Chapel Hill, NC – The biggest news for me this year?
Not ISIS, not Obamacare, not gay marriage, and not even the earth-shaking tragedy in Charleston.
This year’s big news is that there are no more peaches at the Auman farm in West End near Pinehurst.
Along with thousands of other North Carolinians, including the late UNC president William Friday, I had a summer ritual of traveling to the Aumans to buy fresh peaches.
My connection, though, has been more than peaches.
Watts Auman, the farm’s operator, and his brother Bob were my friends at Davidson College during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their parents, Clyde and Sally, founded the farm operation more than 75 years ago. After college Watts and I served in the Army together at Fort Bragg. I depended on him because he led a group of “riggers,” the soldiers who packed parachutes, including the ones I relied on to get me to the ground safely.
In the fall of 1964, soon after Watts finished his tour of duty and went back home to work on the farm, the Army conducted maneuvers in Moore County and the surrounding area. As part of the war games, my unit assigned me to play the part of a “behind enemy lines” secret agent, sending back information, picking up downed pilots, getting instructions to other spies, and recruiting helpers. I called Watts and asked him if his family would take in a “spy” for a few weeks. They agreed. I moved in and conducted my “spy” activities under the cover of being a farm helper.
One of the first things I saw in the Auman house was a plug of chewing tobacco encased in plastic and sitting in a prominent place on the coffee table in their living room. “What in the world it that?” I asked.
“That was Kerr Scott’s favorite chewing tobacco,” Watts’ mother explained. Terry Sanford, who ran Scott’s campaign for the Senate in 1954, sent tobacco plugs to key campaign workers like Clyde Auman, who was Scott’s county chair. I learned how much struggling farmers appreciated the roads and services for them that Kerr Scott had pushed through while he was governor.
Watts introduced me to farm life. We took field peas to the Farmers Market in Raleigh, selling them for almost enough to cover the cost of the gas it took to get us there.
The entire family, including sisters Nancy and Laura, are quiet and modest in a winning way. But Clyde was campaigning for a seat in the North Carolina legislature, and his modesty created a challenge for Sally and Watts as they prepared campaign materials that would explain to folks in Pinehurst and Southern Pines why they should vote for a farmer from West End. Even though Clyde refused to brag he won the election and served with distinction.
In those few weeks with the Aumans I learned more about farming and politics than I did about “spying.”
I left the farming with the Aumans when my “spying” was done. Still, this year’s decision to close down the family’s peach operation hit me hard. Watts assures me that farming continues with broilers and forestry. In his office in the old West End depot building, he showed me citations for his service in managing the farm’s longleaf pine forest to protect the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
What stuck was the Aumans’ introducing me to politics and public service. This column is one result. Even today, the column depends on an Auman, Bob, a retired journalist and public relations professional. Every week, he reads, critiques, corrects and improves my work.
The peach operation may be gone, but the lessons the Aumans taught me are forever.
Note: A segment on UNC-TV’s Our State program reports my visit to the Auman and Greene peach farms. It is available on line at video.unctv.org/video/2365067019/