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Blue Fog Mountain: The Enlightenment of a Mama's Boy

Blue Fog Mountain: The Enlightenment of a Mama's Boy

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Blue Fog Mountain: The Enlightenment of a Mama's Boy

Longitud:
567 página
9 horas
Publicado:
Jun 21, 2018
ISBN:
9781641384377
Formato:
Libro

Descripción

Blue Fog Mountain has been described as a wholesome, uplifting story about a boy growing up on top of a remote Appalachian mountain. It takes place during the late 1920s, as the nation was headed into the Great Depression. Many portions of the Southern Highlands remained isolated and already economically depressed. Such was the case in the rugged mountains of Southwest Virginia. The book is a fictional story written into a largely factual setting about the enlightenment of a midteen as he confronts the challenges and embraces life lessons in that time and place. The predominant underlying themes throughout the story are the strength of family relationships and the shared faith that binds the community together in their mutual struggle to survive in primitive and difficult circumstances. Another central characteristic in the story is the awakening of a young mind to learning opportunities, both from teacher and books, as well as more practical lessons gleaned from the wisdom of elders. Among the lighter ongoing themes are the exciting music and dancing that had migrated to the mountains from Scots-Irish ancestry, as well as the self-testing components of competition and sports. Then there is the beginning of the journey to solve the greatest of all mysteries; the intrusion of the opposite sex, the collision with chaotic, adolescent hormones, and the emotional upheaval of first love. From the glorious natural beauty of the region to the nostalgia of old mountain hymns to tales of "moonshine" stills to just the warm memories of growing up loved, anyone who is familiar with the old ways in the Appalachians or would enjoy learning more about them should expect a good read.

Publicado:
Jun 21, 2018
ISBN:
9781641384377
Formato:
Libro

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Blue Fog Mountain - Jim Reedy

Blue Fog Mountain

The Enlightenment of a Mama's Boy

Jim Reedy

Copyright © 2018 Jim Reedy

All rights reserved

First Edition

Page Publishing, Inc

New York, NY

First originally published by Page Publishing, Inc 2018

ISBN 978-1-64138-436-0 (Paperback)

ISBN 978-1-64138-438-4 (Hardcover)

ISBN 978-1-64138-437-7 (Digital)

Printed in the United States of America

FOR

JODY LYNN

AND

ELIZABETH ANN

In Gratitude

For the love, joy and pride

each has brought to my life

I

He literally hurtled down the mountain, bounding in leaps, then running a few steps before jumping again to avoid a rock or fallen branch or tangled vines that could catch a foot and send him sprawling. He always focused a few yards ahead, looking for such a barrier to materialize, including any depressions or animal holes that could yield the same result. Maybe worse, if he hit the latter. Two years ago, his younger brother Dennis, whom he called by his middle name, Jack, had snapped an ankle when he stepped in a snake hole while fishing along the bank of Sandy Bottom Creek.

But Wesley felt it mandatory to maintain his breakneck pace, at least until crossing the creek and making it partway up the opposite ridge. Somewhere behind him was a pack of rabid teenagers whose sole purpose was to run him down. Their pursuit strategy was well thought out from all having played that same game since they were youngsters. They would spread out, staying close enough to one another to prevent Wes from doubling back, then take turns, sending one of the group ahead in a sprint to try to keep him from resting, hoping to eventually tire him out. It was a tactic adopted from stories of similar methods used by nineteenth-century American Indians; on foot by the Eastern tribes, including the Cherokee and Shawnee of their own region, and from horseback out West. Once close enough, they would try to encircle him, cutting off avenues of escape and capture him.

Wesley wasn’t that large in stature but solid and functionally muscular, having the appearance of being more slender than he really was. The strongest thing about him was his legs. They were chasing him because he was the Fox in a game of Fox and Hounds. There were few cars on the mountain, so the primary mode of transport for most was their own two feet. So Wesley ran, and he enjoyed it, and he was good at it. He also considered walking a waste of time, so he ran—through the woods, to visit his neighbors, to school, or to Uncle Fred’s place. For the last few years, he had never lost a race on the mountain, even to older boys. So they usually named him the Fox because his speed and stamina could extend the game for a couple of hours, maybe more.

II

It was one of two favorite games for after church on Sunday afternoons.

At least when they had church. Services were somewhat sporadic, as they had no full-time preacher and depended on traveling clergy and a couple of retired ministers who filled in on occasion. Church was the primary social event on the Ridge, even for the children, because the Sabbath was their only day for rest and visiting with neighbors. The remainder of the week was filled with school, which was also somewhat irregular, and after school and on Saturdays helping to eke out a living on their small mountain farms. So Sundays were special.

