At 90 years old, David Watters has spent his life working on the cutting edge of space age electronics and communication, yet maintaining a love of God’s nature around him. As a younger man, he belonged to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Nova Hiking Club in Virginia. He was a section hiker on the Appalachian Trail, completing the entire 2,190 miles during his ‘30s and ‘40s.
Since returning to the Western North Carolina home of his grandparents about two decades ago, Watters has immersed himself in the local activities of the Nantahala Hiking Club and The Appalachian Trail Community of Franklin. All his conversations just naturally evolve into the realm of Trail Angels and Trail Magic, which he frequently refers to as Trail Providence.
As a Trail Angel, Watters primarily shuttles Appalachian Trail thru-hikers from Winding Stair Gap into Franklin and from Franklin back to Winding Stair Gap. Franklin is 108 miles from the trailhead at Springer Mountain, Ga., which means the hikers are ready for a hot shower, food and a comfortable bed before hitting the trail again. He provides them with names of places that accommodate hikers, and restaurants and businesses that cater to their outdoor equipment needs. His Jeep will carry six people and a dog. It has a rack on top for their backpacks and other gear. Normally he takes the hikers out to eat when they arrive in Franklin, frequently paying for their meals also.
Trail Angels not only provide transportation to hikers, but they will show up at any of the numerous gaps along the Trail to provide food and rest for weary hikers. He said one couple drives from Atlanta, Ga., to Deep Gap, via a serpentine logging road to the Gap’s first automobile access in order to offer a feast of grilled burgers and fresh veggies and fruits.
He has a deep sense of pride in the hospitality shown to the hikers by Franklin and its citizens and businesses. This year the Appalachian Trail Days Celebration runs from March 20 through April 22, and features numerous events for our hiking visitors. First Baptist Church will continue its annual tradition of serving free breakfast to the hikers beginning March 20 continuing through April 9 . Then, April 1 unveils the April Fool’s Bash, a celebration of food and festivities provided by the town of Franklin and participating businesses.
Watters likes to speak of Trail Magic as Trail Providence. This mysterious adjunct to Trail Angels is the seemingly random appearance of some item a hiker might need at that time, be it a piece of equipment needed on the Trail or even something of a personal nature. For example, one man on the trail lost his glasses during the course of a day’s trek. Upon arriving at a shelter late in the day, he discovered a pair of glasses that somehow was left behind by an earlier hiker? Trail Magic or Trail Providence? Take your pick. At any rate, his need was met by an inexplicable, unsolved occurrence.
Although Watters’ name is not on any contact list, he began receiving calls from hikers several weeks ago. Being an electronics communication expert, he is always connected and available when a call comes in from a hiker. His land line phone forwards all calls to his cell phone and his cell phone talks through a com pilot to his headset by way of wireless Bluetooth technology, which brought to mind one of his informational sidebars. Ericsson, a Swedish Company, developed the actual Bluetooth technology in 1994 as a wireless design to enable cable free connections between computers, mobile phones, PDAs, printers, etc. The technology was named for King Harald “Bluetooth” Blatand who united a number of tribal factions comprising modern-day Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, ruling them from 958 AD until his death in 986 AD. Legend has it that one of his teeth was discolored, if not actually blue, a dark color―hence the nickname. Just as Harald Blatand unified these countries, the new technology’s goal was to provide wireless communication between computers and cell phones. The Bluetooth logo employs the initials of Blatand in the old Runic symbols.
When asked about any hikers who stood out in his mind, he mentioned two ladies that he shuttled from the Trail to Franklin and back. The first was a distress call from a young woman named Mazie Cash who called him from Rock Gap very early in the 2016 season. The night was bitter cold and she was approaching hypothermia. Watters picked her up¸ brought her into Franklin, warmed her up and took her to lodging for the night. The next morning, he returned her to the Trail, and despite her rough experience, she thru-hiked all the way to Mt. Katahdin, Me.
The second was a school teacher from the Midwest, who has two grown children and a husband employed by the forestry service. She was unable to hike the entire 2,190 miles because classroom duties called before she could finish. Watters said she kept a meticulous journal and uses her trail experiences as a teaching aid in her classroom.
Watters keeps a clipboard in his Jeep listing the names of every hiker he shuttles into town. He also records cellphone numbers and the shuttle date in order to maintain periodic communication with the hikers. To date, he has logged in his cellphone more than 500 names of people he has met and shuttled.
What came before
So what was Watters up to before he became an advocate for AT hikers? His story goes back to the beginning of the 90 years of events that brought him back to the Western North Carolina, home of his ancestors. His grandmother, Ida Cunningham, was a Macon County native and his grandfather, Edward Vance (EV) McConnell hailed from Clay County.
