Saturday, April 7, 2007

Monorails and Cotton Mills

"Look for me after you get off the monorail in Statesville. I’ll be in the red and white 12-wheeler with the hydrogen tank on top. You can’t miss it."
Alas, it is not to be, for long ago the monorail was the road not taken.

Every once in a while, some obscure fact will catch my curiosity, like hearing that evangelist Billy Graham collaborated with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Well, no, I didn’t actually hear THAT, but I did hear something a little LIKE that…a North Carolina icon crossing paths with an unconventional genius.

But it’s a long story.

First elections I recollect? 1960. I begged my parents, "Vote for JFK, vote for JFK, that ol’ Nixon’s a MEAN MAN!" About the only other things that stuck with me from the elections that year were a few names: HENRY CABOT LODGE. Now that’s a name to remember. Can you imagine how your life would be with a name like that – Henry Cabot Lodge. Henry Cabot Lodge. Henry Cabot Lodge. Repeating that solid name a few times would make anyone feel richer and more powerful.

And there was another name, Terry Sanford’s opponent in the primary for governor, I. BEVERLY LAKE. Another unforgettable name. He must have really hated whatever the I stood for.
What reminds me of this nonsense is this documentary I saw on public tv this week, "Terry Sanford and the New South." Actually, I was about to switch it off, when they ran film and pictures of the world where I was born – the Piedmont in the 50s. An entirely different world it was.

Back then, it had not registered on my five-year-old brain that I. Beverly Lake loudly proclaimed himself a segregationist. He even stated that the I in his name didn’t stand for Integration. Sanford’s carefully chosen stock response on race was: "We’ll give it prayerful consideration." Winning the primary, Sanford was a shoe-in for governor in 1960, and once elected was seen as a progressive …that is…THE progressive governor in the South.

NC limited governors to one term, so Sanford had to work fast on public education and race relations. And he did something strange by today’s standards, hiring Asheville-born writer John Ehle as his "idea man". Sanford later reflected on the decision:
"If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be that he find a novelist and put him on his staff."

John Ehle had a big role in Sanford era accomplishments like the North Carolina School of the Arts and the Governor's School, North Carolina Film Board, North Carolina Institute of Outdoor Drama, and the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

And in the midst of all this the Governor gets onto an airplane with Buckminster Fuller and they fly across North Carolina at night. They observed the long sweeping arc of city lights from Raleigh to Charlotte - the Piedmont Crescent - the rapidly urbanizing manifestation of the New South. Geographer Edward Higbee, also on the flight, warned that the entire swath of the Piedmont Crescent would be paved over by the year 2000 unless the state acted to preserve green space. Fuller, meanwhile, suggested that the state construct a monorail spanning Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte.

"The Governor’s Conference with Buckminster Fuller" (71 pages!) was published soon thereafter, part of a series of explorations into the future of the state. Fuller was already familiar with North Carolina, having spent time at Black Mountain College and NC State University. While at NC State, Fuller designed an automated cotton mill housed in a spherical, dome-shaped structure. Years before, in between terms at Harvard, Fuller worked as a mechanic in a textile mill…so he’d had a long time to consider more efficient ways to manufacture textiles.

OK, that’s it. So it wasn’t as shocking as it would have been if Billy Graham had leaned on Andy Warhol for advice. But anyhow. Terry Sanford comparing notes with Buckminster Fuller on the future of the place we’re inhabiting today? A progressive governor indeed!

I do wish they’d built that monorail, though.

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