Fall and Rise and Fall Again: A Memoir of My Father
Search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil….Moroni 7:19
Beginning the Travels of John
"Beginning the Travles of John" is how Daddy began his short, handwritten memoirs. I'm not sure when he wrote them, but I suspect it was in the months leading up to his death. He ended his life at an early age, shortly after his fifty-first birthday almost forty-seven years ago. His life was, to the world, no more important than any other, but to his family his virtues and flaws and self-destruction loomed large. The events that finally did him in--a scandal in a large, regional bank--were triggered by him in a costly act of bravery and honesty. It was a big story in the state in the last six months of 1977.
Here I will share drafts of my version of his story from time to time. I welcome corrections from those who know more about the events than I do and critiques from anyone. If we're pals on Facebook, send me a message; otherwise, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have carried the story around with me for a long time. More than twenty years ago, Patti and I spent many hours in the Forsyth County library reading and copying microfilmed articles in the local papers, the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, information that is now accessible on newspapers.com. His life and death play a large part in my poetry. For some years, I wrote about nothing else, sending many drafts to an editor in Manhattan who was often enough bemused by what I wrote.
In the picture above, Daddy is in Costa Rica, possibly when his employer, a regional bank, sent him there, ostensibly for business reasons, but really (the family thought) to make it hard for federal agents to question him. He once told me about being in the Caymans (the bank had a branch there) and, in the days before Castro took power, he made at least one trip to Cuba, returning with gifts for us kids, brightly colored shirts full of buttons, pleats, and pockets, or so I recall. He joined the army after World War 2 and served in Korea before that war broke out; in a story he told me just once, at first light one morning he saw bodies hanging from the trees along a riverbank.
None of those journeys are mentioned in his memoirs. But, as a teenager, he often ran away from home--these are the travels he writes about, journeys that took him at various times to Maryland, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and elsewhere. At the trial where he testified for the prosecution against his employer, he said he once "found himself" in Denver, Colorado, without knowing how he got there. I don't know when this happened. He also testified that "he had a history of emotional illness and psychiatric treatment since 1961.... he had been admitted to hospitals eight times since the early 1960s" (“Witness ‘Anguished’ by Bugging,” Winston-Salem Sentinel, 9/27/77; Winston-Salem Journal, 9/28/77 ; both were front page stories).
Perhaps a more apt title would have been "Beginning the Travails of John."
30 January 2024; revised 5 February 2024
Introduction, Draft 1: Daddy, His Brother, and the Country Bankers
My father was not well-connected, but he had one important connection that boosted his career then helped ruin both life and career. The connection led him to work in a finance company and then a bank, as did many of his generation and background. College degrees were not required for entry level positions; many started as debt collectors, a first-year class in the school of hard knocks. I suspect they were attracted to banks for the same reason as bank robbers—they thought it’s where the money was.
Daddy’s eventual employer, Edwin Duncan, was born in Alleghany County, North Carolina, in 1905. He was slightly younger than Daddy’s father, Elbert, born in 1901, the oldest of three illegitimate children, and his mother, Sallie, born in 1903. Both Elbert and Sallie are said by family lore to have attended one year at Glade Valley, a boarding school run by the Presbyterian Church.(1) Edwin Duncan also went there, probably for several years, evidence of the prosperity of his father, David Crocket Duncan, a farmer, merchant, and banker. Duncan then matriculated at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he majored in mathematics and history. After graduating in 1925, he started to work as a cashier for the Bank of Sparta, a bank his father had helped found in 1902 (“Duncan Heads Northwestern,” Burlington Daily Times-News, 20 April 1966, p. 51).
As an illegitimate child, Elbert came from nothing, but he married into a family, the Grubbs, that owned some land in the Nathan’s Creek area of Ashe County and in the Prather’s Creek township of Alleghany County. One of my uncles told me once that, before the Great Depression, my father’s family moved from subsistence farming to truck farming. I know from Daddy that they entered the sawmilling and lumber business during the Depression. In the early 1950s Elbert built and ran a country store. Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and, according to Daddy, Elbert took it as a sign that he should go into business, since “a poor man can’t make money in a damned Republican administration.” His store sat near the crest of a hill on US 221, just across from the Dunkard Church, not far from the Scottville post office. In addition to the store, Elbert raised beef cattle on his farm located on Prathers Creek near Peach Bottom Mountain. I don’t know when or how this farm came into his possession, but he owned it by the mid-1950s, possibly earlier.