Painter’s Chapel was a modest white building, but of adequate size for the community, and most families on the mountain attended. It was wood-framed, sat on cinder blocks, and had a coal-burning, pot-bellied stove for winters, although services were even less frequent in cold weather. At that elevation, there was little need in summer for electric fans, but on the hottest days, you could open all six windows and, if desperate, use the cardboard, handheld fans provided in the hymnal rack by Mullins’ Funeral Home down in Pineville, the county seat.

Wesley and most of the boys, as well as some of the men, wore bib overalls to church. But they were their freshly washed, best bib overalls, which partially covered a clean, starched white shirt that would be shed and preserved for the next Sunday before the afternoon activities began. A few men wore ties, even with overalls, acceptable attire for adult males attending church.

Most of the boys had only one pair of shoes, often hand-me-downs, which were the same ones they wore to school or in which they worked and played. They were usually tough, durable brogans, more than likely purchased from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog and ideal for multiuse by a mountain boy. If you could run in them, most anything else felt like wings for the feet.

After a service of rousing, old mountain hymns and a vigorous plea from the pulpit to repent, about fifteen or so youngsters, mostly boys and a few girls, would meet in the picnic area near the small cemetery. They would have a few bites of light lunch and socialize, tease and laugh with each other until the food settled. Then usually between one and two o’clock, depending on how long the preacher administered his efforts to save them, a Fox was nominated and released into the woods with a ten minute head-start down the ridge. The game wouldn’t be over until the Fox was cornered or captured, or by approaching dusk, which varied some with the season but generally came fairly early in the mountains, due to the sun setting behind the ridge.

Only about ten percent of the entire county could be classified as level or flat. In that section of the Cumberland Plateau the ridges and valleys were so dense that whether trying to carve out spaces for gardens or chasing someone down a severe slope, you were dealing with rough, rocky, uneven terrain.

Wes’s strategy was simple. First, not to let them hear or catch sight of him for as long as possible, because once someone did, the mountainside would come alive with noise. Their yells and whoops would do any pack of hounds proud, letting their comrades know the Fox had been spotted and to follow the noise to try to head him off and hem him in. Once they sighted him he knew it was unlikely he could give them the slip again and only a matter of time until he was cornered. But the implied slyness of being a fox was well-founded, and his experience in the role meant using his wiles as well as his legs.

It was a good mile and a half from the top of the ridge to the creek, and once he crossed he would go part-way up the opposite side before stopping to rest. From that height advantage he might occasionally catch glimpses of his pursuers coming down the slope toward the creek. If he lost sight of them, he would stop and listen for any noise they created from running through the leaves or snapping dead twigs underfoot. Sometimes he would find high ground or even climb onto the lower branch of a tree to see if he could spot them.

III

There were long-established boundaries for the game that ran from the top of the Spur ridge across the hollow to the top of Caney Ridge. The Sheep Cliffs to the east and Grandpa and Grandma Yates’ farm to the west formed natural lateral markers. Altogether the area probably encompassed six to seven square miles. If he tired of running, there were hiding places Wes had used a few times, usually in a tree or thicket. He had let them pass before carefully backtracking toward the creek and Chapel. But these mountain kids knew such strategies, and if discovered, the game was quickly over.

This time, after resting thirty seconds to catch his breath, he started moving again, but one of the Bass boys who had out-flanked him heard him running in the leaves. To draw the others toward Wesley he began making such a racket with high, piercing hollers that it would bring them running like ants to sorghum. Now they knew his location, so he decided to use alternate intervals of running and resting, and because he was the swiftest, see how long he could lead them on the chase. This was Wes’s favorite part of the game. Once he was in sight he enjoyed playing cat-and-mouse, teasing them when resting by sitting on a rock or log and calmly watching them close the gap. Sometimes he’d let them get within fifty yards before jumping up and taking off again, until he was once again out of sight.

Abbreviated games were called for in the shorter days of fall and spring, or in July or August when the group wanted to cool off. In the warmer and longer days of summer, an early capture often meant the whole group went back down to Sandy Bottom Creek and with as little clothing as possible in mixed company, everyone used the cool, clear water for a refreshing dip and splash-around. Some had even learned to swim a little in the largest pool beyond the small, rock dam, though it was only about thirty-five to forty feet across at the widest point and no more than three-and-a-half to four feet deep.

IV

For the shorter games three of the other boys were fast enough to be occasionally appointed Fox. Usually they were also the primary threats to Wes’s freedom, particularly the two Bass brothers. Because of them he doubted he would make it to sunset, when uncertain footing in the diminishing light ended the game. Another threat was George Ray, the oldest son of the Cooper family. He was a strapping boy; big, thick and muscular with an attitude to match.

