Saturday, December 27, 2008

More Old Photos

Another old photograph out of the jumble caught my eye. It was sepia tint of the Bartley family taken around the turn of the century. Typical of family portraits taken in those days, no one smiled. In fact, they seemed to almost scowl. Unlike today’s toothy poses, having your picture taken back then was apparently serious business. It must have been popular to try to look as if someone had just died.

My grandmother, the oldest of James and Martha Jane Bartley’s six children, stood prim and erect behind her stone-faced father. This 8x10 was a reproduction from a larger original that I had seen on a wall somewhere. I wondered…did the Bartley family still gaze somberly into someone's living room? Or had the oval mahogany and beveled glass that once framed their faces been consigned to some attic or garage somewhere.

I couldn’t give a name to all the faces but I knew my cousin Norma would know them all.

“Well, the one on the left behind Grandpa Bartley is Granny”, she said, referring to our grandmother, Roxie Thompson. “The little boy holding the horse is Uncle Hodge.”

“Look at that face," I said. "He looks like someone just licked all the red off his candy.”
“That’s Lillie beside Granny,” she said, ignoring the remark. “She died real young. I think your mother was named after her.”

My mother's name is Anna Lillie Thompson. I had not known where the Lillie came from until now. I wondered how old her namesake had been when she died and why she had died so young. Norma said she didn’t know.

Left to right from Lillie was Bonnie, the spunky one, and Grace, whom I remembered as a stately woman who seemed to typify her name. “Granny Bartley” held little “Flo”, the youngest, on her lap. I had seen “aunt Flo” (short for Florence?) once when I was six years old. I remembered only that she lived in Michigan and owned a television. I had never met Uncle Hodge.

This box of pictures had taken the better part of my afternoon. There were bills to pay and e-mails to answer. I hefted the plastic bin back onto the shelf and resumed my work, thinking how like wind-driven seeds we all are. We start off together, hatchlings and parents, on the same path. Then the winds of circumstance catch us and carry us off to new ground where we leave our imprint on places and people and thereby alter the cosmos. Is this dispersal of our essence part of the master plan? Are we just part of the clockwork? It comes to mind that the first funeral I attended was that of the patriarch of this old photograph, Grandpa James Bartley, in Rose Hill, VA. I can still see him, pale and waxen in his casket, his trademark thick mustache, now gray, his most dominant feature, even in repose. I remember being frightened and, at the same time, intrigued by the spectacle of death. I remember staring at the old man's mustache and wondering why no other men in the room had one.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our family snapshots are myriad. But, alas, we have been poor stewards of them. Sure, a few are in photo albums. But most of them (my guess is 600 or more) lie unceremoniously crammed into a large, blue Tupperware box. And there they sit, a photo-chronological scramble, frozen moments in time, a life’s cast of characters tossed in a tumble like old dolls in a box.

I know better than to go near this crypt. But the box was off its perch on the office shelf last night, and needed putting up. Bad move. I began picking through its contents and before I knew it, the inert gas of nostalgia was in my nostrils, controlling my brain.

There were the “slide” years. I took transparencies in the early 70’s. Soon, I tired of holding these up to the ceiling light. The projector broke years ago. Then there were the black and white years. In the mid to late 70’s I worked for newspapers and developed my own. I was never without the Nikkormat 35 mm or the big Bronica SLR large format. (what ever happened to that camera?). I always had an unlimited supply of Tri-X 400 ASA b&w on hand. Those were the days before digital cameras and auto settings when I could still think in F-stops and shutter speeds.

Most numerous were the color photographs of the kids growing up. But what kept me in brain freeze mode the longest were the old monochromes and sepias I inherited after my father died.

I saw an oval picture of my grandmother. She was in her 20’s and a very pretty woman. Her hair was in a bun and her eyes were clear and wide. She had a slight smile that rivaled the Mona Lisa’s for mystery. She was newly married, I suspect to a man she barely knew. Her expression said she was in a new place where she was not entirely comfortable and knew a secret about her feelings she would not tell.

Growing up, I often stayed with her for weeks at a time. I watched her lug bushels of apples from a dark cellar, peel each one and then cook them into apple butter in a large iron pot. One day I went with her to feed chickens and discovered that one of the birds was doomed. She gripped the unsuspecting hen and with a quick cranking motion of her bony hand, broke its neck. This violence from such a sweet lady seemed incongruous but somehow was normal on the farm. She cut off the chicken’s head with a butcher knife. I watched the headless fowl attempt to stand until, in a few seconds, it went limp. We called my grandmother “Granny”.