Even though his mountain roots run deep, he was actually born in Melbourne, Fla., on Nov. 23, 1926, as he says “at a very early age.” His father, Linton, was a highway engineer which entailed a great deal of moving around. During World War I, his father was in France building highways and bridges. After he returned to the United States, he continued his work as a highway engineer traveling to jobs in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and California. Young David got to see a lot of this country in his youth.
The early 1930s took the Watters family to Flagstaff, Ariz. The most vivid memory of Flagstaff was being sent across the hill to the artesian well to carry clean drinking water to the house. Usually, when he arrived a group of Navajo women would already be there sitting in a kind of council ring. (Actually he felt it was more of a gossip ring or a social gathering time.) Getting the water was done in an orderly progression and he would sit until his turn was signaled by one of the women. While waiting his turn, he was able to look out over the valley toward Mars Hill and there he could see Lowell Observatory, where Clyde Tombaugh had recently discovered the dwarf planet, Pluto. He remembers sitting there thinking that one day he was going to Lowell Observatory.
From Arizona¸ the Watters family returned to North Carolina where young David attended elementary school, two years of high school, and then two years of military school. By this time, the United States had been drawn into World War II and he entered the Army Air Corps. He completed basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss. From there he moved on to Selman Field in Monroe, La., for flight training. His last stop before deployment to Europe was Enid Army Air Base in Enid, Okla.
When he arrived at Manchester Air Base in England, his assignment was to fly missions over France and Germany, where one third of the air crews flying over Europe did not return, he said. His duties were not typical combat undertakings, but were operations done in conjunction with the United States Wartime Intelligence Agency known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was the World War II forerunner of the modern day Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
His orders were to deliver electronic equipment to an organization called the Maquis, the French Underground resistance fighters. He flew his cargo out of Manchester at night and delivered it to isolated, rural and rudimentary air strips that hopefully would escape detection by the German Army. He said he would be flying blind into a pitch black area where he was supposed to land and suddenly the entire landing area would be illuminated by automobile lights, and flashlights guiding his approach to the field. When he touched down and stopped, he never shut down his plane’s engines. Within one to two minutes, the Maquis would empty the plane of the equipment, Watters would be back in the air headed toward England, and the resistance fighters would vanish into the dark countryside.
In 1945, 2nd Lieutenant Watters was discharged from the Army Air Corps and returned to civilian life in the United States. The first order of business was to take advantage of the GI Bill’s promise of a college education. He enrolled in Georgia Tech, majoring in Electrical Engineering. He said his time at Georgia Tech was a demanding academic exercise in physics, calculus, and strenuous weekly tests.
His one respite in Atlanta was daily visits to the Varsity Drive In, where he ate a chili dog with mustard and relish. On days when he felt really well-heeled, he would splurge by having a toasted piece of pound cake topped with ice cream.
After graduating, he moved to the Northeast to take a job with Sperry Gyroscope Company. Two years later, realizing his career aspirations were not going to be realized by working with Sperry, he traveled back to Atlanta to meet with the Georgia Tech Dean of Men. As he explained his situation to the Dean, he was given a slip of paper with a man’s name and number on it. This paper guided him to a downtown office to meet with this man, who was a CIA recruiter. After filling out a grueling 25 page questionnaire, and submitting to a polygraph test, he was hired by the CIA and assigned to COMMO¸ the electronics division, more specifically, electronic surveillance and communication equipment.
Two years later, he found NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center. In the early 1950s after his short stint with the CIA, Watters found his niche in this world working with the fledgling United States Space Program. He spent the next 40 years of his working life with NASA, in the specific area of communication and electronic technology he was promoting.
During his tenure at NASA, he was involved with the Space Shuttle, the Pegasus Program, the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform (IMP), the Moon Shots and many more. He was also a part of the initial planning of the New Horizons satellite’s voyage to Pluto. The New Horizons satellite is about the size of a Volkswagen and was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006, and arrived at its destination in the summer of 2015 performing a six-month reconnaissance of Pluto. Watters likened the accuracy of this space probe to a man standing in Franklin shooting a basketball at a goal in San Francisco and swishing the nets without touching the rim.
Roughly, two decades ago, after completing a successful career with NASA and raising three children, Watters and his beautiful wife Charlotte retired to the land of his ancestral roots in Western North Carolina. He said he inherited 55 acres of Clay County property from his grandfather’s original holdings of 2,000 acres — land which needs his attention. Of his offspring, he has a daughter and grandson also living in Franklin. One son lives in Texas and the other daughter in Oklahoma.
Near to his heart was his wife Charlotte, who was a very talented musician. Before she passed away about 15 years ago, she served as organist for Emmanuel Presbyterian Church. She is buried in Clay County. And Watters will remain nearby.