Friday, February 27, 2009

Little Omie Wise

For the past few years, I have been constantly singing the old Appalachian murder ballad, "Little Omie Wise". I sing it in the car, I sing it in the shower, I sing it while walking through Wal-Mart (hey, I get some interesting looks), and so on and so forth. Over the years, I had read little snippets of the story surrounding the real life Omie, but not until a recent suggestion by Granny Sue did I do a little research on this really interesting song. I've always said, "You ain't lived 'til you've heard my version of Little Omie Wise." I remember I did this last summer when my brother was staying the weekend with us. We were on our way to visit Granny Sue and while driving up the interstate, I broke into a boisterous version of "Little Omie Wise". Captive though my audience was, I do believe if there were one more verse of the song that they would have tucked and rolled right there on I-77! I suppose that is a pretty good indication that instead of singing Rock-n-Roll music, I sing Tuck-n-Roll music.

Though you can't hear me sing it on here, you can read the lyrics that I sing. As with all true folksongs, you will find different versions of the song. Here are the lyrics that I use:

I'll tell you the story of Little Omie Wise
How she became deluded by John Lewis' lies,
He told her to meet him down by Adam's Spring
Some money he would bring her and other fine things.

And fool like she met him down by Adam's Spring
But no money he brought her nor other fine things.

John Lewis, John Lewis, please tell me your mind,
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?
Little Omie, Little Omie, I'll tell you my mind,
I intend to drown you and leave you behind.

Please pity our baby and spare me my life,
I'll go home a beggar and won't be your wife.
Little Omie, Little Omie, that never can be
You're passioned invitations been trouble to me.

He hugged her, he kissed her, he turned her around,
He shoved her in the river where he knew she would drown.
He jumped on his pony and away he did ride,
And the screams of Little Omie fell down by his side.

It was on last Wednesday mornin',
The rain was a-pourin' down,
The people searched for Omie,
But she could not be found.

Two boys went a-fishin' on a fine summers day,
The body of Little Omie went a-floatin' away.
They threw their net around her and they drug her to the shore.
The body of Little Omie was searched for no more.

They sent for John Lewis, John Lewis came by,
When confronted with her body, he broke down and cried.

You can shoot me, you can hang me for I am the man,
That murdered Little Omie in yonder ole mill dam.

My name is John Lewis, my name I'll ne'er deny,
I drownded Little Omie, and I'll never reach the sky.


Little is known about the real Omie Wise, but records indicate that she was an orphan girl who was taken in by William Adams and his wife Mary Adams in Randolph County, North Carolina. It was at the Adams' farmhouse that Jonathan Lewis, son of Richard Lewis, met Naomi. Naomi and Jonathan Lewis quickly became lovers, but Jonathan was advised by his mother to pursue Hettie Elliott, whose family was "in good standing" both socially and financially. Naomi found out about Jonathan's courtship to Ms. Elliott, and although jilted, it did not stop their affair.

The day itself can not be determined, but it is said that it was sometime in April 1808 that Naomi came up missing. Mr. Adams gathered a search party and followed the horse tracks to Asheboro, North Carolina, where they found Naomi Wise's body in the river. Mrs. Ann Davis, a resident close to the water, confirmed that she had heard a woman screaming the night before. The coroner from Asheboro examined the drowned and battered body of Naomi and confirmed that she had been pregnant.

Jonathan Lewis was found and taken to jail, where he escaped a month later. As the notoriety of the case grew, many members of the Lewis family began to move out of North Carolina and into the wilds of Kentucky. It was there that Jonathan Lewis was said to have started a family six years after Naomi's death. When word of Jonathan Lewis' whereabouts reached the outraged people of Randolph County, NC, the citizens demanded he be apprehended. The authorities acquiesced to the public outcry in North Carolina, and Jonathan Lewis once again found himself in jail. His trial was moved from Randolph County to Guilford County in 1815 because an impartial juror could not be found. In Guilford County, Jonathan Lewis was found not guilty, despite numerous witnesses and ample evidence, and was free to return to Kentucky. Most people said he bought his way out of the whole affair. Five years later, in 1820, Jonathan Lewis was said to have died of an illness, but confessed to the murder of Naomi Wise on his deathbed.

