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Popular history will tell you that Charles Bishop Kuralt was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was born there, as the records indicate, but only because it had a hospital. At the time of his birth on September 10, 1934, Kuralt's parents were living with his maternal grandparents on their 100-acre tobacco farm in Onslow County. Worried about possible complications from delivering the baby at home, Wallace Kuralt drove his young wife Ina to James Walker Memorial Hospital, a little more than an hour south. After the birth, the family immediately returned to the farm.

The distinction between where Kuralt was born and where he was raised is important. He grew up not as a city-dweller but as a farm boy who later acquired a thin veneer of city sophistication. Named for his paternal uncle, Carl (Norse for "a man of the common people"), Kuralt would remain forever connected to his rural roots.

The farmhouse where Kuralt spent much of his childhood had no electricity. In winter, wood stoves and fireplaces worked to heat the high-ceilinged rooms. There was no indoor plumbing. On the porch, a pump with a long cast-iron handle delivered drinking water. A gourd on a nearby nail served as a drinking dipper. There was a well in the side yard, with a bucket for watering the stock.

Life was full of simple pleasures. Kuralt spent his days flying kites of newspaper held rigid by flour paste, making slingshots from dogwood branches, and tickling Venus flytraps shut with a piece of straw. "I knew how to turn a double page of The News & Observer into a kite held together by flour paste," Kuralt would later write, "and I knew how to fly it on a length of tobacco twine above the barn, above the fields, high enough, as I imagined, that God could read the headlines if He wished."

Evenings, his grandmother, Rena Bishop, stoked a fire to warm well water, which she poured into an old galvanized tub to wash the dust from her grandson.

After supper, his grandfather spun long yarns, and the youngster sat spellbound by his voice. On the front porch of their two-story farmhouse, Kuralt often curled up beside his grandmother on the swing and listened as she read to him from the travel books of Richard Halliburton, the short stories of O. Henry and the poems of Kipling and Poe. Her reading fueled his love of words and sensitivity to the rhythm of language. It was from her that he first heard words like "pyramid," "igloo" and "Taj Mahal."

Kuralt slept upstairs in a feather bed. The wind rushing through the Sycamores often broke his slumber, forcing him to lay awake. Staring up at the high lath on the ceiling, he wandered through waking dreams of the stories his grandmother had read to him.

Being delivered into the Great Depression provided the boy with lessons of hardship. His parents, both graduates, emerged from the university into a world of dim career prospects.

A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Wallace Hamilton Kuralt graduated from UNC in 1931 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a degree in commerce, but he found little sustaining work. Making a living often meant chasing one. The young man ventured all the way to Charleston, West Virginia, finding a job in the advertising division of the Kroger Grocery Co.

He left behind his sweetheart, Ina Bishop, a home economics teacher in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The two had met on an eight-week, cross-country trip sponsored by UNC. Wallace noticed the attractive young schoolteacher early in the trip, but it took him several days to muster the courage to approach her. He finally broke the ice by offering her a taste of a new soft drink. In later years, they joked they had Dr. Pepper to thank for bringing them together.

Wallace lasted only a few months in the hills of West Virginia, returning to North Carolina to marry Ina shortly before Christmas, 1931. The newlyweds made the Bishops' tobacco farm their first home. There, Wallace tried his hand raising "truck" crops such as snap beans and cucumbers, but the cost of trucking the vegetables to market proved too great. He also tried his hand at raising grapes, but the sandy Onslow County soil was ill-suited to the vines. Even had he succeeded, there was no market for grapes, according to Horace Gurganus, a relative who worked with Wallace.

To eke out a living, Wallace turned to a variety of jobs, including painting Coca-Cola signs on barns and creosoting telephone poles. He "topped" tobacco for $1.50 a day and even tried to make a go of operating a farm supply store in nearby Jacksonville.

In 1933, his fortunes changed. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration posted a job for a "social case worker" for Onslow County, one of the few specialties in demand among millions of unemployed. Kuralt later would say his father landed the job "because he could type." No matter. After a few months, Wallace won a promotion to county director of rural rehabilitation, and soon after Charles was born he gained an even bigger promotion, to social services case supervisor for Robeson County, 100 miles away.

The Kuralts packed their bags and moved to Lumberton, the county seat, and Wallace quickly climbed the ranks to become director of social services for a seven-county district in eastern North Carolina.