Another unframed snapshot was that of my grandfather on Mother’s side. He sat, unsmiling, dressed in his farmer overalls, in a rocking chair on the front porch. “Po”, as we called him, was not a religious man. But he knew his bible, even though he would be the first to admit to not living by its principles. I think it was his refusal to swallow the pabulum of the preachers that later caused most of his children to search for truth. One day, when I was 9 years old, let me tag along with him on the farm. He sharpened a hatchet on a foot-powered grindstone. Then he led me into a thicket of cedar saplings and selected just the right one. He cut it down and shaped it into a very functional bow. He notched it, strung it and taught me how to shoot it. I never forgot that. When my son was nine years old, I repeated the ritual, all the while, thinking of the man we called “Po” who died when I was 11.

Other old photos surfaced like nuggets in a miner's pan. One was a 1939 picture of my mother and father, young and in love. Dad was rakishly handsome and my mother was, as kids today say, a real hottie. It was the pre-war days of Benny Goodman swing and jitterbug. He was cutting timber and she, well, she lived near the stand of trees. I stared at the picture a long time, wondering what it would have been like to know them and be the same age. Would we hang out? Or would they think we were stuffy and un-cool.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dog Loser Knob

We sat, perched atop a slab of solid quartz, Dan Wax and I, munching on granola and trail mix, drinking in the in the panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sky was cloudless and deep blue and the visibility was forever. By noon, the sun was a bright yellow disc high in the Southwestern sky. “The Shining Rock”, an outcropping of white quartz, formed the face of one of the mountain peaks in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. The irregular, jagged shape of the boulders made them easy to climb and the view from the summit was – there’s no other word - breathtaking. To the Northwest was Cold Mountain. I am told it was the basis of a book and later a movie. To the South was the Blue Ridge Parkway where cars moved along like ants in a conga line. The Parkway had been cut across the very top of the Appalachian mountain ridges and paved by CCP workers in the Great Depression era. From our perch we could see a good 30 mile stretch of the serpentine two-lane blacktop road. Farther off in the valley, lay the mountain town of Greenville with it’s sister city, Spartanburg.
We finished off our high-energy lunch with a last swig from our canteens and then began the descent to our campsite below. We had chosen a flat area beside the trail to set up our three-man tent which we shared. We had learned by experience that the two-man tents were for very small men. When we reached our campsite, we looked at our watches and calculated that we had about three hours of daylight left. We began combing a nearby copse of trees for dead limbs and dry brush. October has a fickle thermostat, exaggerated by the mountains. We had shed our wool shirts and were down to our tee shirts. This was work! It would have been easier to take Dan’s hatchet and chop down a tree for our campfire that night. But we didn’t do that for two reasons: (1) All the instructions for wilderness camping say to leave growing things alone. Don’t even pick the flowers! (2) Starting a fire with green firewood is next to impossible. But before long, we had a large stash of small limbs and some large logs for later when the fire was big enough.
As the sun went down, so did the temperature, dropping 30 degrees in one hour. Campfires warm the side of your body that is facing the blaze. If you are facing it, your front is toasty warm while your back freezes. So, we alternated sides like human rotisseries, to stay warm.
“This must be what it’s like on the surface of the moon”, I said, taking another swig of our “medicinal purposes” brandy.

We dragged a large log and rolled it into our fire. Sparks rose 50 feet into the night and we worried we would set our tent ablaze, but our fears were unfounded. We drank hot chocolate and waited for our propane stoves to cook dehydrated potatoes and dehydrated beef stroganoff. We talked until our fire dwindled to brightly glowing embers and decided it was time for bed.

The moon, in its waning phase, was just beginning to make its debut and the stars, having no competition, appeared as tiny spotlights of varying sizes against a black velvet curtain. We could pick out Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two constellations that shared ownership of the North Star, and Orion was barely visible on the southern horizon. Braving the sub-freezing temperatures we quickly stripped down to our underwear and crawled into our sleeping bags and were warm within minutes. This was our second night of undisturbed by a ringing telephone or any sound not produced by nature. I was getting used to it and I imagined what it would be like to live this way, in the wild, relying only on one’s skills as a hunter for food and just living off the land. Somewhere in mid-thought the daydream became a night dream and I drifted into unconsciousness. We slept the peaceful sleep of far away and out of reach

The next morning we awoke to 15 degrees and convinced ourselves against our will to exit the comfort of our cocoons and put on our stiff jeans for another day. Dan had had the bright idea to put his clothes inside his sleeping bag but he didn’t share it with me, so my dressing was considerably more uncomfortable than his.

