“Turn it on! It’s about to start!”
I shouted this to my mom, who flicked on the radio in my grandmother’s kitchen. The music kicked in like it does every day at 9 a.m. Only this wasn’t what you might hear on your typical, over-the-top, Morning Zoo radio show.
The hymnal-like organ started and after a few notes, the announcer was on the air:
“It’s time for the obituaries here, sponsored by Grandview Memorial Funeral Home in Sparta. Lawton Henry Trivett, age 41, of Piney Creek, died Sunday, September 27, 2009 as his home. He is survived by…”
And after couple of minutes, another reading of the obituaries on WCOK, “The Hit Kicker”, in Sparta, North Carolina, was complete. And with apologies to the deceased, we cracked up laughing. That’s because hearing the obituaries on the radio in a small, North Carolina town is funny.
I have been visiting Sparta all my life, as it is my mom’s hometown and my grandmother still lives there, and though the town has changed somewhat—it now even has a Burger King—one thing has remained the same and that is the reading of the obits on the radio. I have traveled to 15 countries on four continents and no matter where I have been, I have never heard anything remotely as funny as hearing the obituaries read over the radio in a small, Southern town.
It’s one of the biggest reasons why I love Sparta.
For anyone who has read Tom Wolfe’s most-recent novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Sparta might ring a bell as it is the hometown of that book’s title character. Sparta sits “up the mountain” – nobody knows its name—in Alleghany County, in north-central North Carolina, near where that state, Virginia and Tennessee meet. Fly into any major airport in the state and you’re still looking at a two-to-three hour drive to get there. It will inevitably be late and possibly after dark when you get close to town and if you haven’t stopped at Cracker Barrel on the highway, you will probably be too late to find any place open to eat when you get there. Also, as you roar up the mountain, you will likely be at the mercy of the deer that are notorious for racing out onto the road and becoming hood ornaments after you plow into the animals.
Sparta is a town that you have to want to get to. And for me, it is worth getting back to again and again.
I always go back to Sparta for family reasons, and this time was for more than usual. I was taking my wife, Megan, who had never been there before, as well as our nine-month-old daughter so that she could meet her 90-year-old grandmother. Throw in my mom, who came out from Seattle a few days before us, and my aunt, my mom’s twin sister, who lives across the “crick” from grandma, and we had a mini-family reunion on our hands.
More than anything else, I wanted Megan to experience the character and quirkiness of a real Southern small town, and Sparta didn’t disappoint. At lunch one afternoon, Megan and I got a dose of that which would last us all day.
We were intrigued by the Chuckwagon Sandwich, so we asked our waitress just what that was. She paused.
With a look of true concern, she said, “Why, I…I…I really don’t know.”
She looked toward the kitchen and back, stammered a bit, and answered with a genuine look of fear for all of our lives.
“It’s something that…It takes a certain type of person to eat it.”
I can eat just about anything put in front of me. But neither Megan nor I could stomach the thought of what was going to end up on our plates if it was so terrifying that the waitress couldn’t even bring herself to say its name. We settled on the flounder sandwiches, instead.
Food is never far from your thoughts, or any conversation, in Sparta. We would barely finish breakfast before we were talking about whether we should go “uptown”, or fix fried baloney sandwiches for lunch. Oh, yes, baloney, the backbone of many a gradeschool lunch, was rediscovered with a vengeance on this trip, especially at the local Hardee’s, which offers a fried baloney, egg and cheese biscuit for breakfast.
And for those who don’t know Hardee’s, think of Carl’s Jr. Same company, same logo, different name. And a slightly different menu down south. It’s hard to pass up biscuits and gravy or a fried pork chop sandwich for breakfast. A meal like that often was a precursor to fried country ham, more biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, chicken-fried steak and the ubiquitous hush puppies that some restaurants offer as a bread substitute. All the better for you to make more room for your side order of biscuits. And gravy.
Yet, eating isn’t the only activity in Sparta. This is a town that loves its parades and seems to have one almost every week. We were fortunate enough to be on Main Street at the time of Alleghany High School’s annual Homecoming Parade..
There’s something to be said for the small town parade. The police provided an escort as the Homecoming King—called in Sparta “Mr. Trojan”—drove by. The Queen and her court were next. The varsity football team and then nearly every other sport, club and school organization walked or drove down the street to the applause and genuine appreciation of the hundred or so townspeople who lined the sidewalks.
Megan actually got a bit choked up. Coming from Oakland, where we have to admit, many of the “kids” try to act and look more like 25-year-olds, the Alleghany High students were a real throwback.
“Look at them,” Megan said. “High school kids that actually look like kids!”
It was just one of many scenes of Old Americana in Sparta. Others included the Sparta Teapot Museum, which aims to be the home of more than 12,000 teapots one day, the Farmer’s Market across the street, with nearly every type of cast-iron cookware hanging in the front window, the convenience store where I bought a glass bottle of grape Nehi and the completely natural, honest and irony-free way the waitresses call you “Honey” or “Sweetie” when you got out to eat.
And then there were the Christmas trees.
Sparta has always grown some trees, but beginning about 30 years ago, the town set about turning itself into what is arguably the Christmas tree capital of America. Farmers found that the soil and location around Sparta were perfect for Fraser Firs, in particular. Many abandoned their tobacco and other crops, planted their first tree seedlings, and within a few years a new industry was born.
There are at least 60 Christmas tree farms in and around Sparta and there is no way to miss them. They seem to rise and roll in lakes of green over every hill and glade like the vineyards of Napa. Business kicks into gear in November for the farms that ship trees to other areas within or outside of North Carolina and nearly every farm offers the “choose and cut” option where you take your own saw to the tree that you want for your living room.
Trees from these farms have seen Christmases in the White House as well as my grandma’s house. We wouldn’t be staying in Sparta for Christmas this year, but on our last morning there, we gathered in my grandma’s kitchen something that for me, is as much a family ritual as putting up a Christmas tree.
It was time to listen to the obituaries on the radio.