Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

Three Team U.S.A. Olympians redefine themselves in the Gate City

By Cassie Bustamante  

Photographs by Mark Wagoner

“Woods are not like other spaces . . . They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child
lost in a crowd of strange legs . . . They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

— Bill Bryson, from A Walk in the Woods

This month, the City of Light will be aglow with 10,500 athletes from all over the world competing in the 2024 Summer Olympics, plus an estimated 15 million visitors.
To say the world will be watching is an understatement. But who are these athletes — heroes for a glorified moment in time — after the paddles have been stowed, the Nikes unlaced and the skates hung up for the last time? We caught up with three local Team U.S.A. Olympians, including two gold medalists, to answer that question.

Joey Cheek, Gold Medal Olympic Speed Skater

Tamara Cheek, Olympic Canoeist

Sprawled out on his charcoal gray sofa, 2006 gold-medal Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek rests one hand on his chestnut-brown boxer, Cashew, who lets out a contented sigh. Both man and dog are totally at ease in this snapshot of daily life. But, Joey, now 45, admits that was not always the case for him.

“The years after the Olympics are — ,” he begins and then pauses. Tamara Cheek, also 45 and an Olympian herself, jumps in.

“Oh, are we at the walk in the woods?” After checking on Jack, the couple’s 4-year-old son, who’s happily scooting his Paw Patrol vehicles across the floor of the nearby playroom, she explains.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s New York Times-bestselling book about his ups and downs — both literately and figuratively — along the Appalachian trail, is a metaphor for how the Cheeks and some of their fellow Olympians describe life after the games. One reviewer called Bryson’s trek “A journey of discovery and renewal.” And that’s certainly been true for both Tamara and Joey.

For Joey, the path to the Olympics began when he was a roller-blading middle-schooler in Greensboro. His parents made sacrifices to support his fledgling athletic career. He recalls a home with sparse furniture and beat-up cars. “I had everything I needed, which was also all I ever wanted.” At 16, he left home to train in Calgary and made the leap from wheels to blades.

In 2002, 22-year-old Joey made it to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, where he won the bronze medal in the 1,000-meter speed-skating event. Four years later he returned to the Olympic rink, this time in Turin, Italy.

As he headed back, he had an inkling that this would be his last time skating on Olympic ice. Plus, he wondered, “What am I going to get from four more years of this that I haven’t already gotten?” Turns out, that thing was a gold medal — as well as a silver.

Without taking a pause, he hung the skates and hit the ground running, enrolling in Princeton and cofounding Team Darfur to raise awareness about the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan. His humanitarian activism caught the eye of Hollywood star George Clooney, who invited Joey to accompany him to China via private jet to lobby the government there. In 2007, Clooney reached back out to invite him to be in a film he was shooting in South Carolina. “And to give you an idea of the hubris I was feeling at the time,” says Joey, shaking his head, “I said, ‘I’ve got a bunch of big parties I am going to. I can’t make it.’”

He was seemingly skating through life. “Nothing is indicating that this system isn’t flawless,” says Joey, “that you have not cracked it.”

The path was clear: “gold medal, ivy league, billionaire.” Upon graduation, he was off to New York City to launch a sports-streaming start-up.

But, for the first time in his life, “some of the wheels had started falling off,” he says. “And that was crippling for me. Crippling.”

So how did he get out of the woods? “A huge part of it is her,” he says, looking at his wife.

“She had me do this exercise,” he says. Tamara helped him analyze his life up to that point so that he could see the arc of his career — which, he notes, was worse than ever at that moment.

But, soon after, “the arc turned.” He adds, “And it’s only gotten better.”

Did Tamara know from her own experience? Did she have a moment of “who I am without this?” she asks, then answers. “Yeah.”

But, Tamara admits, her moment of truth was not nearly as challenging as Joey’s. Hers came when a a friend who was a philosophy major at the University of California in San Diego (where she enrolled after the Olympics) pointed out to her that when you are young, you look to institutions to assign meaning to yourself. But once you leave academia — or the Olympics — and enter the real world, you’re on your own, and meaning and purpose must be generated internally.

“You might feel a little bit lost,” she admits and, as a mom of a superhero-loving preschooler, likens it to being Bruce Wayne instead of Batman. But, in the end, what was crippling for Joey was liberating for her.

Tamara is a dark-haired beauty who bears resemblance to — and has been mistaken for — supermodel Linda Evangelista. In fact, she opens to a page in her scrapbook, a gift a best friend created for a birthday, to a torn-out page from a 2000 Esquire magazine story, titled “The Girls of Summer.” Among 10 female Summer Olympians headed to Sydney, Australia, there’s an image of then 21-year-old Tamara, strong and tanned, and wearing a white tankini as she stands in a kayak and holds a paddle in her right hand. “I definitely shunned any further movement in that direction,” she says of her short-lived modeling gig.