Isn't it neat that events that happened in the backwoods of Appalachia 200 years ago, are still being remembered. Do any of you have some old Appalachian murder ballads that you sing on occassion? Do you know the history behind these songs?

Here is a version of "Omie Wise" by Doc Watson. It is on Youtube. This version is slightly different than the one I sing, but the cadence is fairly close.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Vernon & Stubs

Growing up on the mountain was not without its colorful characters and hilarious moments. One of these characters was Vernon. He was our next door neighbor, and was a distant relative of ours, as was his wife. Vernon always started his sentences with “By God…”! While Vernon had grew up on the mountain, he had also been out in the world, he was in the service and had served in Korea, and after getting out he went to work up in Dee-troit at the GM plant. Vernon worked in Dee-troit for several years but the call of the mountains brought him back home. He would sit around in his front yard and talk to himself and to anyone else who would listen, and he was generally a nice old man, and his disposition was the polar opposite of his wife, whom all the neighborhood children had nicknamed “The Squawnk”.

Vernon liked to drink beer. He would sit under the pear tree in his front yard and drink all day long. He never really got drunk, or perhaps he never really got sober, but he was always fun to be around, hear and watch. I remember he would regale us with tales of how he’d drive home from “Meech-e-gun”, as he referred to the state of Michigan. He told us that he travelled Route 250 almost all the way home, and he made his frequent trips home in a 1947 Nash. “By God,” he’d say, “me and that old Nash had some times together. The thing about a Nash is that it looked the same from the front and it did from the back.” I remember him telling us about how one time when we he was driving home from Dee-troit, the Ohio River was flooding and had covered the bridge he needed to cross. He figured he’d come too far to turn back, so he got out and looked at his car, and it struck him that his old 1947 Nash looked a lot like a boat, so he figured it’d float, and he decided to put it to the test. He started across the flooded bridge, and used the tops of the bridge signs to guide him. Soon, he told us, the old Nash started to float so he hit the gas pedal and the car pushed forward across the muddy Ohio, being powered by the spinning wheels. About halfway across the river however, the motor flooded out and he seen he was in a pickle. Vernon, always accompanied by his loyal rabbit beagle Stubs (who according to Vernon, was the smartest dog that ever lived), said he looked over at ole Stubs and asked, “By God, Stubs, how are we gonna get out of this one?” He said Stubs looked at him and swatted the air with his paw and gave him an idea. Vernon said, “I knew then that Stubs was telling me that I had to row us the rest of the way across”. He said he rolled down his side window and using his hand, paddled them the rest of the way across the Ohio River in his car. He said once they got to the other side of the river, they got out and worked on the carburetor and got the car started again. Vernon said that once they got the Nash started up again, ole Stubs looked over at him and barked “Whew!"

The Moundsville Bridge across the Ohio River.

Like I said, eventually Vernon and Stubs moved back to the hills and they were quite the rabbit hunters. Vernon would tell about the time they were hunting rabbits up at Teter Gap. He said that Stubs had jumped up a rabbit from a big rock pile. Vernon said that Stubs took after the rabbit and the rabbit tripped over a rock and went rolling across the rockpile, hitting his head as it rolled along. Vernon said that rabbit’s head bouncing off the rocks made a sound like “conkety-conk-conk-conk”! He said that hitting the rocks had knocked the rabbit unconscious and that ole Stubs picked up the rabbit in his mouth and brought it back to him. He said that at the time he thought the rabbit was dead so he stuck it in his gunny sack and he and Stubs went back to hunting. Vernon said that after about a half hour or so, the rabbit came to and started clawing at the sack, and that the clawing had alerted Stubs. Vernon said he knew he’d have to turn the rabbit loose and then shoot it because if he just smacked the sack against some rocks that he’d bruise the rabbit up so bad that he’d never be able to eat it. Well, Vernon called Stubs and set the sack on the ground and turned the rabbit loose, and the rabbit just took off running for a nearby thicket. However, this time Stubs didn’t take to the trail of the rabbit, never in all of his days of rabbit hunting had Stubs seen a dead rabbit come back to life and he didn’t know what to make of it, so the rabbit got away. “By God”, Vernon said, “I’ll bet that rabbit had a headache the next morning.”

