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Winter/Spring 2020

Milkweed and Me

Michael Wade

 

My first meeting with Cornett Milkweed took place on his front porch and did not go well. At the sight of us, his face and the square yard of skin beneath his cubic crew cut went bubble-gum pink. As I stammered my spiel about why it was really in his best interest to talk to me, though he’d declined to speak on the phone, the pink deepened to red, and then to hot magenta.  

“I tell you what,” he said when I paused. His voice did not match his alarming coloration. It was low and quiet, and carried the authority of a big man stating a simple truth in his own home. “I’m gon’ give you thirty seconds to get back in your vehicle. And then I’m gon’ let the dogs out.” He closed the door so gently I heard the bolt seat in the jamb.

As we aimed for my car, managing not to sprint, I castigated myself for my unpersuasive choice of words, and for stammering. And then realized that what I’d said to him, let alone how I said it, wouldn’t have mattered. Milkweed had been dealing with reporters for longer than I’d been alive. I had nothing, and he knew it.  

An hour later, burnt-adrenaline nausea still wormed in my stomach. But I could tell I was getting over my disappointment at the probable loss of my big story because the permanent in Sallie Tubbs’s hair was really bothering me again. In the harsh neon of Corey’s Diner, Sallie looked as though some malign surgeon had grafted worn-out machine springs onto his scalp. His hair wasn’t the only reason the other customers were side-eyeing us, but it didn’t help.

I looked vainly for our waitress and remembered a feature I’d written for my college paper, The Daily Tar Heel. A perm craze had swept the sororities, and I’d jumped at the chance to interview women I’d never have approached without notebook in hand. A gorgeous and stunningly permed Alpha Chi Omega chem major told me that mathematical harmonics, having to do with fluctuating local concentrations of perm chemicals, dictated how the curls came out. I’d printed her quote without calling an expert to confirm it because I liked her. Fortunately, the harmonics thing was mostly true. Unfortunately, she’d laughed and hung up when I called for a date the day the story was published.

Harmonics. The word made me think of yodels ululating through the Wilkes County hills, carrying news and warnings through Cornett Milkweed country. Up here, I’d read, they’d once called yodeling the hillbilly telegraph.

It occurred to me that my mind was going mushy, like the canned-apple pie that had finally arrived. Which matched what Gwinn Reed had told me. “Your problem is focus,” she’d said, just before she dumped me, at the end of yet another unhappy dinner conversation.

In a way, Gwinn, or at least Gwinn’s critique of my character, was the reason I was up here. Every morning now, Gwinn’s new hair, which was in every possible way opposite to Sallie’s – she’d dyed hers a thrilling bright auburn, and cut it spiky-short – mocked me from the copy editors’ alcove off the Clarion’s newsroom. There was galling gossip that Gwinn had moved on to a squash-toned flack from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, who was also the son of a big Reynolds exec, and undoubtedly mature and focused. All I had done since Gwinn was spend too many hours in Simians, the dive downtown bar reporters favored, and half-ass my dull primary beat, city government. I needed what this Cornett Milkweed story promised.

I swallowed pie, and looked out the window, and imagined the Clarion’s ancient, leather-faced publisher and his allegedly prominent bourbon buddy, their plush, smoke-fouled chairs pushed close together at the end of another long evening at the Twin Cities Club. The rumor this buddy whispered was that the government of Nigeria had hired Cornett Milkweed to teach it how to make moonshine, bio-ethanol, for fuel.

Hob Snead, my fatherly, forbearing editor, nudging his thick-framed reading glasses – a gesture repeated every minute of every day – had passed the tip along after Monday deadline, and asked if I wanted to check it out. I knew enough about Milkweed to understand instantly what a career-maker this story could be if I focused, and I immediately got ahead of myself. I imagined much more than an above-the-fold front-pager for the Winston-Salem Clarion, by Thomas P. Hart, Staff Writer. I was sure the story would be picked up instantly for global distribution by the AP. Then I’d turn it into a major magazine piece. It was a book, even, if I did everything right.

Three hours with the Clarion clipping files had fleshed out the Milkweed legend. He’d risen from obscurity, after inheriting only his Daddy’s tiny Wilkes County farm, to become a 1950s folk hero, hobnobbing with Tar Heel business and political elites by day, and, if one believed the rumors, tearing across Southern backroads by night, eluding the law. Everyone knew he was a moonshine tycoon, and everyone knew he was too crafty to get caught.