Where Joey says that part of the reason you strive for the Olympics is to “chisel your name on a tablet somewhere,” Tamara’s approach as a flat-water canoeist was quite different. “I didn’t really have a gold medal as a goal ever.” She adds, “I just wanted to win races.”

Until she picked up paddles, competition was a foreign concept to Tamara. She describes the progressive Waldorf school she attended as the kind of place where “no blade of grass should be taller than the next.” But, at the age of 16, Tamara recalls seeing kayakers on a lake in Seattle, where she grew up. Instantly drawn to the beauty of the sport, she quickly discovered she took to it like a fish to water.

In another photo album, she opens to an old black-and-white photo of an athletic young woman, her grandmother, who died at the age of 36. She wonders aloud if that’s where her own inherent talent comes from. “I like to think that in some way I was carrying on her spirit when I was in Sydney.”

But, according to Joey, Tamara’s superpower is her ability to pick up anything she sets her mind to and excel. He laughs and adds how it sometimes drives him nuts “because there seems to be no method and all I am is process.”

While Tamara won the U.S. Olympic trials in the K-2 500-meter sprint as well as the 1999 World Cup silver medal in the K-2 1,000-meter kayak sprint, she did not land on the podium in Sydney and decided to leave her career as a canoeist after just six years. She admits that she was likely only halfway up the arc, but she was ready to move on. “I wanted to go to school and have a life after the Olympics.”

During college, Tamara continued to work closely with Team U.S.A. Canoe/Kayak, which was temporarily without a coach. Testing the waters of her own coaching skills, she filled in, discovering it was not the job for her.

Upon graduation, she was offered a role as a marketing director in Charlotte, working for the National Governing Body for Olympic Canoe/Kayak. While in that position, she also founded her own company — a platform-that connects creative service providers with real estate professionals — directed an award winning documentary and continued to serve the Olympic movement in professional and volunteer capacities. But her favorite career moment? Being on the team that won the rights to bring the 2028 Summer Games back to the states.

It was in Charlotte, says Tamara, “where our story begins.”

Her boss, late businessman David Yarborough, who became a mentor to her, asked her to attend a speech that Joey was giving. “For some reason, I didn’t go,” she adds.

But the “subconscious seed,” as Joey calls it, was planted.

Their stars were in orbit, says Tamara.

“Circling and never knowing each other,” adds Joey.

“You can’t fight fate,” he says.

Their stars would finally collide when both were in their upper 30s and involved with the Olympic Alumni Association, now the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association.

On January 1, 2019, Tamara, dressed in a white puffy jacket, and Joey, in the matching black, said “I do” atop snowy Lookout Mountain in Colorado, where they lived at the time. A year-and-a-half later, Jack was born amidst a global pandemic. Eventually, in 2021, with Joey working remotely for a venture firm he’d cofounded, the family piled into their Jeep with their dog and most of their belongings and headed for Greensboro, Joey’s hometown. The plan was to stay until they figured out their next move.

But, as he looked around a room full of family, Cashew happily playing with his brother’s dog, he says it dawned on him: “We are not leaving!”

The couple settled into a home where Joey kept an office, but his work was making him miserable and costing precious time with family. “I left with no plan. And I do not do that,” says Joey.

Encouraged by Tamara, Joey headed to a Downtown Greensboro event to learn about upcoming projects.

“You hadn’t been out of your office for three years,” she says to Joey.

While at the event, Joey met Thompson co-founder and president Clifford Thompson, who, Joey says, “is very active in wanting to see a startup community here.” Things began to click into place. In October 2023, he became the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president for entrepreneurship.

And while the role is still quite fresh, Joey has big dreams for his hometown. “I want to be able to take Jackie downtown and say, ‘Look what we did in this town.’”

As for Tamara, she’s currently doing consulting work with the N.C. Folk Fest and serving on the Miriam Brenner Children’s Museum gala committee. And her community here? “Maybe I like it so much because it feels a little bit like it was training for the Olympics, like everyone is on the same page, “ she says, “that we believe in this place and we mostly want the same things for it.”

Now that these two Olympic speedsters are no longer racing to win, they have time for family, friends, community involvement. A walk in the woods these days? It’s a Sunday family hike along one of Greensboro’s many trails. And while life with a preschooler offers its own set of challenges, Joey says, “I would trade the worst day hanging out with Jack over winning medals.” He pauses and takes it a step further. “I will trade one back if it would give me one more day with him.”

Middle: Johnson works with N.C. A&T student Shadajah Ballard

Right: Johnson chats with Olympic hopeful Daniel Roberts

Allen Johnson, Gold Medal Olympic Hurdler

At 53, Allen Johnson doesn’t look much different than he did when he crossed the 100-meter hurdle finish line at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, taking home gold for the United States. His head is clean shaven these days, but his 5’10” frame remains slender and athletic. Sitting behind his desk at N.C. A&T State University’s Truist Stadium, where he has worked as director of the track and field programs since June 2022, Johnson is at ease, comfortable in his navy-blue Nike A&T-branded polo shirt and proverbial coach’s hat.

