The Man Who Knew A Briar-Eating Mule

It’s interesting the things you remember about people when they’re gone.  Example: Doug Mayes, the longtime Charlotte newscaster who passed away a few days ago at the age of 93.  When the tributes poured in for Doug, and there was an avalanche of them, folks talked about what a calm, reassuring presence he was on the evening newscast and what a gentleman he was, both on-air and in person.

I remember and honor all of that, because Doug was a friend, colleague and mentor.  But I will also never forget his imitation of a mule eating briars.

Doug was a Tennessee country boy who never forgot where he was from.  He went off to serve in the Navy in World War Two, already an accomplished musician, and came home to play string bass on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville before he began a many-decades career as a broadcaster.  Doug retained throughout his life the qualities he was raised with – honesty and forthrightness, homespun wisdom, loyalty to friends and family.  They are qualities that serve any person well, and he was richly endowed with them.

But Doug Mayes also brought from his Tennessee roots the knowledge of the sound a mule makes when it’s eating briars.  I’m sure he observed it first-hand, following a mule around a field during Spring plowing when he was a boy.  There’s no sound quite like it in the world – hard to describe, but when you heard it, you knew right away it was authentic.  It was a mule saying, As a mule, I’m bound to eat briars, but it’s a bother, and I’d have just as soon not done it.

Doug never did the imitation on the air that I know of, but sitting beside him on the news set at Charlotte’s WBTV many an evening, I came to know the imitation well.  He would always come forth with it when things were tight – when news was breaking fast and the air was filled with tension, when all hell was breaking loose back in the control room because a piece of film or videotape wasn’t ready.  Our motto was, “Don’t ever let ‘em see you sweat.”  The audience could care less if you were tense or the film wasn’t ready.  You were there to give them a calm, accurate, balanced view of the world at that moment.  But that didn’t mean we weren’t sweating underneath our makeup.  So Doug would do the mule bit while we were in a commercial break and that would ease the tension and we could get on with things.

I arrived at WBTV in 1970, a wet-behind-the-ears youngster out of Alabama, going to work for a station full of the giants of Carolina broadcasting, Doug among them.  They – Doug especially – made me feel at home, made me feel valued, made me want to do my best to uphold the standards he and the others had set.  They made me feel part of their family and gave me a home I didn’t want to leave during the 25 years I worked there.

I was proud to be among them.  And I was proud to know and work with a man with roots deep in the good, solid things about America.  A man who knew first-hand what a mule sounds like when he’s eating briars.