artists.

Andrea Carreras is an artist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and her artwork (of which three paintings are shown above) is featured throughout the hotel. She plays with the theme of the ancient and contemporary, creating a time dynamic where the old mixes with the new.

The bar area at Mico, the first-floor restaurant at Grand Bohemian Charlotte. Mico is Spanish for monkey. “It’s all about monkey business and having some fun at the bar,” said Diana Kessler, the creative director for the Kessler Collection, in a recent Facebook Live video. The chandelier was handmade in Italy. {Photo by Michael Banks}
Dinner menu at Mico.
Lounge menu at Mico.

The Ojo De Bife, a 14-ounce ribeye, that is wood-grilled over oak and served with chimichurri, charred pearl onions, roasted garlic and 7 Spice. The steak ($39) can be found on the dinner menu at Mico. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The Pampas ($15) at Mico is flourless dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate cremeux, dark chocolate chili sauce and vanilla fleur de sel ice cream. And it is absolutely delicious. All of the desserts at Mico are named for landmarks in Argentina.

{Photo by Michael Banks}

The Bohemian Garden restaurant offers an outdoor seating area for guests to enjoy a quick lunch or cocktail.

The Delta Bohemian Garden is a greenspace gift to the city of Charlotte where people can enjoy a lunch outdoors. At the end of the garden is a sculpture from owner Richard Kessler’s personal collection.

The 16-story Grand Bohemian Charlotte sits at the corner of Trade and Church street in Uptown Charlotte. The hotel opened for business on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. {Photo by Michael Banks}

The reunion of knuckleheads in Upstate South Carolina

Each summer, a small South Carolina town is overrun by thousands of motorcycles.
And the town of Chesnee is happy to have them as they host the Antique Bikes On Main that brings in antique motorcycles from around the Southeastern United States.

Each summer, antique motorcycle lovers flock to Chesnee via their two wheels

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the July 2020 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine produced by the South Carolina Electric Cooperative.

By Michael Banks

For one weekend each summer, the South Carolina town of Chesnee sees its population swell by 10 times its normal size.

While it may be the long line of antique motorcycles lining this small town’s main drag that transport visitors here, it is the city residents and bike enthusiasts who make the event a success and has the visitors from all walks of life returning each July.

* * *

Bud Blair, president of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter in Chesnee. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

The Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter, which is located in Chesnee, plays a key role in helping to set up and run the festival.

The chapter, which started in 2015, includes about 100 members, ranging in age from 16 to 84 with the majority of them living in the Carolinas. The group is dedicated to telling the history and sharing their love of antique motorcycles.

“A lot of people will see them on a T-shirt, but they never see one in person or get to hear it run. They get to see it, touch it, look at it, ask questions about it,” said Bud Blair, a Chesnee resident and president of the Legends Chapter who owns three bikes — a 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer, a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead and a 1942 Knucklehead.

“My love is my older bikes,” said the 57-year-old Blair, whose been riding bikes since he was 9 years old. “It’s just the coolest. It’s like an old pair of blue jeans that’s your favorite. I’m not knocking new bikes, but I’m just an antique kind of guy.”

And it’s not just men who are fans of the older bikes. Amy Jackson is one of about 20 female club members and is treasurer of the AMCA Legends Chapter. She owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson and a 1938 Harley-Davidson Flathead. 

A resident of Cliffside, N.C., Jackson has been riding for the past 10 years. Retired from banking, she’ll get on her bike and ride some 100 miles a day on the roads of the rural Upstate. She didn’t discover motorcycles until she was 47.

“I was running from teenagers,” she said with a laugh. “I bought a motorcycle with one seat so I didn’t have to take a teenager with me.”

* * *

Legendary motorcycle drag racer Pete Hill. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

It’s rare to catch Pete Hill sitting still. 

The Greenville, S.C., native has always been on the go, often at record-setting speeds, in a motorcycle racing career that piled up wins on tracks all over the United States and Canada, as well as Europe and Australia. 

The winner of multiple drag racing championships, Hill’s recognized as the “world’s fastest knucklehead” and is a member of numerous racing halls of fame.

At the same time as he was setting records on the track, Hill continued to run his motorcycle shop, Pete Hill Motorcycles in Greenville, which he’s done for the past 47 years. The four-person shop, which includes his son, Tommy, does a little bit of everything, from welding to building engines and other machine work.

When he was growing up, Hill spent summers working in a machine shop and would advance to working for various auto body shops, including his time in the Air Force during the Korean War. He built his first motorcycle, a 45-cubic-inch engine, in 1946.

