Old photo brings back memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 18, 2011

By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
Remembering is a cognitive process in which one can recall the past, according to Wikipedia, and can readily push you back mentally into the world you came from.
A few months ago, on a bright nippy Tuesday morning, I received a phone call from Barbara Smith and Todd Shuping, employees of Duke Energy, and involved in the massive expansion project at Buck Steam Power Generating Station.
The facility is at a place still called Dukeville, where I spent my earlier years of life splashing around in an old boat on a historic river and developing the skills of life through the Boy Scouts, Sunday school and church projects, delivering newspapers for spending money, learning to shag, skating at the community building, constructing tree houses and damming up the creek to create swimming holes and, oh yeah, playing baseball.
I am certainly a product of those days, days that most of the kids from that time and place considered a blessing from above.
“We have some pictures of the Dukeville baseball team from the ’50s, and you are on one of them,” Barbara said.
I was asked to come down and identify the other players. I was not completely surprised because Emil Sparger, a retiree from Buck and a former professional baseball player, had come by with a picture of the team just the day before.
However, I couldn’t wait. Not only was I interested in the pictures, I wanted to know what was going on at the plant and now I was going to get the opportunity to see it first hand.
The plant was built in 1926 and named for James “Buck” Duke, one of the cofounders of Southern Power that would later become Duke Power Co. The last major expansion of the plant was during the late ’40s and early ’50s. It was dubbed No. 4 unit. As I recall, the unit was originally ordered and built for a navy vessel but with World War II coming to an end, the Pentagon cancelled the order and the manufacturer offered it to Duke. As a kid, I watched the project daily from my front yard or sometimes up close from the river. The project more than doubled the size of the huge plant
Many times I would sit under that old, white sun moving slowly across a pale blue sky torching the earth with radiant heat. Small ripples from the muddy river would slap gently against the side of my boat.
Look back
The next morning, I headed for my appointment to the new construction area in Dukeville.
As I turned off Trading Ford Road, for the final mile down a narrow secondary road to the power station, the old Dukeville School was framed in my windshield. Like a modern computer system my long-term stored memory immediately connected to my mind’s eye. I was 6 years old again, standing on the green grass of the playground watching excited kids playing on swings and see-saws under a clear sky.
The school property was surrounded by large cotton fields and a residential community. We were certainly aware of a serious war out there in the big world, biting at the very safety of our once carefree nation. The students prayed to God every morning and repeated the pledge to our flag, bought war stamps and listen to the news with their parents at night.
Standing before me was a tough looking guy who had just entered my life like a bolt of lightning. His head was cocked sideways like a dog. Unshed tears punctuated his voice as he said, “I’m comin’ atcha” and come, he did, with the furor of a bull charging a red flag. I stepped quickly aside, confusing him and inadvertently hooking my foot in his. He tripped and felled flat on his face.
He was up now, standing a head taller than me. The kids called him “Bull Dog.”
Some of the kids had teased him because they said he “talked funny,” and he saw me laugh.
My teacher, Ms. Hager, was within ten steps now. She had a look on her face that scared me.
I was in the first grade and this was my first day at the school. I looked at Bull Dog and then at Ms. Hager, then decided to run, and keep on running until I was safely at home, where a big power plant hovered over me, and my Dad who helped run it and the soldiers who guarded it with machine guns would protect me from Ms. Hagar, Bull Dog and the world.
Ms. Hager caught me at the road. She carried me back up the hill to the school under her arm. I screamed like a stuck pig.
I had to sit in the library with a teacher and another student for the rest of the day. The other student was Bull Dog. At first, we didn’t talk. He just messed with a contraption made with a spool, a rubber band and a wooden popsicle stick. When he wound it up and let it go, it fluttered. He thought it sounded like a tractor.
Making peace
Bull Dog said he liked my blue belt, a part of my Cub Scout uniform. I took it off and traded it for his “tractor.” He pointed out that with the yellow handkerchief around my neck, I looked like a cowboy. I thought so too, so I became the Durango Kid.
At the end of the day, this third-time first-grader and I were friends. The hardest part came next day when I had to promise my parents and Ms. Hager that I would never run away from school again.
Back to the present, I am passing the site of the old baseball park, a place of excitement, pride and fun. I could almost see and hear the roaring crowds in the grandstand and parking lot and the players on the field. Baseball was played everywhere in those days in parks, playgrounds, farm fields, backyards, on the street by small children, old men, professionals and the boys and men in Dukeville. It was a very important part of our everyday life.
There was both a little league team and a men’s team who played Landis, China Grove, Cooleemee and mill teams in Salisbury in a local industrial league. We also played other power plants with names like Dan River, Clifside, Riverbend and Allen. The Fourth of July and Labor Day were all- day festivals ending with bitter games for bragging rights. Baseball was a big deal for Duke Power Company. Being a star could weigh more on a job application than other qualifications.
The construction at Buck was only half of the total project, costing millions of dollars. The other half was taking place at Dan River. The Dan River baseball field was on the National Historic Register. The application had to include a description of the teams at the two plants. My part was to meet with Todd and name the players in the pictures from Buck.
Passing the frog pond
Turning right at the construction site I saw the old frog pond on my left. This was the boy’s favorite site in the village. It was a place where the river backed up through a culvert under the railroad track. The water pooled at the culvert, creating a great swimming hole and then spread for acres. The boys would spend hot summer days swimming there sometimes buck naked.
The guard at the gate was expecting me and directed me to Todd’s construction office where I quickly identified the guys in the picture. I was the youngest player. Including Emil, there were three former professional players. The others two were Jim Sharp There were several players that I remembered that was not on the picture.
I learned that the construction project is part of Duke Energy’s plans to meet long-term needs while also reducing it’s carbon footprint. Five-hundred employees with Shaw Construction Company, in additional to Duke Energy people were on site. Going from a vertical coal fired plants at Buck and Dan River to natural gas-fired “combined-cycle plants” is state of the art technology that will provide much needed load growth while reducing harmful environmental emissions. A 20-inch natural gas line, firing gas turbines that drive generators will take the place of the daily rail car deliveries that has maintained a mountain of coal for over 85 years.
As I left the plant site, I looked back at the place where the village of 86 houses once stood. To this day, I can still name those 86 families. The area now is a giant ash pit where fly-ash is captured at the stacks and pumped into the liquid land fill.
I remembered when fly-ash was a huge issue and people constantly complained. Now, it has consumed the village. Time marches on but memories still prevail.
Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of Spencer. His dad, Ed Gettys, worked 40 years at Buck Steam Station. Buddy worked there in summers while attending school. He writes occasionally for the Salisbury Post.