George Ray’s speed was not of coordination but brute strength, and when he ran through the woods, he ran through the woods, leaving a wake of leaves and broken bushes as evidence he’d passed by. But with him, since stealth was not his forte, you could always hear him coming, because other than trees, he dodged little else. However, if he got close, you would do well to zig-zag, as he might dive right through a thicket of briars to tackle you. He had the scratches on his arms, even his face, to prove it.

There was a fourth pursuer who could be a serious factor in his potential capture; a girl of all things. There were only a half-dozen girls among the regular participants, and most were there for social motives; to hang out with the group or because they had a crush on one of the boys. But this one posed a genuine threat and once had even been chosen as Fox. She was a little wisp of a girl. Her name was Marguerite Katrina Polansky, but her family all called her Margy with a hard g or Kat.

Wesley had gone all the way through school with her. Although the teacher had used her proper name of Marguerite, she had come to be known to her classmates as Pip. She’d been given that nickname by Joyce Anne Rasmussen, an older girl of angelic visage with blue eyes and blond curls. She happened to be the best-looking girl in the school but unfortunately, filled with hubris. Margy was petite and lithe, the smallest girl in the upper grades. Joyce Anne exercised her penchant to lord her beauty and general superiority over her classmates, and Margy in particular, by always referring to her as the Pip-Squeak. Thus forever Pip to the rest of them.

V

Pip was the third generation off-spring of a Hungarian family, who like many Middle European immigrants had come to the Virginia and West Virginia coal fields for work. Most had settled in clans in coal towns which were owned by the Clinch River Mining Company. The company had built small, row houses for which their workers paid a modest rent. They also owned almost all the services available to their employees; the company store, drug store, bank, a make-shift movie theatre. It was a system where most of an employee’s paycheck was eventually returned to the company through living expenses and entertainment. Even if someone managed to save a few dollars, it was likely deposited in the company bank.

Wesley knew about the Hunkies from a relative who had left the mountain and settled in one of two such towns located in either direction from Freeman Station, at the foot of the mountain along the McClary River. The river and the main road out of the region, as well as the railroad carrying coal and timber away from the mountains, all snaked their way along the narrow flat between their mountain and the next.

Wes’s family occasionally visited the town down the river to see his mother’s Uncle Pen. The trips were memorable for him because one of the most delectable treats he ever put in his mouth was Hunkie bread; large, round loaves baked in stone ovens constructed in their small backyards. They didn’t even wait to get home before sampling it. That first, warm taste, smeared with Uncle Pen’s butter, rivaled his mother’s cornbread.

Pip’s grandfather, Petrov Polansky, had Americanized his name to Peter, which was shortened to Pete by his coworkers and then by everyone outside of family who knew him. He had left his job as a mine foreman after saving enough to start a barebones country store at Bear Den Gap. It was located about halfway up the mountain where the road from Freeman Station crossed a lower ridge before winding on down toward Pineville, eight miles away.

If you turned off the main road at the Gap and continued several miles on up Caney Ridge, you reached Bise’s Corner, the junction where the gravel road on Yates’ Spur butted into the paved road. The intersection housed the only three community buildings on top of the mountain; the church, the schoolhouse and a store. Just about the entire social life on the mountain revolved around them.

VI

Bass’s Store sat on the corner across the Spur Road from Painter’s Chapel and housed a small grocery and some hardware. The school was located diagonally across the paved road opposite both of them. It was another wood-framed building sitting on blocks, like the church, but more square in shape and without the God-seeking peaked roof. It consisted of one very large classroom which ensconced all twenty-nine pupils, who were taught by one teacher, Mr. Cordell McReid.

And how did one teacher deal with seven grade levels, ages ranging from seven to seventeen, in one classroom? Mr. Mac had a wealth of knowledge, a teaching personality and skills as a leader and motivator, but of all his gifts maybe the most impressive was his organizational ability. He spent the first part of each school year establishing a fairly sophisticated mentoring system, using mini-workshops to train the older and more capable students to work with their younger classmates. After a couple of years some became so proficient at taking what Mr. Mac had taught them and passing it on to the younger ones that they relished their roles as facilitators in the learning process. They not only earned the praise of Mr. Mac but the gratitude and respect of their charges. And their mission covered the gamut from arithmetic to reading to physical skills. It was like Mr. Mac was the CEO of a finely tuned corporation.

VII

Pip was a grade level below Wesley, although the differentiation often became muddled in the mentoring system, depending on how bright the student and capable the tutor. He had first gotten to know her in the fourth grade when Mr. Mac had initially assigned her to him. So effectively Pip had learned a good bit of her English, math, and history with his help, and for it she idolized him. But his seemingly indifferent tone and attitude in their interrelations stymied her, and any potential feelings of true affection gave way to friendship. So now she was much like a younger sister.

