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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Entry 16: Part II Walking the Ridge

May 22, 2014

Dear Friends

RE:  Entry 16

Part I

He opened the truck door and swung one boot, the left one, onto the door sill and relacing it, put back on his gloves and stepped out onto the dirt road.  He reached below the seat on the driver side, to the right at the bottom and worked the latch, rolling up the seat forward and took the gun out of the cloth case from the storage area behind.  It lay among assorted things, a torn shirt used as a rag. A broken coffee mug, one jack stand with the pin missing on the riser, an empty glass Coca Cola bottle and a crushed roll of paper towels, half soaked on one side with oil.  Turning, he pushed the front seat back and put the gun case across it, sliding the gun out, opened the bolt and looked at it, closed the bolt.  He pushed the lock on the truck door down, swung the rifle out over the door and closing it in one motion, walked down the road patting his right side pocket for the shells.

Part II

The road itself wasn’t really just dirt, but a mixture of clay and red dog, the vitrified remains of burning coal refuse dumps. It was something you just didn’t see any longer, and the look of it reminded him of all the time as a kid he spent picking the little red shards out of his knee or stuck into the side of his rubber-soled tennis shoes.  He walked on this road as it transformed from a road to two parallel ruts with a high center of weeds, to just a path, up against the side of the hill, the remains of what had to be an old logging path—taken for its width—and followed it over a collapsed culvert and up.  He entered the woods in earnest now, no longer in the sunshine, and even though it was bright out—and even though half the leaves were down—the play of shadow and light across the trees and the ground made it much like the twilight.  The frost was still down here, mostly on the dark leaves, but as soon as he stepped on them it left a warm boot print.  Where he entered, it was a small gully that was in reality a cloven separation of the hill itself and the higher he followed the old road up, the wider and wider the rift became.  It wasn’t a sharp drop, more like a gentle slope down, that from the top had to look like a shallow dish, cracked from the rim to the bowl.  He was slowly making his way up the convex inside of the dish.

While somewhat cold, it was not unpleasantly so—being the kind of enjoyable sunshine cold of October after a very hot September.  It would be some months before the deep, damp, set in cold of January.  That was the thing about fall around here.  It was the last dry season. Most of the other months, from November through May, sometimes June, were wet—the definition being that it wasn’t really summer until you could sit on the ground without your pants getting stained.  He reached the part of the road that doubled back away from the rift, to the right around the side of the face of the ridge, sort of a switchback to avoid the grade.  And though it was little more than a path it was wide enough for some primitive equipment, maybe the width of a team of horses.  The place, a hundred years before, was the center of one of the great national timber booms, since moved far west, when these hills were stripped bare of native red spruce and hardwoods.  What grew back, at this elevation, wasn’t the spruce—there were some smaller examples, just not in abundance, given their slow growth especially at this height and on the leeward side of the hill—but mostly hardwood, oak, beech, ash and maple. 

Along up ahead he saw a gray squirrel ring around the side of an oak tree, peer out from behind and then scamper out of sight.  The woods were alive with the sounds of mostly birds, not a few crow, squirrels and chipmunk—the latter being so loud that it seemed that somehow its thrashing around the leaves and its chirpy bark, all things that called attention to itself, was some type of reverse defense mechanism.  Once he remembered while squirrel hunting years ago he was sitting in stand of hickory, his back against a tree, watching the squirrel all around, run up and down around and behind, to the point that they became almost oblivious of his presence.  He had a shotgun then, a 12 gauge single shot, laid across his lap, just watching.  One of the noisy chipmunks scampered back and forth across the forest floor, and kept stopping to look at him, head cocked sideways.  He didn’t move.  The chipmunk kept to its activity, which seemed to have no purpose at all, until it picked up what was either a part of an acorn or maybe a bud and jumped, all at once, onto his boot.  He didn’t move as the chipmunk ate its little meal, sitting on the toe of the boot, stopping, every few seconds, turning its head sideways to stare as if trying to figure out what this thing was, not ever confused enough to be alarmed.  He leaned slightly forward and made a clicking sound with his mouth, the chipmunk stopped, dropped the food, froze, staring.  When he smiled at the chipmunk, with widened eyes it shrieked, went straight into the air about a foot, as if riding a rocket, ran into and under the leaves.  He saw more squirrel that day in that place than he could recall before or since, but never used one shell, never fired one shot.

