Of Memories, Trips, Barbecue and a Wooden Wolf

I learned a long time ago from my parents and grandparents to savor the small moments in life, for they tend to be the ones we'll get most nostalgic about when it comes our time to leave this earth.

For me, the simple pleasures in life involve strolling through the Farmer's Market on a Saturday afternoon with my wife, picking out strawberries, apples and tomatoes - at a fraction of the price of those at grocery stores and with better taste as well. If I'm lucky enough to reach my golden years, I'll probably get teary-eyed about family trips as a child, reminiscing not about the long lines and controlled chaos of a Disney World, but of the actual trip itself with my parents, the endless car rides through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. My memories will also probably consist of loading up the car and driving east to the beach while my wife plays DJ, picking out songs that she knows will annoy me but still bring a smile to my face.

Those pastimes are what make life worth living, and one of the favorite pastimes in the Lail Household these days is to make a quick pit stop on the way to the beach. A little over an hour into the trip from Raleigh to the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, my wife and I make it a point to pull off of in Goldsboro at one of the Taj Mahal's of North Carolina barbecue. Inside this venerable restaurant resides a life-size, wooden Strutting Wolf that hangs on a wall near the back of the joint.

And so there I was recently, placing my order in the takeout line for our usual: two sandwiches with slaw and a dozen or so hushpuppies. (The folks behind the counter never seem to count the hushpuppies or, for that matter, care how many they give you; usually 20 or so make it in the bag.)

As the workers were filling my order, a white-haired, elderly gentleman and his granddaughter came up beside me to place their order. He then strikes up a conversation with me, as only old men in small towns can get away with.

He called me "son."

Just moments into our conversation the man pointed to "Mr. Wuf" in the back and proceeded to tell me that he had it built for the restaurant back in 1983, "when the State basketball team went down to 'Albakerk.'" He proudly told me that he made it specifically for the restaurant because they sent so many of their employees "off to State College." (Just like only in small towns can elderly men get away with calling someone unrelated "son," our older citizens are also the only ones who can be forgiven for still calling North Carolina State University "State College.")

Within a minute of talking with this gentleman (I never did catch his name), he knew where I grew up; where I live and that I did, in fact, graduate from NC State. But he was most proud when talking about the large, wooden wolf that, on this day, sported a yellow ribbon on his left shoulder.

"Pawpaw, are you bragging about that wolf again?" his granddaughter asked while rolling her eyes, no doubt used to his boasting.

"You'll be going to State College one day," was all he answered.

After a few more minutes of talking with the man, and realizing that, despite our age differences, we both knew some of the same folks, I said my goodbyes and went back to the car, where my wife and two dogs were anxiously awaiting the barbecue and hushpuppies. (The best thing about getting too many hushpuppies are that they momentarily distract the dogs while I try to drive and eat a barbecue sandwich - which I don't recommend.) We then hit the road for the beach, and soon the taste of barbecue and the desire for ocean air was on my mind.

For as long as we make the pilgrimage to Morehead City, Atlantic Beach and points further south and east, we will no doubt continue to stop at that little slice of Americana. The wolf in the back is not the reason we stop at Wilber's -- anybody who has ever tasted the succulent taste of Wilber's barbecue understands that. But the wolf in the back is like an old friend welcoming us each and every time. And it stands as a proud reminder of the past, present and future of NC State University. And that's worth bragging about.

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