Is this where he imagined he’d be? No way. As an Olympic athlete training with coaching legend Curtis Frye, Johnson says that was not the life he envisioned for himself. “Being a college coach in track and field was the absolute last thing on Earth I wanted to do. I mean last thing.” Driving it home, he adds, “Last, last, last!”

But when his body could no longer achieve previous heights, Johnson had to take his own walk in the woods. “A part of you dies and you have to mourn it.”

As a young man entering UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989, Johnson, a D.C. native, assumed he’d major in business. “It was the ’80s,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to get a BMW, big house, have money, live life.” His dream? His own car dealership. “I was always into cars,” says Johnson, who now drives a Tesla.

But his athleticism opened doors for him and he left Chapel Hill during his senior year, not before setting several school records that still stand as well as winning four ACC titles. (He went back to finish his degree, which he earned in sociology, in 2012, when daughter Tristine was an undergrad. He even had a class with her.) Johnson’s pursuit paid off with a full-time track and field career that spanned 17 years, from 1993 until 2010.

During that time, Johnson, participated in three Olympics: 1996 in Atlanta, where he won the gold; 2000 in Sydney, Australia, where he fought a hamstring injury and just missed the podium, placing fourth; and 2004 in Athens, Greece, where he was captain of the U.S.A. Track and Field Team but did not place. For most of that time, he had endorsements from Nike (1994, 1996–2008) and Oakley (1995–2004) to support him. But, he says, “The last two years I was kind of on my own.”

“I was going to run until the wheels fell off, which meant I was going to stay too long,” he says, confessing he ran two years too long. “In a perfect world, I would just love to get up in the morning every day and go race.” But, he admits, his body could no longer physically handle the work.

In 2008, just two years before his running career crossed its finish line, Johnson recalls seeing Marion Jones on Oprah, discussing her use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Jones likened being an elite athlete to wearing a mask, playing a part. And when those running days are over? “The mask has to come off,” says Johnson.

“You don’t feel invincible, emotionally — or anything — because you become a regular person again.”

But, he adds, “you’re reborn.”

For Johnson, an opportunity to become something new was found in the last, last, last place he ever expected.

It began organically. People came to him, seeking his expertise and offering to pay. He volunteered as assistant under Coach Frye at the University of South Carolina. “I never got paid, but I looked forward to getting up and going out there the next day to work with the people I was working with.”

In the fall of 2011, he was offered a paid position as assistant coach at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was nervous. Not only was it something he hadn’t done professionally, but it was far from the Mid-Atlantic states he’d called home for most of his life.

“That was a leap,” he says. But without risk there’s no reward. During his first year there, he led the 4×400-meter relay team to the Mountain West titles. He stayed there for five years before returning to the East Coast as assistant coach for the N.C. State Wolfpack, where he worked for six years.

While not every athlete makes a great coach, Johnson seems to have cracked the code. “You know the whole cliché, meet them where they are,” he says.

That doesn’t mean just physically. Johnson connects with his athletes on an emotional level, too. He looks for triggers, good and bad, creating strategies to handle those that arise. He helps them stay away from the negative while embracing the positive. Plus, he makes himself available. “I have a policy: If you need to talk to me, call me any time.” With a coy smile, he adds, “But try to keep it between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.”

Now, in his first head coaching position at N.C. A&T, that policy’s expanded to include staff as well. “Be ready for anything” is his daily mantra. Emails and calls come from every which way, sun up to sun down and beyond. “One thing I tell people about being a college track and field coach is the job is never done. You just pick a stopping point each day.” And when he finally makes it home, he spends time with his wife, Olympic bronze-medal-winning track sprinter Torri Edwards-Johnson, and plays with their 2-and-a-half year old daughter.

While his days can be filled with chaos, he’s got a small network of friends who are also first-time head coaches, similar to having Olympic teammates. “We all have had aspirations of being a head coach and what we thought it was going to be like,” says Johnson. And is this it? No, he says, “You don’t know what it is until you actually do it.”

It’s challenging him in a new way. But he’s got sound advice when it comes to tough times: “It’s what you do on the bad days that is going to define your success.” He adds, “It’s not really that hard on a good day. It’s hard on the bad day when you don’t feel like doing it, but you dig down deep, mentally, physically, and you get it done.”

Are there moments he wishes he could be 25 again and line up with the athletes? Of course. “But I can’t do it anymore.”

Instead, he’s found joy in helping others. As for his student athletes, he wants to make sure their college experience is happy and meaningful, and that he pushes them to move the stopwatch needle.

Plus, Johnson has been working with Olympic hopeful Daniel Roberts, who, like Johnson, is a 110-meter hurdler. Roberts won the bronze medal in the 2023 World Championships and Johnson’s goal this year is to get him the gold at the Paris Olympics later this month. “I wish I could still run — can’t — but getting to coach him, coach Trayvon [Bromell] and the other athletes, I guess for me it’s kind of a natural progression to the next phase.”