He was caught, though. After a trial that drew international attention, Milkweed had been imprisoned in 1955, for tax evasion and multi-state bootlegging. He’d served a two-year term. Then NASCAR, the organization turning stock-car racing into a national sensation, had made him a superstar. For most of the next twenty years he’d been undisputed king of a rotating, rough-edged cadre of celebrity drivers, many of whom had once built fast cars with enhanced suspensions to haul product faster than revenuers could go. Now long retired from driving, Milkweed owned three NASCAR teams and sold licensed booze, pork, snack foods, and auto parts, all with that massive block of a face on the product label.

On his porch, I’d bluffed that I already had the Nigerian ethanol story. I was just looking for a fun quote or two, to round things out.

I wanted to lead Milkweed around to the ultimate redemption story I envisioned. The legend, the hard-charging ex-con, who’d been mean and racist and crazy in his youth and middle age, who’d fought cops and government for most of his life, now was not only a fully respectable if “colorful” business leader but an instrument of international diplomacy and economic development. A driver, if you will, of the triumphant, innovation-fueled rise of the developing world that was widely predicted for the late 1980s.

My story, which I would request not be assigned to Gwinn Reed for editing, and the magazine article and book that followed, would explore these weighty themes, yes. But the meat would be my unique take on the legend, enlivened by my native feel for Carolina redneckery. I would include never-told anecdotes from Milkweed’s helling days, the fruit of photo-illustrated and chatty strolls around his rolling farms, and even through his race teams’ secretive workshops, as the good ol’ boys turned their wrenches. I would tell this story with heart, but also with the sly condescension favored by northeastern editors and publishers who make things happen for smart young writers.

As I drank the last of my coffee, ignoring Sallie and letting this best-seller fantasy ease the last of my nausea, our elusive waitress, Vonda Y. – tongue, chin, and nose studs, four industrial rings in the top of her right ear – reappeared at our booth, with the brimming ice-water pitcher. She dumped it precisely into Sallie’s lap.

 “Oooh, gosh,” she said, not sounding sorry. “Let me get your camera stuff out of the way before it gets wet.”

There was no more side-eye in the diner. Everyone was staring at us and smiling.

Outside, a GMC farm truck, hay bales stacked in the bed, pulled up and blocked my Honda in its space. The driver and his passenger raised the truck’s hood. They were bib-overalled and stubble-cheeked, and wore caps so faded and stained it was hard to read the 57 emblazoned above the bills. This was the number Milkweed had always had on his racecars. The men began a cap-scratching pantomime of city folk flummoxed by the mysteries of the internal combustion engine.

Beyond the parking lot, a flatbed tractor-trailer appeared, roaring as it inched up the long hill in front of Corey’s. I heard the big blatting engine clearly through the diner’s windows and felt it in the tabletop. The trailer was entirely filled with massive vats, tanks, burners, and swaying coils of pipe and hose: a well-funded, fresh-painted, industrial and scalable version of a bootlegger’s still.

Profiled in the tractor’s passenger side window was an unusually large and blocky crew-cut head.

“Son of a bitch,” Sallie said. He whirled, curls bouncing, to watch the cook disappear with his cameras through the swinging door to the kitchen.

“Forget it,” I said. “You won’t see your gear for a while. And we’re not going anywhere.”

What I was seeing and hearing had clicked into place, as quietly and clearly as the bolt on Milkweed’s front door. We’d spooked him, flushed him out. Our visit had persuaded him it was urgent to move his Nigeria project along the only good local road to a better hiding place. His confederates in the diner were keeping us pinned down and unable to shoot a photo while he did so.  

Milkweed had won this skirmish. But now I knew there was a story that could make me famous, and I’d get it even if I had to search Wilkes County hill by hill. Round and around we’d go, Milkweed and me, like stock cars banging fenders on a NASCAR oval.

Thrilled, I turned to fish a notebook from my jacket, which hung on a hook behind our booth. Eventually, I knew, I’d write about the whiskery thespians outside, and metallic Vonda Y., and the stealthy cook, and the grinning customers. For the moment, I’d collect their “no comments,” if that’s all I could get. Because this zany scene was actually perfect. It would show readers how it was, back before I earned Cornett’s respect. Before he learned to trust me.

#

When Cornett Milkweed died not long ago, at age ninety-nine, North Carolina gave him what amounted to a combination state funeral and parade. After a long service in Raleigh’s largest Baptist church, his processional send-off included marching bands, a platoon of National Guardsmen, a Blue Angels flyover, motorcycle clubs in full leather, and a dozen revving race cars, some of them restored 1950s models.

All this passed the viewing stand in downtown Raleigh, and then we stood for the white hearse, which had 57 painted on its doors. By then I’d sweated through my suit. I wasn’t the only one.

