It's time to solve some North Carolina mysteries.
Is there a nuclear bomb in the ground near Goldsboro? Why do Ocracokers talk like that? Gastonia: What is it? Here is the status of some old mysteries in a modern, Google-able era.
The Nature of Old, Small Mysteries
A long time ago, when I was working at a television station in West Virginia, someone called the newsroom with a question:
CALLER: Hi, is it Tuesday?
ME: No, it’s Wednesday.
CALLER: Huh. Felt like a Tuesday.
That was it. That was the whole conversation. It was weird, but this call happened in the early 2000s, so maybe, in retrospect, it wasn’t? Remember when you couldn’t know with certainty what time it was if, say, you had no watch and the power went out? You could get reasonably close, but to know for sure you had to call a bank’s time-and-temperature phone line. Or, in Greensboro, you could, and can, look at the top of the old Jefferson-Pilot headquarters downtown. Also, you can still call the U.S. Naval Observatory to find out what time it is. Three million calls came in to that hotline in 2015!
My point, kids, is that it used to take effort to get basic information. At that same television station, people would incessantly call the sports department at night, —especially weekend nights—to ask what the score of, say, the Reds-Braves game was. Or, dudes (always dudes) would give us a ring from a bar to settle a bet over information that was only contained inside of an actual printed sports media guide. We provided this vital community service for free, and never charged a penny for telling you how many home runs Ron Kittle hit in 1983 (Just so you know, he hit 35).
So yes, in 2003, it would be plausible to not know what day it was. Today, you can just look at the lock screen of your phone.
Smartphones, in conjunction with the modern internet, have killed off the minor mysteries of the generation before us. They’ve also made a whole era of movie plots completely implausible (lookin’ at you, Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York). And, maybe most of all, they’ve murdered a lot of urban legends. When I was growing up in Ohio, I’d always heard a story about a guy named Phil Keaggy. Phil was the guitarist in a band called Glass Harp, and he was a proud son of Youngstown, which had a rather mixed slate of proud sons (Ed O’Neill! Boom Boom Mancini! Um, Jim Traficant!). I’m not sure exactly sure how I heard it, but I was aware of a comment Jimi Hendrix had made long ago. Someone had asked him who the greatest guitar player in the world was, and Hendrix, without missing a beat, said it was Phil Keaggy.
Not too long ago, I pulled out a Glass Harp record from my parents’ stash (lotta Jethro Tull in that stash), and I remembered the Hendrix thing. But, unlike in years past, I could go straight to Wikipedia. That led me to a Phil Keaggy quote, in which he said that Glass Harp recorded its first album two weeks after Hendrix’s death, so there was no way it could have happened. An interesting anecdote that I’d carried for most of my life was wiped clean with a single Google search.
Hence, many of the easy mysteries have been solved. At least, to you they have. There was always someone who knew the correct answer to the question you’ve carried around for a long time, but there was no easy way to connect to that person. Today, we seem to have the opposite problem, actually. Gaslighting and misinformation and Facebook have all coalesced to make it harder for large groups of people to agree on a baseline set of facts. That’s a whole other discussion, but suffice it to say, it’s much easier to confirm or discredit tiny bits of trivia hidden in your brain. That’s why I am delighted to tell you that yes, I was right all of these years when I’d tell dudes (always dudes) that Bill Terry was the last man to hit above .400 in the National League.
It Me: Mystery Solver
I say all of that to say this: I love solving mysteries. There’s a challenge to them now, because the things that remain mysterious are the things that are not easily Google-able. For instance, I went to great lengths to figure out whether baseball hall-of-famer Mike Schmidt hit a 500-foot home run off of the roof of the old rec center at Ohio University (Answer: Kinda!). Getting at the truth involved asking Schmidt himself, who said no, and then finding witnesses, who said yes, and then enlisting friends to work as gophers to pull old newspaper clippings. It was a complicated effort to find a simple answer. It was also extremely satisfying. I feel like I don’t have a very large skill set, but thanks to years of reporting and investigative journalistic work, I am able to shake loose and ferret out pesky, hidden facts. It’s how I knew the contents of a 50-year-old time capsule in Charlotte, even though those contents had long since morphed into goo.
So earlier this week, I off-handedly asked if you had any small North Carolina-related mysteries that you needed me to solve.
I’ve received 78 replies. So far.