Is it the same as competing? No, Johnson admits. “But I have no regrets. I love track and field.” And while it’s the last thing he thought he’d be doing, turns out the next best thing is helping someone else reach their highest potential.  OH

*At the time this story was written, Roberts was training with Johnson for the Olympic Trials, which were held June 21–June 30. We will update you on his progress in our biweekly newsletter, found at oheygreensboro.com.

Poem July 2024

Poem July 2024

Cicada Rondeau

They don’t so much sing as plead

In their droning sound stampede.

I hope they find the love they need —

Something more than meet-and-breed.

Can that even be with insects —

To have sensations beyond touch?

Do they know joy as well as sex?

They don’t so much.

                              — Paul Jones

Paul Jones is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the collection Something Wonderful.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory


A tale of rescue

By Cassie Bustamante

Before we had kids, I’d stop for any stray dog I saw. Once, with a friend, I rescued a flea-covered female dog who’d clearly had puppies and been left to fend for herself in a field. That dog, Gracie, went on to become my friend’s most loyal pal, seeing her through moves and devastating breakups. The last time I brought home a stray dog, my husband, Chris, looked out the window at the unfamiliar animal, then pointedly at me, my pregnant belly carrying our first child protruding, and said, “You’ve got to stop bringing home strays.”

And while I did, I still do what I can when I see an animal, especially a domestic one that’s possibly someone’s beloved pet, in need.

So one Sunday morning in June, the spring sun already shining through the green grass, turning its blades a glowing shade of chartreuse, I’m out for a leisurely stroll with my two rescue dogs, Catcher and Snowball. The neighborhood is quiet outside, but the smell of bacon wafts through the air. Almost home, where my own breakfast and French press await, I spy something unusual.

In the front yard of a stately brick house in Wedgewood, a neighborhood that runs adjacent to my own, Starmount Forest, an orange fox, shoulders hunched, and a fluffy black cat are having a standoff. The fox bares its teeth and stares, eyes narrowed, at the feline, whose back is arched.

I watch as they continue to hold eye contact. This is someone’s beloved pet, I think. My wild imagination takes off and I picture a family with small children, dressed in their Sunday best on their way to church, opening their front door to find their precious kitty mangled and left for dead.

My thoughts break when suddenly the cat lunges for the fox. For a moment my worries subside. I should’ve known a cat would be able to fend for itself. After all, are they not domesticated relatives of the king of the jungle, the lion?

The fox backs far enough off that the cat turns to walk away victoriously. And that’s when the fox makes his move. But he isn’t the only one to make a move.

“Hey!” I shout from about 40 feet away. “Leave the cat alone!” As if the fox, is going to say, “Oh, sorry! Right, I don’t know what I was thinking. Toodles.” Instead, the fox shifts its head in the direction of me and my entourage of dogs. Uh-oh.

And yes, I should’ve thought, This animal is a rabid beast — just get you and your dogs home safely. But, nope, I couldn’t get the image of a heartbroken family mourning their beloved cat out of my mind.

My dogs, who’ve been by my side, watching all of this unfold, peer up at me with worried eyes as I yank their leashes and hustle-walk toward home, still a quarter of a mile away.

I pick up my pace, the sound of my sneakers slapping the pavement almost matching my racing heart. Glancing over my shoulder, I keep an eye on the fox’s proximity. He seems cocky but intent, skulking behind us in a quick, yet not rushed, trot. All he has to do is sprint and we’ll become his Sunday breakfast.

Just then, a white pickup truck appears around the bend in the road. Oh, thank God! I think. But the truck passes me. However, when I look behind me, I see that the driver has parked between me and the fox, creating a literal roadblock for the wild animal.

This time, I don’t stick around to see what happens next. Catcher, Snowball and I take our chance to hightail it home to safety. To my hero on a white horse — or, rather, in a white armored pickup truck — whoever you are and wherever you are, thank you. Sometimes, as it turns out, the rescuer needs a bit of rescuing, too.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Elvis Hasn’t Left the Building

No other recording star had a more enduring relationship with our city than Elvis

By Billy Ingram

Feature Photo: Elvis Presley boarding the Lisa Marie to leave Greensboro, N.C. for Asheville

“Of all the places we’ve been to, you’re one of the most fantastic audiences we’ve had.”     — Elvis Presley to a Greensboro crowd

A few minutes after midnight on Monday, July 21, 1975, a Lockheed JetStar glided to a halt on a secluded spot at the Greensboro-High Point Airport’s tarmac. A fleet of limousines awaited the colorful parade of passengers as they deplaned, followed by the greatest superstar of the 20th century, Elvis Presley. The King was in town to electrify what would be a record-breaking crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum that night.