Pip was slender but wiry strong with a narrow base, and until her hormones started to kick in, could challenge him in any race. She had three older brothers, two beyond school age and the youngest who had quit to help with the family store. Growing up she had done pretty much whatever they did. Wes didn’t consider her a Tom Boy, but rather a Tom Girl, because although athletic and competitive, she was definitely a girl; feminine in every way by mannerisms and personality, even the way she moved. Running through the woods in their Sunday hunt-and-chase games, she was the antithesis of George Ray. Her feet appeared to barely touch the ground, giving the illusion of a tiny fairy or wood-nymph. Unlike George Ray careening through the landscape, she was more akin to a small doe flitting through the trees and over the rough and rocky terrain. In the schoolyard she had now accepted Wes’s superior speed, but they would still race, if he gave her an appropriate head start.

Where Wesley was relatively fair complected from his Scots-Irish heritage, he still tanned, maybe because he had Cherokee blood in his ancestry, but his brown hair and eyes were put to shame by Pip’s. As long as he had known her, she was like a light-caramel-colored stick with chopped-off hair that was almost completely black and had huge eyes so dark they appeared to have no iris. They were effervescent, luminous eyes, lively and excited, which put him off a little, if he stared into them too long. And those eyes were a precursor to an inquisitive nature that devoured possessive pronouns through Edgar Rice Burroughs, fractions through pre-algebra or stories of the American settlers who passed through the nearby Cumberland Gap, as they carried the new nation westward. And though just a good friend, she was aptly nick-named, because let’s face it, Pip was a Pip.

VIII

On this early summer Sunday when the pack had closed the noose, and he was tired of running anymore, he climbed a small Oak to rest. He was high enough to be mostly hidden by the lower branches, but sure enough, it was Pip who found him. She knew he was close and knew his tricks, so she would walk all the way around any prospective tree. When she was below him he carefully worked his way around the trunk, trying to keep it between them, but he saw her peering up at him through the foliage, her face alight with excitement.

Weeessleey, I seeee you, Wesley, she mocked him in a sing-song voice.

He stayed still, said nothing and waited for the whistle. That’s the thing she could do as well as she could run. Her small voice didn’t carry, so rather than yell, she would stick her two middle fingers in her mouth and out would come this shrill, piercing whistle. Her Papa had taught her how to do it, primarily for communication and safety concerns. In this scenario however, it was her distinctive signal to the pack that the quarry had been located; the Fox, rather than the proverbial raccoon, had been treed.

But the whistle never came.... then he heard her giggle ....and she disappeared. His advancing pursuers were close enough that he could hear them, but then he did hear the whistle, well off to his right, and all the noise moved in that direction and dissipated. The whole episode mystified him, but he waited another couple of minutes, climbed down and took off toward the creek for a cool-off dip. On his way he still heard that giggle in his head and decided it was one of his favorite sounds.

As he came out of the bushes at the edge of the water, he noticed a circle of ripples indicating something or someone had entered, but he saw nothing else. Then a head and torso broke the surface, facing off to the left, and he realized Pip had beaten him there. She had shed her homemade skirt and overblouse, and the wet shift underneath was now plastered to her skin. Like the sudden discovery of unexpected treasure, he noticed for the first time that the straight lines of her little, brown stick figure were interrupted by small irregularities that disturbed the flatness on both sides.

They were like knots on a small tree trunk, but more rounded and not that irregular. It gave him a strange stirring in the pit of his stomach, not unlike the ones he’d experienced when doing his business in the outdoor toilet down the hill behind his house. The pages of an outdated Sears catalog served as wiping paper, but the ads for ladies’ underwear had produced similar interest and feelings.

Having grown up with an older sister, Wesley was aware of the changes that occurred over the years to the female physique, but he’d paid little attention to such things, nor the opposite sex in general. Most of the boys had doted over Joyce Anne Rassmussen for years, earlier for her angelic face and blond curls, but lately there had been a huge resurgence of interest. She had filled out, adding curves to complete the package.

But to Wes she was still unappealing, for though her body had changed, her personality had not, and she was the same conceited, overbearing and manipulating person that she’d always been, and he chose not to be around her. Of course it pricked his conscience because he could hear his Mother’s voice in his ear, reciting that Bible passage from Matthew that began with Judge not . . . But he already really liked Pip, and now this.

Pip heard him enter the water and turned.

Pip, why didn’t you whistle? he asked.

I don’t know, she answered. It just seemed the thing to do at the time . . . or I guess not to do at the time.

As he neared her, she came toward him, and he waited to see what she would do, not without some anticipation. She put her hands on his shoulders, which made his body start to tingle, then one hand on his head. She pushed upward over him, leveraging most of her body out of the water, . . . then she pushed downward on his head and shoulder, and he realized she was trying to dunk his head underwater. Of course she couldn’t because it was only up to his chest, and he was standing on the creek bottom in less than four feet of water. For some reason he felt a little disappointed, as she propelled herself backward away from him, splashing him with both hands as she went.

