By Jock Lauterer
I went up to Oxford the other day to do some teaching, but instead come back the enlightened student.
My intended target, the unsinkable Al Carson, editor of the Oxford Public Ledger, needs no schooling in journalism — or life lived large, for that matter.
So I turned off the Powerpoint and started listening.
In March 2007 at only 57, Al suffered a stroke that would have killed a lesser soul. Although still paralyzed on his right side, Al is back in the editor’s chair, aided by a loving wife, a supportive work environment at the Ledger, a loyal community, a red scooter and two faithful side-kicks on the news side at the paper.
But it is Al’s relentless sense of humor that struck me from the get-go. (First of all, picture a latter-day lumberjack with a graying beard, mustache and mischievous flashlight blue eyes.)
“People say how courageous if was for me to come back to work,” Al harrumphs with his trademark sly grin. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Like the storyteller that he is, Al lets the line just hang there for second longer…
Then, “My wife, Betsy, said, ‘You’re not staying here in this house! Now get out of that bed!’” He laughs, and then adds seriously, “She been really instrumental in my life.”
After the stroke, Al spent two months in the hospital and then three months in outpatient care. Meanwhile, third-generation owners of the Ledger, Charles and Ronnie Critcher, held Al’s job until he felt able to return.
“I’m very fortunate to have come here,” he vows. “They’ve been really good to me.”
A DURHAM HERALD-SUN REFUGEE
How Al came to the Ledger in the first place is a story. The Rocky Mount native majored in geography at ECU and then “sorta just fell into” stringing for the local paper, finally in 1973 finding his way to the Durham Herald-Sun, where for 32 years he covered sports, food and features until the infamous “Black Monday,” Jan. 3, 2005, when the new owner, Paxton Media Group, “kicked me out” along with a host of folks who’d spent the better part of their careers in Durham.
“When you cut all your people (in the newsroom) who know anything about Durham…” Al shakes his head in wonder, “It’s really BIZARRE!”
He knocked around for a while, looked at a couple of offers, but then picked Oxford due to its proximity to his wife’s teaching job. Starting as a staff writer, he was promoted to editor after nine months when the former editor moved on.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF EDITOR
Since the stroke, Al has had to make many adaptations, like learning how to type left-handed while using his right pointer finger occasionally for shift-function commands, getting around town on the scooter, and walking slowly but determinedly around the office using a cane. But even his disability gets the joke treatment.
“I tell ‘em I do the 100 in 10 flat…(I don’t tell ‘em that’s 10 minutes!”)
No, Al can’t get out and cover breaking local news like he used to, “But I tell people, ‘If you’ve got a 12-pound cabbage, bring it to the (paper) office and I’ll take a picture of it!’”
Oxford folks have rallied around their stricken editor. “The community was tremendous in their support of me,” Al exclaims. “People who didn’t know me except through the paper…”
“Now a deputy sheriff brings ME the police report! This community — we couldn’t have this paper without them. When people call up and ask: ‘Can you cover such and such?’ I have to tell them, ‘No, but if you take a picture and bring in a write-up, we’ll run it.’ That’s what it’s all about at this point.”
So he concentrates on what he can do. Which is considerable by any measure. “I’m the editor…” he explains wryly, “… the editorial page editor, the food editor, the features editor — and if you can think of any other editors, I’m them too!”
Like many a community newspaper editor, Al’s job isn’t over when the paper comes off the Ledger’s 1972 King press. Not only did used to help insert sections of the twice-weekly 6,500-circulation Ledger — but Al still gets out there on his scooter and delivers papers. “It’s a good way to meet people and get to know your community,” he explains.
TAKE THIS WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
Al has put his college degree in geography to good use. He’s come up with concept that I like to call Carson’s Theory of Geographic Determinalism.” And it goes something like this: Granville County is bisected roughly west to east by the Tar River, leading Al to postulate: “All the sane people (in the county) live north of the Tar, yeah! And all the crazy people live south of the Tar.”
Carson’s reasoned explanation for the southern Granville affliction: “They’re too close to Raleigh, yessir!”
Makes sense to me.
HIS REAL CLAIM TO FAME
The self-proclaimed “Hot Dog Man,” Al is arguably the Tar Heel state’s leading authority on that humble but beloved Southern delicacy.
Al’s recipe for the perfect dog goes like this: “First of all, it’s not a health food. A hot dog has gotta have grease. Then you gotta have a steamed bun with the mustard on the BOTTOM. That sorta waterproofs the bun. Then you put in your hot dog, next the onions (a hot dog without onions is just not worth eating) then the chili next so the grease goes DOWN, and finally you put the homemade slaw on top…and it’s incredible!”
Warming to his subject, Al continues, “Now, here’s how you know if you’ve got a good hot dog. You know how they wrap ‘em in that wax paper and put ‘em in a brown paper bag? Well, when you carry that bag out to the car and put it in on the car seat, by the time you get back, if you don’t have grease on your car seat, then you don’t have a good hot dog! And that’s a fact!”
The Hot Dog Man of Granville County has done his research. According the Al, the best hot dogs around can be found at: Jones Drug Store and Buy-Rite Grocery and Grill in Oxford, Bill’s in “Little” Washington, Dick’s in Wilson, Booney’s in Rocky Mount, Shorty’s in Wake Forest, Warren’s in Greenville and Paschall’s Grill in Durham.
Reading Al’s column, “From the back burner,” I’m delighted to learn that this week he ended ”an 18-month cheeseburger drought” and “broke bad,” doing a 180 from the life-saving vegetarian diet his wife has him on.
Al rhapsodized: “I had a double cheeseburger my way, with mustard, chili, onion, slaw and dill pickles. It was nirvana never known by any fast food chain. Every bite was a sloppy, juicy heavenly mouthful of flavor with real, cooked-to-order, fresh, hand-patted hamburger.”
If your mouth ain’t watering by now, you are just plain weird.
And I know the Hot Dog (Cheeseburger) Man of Granville County would agree.