Within half an hour of touchdown, Elvis and his enormous entourage pulled up behind the high-rise Hilton Hotel on West Market, located across from Greensboro College, where an advance team had already covered every window on the top two floors with aluminum foil, preventing even a ray of daylight from encroaching. Elvis was escorted to the Wedgewood Suite, encompassing the western end of the 10th floor, familiar to him from two previous stays in 1972 and 1974. Shortly after arrival, the Memphis Mafia called down to the kitchen to order a fruit tray.

Normally closed by midnight, the Hilton’s kitchen was fully staffed and prepared to fulfill room service orders not only from the ninth and 10th floors but for the two levels below, where The King’s less crepuscular courtiers were holed up. When the order for that fruit tray came in from Elvis’ suite, a tower of melons, grapes, bananas and cottage cheese was prepared, oddly enough, by Greensboro Daily News reporter Jerry Kenion, who had taken a part-time job in the kitchen in an attempt to score an interview with Presley. The closest she came was catching a glance of the star while wheeling the food cart into the suite’s living room.

Around 3:30 a.m., word went out from Presley’s personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, to Greensboro Coliseum general manager Jim Oshust that Elvis was suffering from a major toothache. Armed with the City Directory, Oshust began ringing up local dentists one by one. Officer Judy Allen, part of a security task force assigned to serve the King, had a better idea. She suggested her longtime practitioner, Dr. J. Baxter Caldwell.

Minutes later at 1100 Sunset Drive, the cacophonous ringing from 1970s-era landlines interrupted the stillness of what was an unusually hot summer night. On the line, the voice of an all-night operator informed Caldwell that the most famous mouth in America was in need of emergency oral surgery. Could he be of assistance?

Caldwell agreed to attend to Presley, dressed hurriedly, and arranged to meet his receptionist, Mrs. Ann Wright, at his practice located just up the street at 1817 Pembroke Road (still a dental office today with the same phone number). Officer Allen drove Presley’s limo to the physician’s back door around 5 a.m. while another stretch transporting two bodyguards and Elvis’ physician, the infamous “Dr. Nick,” followed closely behind.

What the dentist didn’t know was that it had become common for Presley to remove one of his fillings, then arrange to be seen on a rush basis for what would eventually yield him a prescription or two. What Elvis didn’t know was that Dr. Caldwell was especially reticent to prescribe painkillers to his patients. But Presley’s predicament was entirely legit this time. Dr. Caldwell determined there was an abscessed tooth under the bridge in the lower right bicuspid, which he went right to work on. Returning to the Hilton around sunup and before retiring for the day, Elvis finally noshed on that fruit tray he’d ordered earlier.

Around 8 p.m., Elvis, attired in his bedazzled Aztec-inspired outfit, and his posse descended the elevator to encounter about a dozen fans congregating outside the Hilton’s rear exit. Bodyguards had advised the assembled that Presley was suffering from a toothache and wouldn’t be hanging around to talk.

During the previous night’s concert in Norfolk, Elvis began inexplicably pestering his female backup singers, The Sweet Inspirations, with crude insults. Most of his vitriol was reserved for on-again, off-again girlfriend Kathy Westmoreland, who harmonized with the girl singers. All but one of the women walked off stage midperformance. Determined to quit for good, “The Sweets” reconsidered in Greensboro after a preshow heartfelt apology from Elvis. On July 21, all but Westmoreland performed at the coliseum.

To the tune of “CC Rider” at 8:30 sharp, a newly slimmed-down Elvis glided confidently but casually on stage, his mere presence causing 16,300 fans to erupt into screaming and squealing conniption fits. Before he ever sang a note. One local reviewer declared this 1975 appearance “better than ever.”

As the concert progressed, Elvis became increasingly obsessed with a rough spot on his reconstructed tooth that kept rubbing his tongue. Not a small distraction. A midnight call went out to Dr. Caldwell. The entire staff was on hand when Elvis arrived around 1 a.m., including two dental assistants who had been in the audience that night. Receptionist Ann Wright noted that the entertainer didn’t look particularly tired, considering he’d given such a high voltage performance, while Dr. Caldwell told The Greensboro Record, “He was a nice fellow. It was ‘Yes sir this’ and ‘Yes sir that’ with him.”

Upon returning to his 10th-floor Hilton penthouse, Kathy Westmoreland reluctantly met with a morose Elvis as he sat on the bed, clad in karate pajamas. Brandishing a gun in one hand and a gift-wrapped jewelry box in the other, Elvis offered her a choice: “Which do you want? This or this?” Nervously accepting and opening the gift, a watch, she agreed to remain by his side until the end of the tour.

More bewildering, at the airport the next afternoon, Elvis’ retinue discovered that he had flown ahead to their next engagement in Asheville without them. After the jet was piloted back to Greensboro and everyone finally settled in at Asheville’s Rodeway Inn, Elvis demonstrated his remorsefulness by showering his entourage with what the jeweler who traveled with Presley, Lowell Hayes, called “Practically a whole jewelry store!”