George Ray and Jack came bursting through the bushes, struggling out of clothes and letting them lay where they fell. Then with a yell, they leaped into the water, making the biggest splash possible. They were soon followed by the rest of the group, the only difference being that the three girls stopped at the creek bank, carefully discarded their outer wear, folded it neatly in a pile, then slowly waded into the water and settled. Wes didn’t speak to Pip again that day but knew from that time forward he would never again look at her like a little sister.

IX

John Wesley Yates, his brother and two sisters were born and lived with their mother on Caney Ridge at the top of Blue Fog Mountain. It carried that name because in the mornings when you looked up at it from below, the upper ridges where they lived often seemed to have disappeared in a blue mist. Their house was actually located on Yates Spur which branched off to the left from Caney Ridge and was so designated because the predominance of its inhabitants were Yates family extended.

Wesley was named for the legendary founder of the Methodist Church with which Painter’s Chapel, the only church on the mountain, was affiliated. His mother told him that his daddy, an avid baseball fan, had wanted to name him after an also legendary spitball pitcher of that era named Burleigh Grimes. Rather than saddling him with that for the rest of his life, she had overruled her husband at the last minute, insisting a better choice was that of the renowned clergyman.

In addition to his brother Dennis Jackson Yates and the baby of the family, Maureen or Mo, Wesley had an older sister who no longer lived with them, Patricia or Patsy. She had married the youngest Puckett boy at age eighteen and had since lived with his family down in Pineville. Now whenever he saw Patsy he would loudly greet her with her new name, Patsy Puckett! putting emphasis on the P’s, usually with some accompanying spittle, because he liked the sound of the alliteration.

His father had been out of the picture since Wes was a small boy. He had become frustrated with trying to carve out a living on the small farm and gone off to Detroit to try to find a job in the developing automobile industry.

He had sent a few dollars with a few letters over the first year, but contact had gradually diminished over the second, and they had not heard from him since. His mother and now Wes had long ago accepted that they were on their own, time having extinguished the presence of absence.

Wesley’s mother, Polly Ann, held the family together with resolve, backbone and industriousness that emanated from a pioneer spirit and a strong will. Of course all of it was further fortified by rock-hard, mountain Methodism. She was still an attractive woman in her homespun and totally unsophisticated way, tanned and slender from demanding outdoor work. More importantly, she was a loving woman; affectionate and nurturing toward her children and seemingly with no animosity in her, even toward Wesley’s father who had abandoned them. Wesley not only loved her beyond all others but had the highest admiration for her abilities, both in keeping farm and family afloat, as well as for some unique skills.

Wes’s Grandma Yates had served for years as Midwife of the Mountain, many times delivering babies when the doctor in Pineville couldn’t make it in time. Upon marrying into the family his mother started assisting her, eventually inheriting the title. So now when it was time, and maybe not enough time, it was the time to go get Polly Ann. Her other special skill provided fun for the whole family, as his mother flat knew her way around a Dobro. It was from her that Wes came to love music. Her family was musical, and the instrument was one of the few things she had brought with her to the marriage.

Of course Patsy had been his Mother’s chief ally until she married Teddy Puckett. Now Wes, being the oldest at home, had become the man of the family, helping her get done what had to be done, as well as being a good brother to his younger siblings. Jack was only a year younger than Wes and could do about anything he could, so they most often worked in tandem. There was also a strong support system, anchored by Grandpa and Grandma Yates and extending through a family clan that stuck together. Wes had two uncles who lived on the mountain, Uncle Fred and Uncle Herb, who were solid as a rock, so he was of the opinion that his father must have been the Black Sheep of the family.

X

Wesley’s mother had a large garden just under the hill behind the house which was their primary source of sustenance. She raised anything that would grow in that soil, which after several years of cultivation had been gleaned of many of the rocks that characterized the entire region. It was not a pretty garden. The rows were often crooked, due to uneven ground and the plow having to dodge rocks. Nor was it always bereft of weeds, but in mountain farming, form always surrendered to function.

The gardens on the Spur were evaluated by one thing, and it was not how they looked, but only by yield. What it produced was vital, so they made sure plants were suckered and fertilized or manured to the extent it was available, even if it were at the expense of having some weeds between the rows. To a degree their existence depended on it. So in the spring, Grandpa Yates would make the rounds, walking his old mule with wagon in tow and plow in back, to any family on the ridge who needed the soil turned, always adding a section for feed corn for the animals. And thus the cycle began; planting, hoeing, harvesting, and preserving enough to last the winter.

The house was weathered clapboard and sat on blocks about two-and-a-half feet off the ground. It was hazardous to retrieve a stray ball from under it, due to the nearly invisible poop left by the chickens that wandered the yard. The lines of the Appalachian Power Company had finally reached the end of the Spur, so the house had been recently electrified for lights, but they had no appliances, no indoor plumbing or central heat.

There was a wood stove for cooking and baking in the kitchen, and the living room and main bedroom each had a fireplace. Needless to say, they were popular areas in winter for most indoor tasks and all socializing. Wesley and Jack slept together in a double bed in the back bedroom, and on the coldest mornings there would be white frost that had accumulated on the inside of the window sill. They slept with quilts piled over their heads. When their mother hadn’t soaked the pinto beans long enough to get all the whistle out, they would compete to see which could first make the other come up for air. Then they’d laugh, fan the covers and go back under.

There was a small smokehouse just off the kitchen which also contained the well. A metal cylinder was lowered that would make a bubbling sound when it filled. It would then be drawn up with a crank and a lever pulled to express its contents into a bucket and transported according to purpose, usually to the kitchen for drinking, cooking or washing up. Doing one’s ablutions required heating enough water on the cook stove to make it bearable, especially in the winter.

The privy or outhouse was far enough under the hill to prevent a malevolent breeze from carrying the odor house-ward. However, doing one’s business after dark or in cold or bad weather usually was accomplished in a chamber pot, commonly called a slop jar, kept near the bed. It was not to be confused with the slop bucket, which was a large container behind the kitchen stove into which all leftovers, garbage and parts of any foodstuff considered inedible by humans, like potato peelings and apple cores, would be deposited. Add a little water and it supplemented the corn fed to the pigs, thus slopping the hogs.

The family’s well-being depended on the preservation of foodstuffs, and nothing was wasted. A hog was butchered once a year, and it was a family event, as his uncles, aunts and grandparents all helped. The first time Wesley witnessed it was a traumatic experience for him. He and Jack most often carried the slop bucket from the kitchen to the pen to dump the contents into the feeding trough, and he had named their largest boar Fred after his favorite and fairly good sized uncle. But now after shooting Fred between the eyes with the .22 rifle, they had used a block-and-tackle to hoist the huge hog off the ground, then slit its throat to let the blood drain out. It had sickened him a little and was a similar experience to the first time he’d watched Grandma Yates kill a chicken. She had grabbed its neck, given it a couple of violent, circular twists, then he watched the headless body wildly flopping around the yard for what seemed like a good five minutes. Grandma went back toward the house with head in hand.

But Wesley soon accepted the sacrifice the hog had made for the welfare of his family, as the porcine Fred provided meat for almost an entire year. There was ham, bacon and other pork cuts that were cured with salt and/or hickory smoke. Grandpa Yates grinder was used to produce homemade sausage, and even the intestines were kept for Chitlins. Wes couldn’t stand the odor when the intestines were boiled, but once they were fried he had no problem with them, even for breakfast. The hog also yielded a favorite dish which had been borrowed from the German immigrants who had migrated down into the Appalachians from Eastern Pennsylvania. The pig’s stomach was saved for when his mother would stuff it with sausage, potatoes and spices, then sew it up and bake it. As unappetizing as its name sounded, Pig’s Stomach was a much anticipated annual treat. Even the pig’s fat was rendered for lard and sometimes put in molds to make candles, or combined with lye and water to make homemade hand soap.

There was also a root cellar that had been dug out at a small spring under the hill behind the house, mainly to store potatoes. But the primary mode to preserve vegetables and some fruits was canning, Among the most valued possessions of every family on the mountain were Mason jars in which his mother would can or put up row upon row of green beans, corn and tomatoes, as well as pickled cucumbers and some berry jams.

Chickens were raised for frying or laying eggs, and there was a cow for milk and butter. And boy, could his mother make delicious bread. She would use a coarse, white, mountain corn meal and a heavy, black iron skillet to bake cornbread that was brown and crusty on the outside, and when you broke it open, moist and mouth-watering on the inside. He had tasted traditional yellow, sweet Southern cornbread, but this put it to shame, especially if it were smeared with butter, sorghum or berry jam.

Another staple was to combine cornbread with pinto beans, and the broth in which they were cooked, to make soup beans. When seasoned with onions and peppers it was often the main dish of the meal. If any cornbread were left over, it could be mixed with sweet milk and eaten for breakfast as milk-and-bread or crumble-in. In addition to pintos, Wesley loved a variety of green bean grown on the mountain. White half-runners did particularly well at elevation, and what made them special was they could be left on the vine longer without the hull getting tough, allowing the white beans inside to fully mature. When cooked with a piece of ham or fatback and sided with hot cornbread, fresh tomatoes and sweet, white Silver Queen corn-on-the-cob, it was so delicious that no meat was necessary to complete the meal.

