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Wandering Billy

Partying Pilgrims and “Progress”

Two ships in the night, a lost garden and pork paradise

By Billy Eye

It’s not my place to run the train, the whistle I can’t blow,

It’s not my place to say how far the train’s allowed to go.

It’s not my place to shoot off steam nor even clang the bell,

But let the damn thing jump the track and see who catches hell!

— Author Unknown

Our parents and grandparents partied in different ways than we do today. In an era before anyone could buy a mixed drink in a bar or restaurant, like-minded tipplers generally congregated in smoky alcoves, like the M&M (Merchants & Manufacturers) Club, a private bar and grill tucked inside the confines of the O.Henry Hotel.

The party got kicked up a notch after WBIG Radio’s morning sensation Bob Poole relocated from New York City to Sunset Hills in 1952 (later to Irving Park), by way of New Orleans. In an act of conspicuous consumption, Bob, his wife Gloria, and my parents took to motoring from one neighborhood to another in a custom outfitted school bus converted into a rolling speakeasy. (A sordid story told in last February’s O.Henry.)

Around that same period, in November of 1955, WBIG sponsored a weeklong cruise aboard the luxury liner NS Stockholm. Destination — the isle of Bermuda. Young folks from some of Greensboro’s most prominent families were on deck that fall: Nancy Bryan, Betty Jane Bledsoe, Elizabeth Day, Margaret Anne Cowan, Robert Taylor and “Brother” Bill Taylor to name a few.

Once outside of American waters, the booze flowed freely. After that first night of over-imbibing, many folks who were supposed to be enjoying their breakfast were still struggling with last night’s excesses. Bob was noticeably hungover on that first morning’s ship-to-shore call back to WBIG studios.

Turns out, Bob and company tossing their cookies over the side of the ship wasn’t the worst calamity that befell the Stockholm over its illustrious career. That came a mere eight months later.

On July 26, 1956, following the same course as the WBIG tour, the Stockholm set sail for Bermuda under fog so thick revelers couldn’t see a few feet past their noses. By the time crewmembers detected the shadowy silhouette of a larger ship dead ahead, it was far too late for evasive maneuvers.

The Stockholm’s icebreaking bow hot-knifed into the side of a floating masterpiece of Art Deco-dence, tearing an 80-foot diameter gash into one of the last of the ultra-opulent European cruise ships of yore, a wound that spread open, in the words of one observer, “like a ripe watermelon.” Within minutes, dozens of panicking vacationers were plunged into an oceanic grave 200 feet deep under the frigid, murky waters of the North Atlantic.

It was one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters of the 20th century. The name of that world-famous cruiseliner the NS Stockholm sank under foggy conditions in 1956. None other than the Andrea Doria.

And now you know (borrowing from Paul Harvey) . . . the rest of the story.

***

You may remember, back in April of 2017, I profiled the last elegant house and grounds remaining on West Market Street west of Starmount Forest. Situated on 4 acres, it may as well have been the land of Wakanda. No one ever seemed to notice or could recall it being there, sandwiched as it was between garishly lit fast food franchises, grocery stores, a postal distribution center and a troublesome 1970s era apartment complex.

It was a decorative Craftsman-style farmhouse not unlike that place Dorothy Gale longed to return to, built more than a century ago when that parcel of land was far outside city limits on what was then called Winston-Salem Road.

By the time I stumbled across this hidden-in-plain-sight homestead, its life-long resident, Rosemary Barker, had just passed way at the age of 85. Miss Barker, as she was known to generations of school kids, taught fifth grade at Allen Jay in the ’50s before transferring to Bessemer and Erwin Elementary in the ’60s, then Lindley Junior High in the ’70s.

Her parents were pioneers in organic gardening techniques. It’s been said the Barkers’ garden was one of the most exquisite and luxuriant this city had ever known, populated with just about every species of flora known to thrive in this region.

From the 1930s on, spinsters could be spotted toddling across the property trimming boxwoods, tending to flowerbeds and hedgerows under shade trees grown to mammoth proportions, shielding the spinsters’ corner lot on West Market from view. An island of antiquitous gentility inexplicably flourishing long after being enveloped on all sides by what we laughably refer to as “progress.”

In last year’s column on this house I closed with, “It’s perhaps inevitable that this verdant locale where breezes whistled softly through the pines, air honeyed in wisteria and flowering pears, will one day reverberate with the words: “Welcome to Sonic.” I was wrong, but only slightly.

Instead, what you’ll hear at that location this morning, through a tinny speaker, will be, “Welcome to Biscuitville, may I take your order?” Bet you’ll take notice of that corner now!  OH

Billy Eye is unapologetically O.G. — Original Greensboro.

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