Dog Loser Knob was so named because of a grove of dwarf magnolias that grew on the top of this wind-swept peak. The tops of the trees formed a thick canopy maze. I wondered… Who had named this place? Had some cartographer lost his dog up here? On the south end of the grove was a large flat grassy area, which made the perfect camping spot for our final night in the woods. We pitched our tent and gathered firewood again. In the last hour of daylight, our fire ablaze, we ate a freeze dried something that tasted like hamburger helper. It was another crystal clear night.

The next morning, our last day in the wilderness, we dismantled our tent, strapped on our noticeably lighter backpacks and headed down the trail and back to civilization. I have heard it said that deprivation is the soul of appreciation. After four days of playing Daniel Boone, a hot shower and a soft, comfortable bed never felt so good. But a part of me still yearns for the quiet, open air. I would visit Shining Rock two more times, once with my son when he was 16 and again with my daughter when she was 12. But I have not, at least to this point, been back to Dog Loser Knob.

Spear Fishing near Shining Rock

The Shining Rock, located in the heart of North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness, is aptly named. It is a solid outcropping of white quartz about the size of a 10-story apartment building. 10 miles below its summit, I blinked awake and zipped open our tent flap. Darkness had given way to a pale but distinguishable dawn. The sun was painting the tops of the pines a light pink as Dan Wax and I stepped outside and shrugged into our Patagonia jackets. Our breath made clouds in the air as we talked about breakfast. Something about all of this made us both ravenously hungry.

We had pitched our tents beside a small creek the night before and now we ambled over to take a daytime look. To our amazement, we saw at least a dozen of what appeared to be to us (no fishermen we) rainbow trout! They had congregated in a shallow pool just past our boot tops. The thought occurred to us that if we could but catch one of these fish, it would make an excellent meal. But neither of us knew how to go about it. But hadn’t we seen on television how that you could lash a knife to the end of a stick and make a spear out of it? Yes! That would be quite easy. Dan unsheathed his “survival” knife while I looked for some string with which to lash the knife to the end of my walking stick. We deemed it a spear when the knife refused to wiggle when wedged into the bark of a pine tree. We were ready.

Dan was the first to try. He stood over the slowly wiggling trout and picked one out of the bunch to impale. He was actually quite surprised when he thrust the homemade lance into the water and did not get one. Undaunted, he tried again… and again and again. Remarkably, the trout did not offer to leave their spot. They simply darted to the side as the blade entered the water.

We later concluded that one problem with this type of fishing is the phenomenon of refraction. When thrust into crystal clear water, the spear seemed to bend off at a slightly different angle. When it was my turn I could have sworn the knife tip was going right for the gills! But then it veered 15 degrees to the right. What I lacked in skill I tried to make up with enthusiasm. But to no avail. The fish would live another day.

We laughed at ourselves as we undid the lashings on our homemade spear. We cooked grits and oatmeal over our small propane stoves.

As we ascended the trail, the creek shrank to a brook and then became a runnel with small waterfalls that tumbled between mossy boulders. This portion of the trail was really a gorge which time and erosion had etched. The footpath we followed veered in avoidance of giant fallen trees, the victims of some ancient windstorm. It seemed like some mysterious netherworld from the pages of a fantasy book, both foreboding and inviting. The trail steepened. We began to climb, one foot in front of the other, a slow, ascending plod, until we finally broke out into bright sunshine and an azure sky. We had reached the “bald”.

In the North Carolina Mountains, the peaks are often so windswept that trees do not grow on the very tops. Instead, one encounters a grassy lea that looks to be a natural pasture. These make excellent camping grounds.

The midday sun had coaxed us out of our jackets and these we tied onto our backpacks. We checked our maps to be sure, but there was no mistaking our destination. Shining Rock lay approximately three miles by footpath from bald on which we stood. From this angle, it was massive, snow white crags framed by dark green stands of pine. Dan and I drank in the view, munching on trail mix, mentally preparing our tired legs for the last three miles. Tonight we would sleep on Dog Loser Knob.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shining Rock, Dog Loser Knob

This crisp weather makes me want to go backpacking again. It's been a while, but you never forget your first time.... four days of "roughing it" in the North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness Circa 1982.
Backpacking, as the term implies, requires that you carry on your back everything that you will eat and wear for the duration of your trip.
It's always good to go with someone experienced. Dan Wax of Columbia, SC had gone once, the year before, on a portion of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. To hear him tell it, he nearly died of thirst. He had made the mistake of not considering where they would get drinking water. There apparently was none on the portion of the trail they chose to walk. But Dan's negative experience had not dampened his zeal for the sport (is it a sport?) and I was happy to follow his lead.
First stop: "The Great Outdoors”, a shop specializing in rental hiking gear like backpacks, sleeping bags, etc. to people like us who didn’t want to spend a thousand bucks but still wanted quality gear. We paid Ten bucks each for a Kelty backpack, $15.00 each for a North Face minus 30 degree sleeping bag and we invested another $50 or so in such things as compasses, trail maps, cooking gear and food.