The Absher and Duncan families had some social and economic differences, then, but they were probably a matter of degree. The families were related by marriage—Duncan’s first wife (she died in 1936) was Elbert’s second cousin. But the Duncans’ prosperity ran ahead of the Abshers’. In 1937, the year Daddy turned 11, Duncan’s father led the merger of the Bank of Sparta with three other banks to form Northwestern Bank (http://sparta-nc.com/chamber/sparta.html); thirty years later some newspapers gave Duncan part of the credit for the merger. He kept on building the bank, by mergers and growth till, at the time of his death in 1973, it was the fourth or fifth largest financial institution in the state. His estate was valued around $6 million, the equivalent of more than $36 million today—not large by the standards of Silicon Valley, but large enough by the standards of the North Carolina mountains fifty years ago. He liked to call himself a country banker. Some hokum may have been involved, since the bank's publicity played up its small town roots; it once published an ad in Fortune magazine with a map showing the headquarters located between Traphill and Ferguson, two places even less well known than North Wilkesboro. But the bank had a well-earned reputation for its commitment to lending to farmers and small businesses.
I don’t remember any stories about Duncan from Daddy’s childhood—not surprising, perhaps, given the difference in ages. I myself remember seeing him only a time or two, but we never spoke. The first time, I noticed that one of his jacket sleeves was tucked into the outer pocket, his way of minimizing the visibility of his withered arm. He was, a journalist wrote after his death, “a man of limited conversation” (Jesse Poindexter, "Banker's Estate Is Over $6 Million," Winston Salem Journal, 6 Mar 1974, 5). His reticence may explain the lack of stories—a ready wit and skill at tall tales featured in many of Daddy’s stories—but I suspect that the age difference, respect, and perhaps the fear that he inspired impeded the invention and flow of stories.
Although Daddy (1926) and his oldest brother, Harold (1925), were born in Ashe County, a county adjoining Alleghany, the family moved in 1929 to family land in Alleghany County near the Ashe County line, not far from where Prathers Creek flows into the South Fork of the New River (part of Daddy's short account is reproduced above), and this is the area where they grew up. They were about the same age as Edwin Duncan’s son, Edwin Duncan, Jr. (born 1927), and they may have known the younger Duncan—they lived fewer than 20 miles apart.
To my recollection, Daddy never told any stories about Edwin Duncan, Jr. Although they did not live far apart, they went to different high schools. Harold and Daddy (and Mom, too) went to Piney Creek High School, while the younger Duncan, familiarly known as “Booner,” probably went to Sparta High School, if not farther afield, to Glade Valley or another private school. From 1944, Booner served in the Coast Guard in the Pacific and, like his father, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, but with a degree in business. Harold spent the war in the Caribbean as a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy, missing D-Day, he told me, because dysentery felled most of the crew around the time they were expected to steam to England. I don’t believe he attended a four-year college.
Daddy missed the war entirely. During the war, he ran away from home to join the Navy underage, but a letter from his mother to the Secretary of the Navy led to his being discharged in July 1944 shortly before being shipped to the Pacific; perhaps for that reason he was never drafted, though he registered for the draft when he turned eighteen in 1944. He served in the Army Air Corps and then the Air Force between World War 2 and the Korean War. After marriage, he attended business school at night and took the Dale Carnegie course in influencing people.