In my row, six or seven rows behind the governor were other bankers and business people who donate wads to political campaigns, plus a dozen of the current season’s NASCAR stars.

After the hearse passed, the race drivers’ entourages and other invited guests and media people quickly filled most of the closed-to-the-public lobby of the Museum of Natural History, which you accessed by showing your pass to a rent-a-cop at an alley door off Person Street, beneath the viewing stand. 

I went straight through the lobby and around a corner and showed my other pass, the important one, to a second security man, this one in suit and earpiece, like the Secret Service. Because, naturally, there was a smaller, even more, private post-memorial service reception, with older liquor and heartier snacks.

I had a fantasy about meeting there a senior trade attaché, or even a deputy ambassador, from Nigeria. I imagined an elegant, accomplished woman, a veteran of several U.S. presidential administrations. Someone with a spark, who had maintained a sense of humor and optimism about what good might be accomplished in the world, even now.

We’d have a good laugh as she recalled the long-ago day when the young reporter almost broke the ethanol story.  She’d tell me what happened with Nigeria’s hush-hush pilot energy project, and what a card Cornett Milkweed was. She’d be the delightful, old-fashioned sort of person who calls someone a card.

Of course, there was no one like that. Except for the race drivers, it was the same old crowd. And even the drivers, buffed and shined corporate-smooth, didn’t seem that different from the rest of us. As usual, it was two drinks, laughter that was a shade too loud, underlings checking watches, and then dark SUVs brought around for the bigwigs.

Everyone had an appropriate one-minute Milkweed anecdote. I said only that I’d met him briefly once, and found him quite the character, since I knew I couldn’t get away with saying “card.” These weren’t people who wanted to hear about me getting thrown off Milkweed’s porch when I was twenty-three. They’d have no interest in learning that I’d failed at that story in particular, and journalism in general, or that I had been up at Wharton starting my MBA, finally focused, less than a year after that long afternoon in Corey’s Diner.

The people with whom I spend my days don’t tell stories about their failures. They don’t tell stories at all, really. Who takes that kind of time anymore? 

Well. One person who does is named Vonda Young Carson Talley Bush. I ran into her three or four weeks after Milkweed was buried, reportedly under a plain stone next to his Daddy’s on the old Wilkes County homeplace.

My wife Jean and I had gotten up very early and driven west to go hiking in a new state park near Wilkesboro. On the side of town opposite the park, there’s a racing museum, just down the road from the old high-banked half-mile track, which hasn’t seen a NASCAR race since the ’90s. The museum has a life-size photo of a young Milkweed on the door (a tasteful black ribbon was still pinned across his chest), and a replica car outside.

We didn’t go in. Instead, we strolled a little pedestrian mall: mountain crafts, honey, preserves, and pottery, including the inevitable XXX-marked mountain dew jugs. There was a restaurant, Vonda’s. Jean read the menu, said “Yum,” and didn’t even look to see if I was following her inside.

“Oh my gosh,” Vonda said, when she came over as we finished our meal. She’s one of those owners who speaks to every customer, and I’d been waiting for her. “You are that reporter. Now I see it.”

“I work for a bank now, but that was me, all right,” I said. “When we stopped for lunch at Corey’s, I was pretty much at the beginning and the end of my journalism career.”

I told her we loved her restaurant, and then I swept a finger across the right side of my face, and mentioned her piercings, back in the day.

“Thomas!” Jean said, grabbing my forearm and shaking her head.

Jean, a New Yorker, has never gotten over the teasing, out-of-bounds things many Southerners will say to one another, even if they’ve just met. But I could tell that Vonda, whose laugh was audible even from distant tables, was a josher. I thought she had a story for me, a real one, and I gestured toward a chair. Our waitress instantly brought a refill of her iced tea.

“You know, there are still people in this county who’ll whisper that your husband is the reason Buck Skelton didn’t beat Jimmy Poole’s wins record,” she said to Jean.

Jean scrunched her eyes and cocked her head, as if she’d been spoken to in Urdu or Tagalog. Vonda was talking about ancient NASCAR history. Jimmy Poole, who retired from racing in the late ’70s, still holds the record for most career wins. In 1984, Buck Skelton, the most talented of Milkweed’s protégés, was tearing up the NASCAR circuit, and was ahead of Poole’s pace at the same point in their careers.

“You and that crazy-haired boy showed up on Cornett’s porch the Tuesday before the Daytona race, when they were finishing up with Buck’s car,” Vonda said, turning to me. “They were settin’ it up some special way, just for the Daytona track. There was a strategy Buck wanted to try, I remember it was some refinement of the slingshot pass, which a lot of people don’t know was invented by Cornett.