“It was an old piece of junk. I could go from my house to my buddy’s house and then leave it there for two weeks until I could scare up enough money to buy a part and fix the one that I broke before I could get it back home,” Hill said with a laugh.

He said the business is what drove him to racing as it served as a testing ground for his ground-breaking mechanical designs.

“I had ideas that were a lot different from the competition and I wanted to try my ideas. That’s what I wanted to get out of racing,” Hill said. “If you win, it proves your ideas were correct. I was so far out of the norm with what I was doing that when it did work out, I was dominant for a number of years.”

He was running motorcycles powered with super-charged nitromethane fuel, reaching speeds up to 190 mph over a quarter-mile track. 

In 1981, Hill won his first International Drag Bike Association championship. That year, he also won the American Motorcycle Association Drag Bike Top Fuel title aboard a modified 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. He would go on to win four more IDBA titles and four championships with the American Motorcycle Racing Association before retiring from racing in 1994.

Through it all, his wife, Jackie, has been by his side, serving as a business partner, racing crew chief, author of his memoirs and confidante. They just recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

And even though he is now 84, Hill still has no hesitation to get on the back of a fast bike. Just last year, he topped 120 mph during a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

And he still has his South Carolina driver’s license and rides a street bike. Remarkably, the man who has driven motorcycles at speeds close to 200 mph, has never gotten a speeding ticket. He admits that he’s been pulled over a few times, but never been ticketed.

“I’d say that’s just because the way I look, an old man with gray hair who looks like he’s gonna be in a nursing home in a couple weeks.”

During the Chesnee festival, a steady stream of well-wishers came by to shake Hill’s hand or say hello to. The fame still bewilders Hill.

“I know who I am and I’m not that guy. It (the fame) just comes with the years and years of doing things nationally. I got a lot of coverage and, therefore, people think I’m really something. But I’m not. I’m just the guy who works every day on the winch, building motors in my shop.”

* * *

Rose and Richard Owen, members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association’s Warriors For Christ Chapter in Gaffney, S.C. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

When Rose and Richard Owen were recently involved in an interstate wreck in the metro Charlotte area, there was no hesitation when deciding who they would call for help.

They were heading to Massachusetts to visit family, driving their truck and pulling behind a toy hauler with their motorcycles when they went to change lanes near a construction zone. The next thing they knew, the camper was rolling and they were in serious trouble.

“God had his arms around us because we hit a cement wall and never felt a thing and ended up on four tires. We were physically fine,” recalled Rose Owen.

However, their truck was totaled and the hauler a disaster.

The couple, who moved to Blacksburg, S.C., about 18 months ago and are members of the Broad River Electric Cooperative, belong to the Warriors For Christ chapter of the CMA. Rose said she knew immediately who to call, reaching their area rep, who drove two hours north to assist them.

“They are our family here,” Rose Owen said of the Gaffney, S.C., chapter. “I know that they are the people we can count on on an every-day basis. We were welcomed here phenomenally. I can’t believe the love that we got from the chapter.”

That mission was exemplified during the 10th annual Prayer Ride conducted by members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association attending Chesnee’s Antique Bikes On Main event.

About 50 riders traveled to churches in Spartanburg County (S.C.), collecting prayer requests before returning to Chesnee for a gathering and pray for those listed on the gathered requests.

“We are there for any reason – a biker down somewhere that needs our help, hospital visits. We help bikers that are in need of anything,” said Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA. 

The CMA is an international ministry numbering more than 200,000 members with chapters in all 50 states and 41 foreign countries. South Carolina has 13 chapters.

Coggins, who is now retired after working 20 years for the Spartanburg County 911 emergency call center and 23 years in the U.S. Army, said the group’s primary purpose remains “carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. We do that by riding motorcycles and speaking the name of Jesus to people who need to hear it. Everything we do is all about Jesus.”

The Cowpens, S.C., resident has a favorite gospel verse, John 14:6, that reads “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

* * *

Mike Bruso on his 1939 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead that he’ll ride in the Cross Country Chase in 2020. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

Among the 17 motorcycles that sit in Mike Bruso’s shop in Forest City, N.C., is a 2018 Indian that “absolutely rides beautiful” with a 3,000-watt stereo, heated seats and an adjustable windshield.

However, he says, “It never gets moved. It just sits in my garage.”

Bruso says he honestly has more fun riding his older motorcycles, especially his 1939 Harley Davidson Knucklehead.

“The new bikes are like a new car. You get in, they’re fuel-injected, you touch them, there’s no squeaks, no rattles. There’s nothing to do. You just drive it.”

That’s not the case with the older models. As an example, he points to his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD that doesn’t use recirculating oil and offers little brakes, a different throttle control and the various loose bolts and screws that come with being nearly a century old.