It was a time of frequent relocation, but also of growing career stability. Two years into the job, Wallace decided to make social work a lifelong career and in the fall of 1937, began attending the University of North Carolina's Graduate School of Social Work at Chapel Hill. To support the family, Ina found work in Stedman, a hamlet east of Fayetteville. Barely 2 years old, Charles seemed to be following the same destiny as his forebears, shipping from one town to another.

I come from wandering tribes, Norse and Celtic on my mother's side it seems, nomad Bavarians on my father's, ancestors become Scots-Irish and Slovenian by the time of their migration to America. As far as I could tell, none of them ever stayed anywhere for long.

—Charles Kuralt, A Life on the Road

In Stedman, the Kuralts rented three rooms in an unpainted house on Euclid Street. On trips back to the farm, Charles boasted that the apartment had indoor plumbing.

From his bedroom window, Charles could see the brick building where his mother taught home economics. On Sunday afternoons, he looked out his bedroom window to watch his father walking across the street, with a black suitcase in hand, and sticking out his thumb, to catch a ride to Chapel Hill for a week of classes in social work. It was a routine that lasted a year, hitching to Chapel Hill on Sundays and returning home, sometimes by bus or train, after the end of Friday classes. In a 1994 letter, Kuralt recalled those early days when his father returned home for the weekend.

Dear Papa,

I was just sitting here in the office thinking about your birthday tomorrow and the inadequacy of any birthday present to express my love for you. No wool shirt or bathrobe or box of cigars could come close to doing it. Nothing I could ever give you could equal what you have given me. I remember the excitement I felt in Stedman on weekends when you came home from Chapel Hill because I knew you'd find time to play with me. I remember your teaching me to throw and catch a baseball in the yard of the apartment house in Washington, and your patience with me when I missed an easy catch. You were always willing to "tame a mosquito" with a puff of cigar smoke, and I was always delighted at the joke. You took me fishing on the river. I remember the thrill of being out there in the boat with you, sure that we'd catch fish because you knew how. I was certain of your competence in everything—fishing, typing, sign painting, carpentry—and knew I'd never be as able. And I was right. But you made me want to be, which is almost the same.

When I asked some childish question about science, you brought me home a cardboard microscope; when I despaired at ever getting good at mumblety-peg, you taught me a few good tricks the other boys couldn't do, and gave me a jackknife of my own in the bargain. Remember the BB gun? It was a Red Ryder single shot model, and I was exceedingly proud of it—but I had to learn the multiplication table before I could take it out of the house. There was the red Elgin bike you gave me when I was five, and the new car when I was nineteen. My pleasure in all these gifts was immeasurably greater because they came from you.

But of course the greatest gift was our time together. I am thinking of all those nights when you drove me to Griffith Park so I could broadcast baseball games, and then waited until the ninth inning and drove back to pick me up. I was always eager to hear you say I had done a good job on the air. The feeling of driving home with you in, as I thought then, manly camaraderie, was a very fine feeling; you must have had all sorts of concerns of your own, but mine were the only ones you ever talked to me about. You gave me great confidence. I didn't know it then, but you were teaching me how to be a father, and how to be a good man. I can never be as good a father or as good a man as you were, and are.

I realize that most of my attitudes and beliefs came from you and mother, including some basic ones that animate me to this day. I sometimes find myself eagerly articulating an idea which, when I stop to think about it, I heard you express with feeling long ago.

So I am my father's son. I hope I have passed along something of you to [daughters] Lisa and Susan, and that they will pass that essence of you on to their children, and so on down the generations. And I know that [brother] Wallace and [sister} Catherine share the same hope in their own lives. Thank you, Papa. Happy birthday. With all my love, Charles

After a year of graduate study, Wallace found work as a field representative for the North Carolina Welfare Board. The job required another move, to Salisbury, where the family lived in a brick house overlooking the highway. There, Kuralt gained a sibling when Ina gave birth to a second son, Wallace Jr.

The family stayed in Piedmont North Carolina only a short while before relocating to the Welfare Board's eastern headquarters in Washington, an hour's drive from the Bishops' tobacco farm. His father's new job gave 4-year-old Charles a taste of being on the road, as he often accompanied "Papa" to local welfare offices in the county seats of eastern North Carolina. Riding along blacktop roads to places like New Bern, Swan Quarter, Harkers Island and Edenton, Wallace filled the miles and his young son's mind with tales of North Carolina history and local lore.