The experts at the “Great Outdoors” said they had two words for us…. “pack light”. We took lots of light weight dried foods like powdered soups, grits and powdered potatoes. Cooking oil was a must and could be mixed with corn meal and water to make hoecakes, always a favorite around any campfire!

We parked just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and began to “saddle up”. With our 60-pound packs strapped to our backs, Dan and I resembled top heavy biped pack mules. Our sleeping bags topped the packs and the entire ensemble exceeded our height by around 14 inches. We were to discover that balance was key. Lean too far over and you go down. My pack was heavier because I carried the 6-pound tent.

With the fading sun an orange ball behind us in a cloudless sky, we trudged toward the Art Loeb trailhead. The detailed topical maps we had purchased that morning showed every little dip and rise in the mountainous terrain. We reckoned our first campsite was about three miles away near a creek.

This was before the days of GPS. We found out where we were and figured out where we were going by first spotting a landmark on the map, then finding it on the horizon. Then we placed the flat compass on the map and pointed it at the landmark. That done, it was a simple matter of turning our body with the map until we were oriented and walking. It seemed to work! But these were not just woods. This was a big place with miles and miles of isolated country. We had both heard the stories of campers who had entered and were never heard from again.

We walked two miles along a mountain stream that was home to rainbow trout over a foot long. Suddenly we came upon a grassy clearing and knew without consulting the map that this was our campsite. We assembled our tent in the thickening darkness. Night sounds were strange. Owls whooed and wind whistled through the branches of the trees directly above us. The down sleeping bags were cozy warm within 15 minutes and we slept soundly despite the fact that the temperature outside was in the low 30’s.

The next morning we awoke to a crisp blue sky and we could see our breath as we worked to strike our tent. We had not built a fire the night before but we would this night. But ahead of us now lay 10 more miles of the Art Loeb Trail and the summits of Dog Loser Knob Shining Rock Mountain. The names of these places on the map were intriguing and beckoning. “Dog Loser Knob”. I couldn’t wait to see this place. – to be continued

Friday, December 12, 2008

Something Old, Something Blue

Sometimes on warm summer evenings I think of her and wonder whatever became of her. When I was 16 she was all I ever wanted. For some reason, at that age, I didn't realize that she wasn’t much to look at. Compared to others I would own later, she was downright ugly. But at the time, all that mattered to me was that she was mine and she took me where I wanted to go…. most of the time, anyway.
She was a blue 1953 Chevrolet six cylinder straight drive four-door sedan. At least most of her was blue. The gray primer spots on the passenger side door and right rear fender only served to give her more character. Important note: the radio worked fine and picked up WKIN, the only rock and roll station around. In those days, AM was king. FM stations played elevator music with no commercials and nobody (at least nobody I knew) listened to FM radio.

I bought the car from my father, who owned a small used car lot near the Tennessee-Virginia border. A customer had traded the Chevy in for a newer model Plymouth station wagon. The bulbous blue hulk was not perfect, but the price was right. I could have it for what Dad had in it. I handed him my life savings. The wad of bills amounted to $175, and he made the title out to me.

There was a giant rip in the driver’s seat. I fixed that with a $5.00 nylon slip-on cover. The floorboard holes I covered with plywood and rubber floor mats. After rubbing every speck of grime from the paint, I hooked up the wet-dry vacuum and removed 10 years of accumulation from her insides. The sun was fading and she was as clean as I could get her that day. So it was time to go cruising -- she with a cloud of blue smoke belching from her tailpipe and I with my arm out the window and my wrist draped stylishly over the steering wheel.

If there had been a contest in the 1960s to gauge the “cruisability” of small American towns, Kingsport, Tennessee would have scored high on the list. Broad Street was a half-mile long with circles at each end. It had four lanes and five stoplights. The south end had a U-turn at the old train station and the north end terminated at “Church Circle”, so called because of the five large brick churches that ringed the top of the circumference.

And so, on a warm summer evening in 1964, with the moon a muted spotlight and three bucks in my pocket, I nosed the ’53 Chevy into a right turn off Center Street and joined the sluggish line of traffic for the first time as a driver of my own. With the windows down and the radio up, Jake Pyle and I traversed the half-mile stretch again and again, listening to the Dick Biondi show on WLS Radio in Chicago. Another station we were able to pickup after dark was “WOWO” in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Beatles were all the rage then. That, and what we would now call "golden oldies". WKIN signed off with the Star Spangled Banner at sundown, yielding the higher watt stations.

Elbows out our windows, Jake and I cruised for hours, watching in silent wonder the occasional “Chinese fire drills”. These were performed with great precision by cars with six or more occupants. At one stop light, the doors of a jet black 1957 Chevy flew open at and a scramble of teens leaped out, circled the car, and reentered on cue, slamming the doors as the light changed. The driver “burned rubber” and the car lurched forward 40 feet or so before slowing for the next stoplight.

“Showin’ off,” said Jake.

“Yeah…Daddy’s car goes real fast, “ I said, my envy transparent.

The summer of 1964 ended and my senior year in high school began. “The Blue Bomb ferried me to school faithfully that year. There were the occasional breakdowns so I learned to be a mechanic of sorts. I at least knew how to change dead spark plugs, replace burnt rotor buttons and cracked distributor caps. I knew how to coast off hills and pop the clutch to start the engine when the six-volt battery failed me. I carried a case of oil in the trunk and with every fill-up, replaced the quart that had leaked out of the motor housing or blown out the tail pipe.

In the years that have followed, I have owned many cars - new ones, used ones, big ones, small ones -- but all of them were just cars that took me where I drove them. None stay in my memory like that old blue Chevy. It was an automobile.

Monday, December 01, 2008


My little girl visited last week. She is 24 years old now.... all grown up and belongs to someone else. But she is still my little girl.

I came across this scrap of paper today. It's a note I wrote to her teacher when she was in junior high school. But it still describes her:

Dear Ms. Walsh:

Your note asking us to describe our daughter Katie was received and we are happy to include these observations.
Katie loves school and has a strong desire to excell. She agonizes over a C and wants to make the highest mark possible. She will be a diligent student.
Katie is:
* Quiet … until you get to know her
* Orderly (organized her crayons by hue and length at age three)
* Reluctant to speak up when treated unfairly
* Keeps negative emotions to herself (will NOT let you see her cry)
* Motivated by challenges
* Frustrated and anxious if challenges are beyond her grasp but won’t admit it
* Sensitive
* Responsible
* Fun loving
* Loyal to her friends
* A lover of routine and slow to take chances
* Witty (sometimes too much)
* Pleasant company if in a good mood
* Able to get ANYTHING right if given a second chance
* Always taking up for the underdog
* A deep thinker, very religious.
* A hard worker most of the time
Katie’s strengths are her desire to excel and succeed. She is mature for her age and focused on her goals.
Thank you for asking us to share these observations with you. I sincerely hope they are useful.

This morning was December 1. I folded my arms against the morning chill and watched her taillights disappear around the corner at the end of our street. It occured to me that we know each other from different perspectives. To her, I have always been an adult. But I, on the other hand, have seen her metamorphose from a small, wide-eyed toddler to a beautiful bride and now a young homemaker. Her knowledge of me is linear and constant while mine of her is kaleidoscopic and multi-dimensional.