That erratic behavior continued. There were multiple accounts that Elvis was angry that his personal physician had confiscated the drugs he’d just scored from another dentist. His temper also flared up when the vertical hold on the TV screen went haywire, a not frequent occurrence. According to those reports, he fired a bullet into the Rodeway Inn television set, which ricocheted into Dr. Nick’s chest but caused no injury.

Frustrated by the lack of standing ovations in the last of his three Asheville dates, Elvis doled out a diamond ring from the stage, worth $6,500 (about $38,000 today), and handed over to a random fan perhaps his most iconic guitar, a Gibson Ebony Dove with a mother-of-pearl “Elvis Presley” inlaid into the black rosewood fret board. Prominently featured in his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii TV special and strummed onstage frequently, that guitar sold at auction in 2016 for $334,000.

Elvis triumphantly returned to the Greensboro Coliseum and the Hilton (now called The District at West Market) in June 1976 and April 1977, the latter being opening night for the last concert tour before The King’s untimely death in August that year. Employees at The District swear to me that Elvis’ spirit hasn’t left the building. I’ll believe that when a late night phone call goes out to Dr. Caldwell’s office. After all, he has the number.  OH

Billy Ingram is a hunka hunka burnt-out love.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Smoothing out the Ruff Spots

Who’s training whom?

By Maria Johnson

Witness this exchange between two domestic partners:

Partner One really wants something, and pulls hard in that direction.

Partner Two, natch, pulls in the opposite direction.

This ticks off Partner One, who doubles down and lurches the other way.

Which prompts me —  I mean Partner Two —  to throw her entire weight the other way. And also to call Partner One a pig-headed so-and-so.

Finally, the trigger passes and things calm down, but both parties feel bruised and out of sorts.

This has been happening between me and our dog, Millie, for some time.

She also has been pulling like a sled dog during walks with my husband.

We need help.

We are not alone, as it turns out. Twenty of us gather one Saturday morning at Brad Howell’s downtown Greensboro business, Red Beard Dog Training.

We have two things in common: All of us yearn for more enjoyable walks with our canine companions, and all of us have left our pups at home, per Brad’s instruction.

This is owner training.

First clue.

We are all ears as Brad — yes, he has a red beard — begins a class called Leash Connections.

Assisting him is his human co-worker, Rylee, along with Brad’s pit bull mix, Dexter.

Brad rescued Dexter — a.k.a. Sexy Dexy —  from the SPCA 10 years ago to help him with his blossoming dog-training business.

Brad already knew a fair bit about animals. He grew up on a farm outside of Asheville, spending much of his time helping to raise beef cattle and playing baseball. Still active in adult leagues, he retains a casual athletic bearing.

On the day we go for training, he walks around the room barefoot, dressed in a T-shirt and basketball shorts, as he lays out the cold truth: Your relationship with your dog might never be what you thought it was going to be.

They’re their own creature.

So are you. Each of you comes with your own inclinations and experiences.

“You try to do the best you can for yourself and your dog, for your relationship,” he explains.

That includes what riles them, what soothes them and what they need to be happy. If your pup needs a lot of physical activity, it’s your job to give it to them.

It’s also your responsibility to buffer their stressors. Watch for raised hackles and tucked tails.

“You gotta know the animal you’re with,” Brad urges. “Don’t put your dog in a situation that you can tell, from watching their body language, they wouldn’t make.”

Another key: rewarding the slightest improvement in problem behavior.

“We’re looking for baby steps,” Brad says. “I’m gonna brag on my dog as soon as she gives me a reason to.”

Sexy Dexy demonstrates by walking, on a slack leash, to the left and slightly behind Brad.

“He’s probably looking pretty hard at my treat pouch,” Brad says, smiling.

Indeed, Dexy is staring a hole in the small plastic box belted to Brad’s left hip.

His patience pays off. He snags a nibble of kibble and a hearty “Yes!”

In Brad’s world, positive reinforcement is a valuable tool.

So are negative consequences — and giving dogs enough time and consistency to figure them out.

Brad passes around a slip lead, similar to the looped cords that veterinarians often use as leashes.

He invites us to place the loop over one wrist, pull the cord with the other hand and see how little pressure it takes to feel uncomfortable.

Playing the role of unruly pooch, Rylee offers her wrist for a demo.

If she pulls, she feels the pressure.

If she wants to relieve the pressure, she has to step toward Brad. He doesn’t need to yank the cord. He just needs to stand firm. Rylee is in control of how much pressure she feels.

What if she continues to pull?

Brad’s next move seems counterintuitive. He steps toward Rylee, giving her slack.

If Rylee lurches again, she’ll feel pressure again, proportionate to how hard she pulls.

“I want them to control the level of consequence they get,” he explains.
With enough reps, Brad assures us, even the most stubborn pup will understand that she is causing a large part of her own discomfort — and she has the power to relieve it.

The room glows with imaginary light bulbs switching on over human heads.