A lot of them are actually very large and very persistent North Carolina mysteries that, I am sorry to say, I may not be able to unravel. Hence, I don’t know if I can tell you the truth behind the Brown Mountain Lights. I also don’t know if I can help noted documentary director Rory Karpf figure out who, or what, is stealing individual socks from his dryer. And, when it comes to the mysteries of your own soul, I think you’re on your own:
But! You all graciously have provided me with a long list of mysteries that I will now start to crack. Many of them might take a while, but for now, there are a few of mysteries that I can solve right now. Read up, and have something interesting to talk about over this Memorial Day weekend.
The Mystery of the Missing Goldsboro Nuclear Bomb Piece
This is a perfect childhood pot head rumor. It’s also true. Back in 1961, a B-52 bomber containing two thermonuclear bombs broke apart in the skies near Goldsboro. Those bombs came tumbling out and, thankfully, did not go off. One of them had its parachute open, and it fell gently to the earth, coming to rest up against a tree.
The other slammed into a farm field at a speed of 700 miles-per-hour, and the Air Force had to dig for days to find a part of it called “the primary,” which a rough, gray, volleyball-sized bit of radioactive material surrounded by (Hans Gruber voice) detonators. That was the part that, if you looked at it the wrong way, could explode and trigger a large mushroom cloud. But, after the primary had been taken away, the Air Force kept digging, They were looking for something called the “secondary,” which is a torpedo-shaped bit of radioactive material. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but in this particular bomb, the secondary would be shot into the primary, and the chain reaction would turn a small atomic blast into a much larger thermonuclear explosion, the kind that would have made a huge swath of Eastern North Carolina uninhabitable for hundreds of years.
That secondary is a bit dangerous, but also not the thing that will blow up if you accidentally step on it. Hence, after a few months of searching, the Air Force gave up, and decided to get an easement instead. Hence, there’s a farm field in Wayne County where you’re not allowed to dig any deeper than five feet. I’ve been there. It’s astonishingly unremarkable.
I know all of this because I put together a big episode of Away Message about it. I talked to a guy who’d received official government documents about this, got a tour of the site from a guy who’d watched the plane crash, and interviewed the man who actually defused both bombs. Dion, this one’s solid.
The Mysterious Final Resting Spot of a Missing World War II Bomber
This one is also true! And, just like the piece of nuclear bomb in the ground near Goldsboro, this particular piece of military equipment has never been recovered. Yes, there is a modified version of a B-25 bomber that crashed into Badin Lake in Stanly County in 1944. Nobody actually saw the crash itself, but a lot of witnesses did watch the plane flying low over their homes. The pilot was a local guy, and the U.S. Navy’s theory at the time was that he was flying low to show off for some people he knew. That doesn’t exactly explain why the plane crashed, though. It might have been pilot error or a mechanical problem. Either way, the Navy recovered a bunch of bits of plane and debris that floated up to the surface, but never actually recovered the fuselage itself. Robyn Yiğit Smith wrote a great summation of the effort to solve the unanswered questions from the crash a few years back in Our State, and also got this detail about a piece of the bomber that, uh, was taken as a souvenir:
A couple of years ago, Curt Dorsey was listing a property near town when, out of the blue, the seller revealed a fascinating detail: “You know, I have that wheel that came off that plane.” The man brought a nosewheel out from the barn, and, to Curt’s delight, “March 1944” was etched on the side. A friend’s grandfather had found it on the lake shore and had actually used it around the farm. Curt bought it — now the only tangible artifact from the crash — for $20.
If your reaction, Dr. Jones, is to say that the wheel belongs in a museum, you’ll be happy to know that it is now currently housed in one.
The Mystery of The Hoy-Toiders
I had never heard this accent in the wild before a few years ago, when I was on Knotts Island. I asked the locals why they all sounded like they were from Canada, because of the way they’d pronounced “about” as “uh-boot.” It was then that the men told my ignorant ass about the High Tider accent, which is prevalent around Norfolk.
The particular accent that Anson’s talking about, the Ocracoke Brogue, is supposedly a direct descendant of Elizabethan or Shakespearean English, preserved over 400-odd years thanks to the isolation of Ocracoke Island. While that’s not exactly the case, since the dialect evolved and changed and Shakespeare himself didn’t sound like an Ocracoke fisherman, the brogue is unique to that area.
Walt Wolfram, the guy who knows the most about North Carolina’s special accents, explains what the dialect was, and what it will become, in this short Great Big Story video:
The Mystery of The Gas House
I thought we already covered that.
The Hard-To-Solve Mysteries
Those are some of the mysteries that I found to be easy to solve. As for the harder ones you sent me, I’ll be working on those over the next few weeks and months. These things take time, you know, so I’ll do my best. Meanwhile, if you have a particular mystery you need solved, mash that button below: