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.