Afternoons, they stopped to fish in creeks turned black by the tannin of cypress trees. At country stores and outside the county courthouses where the welfare offices were located, father and son stopped to listen to old men trade stories. Kuralt later said that traveling with his father taught him a "little more about real life" than most kids his age learned.

In the fall of 1939, Kuralt started kindergarten at St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic School across the Pamlico River. He showed early signs of being an independent thinker. A daring young man, he once asked the school's Sister Rosalind, "If thou shalt worship no graven images, then what are all those statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints doing around the school?" The other nuns frowned, but Sister Rosalind smiled. Though Kuralt was barely 5, she promoted him to the first grade. He later quipped that he heard his first French words at St. Agnes: "I remember the word for ‘piano.' It is piano. I thought I could catch on to French if it continued that way."

Living in Washington meant the Kuralts were close enough to visit the Bishops' farm often. Summers, the Kuralts joined the hired hands to help out with the tobacco harvest. Charles was a "hander," putting together three or four leaves and passing them to a "stringer," who tied the ends with twine and twisted them around a stick. The tobacco sticks were then hoisted into a log barn for curing.

At the end of the tobacco season, the Bishops loaded their wagon with the golden brown leaves, hitched up the mule and took off with their grandson for the Kinston market, some 50 miles away. The trip offered Charles miles of adventurous thinking. On one trip, Rena Bishop told him about the old days of her childhood, when bandits robbed farmers returning home from the market. To thwart the bandits, wagons began to travel in groups, with a rifleman stationed on the lead wagon. Her story fired the youngster's imagination, and on the trips, he would pretend to be the armed guard, ever watchful for make-believe bandits.

"I remember the auction," Kuralt would write later in life, "the tension of it. A family's whole fortune for the year would be decided in a few seconds when the auctioneer stopped at the family's pile of tobacco."

Back at the farm, Charles plowed, or rather followed the mule down the furrow with a boy who taught him to sing, "There's a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere." He shucked corn. Finding a red ear entitled the shucker to kiss the girl of his choice. Of course, Charles was much too young to think about such things, but he enjoyed the camaraderie of shucking—the songs sung, stories told and riddles propounded.

With his father, Charles picked blueberries that grew in the ditches along the dirt road. Wallace imparted folk wisdom to his son: If you ask a Daddy Longlegs, "Where are my cows," he will raise a leg and point to them. You will be pretty if you wash your face in the dew of the first morning of May. When all men speak, no one hears. Many bring rakes, but few bring shovels. She's so thin she can't make a shadow. The first person to leave a funeral will be the next to die.

Down the road a poor black tenant farmer's son, Buck, taught Charles to ride his first bike, a Sears model he had received for Christmas. "He taught it by demonstration," Kuralt later said, "up and down the road, by the hour, calling back over his shoulder, 'See how easy it is?'"

Evenings, the Bishops and Kuralts gathered around a battery-powered radio, its round dial glowing orange with the station call letters—usually tuned to the nightly news broadcast on WPTF. News was all around. Stacked neatly on a nearby table were the weekly Onslow County newspaper and the Raleigh News & Observer.

As the family sat listening to voices telling tales from distant places, Charles dreamed of becoming a reporter, even playing out his dream by borrowing his father's hat and sticking a "press card" in its band. By age 6, Charles was convinced that reporting was a romantic profession that would take him to the exotic places his grandmother had read to him about.

A sandy road passed in front of the house and a logging path through the pinewoods behind it. I always wondered where the roads went, and after I learned that the one in front went to another farm a mile away, I wondered where it went from there.

—Charles Kuralt, A Life on the Road.

With his father's hat sitting squarely on his head, young Charles Kuralt seemed already to know those roads would one day become his home.

USA Today Editorial
Forgiving Charles Kuralt

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| Remembering | Sir Charles
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Charles Kuralt's People

An intellectually stimulating collection of insightful and occasionally poignant commentaries, Charles Kuralt's People is very highly recommended reading for students of the human condition in general, and legions of Charles Kuralt fans in particular. — Midwest Book Review Click for more info.

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