I remain


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Entry 15: Bridges

May 13, 2014

Dear Friends

Re:  Entry 15

I have a unique distinction that may be only held by me, in the entire state, maybe even the country.  The problem is, it is so obscure no one cares. Since I have this forum, I thought I would preserve it for posterity.  I was present at the destruction of two historic covered bridges.  I don’t mean I was in the same county when they were destroyed, in both cases I was literally standing within feet of them.  The first in Grant Town, in August, 1980.  During the night we had 5-6 inches of rain in the valley, so much so that the water was up to the railroad tracks on the creek side, and the basketball rims in the playground were under water. I walked the entire length of the tracks through town, over two trestles with just little ribbons of steel above the water.  When I walked back up to the other end of town, crossed the other trestle and got to the covered bridge it was already underwater, about a foot, with floating debris banging against one side. There were people on both sides just standing there, so I walked across, water on it almost up to my knees.  Someone said (I think the cook from the grade school, Mrs. Parker “get off that bridge, idiot”.  I said those immortal words as I got to the other side “…this thing will be here for a hundred years.”  A few seconds later a loud crash, then cracking noises as it floated off the piers and down the creek—a scene that would have fit in the Wizard of Oz—got to the bend and smashed to bits against the hillside.  People applauded.  I don’t know why.  I was the last one to cross it, it had been there since the 1850’s, was one of the oldest in the state.   The second happened in February, 1989.  I was in my office in Philippi and a student from A-B came in and asked me if I heard about  the bridge:  “…of course, ever since I came here I’ve heard about that bridge…Wait, what do you mean?”  I went to the window out in the hall which was orange from the glow of the bridge on fire.  I ran down the hill where people were gathered and watched it burn.  Gasoline spilling from a tank truck ran down the gutter, pooled onto the bridge and nearly killed a young couple as their car ran through it, setting the car then the bridge on fire.  The state later rebuilt it at the cost of several million dollars.  I often wondered how many people in cities had ever seen a covered bridge except in pictures.

Getting on to a point, when I was in High School I played football.  Well, “played” may be a bit of an overstatement.  Anyway, I was on the team, and while I was never really very good I only missed practice twice (once for said bridge destruction above and once for a terrible case of poison oak after stealing leaves for my tenth grade science project at the Core Arboretum). There were several distinct disadvantages to playing football—practice, having a headache every Monday, getting ran over by most everyone--there were also multiple advantages.  One of them was weight lifting which made me distinctly able to lift heavy things, lending a side skill as an itinerant laborer every once in a while during the summers when someone would pay me to unload something, put up hay, carry things, dig holes.  One summer I unloaded like 400 pickup truck loads of railroad ties (editor’s note:  it was 2).   About 3-4 times during my high school summers there was a roofer who would give me like five or 10 bucks to carry shingles up the ladder onto a roof, sometimes 30 bundles, depending on the roof.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not the shingles or football or bridges, but the roofer.  He was an alcoholic.  I knew that word then, I even understood it.  It seemed like I knew a number of people like this but he stood out.  He would sometimes get drunk on a Friday night, especially in the summer or fall, pass out in the woods all night and the next day we would go and poke him with a stick or throw things at him, just to see if he would yell or curse us.  His father drank as well, and I often remember being in Junior’s on a Friday night and seeing him buy two 32 ounce bottles of Stroh’s Bohemian.  A few hours later, you could sneak up on the hill and hide behind a tree and say things to him.  He would proceed to threaten to kill your mother, eat your dog’s liver, and all other sorts of mean and nasty things.  Neither of them ever seemed to remember this in the later days, at least they never said anything.   I wish I had a better explanation than to say I was a stupid teenager.

The father was married to a little old lady with her hair in a bun, who was very nice and pleasant.  Several years went by and both men died, leaving the widow.  She was a Christian.  This had little meaning for me then, but it has come to have enormous meaning to me now.  I have often wondered what pain she must have suffered by having to live this type of life.  She appeared to be incredibly devoted, even doting.  And she was a faithful church member.  It often comforts us when looking at someone’s misery that we won’t suffer that same fate because somehow we will make superior choices.  And I yet I cannot explain her or her life here on this earth or her faith because it doesn’t fit neatly into the theology of having everything go your way as proof of your faith.  It is more the realism of Hebrews 11, looking for a city not of this earth, having the faith that I don’t have to see it through.  Being able to bear up in the face of abject pain, I only wish I understood this when I was younger. 

Don’t ask me what this has to do with covered bridges or football.

I remain