This is a column I wrote way back in June of 1997 about life in my hometown of Danbury, North Carolina in the 1960s and ’70s when I was growing up there. Danbury in those days was full of interesting people, charming rogues and, well, characters. All were and still are special to me in one way or another in my memories. And I always seem to think about those days when the weather turns warm. Here’s a story about one of the more interesting people from those days. Sykes passed way in 2000 at age 77. Thanks to my longtime friend David Hairston and his Aunt Nancy for supplying me with a photo of Sykes.
Sykes Smith seldom missed a day sitting on the courthouse square, at least not many folks remembered. And of course no one ever really knew why he did it. He just did was all. In Danbury that was enough.
Nobody could really blame Sykes for choosing that as a place to rest because back in the day it was one of the nicest spots in the entire town. In fact, Danbury had a lot of pleasant areas. In those days you couldn’t find much in the way of an eyesore in the whole — admittedly small — place.
It’s just that the courthouse square was, well, different. It had a two-story red-brick structure with a white arched entry guarded by a door so heavy that only consistent weightlifters could open it with ease. And there was always a curious blend of fabulously successful or unfortunate down-and-out types forever passing through that ominous doorway en route to court most probably.
The lawn was a massive lattice of stone trimmed in large patches of grass divided by two sets of sharply sloped steps. The first led to a precipice where folks, should they have a mind to, perched in shade cast by elderly trees of such magnitude they seemed to form a group assault from some part deep within the earth in a relentless grasp for the sky.
Off on the left-hand side of the square, the part in the sun, sat Sykes Smith, wearing a ball cap with a bill as straight as plyboard and still in his work clothes. With perfect posture he sat on the square like the Lincoln Memorial without the features of a chair to support his cord-like arms designed by the hard work he accomplished in a given day. His thin black face was deeply lined but never showed much hint of sweat even though he toiled in any number of back-breaking labors before settling in on the square. There wasn’t much Sykes, an Army veteran, wouldn’t do when it came to honest work.
He never said much more than “howdy,” but not in a standoffish way. Most couldn’t guess how old he might be. For all anybody knew he was 30 — or 60. His brother Beanie was much easier to pin down. He was full of talk and always like to muss the hair of children or sit back with the menfolk and discuss with gusto and hilarity things on the passing scene. In Danbury sometimes that wasn’t much to speak of, but they sure did laugh a lot.
Sykes never went in for such foolishness. He worked a regular job and took on even more on the side to make ends meet. After that, he adjourned to the courthouse square. On Sunday he propped himself there the entire day.
And just sat.
Well, he did more than simply sit. Sykes Smith wasn’t idle that way. What he was actually doing was making history. Nobody could have known it in those pre-cable TV days of the 1960s and ’70s. Sykes would break his otherwise rigid sitting by raising an arm to motorists passing through on the two-lane blacktop on their way to Hanging Rock State Park or on to Virginia to purchase a bushel of fresh apples.
Not many drivers sneaked through Danbury without getting some form of greeting by Sykes from the courthouse square. He raised an arm when they came through and again when they drove back. The routine never varied from car to truck to tractor to horse.
Most returned the favor with large smiles — it was a ritual. Some who witnessed this for a few years stopped to chat. Eventually he became such a constant and welcome sight the Winston-Salem Journal sent a reporter and photographer all the way to Danbury just to find out more about him.
“Just bein’ friendly,” he’d say.
In Danbury that was enough.
And while history books don’t officially recognize it and there’s no shred of real proof, I believe that Sykes truly made his mark right there on the courthouse square.
he invited “The Wave.”