And so it goes. I think I got the best end of this deal.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It was barely three months after my father’s death that I found myself standing in the room where he had been born. Midday sunlight streamed through gauzy curtains, illuminating a small room with a high bed.
I studied the dark wood furniture and wondered about the birth. Was it was during the day or was it after dark when Flora Bowen pushed the fifth of her six children into the world? Who was with her in this small space? Where was my grandfather when the blessed event took place? Did he pace nervously outside on the porch? Or, after so many children, was the birth of this one just another in a series? If repeated often enough, even miracles become commonplace, I mused.
I thought about what life was like 85 years ago when this little East Tennessee crossroads community increased its population by one. I am told that it was not uncommon for women to birth their children at home. The nearest hospital was a day’s journey over rough, unpaved roads.
The bedroom was situated on the southeast corner of the old Bowen home place which had been built on a knoll beside the junction of State Roads 33 and 70. Highway 70 snakes over Clinch Mountain, winds along the blue-green Clinch River before crossing it, and then makes it way over Powell Mountain to the Virginia State Line. Highway 33 is a valley road. It begins at Kyles Ford and tracks westward past small farms until it reaches Sneedville, the county seat of one of the poorest and least populated counties in the state.
It was my father’s sister, Betty, my last living aunt, who had organized the family gathering on what was to be a humid Memorial Day weekend. It was to be a gathering of the clan - branches of the family tree of Milum and Flora Bowen, both now decades deceased. But this reunion was not to be quite the same as those of earlier years. All but one of the siblings had passed away and the fabric of the Bowen clan was further unraveled by the cousins moving away to have families of their own.
The stately old house was showing its age. The upstairs floors sagged and the peeling green paint on the tin roof revealed a previous darker coat. But the house still had the warm, comfortable charm that had made it a local landmark.
This was hill country where hospitality was expected of the more genteel folks, and Flora and Milum Bowen were known for their graciousness and generosity. It was not uncommon for travelers of even the slightest acquaintance to drop in, share meals, stay all night, and breakfast with the family the next morning, all completely free of charge or obligation. Even offers of pay were waved away. But there was one thing my grandfather wanted from them. He was Hancock County Court Clerk, an elective position he had held for years. “Do a favor for one person and four of his friends will vote for you,” he reasoned. And it was true.
A post office and general store sat just across the road from the old house. Here, local folks could catch up on the news, conduct business or just kill time. The country store seemed to have one of just about everything. When I was a boy, My Aunt Edna ran both the store and the post office. I can still see her, in her plain, cotton print dress with pockets on the sides, standing behind the store counter. A short 10 paces to a double door transformed her into a postal worker.
My cousin John, who now lives in the old house, gave me permission to visit the upstairs rooms, two of which were repositories of century old antiques. I stood in the farthest corner of one of the rooms and looked out the window, toward the river. With my eyes, I could trace the two-lane blacktop past a small cinderblock garage, and over the Clinch River Bridge. A modern marvel of its day when it was built in 1927, the steel span bridge was constructed to keep motorists from having to drive their cars and trucks through the river at its shallowest point - thus the name, Kyles Ford. In the days before the bridge, when drivers would stall out in midstream, it was not unusual for Milam to hitch up his team of mules, hook a chain to the bumper, and save a car from the swirling clutches of the swollen river.
From my perch, I could see the bend in the river where my father said the original ford had been. He was a seven-years old when the bridge had been built. If the river was high, Dad said, you could cross by ferry. That is, if you could find the farmer who operated it. That could be difficult, he explained, especially if it were tobacco harvesting season. Burley tobacco was the only cash crop and every family had a “patch” they tended.
As the picnic lunch was being gathered on the porch below, I poked around the dusty old room that time seemed to have forgotten. Grim faces stared at me from the wall. Couples in daguerreotype framed in dark ovals glowered down through convex glass. Old mustachioed men and solemn-faced women -- Who were these people, I wondered? I recognized one as my great grandfather, Daniel Bowen. He was a man of some physical stature and was a prominent Baptist preacher in the 1800’s.
I came across a frail, leather bound Bible and gently lifted the cover. The flyleaf proclaimed that it was owned jointly by my grandparents. I wondered who wrote the inscription. When it came to religion, my grandfather was, although a good man, not known to be overly devout. My grandmother handled the religion in the family. The ancient Bible contained dates, names and places regarding the “solemnification”of the union of Milum and Flora Bowen, but I wanted to know more. How had they met? Were times so hardscrabble in those days that there was little time for romance or sweet words on moonlight strolls? Or was that something postponed for another generation? I wanted to know them as young people. My only recollection of them was as old folks, weathered and bent. How did they live as newlyweds. Somehow I could not picture Milum saying sweet things to Flora, in print or otherwise. These were stoic people who valued industry far too much to waste time on such frivolity. I carefully closed the brittle leather cover of the large Bible and thought of what it must have been like, raising a family in the hard times of the Great Depression.