“There’s always something to think about,” said the 41-year-old Bruso, who makes his living as a mechanical engineer for Facebook. “You’ve got to be prepared to fix something while you’re parked on the side of the road. It’s just a lot more interactive than a new bike.” 

And Bruso has no qualms about riding his older bikes over long distances.

In September, he’ll be on his 1939 Knucklehead in the 2,600-mile Cross Country Chase that runs over nine days from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Key West, Fla.

The race will be a warmup for the 2020 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run that will stretch over 17 days. Bruno will be among only 120 select riders traveling over 4,000 miles from Sault St. Marie to South Padre Island, Texas. Bruso, who had been trying to get selected to the Cannonball race, which runs every two years, since 2014, will be riding his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy for riding something that barely has brakes and you gotta hand shift,” he says.

However, motorcycles have always been a part of Bruso’s life. A native of northern New York, Bruso was only 3 years old when he got his first three-wheeler. Now, he can be found on and around the roads of the Upstate as he’s a member of the AMCA Legends Chapter. He’s attended the Bikes On Main event every year. 

“I’ve never not had bikes, ever,” Bruso said.

Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who collects and restores antique motorcycles, including the 1920 Harley- Davidson model that he rode in the Chesnee, S.C., bike games competition. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

That’s a similar comment shared by Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who has attended four of the Bikes On Main gatherings.

As he often does at antique motorcycle shows, Hale was competing in field events that test a rider’s balance, dexterity and control of the bike. He ended up winning the Chesnee competition that required him to place a tennis ball atop a line of pylons while riding his 1920 Harley-Davidson model. It was the first time the Chesnee festival had held a games competition.

Hale collects and restores antiques and he has about 20 different motorcycles, including a 1916 Indian and a 1916 Miami Power Bicycle. His favorite is a 1925 Excelsior Super X with its original paint job that was produced by the Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company before it went out of business in 1931.

Hale, who is retired after a career as an electrical engineer, said he enjoys collecting unusual bikes. And if it features the original paint and is not “all clean and shiny” it’s even better.

“That’s just like how it came out of the factory, 99 years ago,” he said, pointing to his brown- and bronze-tinted 1920s Harley-Davidson.

***

Longtime Chesnee, S.C., City Administrator Becki Hood. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

There was no hesitation by Chesnee city officials some 10 years ago when they were approached by the Antique Bikes On Main organizers to see if they had an interest in teaming up. And that could have been because two of the longtime leaders – Mayor Max Cash and City Administrator Becki Hood – were familiar with motorcycles.

Cash, who has served as the town’s mayor for the past 30 years, had a Harley-Davidson that he rode for years until he decided to sell it two years ago.

He said the city, which dates back to 1911, had held several festivals in the past – including the Poke Sallet Festival that celebrated pokeweed – before hitting a home run by holding its Chesnee City Fest in conjunction with the Antique Bikes On Main.

Hood, who has ridden on motorcycles owned by her two sons, says there have been estimates of up to 10,000 people coming into Chesnee over the three-day weekend.

“We get a lot of tourists in for the bike rally. They come from California and everywhere,” Hood said. “We have people from all walks of life. We have lawyers, we have doctors, we have professional people and we have just plain people that ride bikes. Most of them are very nice.”

And those visitors bring cash, benefitting the town’s merchants, along with paying a 2 percent city hospitality tax that’s added to restaurant bills. Hood estimated the tax generates about $15,000 each month for the city’s coffers.

That money goes a long way in what is South Carolina’s smallest city, which occupies a little over a square mile and numbers 868 residents, according to the 2010 census. The city employs just 10 people and there is a small tax base. 

Hood said the city agreed to allot $50,000 of the hospitality tax money this year to help with the Antique Bikes On Main and the Chesnee City Fest. That money allows the city to offer free carnival rides for children and keeps vendor fees low.

There is no alcohol sold at the event that is geared toward not only motorcycle enthusiasts, but also families with children.

“We had the Hells Angels here in the past. No problem whatsoever,” said Hood, who could recall only one arrest – that for public intoxication — in the last 10 years. “It goes along like clockwork.”

And, according to Hood, that hospitable, friendly atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with what Chesnee stands for – its small-town atmosphere and the wonderful people who call it home.

“The kids grow up, they move away, gets jobs in big cities. But you have the people here that love the small-town ambiance. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Hood, who has lived in her home for the past 37 years.

“It’s just that hometown feel,” she said. “If somebody hurts, we all hurt. It’s this thing of ‘You’re my brother. Can I help you?’ And that’s what I like about it. I love the people. It’s just home.”