What would Rip Van Winkle think?

by DG Martin

Play a game with me.

Let’s play North Carolina-Rip Van Winkle.

If the game has a familiar ring, it is because North Carolina has been called the ‘“Rip Van Winkle State,’” probably because the state once had a backward reputation.

Van Winkle, you remember, fell asleep before the American Revolution began. When he woke up 20 years later George Washington was president of the United States. According to Irving, ‘“It was some time before he could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war ‘— that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England ‘— and that, instead of being a subject of his Majesty, George III, he was now a free citizen of the United States.’”

In our game we will pretend that one of our parents (or grandparents) fell asleep in 1957 and woke up today. What are the things here in North Carolina that would surprise them the most and would be the hardest for them to understand and deal with?

In 1957 North Carolina’s economy was largely driven by agriculture and traditional manufacturing. The University of North Carolina won the national collegiate basketball championship with an all-white team. The schools and public facilities of the state were almost entirely segregated. The Research Triangle Park was hardly more than a gleam in Gov. Luther Hodges’ eye.

If our parents had gone to sleep back then, what would be most shocking if he or she woke up just now?

Of course, our North Carolina Rip Van Winkle (let’s call him ‘“NC Rip’”) would be awed by the consumer technology: the computers, e-mail, I-pods, the world wide web, cell phones, digital cameras. NC Rip would be amazed at the labor-saving and convenient machines that make life in our homes so easy. High definition color TV would knock him off his feet.

But I don’t think it would take NC Rip very long to get used to these things. Usually even the most dramatic new consumer devices quickly, instantly, become necessities.

The changes that might not be so easy for NC Rip to believe and accept might more likely be in the areas of race, women’s roles, business procedures and religion.

If NC Rip attended a ‘“mainline’” protestant church on the first Sunday after he woke up, he might find an ordained woman in the pulpit or serving communion. He might even hear people in church talking about how ‘“backward’” it was that some other church groups had not yet ordained women.

Whatever NC Rip’s religion, his ideas about women in leadership positions would be challenged. Do you think he would believe that the most recent presidents or chancellors at UNC (System), North Carolina State and Duke were women? Could he accept this change?

Coming from a time when there were strong lingering prejudices against Catholics, would he understand that our governor and the former president of UNC are Catholics and nobody ever thought to make an issue of it?

Would he believe that he could not light up a cigarette in most buildings in North Carolina?

Or that, while its 1957 team was all white, UNC’s 2005 UNC national championship basketball team’s starting team was all black? Or that the state has three major league professional sports teams, one of them owned by a successful black businessman? That another won the world championship? Or that a woman is the editor of the state’s largest newspaper and a black is the publisher of the second largest?

Now it’s your turn. What else would sweep our NC Rip off his feet?

After a period of adjustment, Washington Irving wrote that the original Rip ‘“now resumed his old walks and habits; he soon found many of his former cronies, though all rather the worse for the wear and tear of time; and preferred making friends among the rising generation, with whom he soon grew into great favor.’”

I wonder if our NC Rip would also be able to adjust so well. What do you think?