My hand felt the smooth, ancient wood of an oxen yoke hanging on wall. In the corner was a tall, wooden box-like device that I discerned was a type of phonograph that played cylindrical recordings. There were several strange looking tools, the use of which had long since been forgotten. A coffee grinder sat atop a stack of dusty books. What hands had applied themselves to these, I wondered?
I heard my name, “Tom-mee”, called by a soprano voice that I recognized as my cousin Dorothy. I had been discovered missing and began to make my way downstairs. I heard talk and laughter on the porch below. As I rounded the banister of the staircase, however, I had to pause again when I saw a more recent photograph of my father standing beside a black 1951 Ford. He had just bought the car and driven it to his parents’ house to show it off. That must have merited the photograph. Dad was in his early 30’s. He looked dapper and casually wore the invincible spirit of youth and self confidence. He was bullet-proof and immortal with a wide smile and coal-black hair combed straight back like movie stars of the day. I remembered riding in the car. Our family of four would make the trip on the dirt and gravel roads from our home in nearby Rogersville over Clinch Mountain to the Bowen homestead. On the way there, it was Dad’s custom to pull the car off the road when we reached a roadside spring. This particular spring gushed water straight out of a rock on the side of hill. Someone had focused the water with an iron pipe so that the stream splashed very near the macadam surface of the road. The water then formed a small brook that ran alongside the road before disappearing into a nearby creek. Locals never questioned the water’s drinkability and came with jars and jugs to fill and take home.
My vision of my grandfather, “Pappy” Bowen, as we called him, is very clear. He would sit on his porch, wearing overalls, rocking, whittling, smoking, watching cars pass by on the road below, and occasionally raising his hand to wave at the drivers. He smoked handmade cigarettes which he rolled with the deftness of a surgeon. With one hand, he fished a tin of Prince Albert smoking tobacco from a top pocket in his bib overalls and maneuvered it over the filament-thin paper he held in his other hand. After sprinkling just the right amount of loose tobacco onto the paper, he would roll it with the thumb and forefinger of one hand until it achieved the proper shape and then seal it with his tongue. Another pocket contained wooden, “strike anywhere” matches. These had blue heads with a white dot on the end and could be struck… well, anywhere. .A porch rail would do. A shoe sole was acceptable. A swift rake along the leg of a chair, or even the pants leg of his overalls. I would watch the blue-white flame erupt and fill the air with sulfur and blue smoke. He would cup his weathered hands and join the end of the cigarette to the flame, wave the fire dead with two fans of his wrist and let the match fall to the porch floor.
Milum was a pleasant man with a cherubic face and a ready smile. He died when I was 16 and I regret never having a real conversation with him. He was alert and probably full of stories. But then again “Pappy Bowen”, as we called him, always spoke in a series of “remarks” that were not really intended to be conversation:
“Looks like we might be in for a storm”, he would say, glancing up at the weather. Always the consummate politician, he never pressed an issue too far ….even opinions on the weather left room for compromise. We “might be” in for a storm… but then again, we might NOT be. If you had a reverse opinion, there was an avenue of agreement open. “Road’s right busy today,” he would say, striking another match.
“Granny” Bowen was a spindly, spry woman when I knew her. She took great pride in the fact that she had worked every day of her life. At the age of 82, she was still doing what she had always done…. milking cows, gathering eggs, hoeing the garden, canning vegetables -- anything to avoid idleness, which she said was the ”Devil’s workshop”. She was a kind, generous woman, intelligent despite her lack of formal education. Her eyes had a unique twinkle that let you know she was always thinking. My father had the same twinkle. I noticed it also in his sisters.
Growing up, I had the impression that my Father’s home in Tennessee and my Mother’s home in Virginia were worlds apart. In 1995 I took a nostalgia trip with my 11-year-old daughter, Katie, and for the first time I began to recognize that, even though they were in different states, these two places were separated by a mere 20 miles.
I had looked forward to this trip, not just to see old family members again, but to bike the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”. I had loaded the Trek 2300 into the back of the van. After complimenting the women on such a fine lunch and saying goodbye to my cousins, I strapped on my riding shoes and helmet and struk out on Highway 70 for Powell Mountain. I made good time for the first five miles while the road followed a valley at the foot of the ridge. At first, the blacktop rose and sagged with the undulation of the land. Then began a tortuous cascade of swithbacks up the mountain. My feet made small circles at the base of the bike frame, urging the two-wheeler up steeper and steeper sections of the serpentine road. I rode in the sitting position as long as I could and then stood to keep momentum.
Thick, cumulous clouds, piled high overhead like great cotton balls, mercifully shielded me from the sun. Halfway up, I paused at an overlook to see how far I had come. The road below was a writhing black snake. Ahead, I could see the pavement disappear around a curve where a brown sign with white letters spelled out “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”. This was the stretch of road written about by John Fox, Jr. Once a wagon road, It was along this stretch that a handsome young mining engineer from the city walked to court a beautiful Virginia mountain girl. The novel, written in 1919, was made into a movie in 1936. The sub plot had to do with the great coal boom in Southwest Virginia when the discovery of coal and iron ore forced the proud mountain people to make drastic changes in their way of life.
My legs ached and my lungs burned. My breath was coming in a rhythm that matched the pumping of my legs. I kept thinking about the topof the hill which was now within my sights. I thought of the sweet freedom of the downhill run, coasting fast and free, and the flat easy stretch into the small Virginia town of Jonesville.