XI

Due to the density of the mountain ridges, there were few wide valleys in Jefferson County. The county seat, Pineville, was located in one but still set among rolling hills. To get to Wesley’s house from Pineville to the west or from Freeman Station to the east, you had to climb halfway up the mountain to Bear Den Gap, then turn off and continue upward on Caney Ridge. The road was paved but narrow with no shoulders and steep drop-offs over the side of the mountain. It was filled with blind curves, so most sounded their car horns to warn what little oncoming traffic there was to move over. Once reaching Bise’s Corner on top of the ridge, the Spur jutted off to the left and became a secondary gravel road, from which one-lane dirt roads would break away periodically into the small farms.

The driveway into Wes’s house was so uneven and rocky that any vehicle had to creep along for fear of breaking an axle. Rather than risk it, some visitors would leave their cars on the Spur near the entrance gate and walk to the house. However, not so many people on Caney or the Spur had cars anyway, which did little to relieve the sense of isolation that the mountains imposed on its inhabitants. They walked most places, including to church and school which were almost two miles from Wes’s front door. The time it took to do so had to be factored into any plans. A trip by vehicle off the ridges, even down to Polansky’s Store at the Gap, was a special event, and to travel the eight miles from there on down to Pineville was a rare treat.

Wes rarely left the mountain, but it didn’t concern him because he loved where he lived. The wild, natural beauty around him was not lost on him, nor did he take it for granted. Some mornings he would look out from his front porch at the clouds hanging below his house in the valley between the ridges and marvel at the panoramic beauty. Until the sun got high and burned them off, they looked like a white, fluffy ocean extending all the way over to Caney Ridge several miles away. And to him walking, or more likely in his case running, through the woods with the sweet fragrances of honeysuckle and mountain laurel hanging in that cool, crisp air in the Virginia Highlands was about as good as it got. He’d never really given any thought about it, being most of what he’d ever known.

Those mountains had one of the highest concentrations of trillium wildflowers in the country, but it was the trees he loved most, particularly the hardwoods; the Hickory and the giant Oak. He loved the canopy they provided, like a continuous, shady roof for his outdoor world. They contributed to the peacefulness and privacy to what for him was his own personal sanctuary. He loved the dazzling canvas they painted when the leaves turned in autumn, particularly the Maples with their brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. But he also loved them for the firewood they provided to stoke stove and fireplaces that kept his family warm in cold winter mornings, when he and his siblings scrambled out from under quilts and raced to the hearth to dress.

And then there was the Chestnut. In his mind one of the biggest tragedies in his young life, other than his father leaving, was the gradual disappearance of his favorite tree, as well as its close relative, the Chinquapin. There was a certain sadness to it, almost like the passing of an old friend. According to his grandparents, at one point in the not so distant past, before the blight began to decimate them, about one in every four trees in the Southern Appalachians was an American chestnut.

Wesley knew the once ubiquitous species was also in other regions of the Country because his teacher, Mr. Mac, had read a poem to them by a New Englander named Longfellow. It was entitled The Village Blacksmith and started with Under a spreading Chestnut tree, the village smithy stands.

Evidence of the loss of this valuable resource was reflected in the diminished use of the Chestnut as a building material. According to his Grandpa, in the late nineteenth century, it was the primary wood used in constructing houses, barns, furniture and even telegraph poles and railroad ties. His Grandpa had learned that from his father, Wes’s great grandpa, who had worked in the timber industry.

Other than coal mining, logging was the only other industry in the county. Jobs were scarce, so if you had no farm, or did and couldn’t squeeze a living out of it, you basically had two options. One was to go underground and dig coal. If you couldn’t abide that, you went down the mountain to the sawmill near Freeman Station to try to get a job with the lumber company; cutting, hauling, processing and/or loading timber onto the trains that passed through the hollow on their way out of the mountains. Wes doubted that he could ever work there and contribute to the mass murder of his beloved trees.

Their very house was constructed primarily of Chestnut, and Grandma still had old pieces of furniture made of the wood. They told him that these Sequoias of the East had sometimes grown to six feet through and over twenty feet around, with the first branches not leaving the bole until fifty to sixty feet from the ground. They had pictures as proof from somewhere just south of them in the Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina. In addition, due to his affinity for the flora of his native area, Mr. Mac told them of the Chestnut’s nutritional history; how the trees had sustained the Greek army 400 years before Christ, as well as entire populations in Europe, prior to the cultivation of wheat and eventual dependence on potatoes.

XII

Of the Chestnuts remaining on the Ridge, Wes knew every location, because his favorite feature of the trees was their yield. He would visit them regularly in hopes of finding some of those velvety pods that housed the large, sweet, meaty nut. He would often eat one or two on the spot, then gather all he could find for his family. Due to scarcity, they were now treated as a delicacy, roasting them in the fireplace to further enhance that nutty flavor. Wesley had only tasted ice cream twice on trips down to Pineville, so these treasures provided a treat that rivaled even sorghum.