Later, at home, we try a slip lead with Millie, our wee, atomic-powered hound.

She catches on quickly.

We are the slackers who miss chances to reward her when she does something right. We struggle to stay calm and consistent when she lunges.

It would be so much easier to point the paw at her.

But it’s increasingly clear that Millie will change her behavior if we change, too, by embracing the gospel according to Brad.

Trainer, train thyself.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(June 21 – July 22)

Fancy the tapas sampler? This month kicks off with Saturn retrograde in Pisces. Rainbows and butterflies, yes. But also, reality checks. (Band-Aids don’t fix everything.) Ready or not, the new moon in Cancer will deliver a much-needed reboot on July 5. And when Venus enters Leo on July 11? Aim those big feelings toward your deepest desires and watch the universe bend over backward to serve them up.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Ditch the predictive text.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

The proof is in the pie crust.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Knock and the door will open.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Be sure to kiss them in the rain.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Try wiping the lens.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Stretch or be stretched.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Locate your center of gravity.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Just add water.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Three words: Less is more.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Plant your tootsies firmly on the Earth.   OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Simple Life

Simple Life

The Belle of Star City

May her light shine on

By Jim Dodson

“I think you are really going to enjoy your Great Aunt Lily,” my dad says cheerfully. “She’s quite a colorful character. I call her the Belle of Star City.”

It’s a warm July morning in 1964. We are driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Roanoke, where I am to be dropped off at Great Aunt Lily’s apartment for the weekend before my parents take my brother, Dickie, on to church camp, then head to a newspaper convention in Hot Springs, Virginia.

He explains that Lily is my grandfather’s beloved youngest sister, a strong-willed beauty who spurned several suitors in rural Carolina before fleeing to Washington, D.C. There, she worked for years as a stage actress and theatrical seamstress.

“I suppose she was something of the family’s black sheep, but a delightful woman. You’ll love her.”

 Though I fear I’m simply being dumped for the weekend on a boring maiden aunt, my old man turns out to be right.

Lily lives alone in a gloomy Victorian brownstone on Roanoke’s First Street, in an apartment filled with dusty antiques and Civil War memorabilia, including a Confederate cavalry officer’s sword she claims belonged to a Dodson ancestor who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. There are also exotic paintings of classical nudes and wild beasts adorning her walls, including the stuffed head of an antelope, a gift from her “favorite gentleman friend” who passes through town every winter with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

On my first night with her, Lily — a large-boned, blonde woman, endlessly talkative, swimming in White Shoulders perfume — takes me via taxi to a Chinese restaurant in the Market District, where we dine with a snowy-haired “gentleman friend” she says was once mayor. He talks about the recent Kennedy assassination and makes a half-dollar coin appear from my ears, pointing out that Roanoke is called Magic City.

The next morning, Lily takes me to breakfast at The Roanoker Restaurant, a legendary diner where she knows everyone by first name. After that, we are taxied up Mill Mountain to have a close look at the famous Roanoke Star. The cab driver, Ernie, is a Black gentleman with a gold tooth and quick smile. Lily explains that Ernie is a true “Renaissance man,” a part-time preacher, former Navy cook, full-time house painter and her “dearest gentleman friend in the world.” Reverend Ernie is also her “business partner,” who occasionally drives her to estate sales and auctions to buy artwork and antiques, which Ernie sells to collectors, splitting the profits with her. The Confederate cavalry sword is one of their recent “finds,” which she hints might someday pass my way. This thought thrills me.

On the Sunday morning of my visit, we attend a small red-brick church to hear Reverend Ernie preach, followed by lunch at the historic Hotel Roanoke, the planned pick-up spot with my folks. Naturally, Lily knows the waiter, who brings me something called a “Roy Rogers” and her a small crystal glass. After we order our lunch, Lily discreetly removes a silver flask from her purse and pours herself a bit of ruby sherry. 

She looks at me and asks if I’d like a taste.

 I say yes.

 She asks how old I am.

 Twelve, I lie, giving myself an extra year.

She slides the glass across the table. 

“Just a small sip, dear.”

During the two-hour drive home through the mountains, my folks are eager to hear about my weekend with the Belle of Star City. I tell them about her gentlemen friends and the interesting places she took me, and even mention the Confederate cavalry sword she promises to give me someday. 

My dad glances at my mom. “I told you she’s a colorful character,” he says. “Glad you enjoyed her. But here’s the thing . . . ”

He reveals that Great Aunt Lily is about to lose her home and move to Raleigh into a special-care home due to what we now call Alzheimer’s. Lily is scheduled to move around Christmastime. 

“In the meantime, sport, she’s coming to stay with us around Thanksgiving.”

My mother chimes in, “And since your bedroom is the bigger bedroom, sweetie, we’re hoping you won’t mind giving it up to Aunt Lily. You can bunk with your brother. It’ll just be temporary.” 