“Anyway, Cornett, mad as a wet settin’ hen, called Corey’s to make sure y’all stopped there, like he thought you would. He said he was gon’ call his crew chiefs, and make them drop everything they were doing.

“He told Corey this little Press squirt had showed up at his front door, with a photographer who looked like he’d stuck his – well, let’s say finger. Looked like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket. Said the little Press sumbitch – sorry, Thomas, that’s what he said – was gon’ print a lie he was making corn liquor again. For the Africans, no less. This reporter wanted Cornett to say something for the story so he could make him sound stupid, like they always did.

“Well, Cornett said, he was gon’ teach you and all them Press sumbitches a lesson.”

Vonda’s speech had shifted, from the clipped-vowel business dialect people adopt nowadays to full-on Blue Ridge twang. I do the same thing when I’m back home Down East with family, or after a few drinks with trusted friends, which amuses Jean to no end. I could tell from Jean’s smile that my speech was going home now, too. The Blue Ridge and Down East accents are similar. Non-natives have to listen closely to hear the difference.

“Oh, boy,” I said. “Vonda, that was almost forty years ago, when I didn’t know shrimp from Shinola, and you had a pound of metal sticking out of your head, and now Cornett’s gone – hell, for that matter the old Clarion is gone – and I still got a bad feeling about what you’re gon’ tell me.”

Vonda laughed, drank some tea, and said Cornett had rounded up the people and tools and materials he needed, from his farms and workshops, and then orchestrated a production efficient as a NASCAR pit stop.

By the time what would be presented to Corey’s greasy windows was bolted down and spray-painted, she said, forty or fifty of Cornett’s friends and employees were gathered around the flatbed outside Buck Skelton’s racing team workshop. They were slapping backs and grinning about the illusion they’d created, for the sole purpose of sending the Press on a goose-chase through the Wilkes County hills.

The only unsmiling person in that crowd was Buck Skelton. He felt sure his racing team wouldn’t regain its focus, Vonda said, and he was right. Buck’s poorly set-up car had spun out the next Saturday and crashed into the Turn 3 wall after the tiniest rub from a competitor, on the sixth lap of the Firecracker 400. Buck was never the same after that. He’d left Milkweed’s orbit the next season, and won a few more races, but didn’t get close to breaking Jimmy Poole’s record.

“Of course, none of this ever came out,” Vonda said. “Corey told me he never heard Cornett laugh as loud as when he heard about your photographer yellin’ ‘son of a bitch,’ with that goofy hair aflyin’. And, I have to say, Cornett wasn’t the only one of us who enjoyed hearing people tell how they sent you all over creation, when you came back huntin’ that fake still. This was just between locals, of course. Cornett swore us to secrecy, and one thing we do in Wilkes County is keep secrets.

“But now, with Cornett dead, and NASCAR a Yankee-fied tourist attraction, and me with this many years and three exes in my rear-view, including one of Cornett’s crew chiefs, and by the way Rad Carson was mean and rotten to the core – well, anyway, I guess it feels like the Lord brought you to see me for a reason. Like it was time you knew the rest of that story you were after. Or, I suppose, that there really wasn’t a story. Anyway, I guess what you do with it’s up to you.”

“Hell, Vonda, who would I tell, and why?” I said. “But I’m sure glad to know.

“After ya’ll finally let us leave Corey’s that day, I still wanted that story bad. It sounds like you already know I spent three more whole weekends up here, before I caught on that whoever I talked to always sent me to ask at another farm two hours of mountain driving from where I was.

“But after that I kept coming anyway, even knowing I’d never get the story. I loved driving around these hills. I’d go way too fast, playing like I was an old-time bootlegger.

“When I wasn’t scaring myself, I had plenty of time to think about what I was doing with my life, and I finally realized two things. One, it can be crazy hard to find out what’s true. And two, most people don’t care. They’ll just keep on believing what they want to believe.

“That’s why I quit, and went back to school. I like to tell myself that, anyway. I like to believe I had a glimmer of what would happen to journalism, and so on – speaking of believing what you want to believe, I guess. It’s also true I was sick and tired of having no money.”

Vonda said either reason for quitting made perfect sense to her. We chatted a while longer, and Jean and I stood and hugged her, and she went on to other tables.

Because we’d hiked twelve miles that morning, we splurged and ordered the huge slices of pie that most other diners were getting. The menu said the pie was made with heirloom Milkweed Valley apples. Vonda, winking, had just confided there was no such place, though she did use local fruit. Anyway, that pie was about the best damn thing I ever put in my mouth. You can trust me on that.

 

[Check out Michael Wade's back porch interview]