Grandpa Yates was affectionately known to the grandchildren by the self-assigned nickname, Pretty Grandpa. He would tell them, You have more than one grandpa, but I’m your Pretty Grandpa. His scraggly, white stubble and bib overalls, covering a wrinkled undershirt, belied the accuracy of his self-assessment. But he was a good man, even precious; full of humor and good will.

Of great importance to Wes and the rest of the family, other than his Uncle Fred, he was the only consistent source of sweets on the mountain. The scarcity of cash perpetuated a bartering system for necessities that occasionally extended to store sugar, but to taste it in one of his mother’s or grandmother’s baked goods usually required some sort of special event, like a birthday or holiday. But Pretty Grandpa had an old mule named Fanny that he used to plow, as well as a small sorghum mill.

Farmers in the area often grew sweet sorghum cane, similar to sugar cane, as a side crop, usually as forage and silage for their animals. Each fall many would bring a portion of their crop to Grandpa for milling, some even from off the mountain. The old mule would be attached to the mill by a long rod and then walk in circles, turning the stone wheels that crushed the cane. This was a big event for the youngsters, waiting through the heating and cooling phases to sample the end product. For every ten gallons he processed Grandpa kept one as payment, so the sweet, gummy liquid motivated all of them to stay in his good graces. What a blessing to have it on anything; hoecakes, corn cakes, cornbread, oatmeal, mush, and of course it could be cooked or baked into anything, including sorghum cake, pie or cookies.

XIII

One of Wesley’s forays to find chestnuts led to what turned out to be an enlightening, life-changing experience. He’d heard of a small stand of chesnut trees on the opposite ridge and well east of his house, just below the Sheep Cliffs, a large outcropping of rock about fifty feet high and a half-mile long. In that direction it served as a natural boundary to Wesley’s normal day to day activities. It was filled with ledges and nooks and even two shallow caves which he had explored several times. And sure enough at the foot of the cliffs he saw five or six Chestnuts, so down the edge of the precipice he climbed and discovered a bounty of the treasured nuts.

He filled a small drawstring bag, then took off his shirt to hold even more, tied the sleeves to secure them and started his ascent back up the cliff. Near the halfway point his feet hit some loose, sandstone shale and forced him into a decision, which turned out to be the wrong one. With his hands full of chestnuts he could drop them for places unknown below him and grab hold or not lose them and take his chances. Unfortunately, his entire family’s fondness for the nuts overruled the precariousness of his position. He lost his balance as his feet slid out from under him, fell and tumbled head over heels, chestnuts flying everywhere. He rolled down the steep grade beyond the foot of the cliffs until he finally stopped in a thicket covering another group of rocks, Although stunned, he knew he was in trouble.

He was covered with scratches and bruises and his ankle was throbbing with pain. Then he heard the rustle of leaves near his feet and realized his abrupt arrival had disturbed an animal. It was probably a rabbit or squirrel, at least he hoped so, rather than that which he dreaded. Lying on his back, he started scrambling backward on all fours out of the thicket, but it was too late. He felt the bite on his lower leg through his pants, then caught a glimpse of tan and bronze color slithering quickly away. He assumed it was a Copperhead because of the colors, and he had not heard the warning of the Timber Rattler. Now he knew he could be in real trouble.

You could not grow up in those mountains and not know about snakes. Spending as much time in the woods as he did, Wesley had been aware of them his whole life. He didn’t fear them as much as he just respected their privacy. He’d been taught at an early age by his parents and then reinforced by Uncle Fred to recognize the different species, particularly to differentiate between the poisonous pit vipers and those that posed no danger. He knew that the Blacksnake allied with Pretty Grandpa’s old .22 rifle in controlling the vermin population, and just to avoid the dangerous Rattlesnakes and Copperheads indigenous to the area. He also knew to move with caution in their habitat, such as warm rocky areas and crevices, or old wood piles, but in this case he’d unintentionally and obtrusively violated the snake’s space.

Though he didn’t know the extent of his injuries, he had told Jack where he was going when he’d asked him to go along. Now that had probably become a non-factor because the snake had imposed an accelerated timetable to his predicament. Still on his back, his lower leg was already starting to throb with pain, as well as swelling and discoloring around the wound. He began to feel a combination of dread and adrenaline. As his head began to clear and thinking gradually replaced panic, he heard another noise just behind his head and sensed that something was hovering above him. The panic returned, and it was amazing in an instant what went through his mind. Deer were a nuisance to crops but stayed away from people, but he knew there were bears in those woods because he’d seen them. When he glanced behind him he forgot about the snake bite, and that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach had become unadulterated fear. Standing above and looking down at him was a bear .

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