Four months later, Lily arrives with a large wooden trunk and her sewing machine in tow. On the plus side, she tells me stories about famous men she’s known — the actor David Niven, golfer Sam Snead, Will Rogers. Even better, she keeps boxes of Lorna Doone cookies hidden under bolts of fancy cloth in her trunk, which she shares with me. One afternoon as we are having our daily cookie conversation, I ask about the sword. Lily gives me a blank look, then waves her cookie dismissively. “Oh, goodness, child! I gave that silly old thing to the church auction ages ago. I think I paid 10 dollars for it at a yard sale up in Fincastle.”   

Predictably, as Christmas Eve approaches, my clean-freak mother begins to lose her mind over our private cookie sessions. My father says all Aunt Lily needs is a good hobby. So, he sets up her sewing machine and she goes to work behind closed doors with her machine humming for days.

It turns out to be quilted, floral potholders. Two dozen quilted, floral potholders.

“Lily thinks you can sell them in the neighborhood for Christmas money,” says my dad. 

I am mortified. Two pals from my Pet Dairy baseball team live on our block, and so does one Della Jane Hockaday, who I hope to give a mood ring. 

“Look, sport,” my old man reasons, “Aunt Lily is here for only a couple more weeks. Just let her see you go down the block selling them. You’ll make an old lady who has just lost her home very happy. Lily is very fond of you.”

So, I grit my teeth and do it early on a frosty Saturday morning a week before Christmas. To my surprise, I sell a half-dozen five-dollar potholders and make thirty bucks. Years later, my mom lets slip that she’d phoned every woman on the street to grease the skids, including Della’s mom. The next morning before church, my dad and I drive the remaining potholders to the drop-off box of the Salvation Army store. 

He gives me an extra 20 for my trouble and insists that I tell Lily, if she asks, that her beautiful potholders sold out in just one morning.

But Lily never asks. Not long after the New Year, my dad drives his aunt and her big wooden trunk and sewing machine to the special-care home. 

I get my bedroom back and never see Great Aunt Lily again.

She passes away in the springtime two years later.

Every time I drive through Roanoke or eat Lorna Doone cookies, I think of her with a smile.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.



A Soaring Kite

The majestic swallow-tailed

By Susan Campbell

The swallow-tailed kite is, without a doubt, the most unmistakable of birds in our state — and perhaps anywhere in the world. This large raptor with a long, forked tail is capable of endless, highly acrobatic flight. The size, as well as the long, narrow wings, may cause one to think “osprey” at first, but one glimpse of that unique tail gives its true identity away, even at a great distance. This majestic bird is black on top with a white head and belly, as well as white wing linings. As with all kite species, the bill is stout and heavily curved, but the legs and feet, instead of being yellow, are a grayish hue.

It has only been in the last decade that this magnificent species has become a regular in the summer months in certain locations of southeastern North Carolina. Individuals were observed mixed in with Mississippi kites along the Cape Fear River in the summer of 2003. In 2008 a pair of kites seemed to be defending a territory along the river, but no concrete evidence of breeding could be found. Swallow-tailed kites were finally confirmed as a new breeder here when a nesting pair was located during an aerial survey by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in May of 2013. Far more likely to be seen in coastal South Carolina and farther south, these birds have plenty of feeding habitat here, as well as tall trees for nesting. Their numbers are bound to increase in the years ahead.

Swallow-taileds are found in wet coastal habitat where their preferred prey — large flying insects — are abundant. Adults feed entirely on the wing. But, when foraging for young, this bird is so agile that it not only preys on bugs, such as dragonflies and beetles, it readily snatches snakes, lizards and even nestlings of other species from the canopy. Swallow-taileds are not at all choosey. Males forage for a good deal of the food for the growing family. The male will carry food items back to the nest in its talons, transfer to it to his bill and carefully pass it to his mate, who will tear it into pieces and feed it to their young.

This species is a loosely communal breeder like its cousin the Mississippi kite. Swallow-tailed pairs can be seen in adjacent treetops when they find a particularly good piece of habitat. Non-breeding males may also associate with established pairs. These individuals might bring gifts of sticks and even food to breeding females but, interestingly, these offerings usually go ignored.

Swallow-taileds have been found to consume a large number of highly venomous insects. Wasps and hornets are not uncommon food items, as are fire ants. This is possible because they have developed a much fleshier stomach than other birds. An adult kite may bring an entire wasps’ nest to its own nest and, after consuming the larvae, incorporate it into the nest. The motivation for this behavior is unclear.

In late summer, individual swallow-tailed kites can be seen almost anywhere in the state as a result of post-breeding dispersal. They may mix in with feeding or loafing Mississippi kites around agricultural fields or bottomland forest. Last July, I was fortunate enough to spot a soaring individual over Highway 421 adjacent to swampy habitat outside of Siler City in Chatham County. Should you spot one of these magnificent birds, consider yourself very lucky.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com, or by calling (910) 585-0574.