Honeysuckles and Blood

I work a lot in Virginia these days. There are as many historical markers and Civil War battlefields here as their are gas stations. Sometimes, between appointments, I can't resist the call of these places.
The brown sign near Spotsylvania read: "Stonewall Jackson Shrine - 5 miles". I was going to turn left and head up I-95 for an appointment near Fredericksburg, but instead I nosed the Prius up the two-lane road and followed the signs. I was curious. What was the "shrine"? Why was it here? As I crossed the tracks of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, I made a left and followed the signs to an empty parking lot. 60 yards away sat white house where the famous Confederate general went to recuperate after losing his arm. He was riding through a dense forest one night during the Battle of Chancellorsville and his own soldiers shot him, mistaking him for the enemy.
The wound weakened him and he caught pneumonia and died in this little white house. The historical markers told how it all happened. I stood alone in the fading sunlight and read the markers and studied the old photographs.
I walked over to the house. It was after 5 p.m. and I supposed the caretaker of the "shrine" had gone home. I looked through the windows and saw the bed where Stonewall took his last gasp. It was popular for people in that era to have "last words". His were "Let us cross over the river and sit in the shade of the trees". I wonder if he really said that or if it was just something someone made up to add to his legacy. Just sounds kinda fake to me. People don't keep track of "last words" these days, do they. Gerald Ford died a couple of years ago. What were his last words? Nobody knows. Nobody Cares.
Yesterday I got up early and took in the Bull Run battlefield near Manassas VA. The northerners call it Bull Run, after the little creek that winds through the countryside 25 miles west of Washington DC. The Southerners called it the "battle of first and second Manassas".

"You are here" said the historical marker. I read how thousands of men marched into cannon fire and died that way, grape and cannister blowing holes through their lines. Other thousands died from rifle fire or hand-hand-fighting. I could not help but wonder how many of those doomed men had "last words" other than cries for help or water. Right at the spot where I was standing the ground had long ago absorbed the blood of these men, turning it into fertilizer for grass and flowers. The sweet scent of honeysuckle was thick in the air and the only sound was the lazy hum of bees in the clover at my feet.
One more thing about last words. I like the last words of famous Irish playwrite Oscar Wilde, who died in 1900. His last words were said to have been: "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

The Tunnel

It rained last night. The kind of hard rain that interrupts your sleep. All clatter and commotion. The downpours came on suddently and then faded, only to begin again. It was as if there were a giant faucet in the heavens and some giant hand were turning it on and off.
This morning's sun was golden on the shallow pools in the street and silver on the tiny leaves of the boxwoods that line the front of the house. It was to be a clear day with low humidity. Only a few tattered clouds remained from last night's storm and they drifted overhead like ill-shorn sheep grazing a deep blue sky. I backed the Prius out of the driveway with the GPS set for a street address somewhere in West Virginia. Driving through the Virginia mountains (the only way to get there) requires that you drive over the Appalachian mountains. Ocasionally it means driving through them.
"Turn On Headlights" the sign commanded. "Tunnel 1 Mile Ahead". Interstate 77 leveled out like a long runway and seemed to stop at the base of a huge mountain. Then a small black dot appeared that grew into a yawning black hole on a concrete face. As traffic whizzed closer to the hole, I wondered how long it took to build this modern marvel. I wondered how poeple got across this rise in the terraine before the tunnel existed. It must have taken them forever.
The black maw, with it's extended asphalt tongue, gobbled up the car and truck in front of me and then, suddently, I, too, was swallowed from sunlight into the tube's darkness.
An urgent voice from the dashboard said "GPS signal lost!" The little direction machine was troubled. It had lost contact with its orbiting triangulate god. How could it know that all was not lost and that in two minutes its programmed circuitry would reconnect with the three satellites and come to life again?
I don't know what it is about the Appalachian Mountains. To be sure the Rockies are great mountains. I can clearly remember some years ago driving west on the flat side of Colorado and watching the first glimpse of the Rocky mountains emerge purple on the horizone like a vast second sky. Magestic enough! But there is something special about these wizened hills that geologists say make up the oldest mountain chain in the world. That aside, I am a product of it all. Six generations ago one of my forebears left Bath NC toward the end of the Revolutionary War and struck out for the East Tennessee hills which lie in the heart of Appalachia. He had to leave under cover of darkness because he had picked the wrong side in that conflict. Now, without the threat of being tarred and feathered, he could get on with the business of fathering the next five generations of Bowens.
It was during this muse that the tunnel ejected me, along with a sputum of other traffic, out its other end. A rush of sunlight filled the car and the GPS burped to life. "Drive 45 miles," said the machine's cheery male voice. I looked at the small screen and saw that I was still in Virginia, approximately 100 miles northeast of the place along the Clinch River where my father was born. Charleston WV lay 200 miles and two tunnels away.