I will cop to a large slice of bias concerning today’s topic.
You see, I was born a Tar Heel on Aug. 26, 1957, at Chapel Hill Memorial Hospital, the second of three children my mom and dad had while he was in medical school at the University of North Carolina, which in hindsight seems like a dumb thing for an aspiring physician to do. I didn’t notice at the time, but we were poor; I know that now because I remember eating a lot of beef liver.
I was also bred a Tar Heel. In addition to my father, I have two sisters who graduated from UNC, although I was the first to do so, remarkably undistinguished and by a nose, both by time and GPA. After four years and five summer school sessions, I had a degree in Business, not Journalism. Fooled you, didn’t I?
I got addicted to following UNC sports as a 9-year-old in 1967 while watching a lefty named Larry Miller lead UNC’s basketball team to the Final Four. Other hardwood heroes followed, including Charlie Scott, Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Tyler Hansbrough, as well as those on the gridiron, Don McCauley, Mike Voight, Lawrence Taylor, Julius Peppers and so many more. And a guy named Dean Smith was a Tar Heel.
My best guess is that I have seen UNC play a sports contest in person, mostly football and basketball, but some baseball and Olympic sports sprinkled in as well, about 300 times since the first time, which came on Nov. 22, 1969. That day I watched Dook (sic) defeat my Tar Heels in Wallace Wade Stadium, 17-13, by cheating in a game known famously for the “shoestring play.” Wes Chesson, a Dook receiver who was quite the actor, took a knee that day, but there was no cause beyond misdirection.
My plan, which I don’t want to execute for a good long while, is to die a Tar Heel. Others, however, might prefer I die a Ram or some other contrived nickname that comes from compromise.
The slope, as predicted, has shown itself to be slippery — and there is now a movement by members of a self-loathing generation to strip Tar Heels as the UNC nickname as it is being linked to the Civil War, the one in which more than 600,000 Americans died and slaves were freed.
These self-ascribed victims would do well to understand history instead of trying to erase it, which is why they don’t possess the pebble of nuance sufficient to see there are consequential differences between a statue of Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln and even Jimi Hendrix, all of which have been defaced in recent weeks, and in the case of Lee, removed. The effort isn’t limited to statues, however, as buildings are being renamed, nicknames being sanitized, and history being edited.
The truth no longer matters, but I’ve always fancied myself as a broker of truth, so here goes: Tar Heels is rooted in the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War, but it is true that Confederate soldiers from North Carolina were often referred to by those damn Yankees — admirably, by the way — as Tar Heels, their feet figuratively stuck in tar as they were unwilling to retreat in battle.
As a child growing up in North Carolina, fewer than a century removed from the end of the Civil War, I never felt much of a connection with the Confederacy or the Dixie flag, nor do I as an adult, but I had friends then and now that did and do. With an occasional exception, they are good people who don’t have hate in their heart.
Because of the way I was raised, I understood intuitively as a child that the Lost Cause was the Wrong Cause, and when my older brother Doug and I would play soldier in Chapel Hill and later at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, I always picked the blue uniform, not to make a political statement, but I knew that the North had won the war, and I have always liked to be on the winning team. Another perk of being a Tar Heel.
During my lifetime, I have on occasion been prompted to wonder, mostly to myself but now and again out loud, what I would have done if I had been born in North Carolina five score and some change before, during the dawn of the Civil War. I am glad I wasn’t for a myriad of reasons, including there was no A/C back then, the clothing looked uncomfortable, everything seemed rather dusty and the beer was warm.
I have asked myself if I would have been an enlightened one, and chosen to be loyal to the country, but a traitor to the South, which was fighting a wrong-headed revolution. Or would I have been loyal to the South, and a traitor to my country?
I don’t know what I would have done, understanding that the mores of that day were different than those of this day, which is why I have always been sympathetic toward the Confederate soldier, the human, not the cause. I find pompous those who would say with feigned conviction that they would have headed north, donned the blue, and grabbed a muzzle-loading rifle in defense of our 85-year-old Union.
Mine has become a sympathetic stance, not shared by a generation of younger people who not only don’t know their history, but would be unlikely to try to understand it if they would shut up long enough to listen.
And so it goes, that we have been distracted by arguing over names of buildings, finding only flaws in those so honored, and forgetting that as imperfect as they were, they helped to build much of what is great about this nation — and much of what is being torn down today, figuratively, but also literally by vandals, some of whom wear shoes produced by slave and child labor while throwing bricks. The hypocrisy abounds.
They are entitled to their view. That is what makes this country great, even if that greatness is no longer widely embraced.
They can continue their path of destruction, and they might even succeed in a name change for North Carolina’s athletic teams. I hope not, and would fight against it with whatever power I possess, which isn’t much.
But it won’t matter. Because when I die, I will be a Tar Heel dead.