Persisting in Appalachia: Opposition and Opportunities, Part Two

PART TWO My early life was comprised of Bill Monroe’s voice, hard concrete floors where Daddy worked, trying to stay warm under electric blankets in winter and routing mountain water down through pipes that fed into an old whiskey barrel down to the single wide. There were also memories of hundreds, maybe thousands, of muddled voices coming to ask “Tiny” for a just one more loan, a few extras dollars and groceries for their kids, probing, begging, asking. . .with him always relenting, serving, aiding, helping. And more than all of those voices, which sound like one big mass, there were four that were distinct: those were from little brothers and a sister. None like me, and I was glad for it. Daddy somehow, but just barely, heard ours above the masses. He loved babies. . . of all kinds, actually. His, chicks, goslings, kittens, perhaps just youth and vigor, which had long left him when I came into being. Life had never been kind to him, but he had persisted. He had done more than that, though, as he had been a helper, led a life worth living, demanded life be exactly how he wanted. It never was. Now, I know it must have felt like a long journey wanted to turn away from, but he walked it anyway and did the best he understood to do. I could never forget his stories, seldom shared and frantically held onto within me. No account of mine would be complete without his, and really, maybe I never want them to be. I can't see independence from him and a life I never really experienced before my time. . . I twist it all together until it runs along side mine whether it makes sense or otherwise. So on we go, don't we, he and I? On a hillside in the heart of Appalachia near the end of March in 1929, it was probably still penetratingly cold. I know it is here today on March 4th, 2019. The landscape would have been stark: the trees barren, the sky grey and the hills brown. I've seen enough winter here to know that much. I can look out my own window now to see a hillside that I am certain looked much like the one that day. No doubt within the little dwellings scattered in the hills, the homesteading families were looking forward to spring more than I am now. It would have been, after all, just around the corner, and they would have been nearly out of their winter provisions. Life should have been looking up. The worst of winter would have been behind them with any luck, of which they rarely had any. But around this particular time in Lincoln county, West Virginia, on top of what would become known as 14-Mile Mountain, a tired, middle-aged woman opened the front door of her one room cabin with a dirt floor to meet two men holding her husband's severed body. The men claimed they has found him on the nearby railroad tracks. Little “Tiny,” one of the youngest of the dead man’s sons, looked around to see his daddy's mangled figure, and he recalled this account eighty years later to me, a daughter of his old age. They buried the man in ground that would have still been hard, frozen, and impossible to manage. And the woman never remarried. It was a murder, it probably involved moonshine or a bad game of cards. Later, my aunt Peep would find the truth out. But Daddy would never talk of that. My grandfather left behind 9 children. Their youngest, eventually to be called "Peep" was only 9 days old at the time. He left not only many children, but his invalid, blind mother, as well. The woman would tell her sons and a daughters in the years to follow, "Some people are born to a death," and so her husband had been, she was sure. He knew it was coming for him, else why had he sat on their corn husk bed a short time before and warned her that should he die, she must not give their children away. This man, Win, had written poetry and has been a gambler. . . and born to death. As soon as he was buried, people began to show up at the door, my Daddy said, for women without husbands did not keep 9 children alone in the mountains of West Virginia in 1929. They told her she must let some of them go. They knocked day in and day out, offering to take this one and that one. My aunt Peep has said how hard she fought to keep them from taking the children away. They would offer to take them in pairs or singles. It was just what was done, she said. Folks wished to take them to work on their homesteads, in lieu of children they couldn't bear or for any reason one might imagine and some we would prefer to not. She became a washer woman. She spent her days walking far away to wash for other people, and the little boy who peered around to see his daddy's body ran into the hills to cry for her to come home morning after morning for he loved her most of all. He would never go to school because he wanted only to be with his mother. And she loved him most of all, I heard. His sisters will his schooling deficit some time later before he went into the service in WWII. My grandmother, someone I never laid eyes on, as she died the over thirty years before my birth, never gave away any of her children. Some she buried in boxes behind the cabin, as nothing about Appalachia in the 1920's and 30's proved easy, but she never let anyone show up to make off with them. When she died, Daddy had made it a long way from that impoverish beginning. He buried his mother in a solid copper coffin next to the body of Win. And whether she'd have wanted to be, that we will never know. (Eventually be be continued)