In the 1950's Booner went to work for Southern Discount, a finance company that was a subsidiary of the bank. By 1956, he was the manager of Wythe Finance in Wytheville, Virginia; he moved over to the bank, as manager of the Time Payment Department, and I suspect that he was replaced in the position by my uncle Harold, who managed the branch for many years. (I don’t know how Wythe Finance and Southern Discount were related, but in practical terms they were probably indistinguishable; perhaps "Wythe Finance" was a D/B/A.) Daddy had already been recruited to join Southern Discount and to manage the office in nearby Marion, Virginia, with his brother as his manager, I believe. He may have known Booner and Edwin Duncan, Sr., already but, if not, he would have met them now. Mom believes that Harold made the introduction at this time.
At some point, the older Duncan and Daddy’s oldest brother, Harold, became business associates, possibly friends. Harold and Duncan co-owned a 500-acre spread in Crockett Cove, Virginia, near Wytheville, a beautiful place I loved to visit. It was an unequal partnership; when Duncan died, Harold was not in a position to buy Duncan's half from the estate, so the farm was sold.
Mom was not at all happy with Daddy’s taking the job at Southern Discount. She did not trust Harold; she thought Daddy better suited for work that would take him outside. Many of Daddy’s best stories are about doing things—slaughtering pigs, making molasses, logging. They involve running away from home, breaking rules and even the law, like the time he burned down a 500-acre wheat field in Colorado in revenge for being shorted on pay for a summer of farm work. When he and Mom were first married, he worked for the NC Department of Transportation, as did a brother-in-law. His plans to become a land surveyor were disrupted when, on the way to surveying school in Ohio, he hit a patch of ice on the highway and wrecked the car before making it out of state. He gave up that dream, perhaps too easily. Later, on weekends he spent a lot of time with his older sons conducting surveys, mostly of rural land, under the license of his youngest brother, a civil engineer who worked for the Department of Transportation. He generally didn’t like fiddling with mechanical things, but was at home with a machete, a pickaxe or shovel (he called them “idiot sticks”), a maul, an axe or crosscut saw, a mattock. He liked to shoe horses and grub up tree roots. He was particularly fond of working with bladed tools—the double-bit axe and the scythe, for instance. He prided himself on his ability to keep them sharp; sometimes, to relax, he’d whet and hone the blade of his pocketknife till he could effortlessly shave the hair off his forearm. He was a master at pruning and staking up tomato vines.
In my poems about Harold, the Duncans, and Daddy, Harold and the Duncans play the part of seducers (the role changes from poem to poem). I think Mom saw them this way, though probably not in those terms. The poem below imagines that Daddy started out as a collector of past-due debts. Most of Southern Discount’s loans were car loans to folks with damaged credit; collecting debts, and repossessing the cars when payment was not forthcoming, were considerable parts of the workload. Here Harold inveigles Edwin Duncan, Sr., to hire Daddy.
How Daddy Enters the Financial Services Industry Uncle works for the old man who started with one bank and now has his dozens. Though greedy for the meanest hog plum, he lets the bankers and their white shoes stick in their thumbs.
Uncle works the old man with promises, showers him with fifths until he calls Daddy: “collecting from the deadbeat ain’t for pussies, son: gotta ride their asses, pack heat.”
“Don’t,” says Mama, not much more than a girl. But what does she know? “I’m sure I can scrounge something else if it goes bust,” he tells her (he’s telling himself), “only trust me. Trust me,
and don’t cry. Don’t cry, dammit.” Daddy will shake Duncan’s one good hand to close out the deal. Angels that keep watch over repo men only shrug their wings; they have seen it before. (Published in Kakalak, 2020)
Even after Daddy had gone to work for the Northwestern Bank (see the next section), he was still involved somehow in repossessing and reselling collateral. In classified ads from 1968-1970, he is listed as one of the bank’s contacts for those interested in buying repossessed construction equipment, 40’ Great Dane drop-frame trailers, and more. I had my own modest experience of collecting. In the 70’s, when I worked part-time at the bank’s installment loan department, I went out with the collector, twice I think but maybe more. Al was a former Marine and Viet Nam vet. He had an intimidating countenance—acne scarred, grim or sardonic when he chose. He carried his service revolver under the passenger seat of the company Plymouth, though he never needed it when I traveled with him. When collecting a debt or repoing a car, he could seamlessly turn from lowkey persuasion to intimidation and back. I was quiet, bookish, and obviously naïve, and he gained some pleasure from shocking me with coarse language and stories. But I liked him and liked to help him on the occasional out-of-town trips to repo cars. He did all the work; all I had to do was to drive his company car back to the bank while he took the keys from the defaulter and drove the repoed car.
