National Geographic : 2006 Jun
BY CATHY NEWMAN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICSENIOR WRITER PHOTOGRAPHS BY PENNY DE LOS SANTOS ORIGINAL RESEARCH BY HELEN ZIA You never know what's sitting in the fam ily tree. Take the Bunkers of Mount Airy, North Carolina. The clan, which has more branches than a loblolly pine, is descended from twin brothers, Chang and Eng, who settled near Mount Airy in 1839. The broth ers married sisters from a local family and had 21 children. So far, unexceptional. But Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, connected at the chest by a six-inch-long tube of flesh, were totally exceptional. Born in Siam (today's Thai land), they gave their name to the anomaly known as conjoined twins. Their descendants-some 1,500-have scat tered across the country, but many still live in Mount Airy, a town of 8,000 north of Winston Salem, where the slow roll of the Piedmont plateau lifts to the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Mount Airy, a common form of address is "Honey," the soft drink of choice is Cheerwine, spiritual tastes run to Baptist and fundamentalist, and the day starts with radio obituaries on WPAQ ("Brought to you by Moody's Funeral Home"). Here, events have encouraged enterprise. Because textiles have lost their status as economic mainstays, Mount Airy has latched on to new opportunities, such as growing grapes for wine and-because it's the birthplace of TV star Andy Griffith-promoting its Mayberry connection. Chang and Eng, who could move gracefully in tandem, do gymnastic feats, and play chess, understood enterprise. As the "Double Boys" they packed theaters and made a fortune-mostly for their promoters. At 21 they broke loose to manage their own careers. When a doctor who attended their show in New York invited them to visit the Mount Airy region, they took up the offer, bought land, and settled in as farmers. The twins loved fine cigars, literature, and smart clothes. Eng, the calm one, liked late-night poker. Chang drank and had a temper. Today, when someone like Sherry Blackmon says, "That's just the way the Bunkers are," she's referring to that temper. "Of course, I can talk about the Bunkers because I married one," says Blackmon, whose husband, Zack, is a great-great-grandson of Eng. Bunkers can turn reticent, too. "They might talk to you. Then again, they might not." They are noted for honesty, for being loving par ents, and, sometimes, for holding grudges. "They VA TN 2 27030 NC SC GA The twins took up tobacco farming in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (left), near North Carolina's border with Virginia. They added the surname "Bunker" when they became U.S. citizens.