One of these trips must have taken place in the summer of 1974. I worked at the bank in the summer of 1970, after I graduated high school, and again the following summer and fall, from the end of my first year at BYU to leaving for the Language Training Center in November. After my mission and the spring semester at BYU, I worked there again, again in the Time Payment Department as a teller taking payment for installment loans and sometimes helping the insurance clerk. I know I went on at least one trip with Al then, because on the radio was a song that was ubiquitous that summer, Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston”; it hit the fourth spot on Billboard in August and finished the year at 65. The man in the song pleads for a woman to join him in Boston, then Denver, then California: “Come to L.A. to live forever.” She refuses: “She just said, ‘No / Boy, won't you come home to me?’” Al passionately hated this song, and each time it came on the radio he grumbled derisively and turned it off. I don’t believe he ever explained his reasons. At the time, he was thought to be seeing someone in Gastonia and living on credit card cash advances; I received the impression, possibly quite erroneous, that the relationship involved a deep need not matched by affection. I was engaged to be married and was predisposed to like the song, though I remember it only because of Al’s dislike. That summer, the Watergate scandal filled the newspapers and preoccupied television. Minnie, a delightful cook and hostess at the bank’s cafeteria, came in for a good deal of ribbing for her continued support of President Nixon. In a quirk of timing (one of several I will discuss later), Nixon resigned on August 8 and left the White House on August 9, the day I was married.
One day, for a long-forgotten reason, I visited Al at his home and found him in the yard fitting the mechanism of a cuckoo clock into its housing, housing that he had made. Relaxed and absorbed in his hobby, he was a different man, like Dickens’ Mr. Wemmick at home with the Aged Parent. His father was a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher that I once came across on the radio. My hearing was good then, but I couldn’t understand much of what the preacher said; his speech was fast and strongly cadenced, the chant of an angry warrior attacking sin. It was probably then that I met Al’s sister, a student at Bob Jones University. She was concerned about his lifestyle and his soul but clearly loved him deeply. One of our friends and coworkers, a young teller at the bank, hinted that Al’s war had been a bad one. A few years later he died young from complications of a head wound he received in the war. He had never talked about the war with me, and I didn’t ask.
Note 1: Glade Valley School was a Presbyterian mission high school established in Alleghany County in 1910, “on the road between Elkin and Sparta.” It was said to be the only school of its quality within 100 square miles. It began with dormitories (each with 26 rooms) for young men and young women and 300 acres of land; during World War I, around 125 acres were cultivated to support the war effort. In 1916, there were 78 students; the great flood of that year “had no serious deleterious effect on the attendance at the school.” At the end of the 1919 school year, 15 graduated; more than 100 students had attended during that term. Sources: “Glade Valley School,” WesternSentinel (Winston-Salem, 15 Apr 1910, 6); Greensboro Patriot (17 Aug 1910, 1); “Fine Work at the Glade Valley School,” Winston-Salem Journal (19 Dec 1911, 8); “Glade Valley High School,” News-Herald (Morganton, NC, 11 Feb 1915, 3); “Glade Valley School Has Fine Opening,” Western Sentinel (10 Sep 1915, 4); Greensboro Daily News (15 Sep 1916, 6); “Glade Valley School Has Excellent Report,” Greensboro Daily News (20 Sep 1917, 7); “Minister Admits Immoral Conduct: Rev. A.W. Woodson Dismissed from Glade Valley School,” Wilmington Morning Star (8 Mar 1919, 8); “Trustees Glade Valley School Hold a Meeting,” Greensboro Daily News (20 Jun 1919, 10). 31 January 2024; revised 5-6, 8 Feb 2024. Send corrections, questions, and critiques to email@example.com.