I also remember one time Vernon was trying to mow his lawn with his old push mower. The mower looked like it had been through the war, and before that came over on Noah’s Ark…it was really just a pile of rust with a motor hooked to it. Well, Vernon hadn’t mowed for quite a while and his grass was pretty high, and was too much for the old mower to handle. He’d mow about 2 feet and the mower would die. Every time the mower would die, Vernon would take a break and have another beer. This continued throughout the afternoon. After a couple of hours of this, Vernon took to cussing at the mower every time it’d quit on him. He’d say “By God lawnmower, if we’re to get this grass mowed today, we’re gonna have to work together. I can’t do it by myself and neither can you.” Well, then he’d again fire up the old lawnmower and mow another couple of feet before the mower died again. He then took to cussing the mower, and was standing by it and pointing at it with his finger, a sure sign that Vernon was fed up. You knew he was to his limit when he started pointing. Well, by this time, most of the neighborhood was watching (without appearing to), and it was veritable street theatre right there on the mountain! Soon Vernon mustered up enough patience to start back to mowing, but he said to the lawnmower before he started it up, “By God lawnmower, this is your last chance. We need to get this damn grass mowed.” Everyone in earshot was laughing their butts off at Vernon for talking to the lawnmower. Well, ole Vernon got the mower started and he mowed about a six foot swath, and the mower died yet again. “By God,” Vernon told it, “that was your last chance. I told you (he pronounced it “I toad you”) that you’d better by damn cooperate with me” and he calmly walked off toward his house. Well everyone around there just figured Vernon was giving up and was going inside to sleep it off, but oh no, within a couple of minutes here came Vernon out of his house, walking toward the old mower…and carrying his old double barrel shotgun. He calmly walked up to the lawnmower, sighted it with his shotgun, and shot it with both barrels! He then said to the dead mower, “By God, I’ll bet you won’t bother nobody else!” Vernon then walked over to his chair under the pear tree and sat down. After a few minutes had passed, my Dad hollered down the hill to Vernon and asked him if he needed some help with mowing. Vernon hollered back up to Dad, “By God, my mower ain’t wanting to run today!” Well, that had us all in tears of laughter, but somehow Dad managed to hold a straight face and told Vernon he could mow it for him if he wanted. Vernon was happy to get the help, and Dad later told us that every time he mowed past Vernon’s old shot-up lawnmower he couldn’t help but laugh.

I also remember that Vernon was always giving out free advice and witty quips to the neighborhood residents. Some of the topics were completely off the wall and totally out of the blue. Like the time he told my mother about the miracles of corn starch. Vernon said to her, “Corn starch is a very versatile product. You can use it to thicken your gravy or powder your ass!”

I still remember that one and to this day, every time I see a box of corn starch, I am reminded of Vernon.

Friday, February 20, 2009

March Awaits

Photo courtesy of Adam L. Cox.

March Awaits
by Matthew Burns, 2009

March awaits just over the horizon
So close but still a world away,
While I sit despondent in the bleakness
Of the land that time forgot.

Promises wear thin
As the wolf beats on the door,
And the dark February winter yields
Little hope for a brighter day.

I look to the past
With its silver bells and festive garments,
Now musty, dusty and old
And ponder their futility.

Signs point
To a new day dawning,
Though they remain barely discernible
As March awaits just over the horizon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Sticky Situation

It’s about that time of year again, time to make maple syrup. Have any of you readers out there tried making maple syrup before? I have. I guess I always was sort of a food purist, perhaps it is more like I’ve always been curious to see whether I could follow some of the old-timey traditional methods of making stuff at home, so it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at making maple syrup. I remember I was about 15 years old or so, and I had talked to a few of the older folks in the neighborhood about making syrup and they told me how it was done, though I didn’t let on that I was actually going to try my hand at it for fear of getting to much advice that would take the fun out of it.

I remember that I needed a spout to insert into the tree to drain the sugar water out, and I didn’t want to use metal or plastic pipe for a spout (which undoubtedly would have been the most convenient). No way, I was doing this the old fashioned way and I wanted a wooden spout. I hunted the woods for hours looking for a straight stick about an inch wide, then using my pocket knife I split it open. I cleaned out the doty center of the stick and I had two little troughs with which to siphon away the sugar water from the tree. I did try my hand at hollowing out a whole stick but it was just too time consuming, so my idea worked well enough.

I then took Dad’s wood bore and after scouting out the biggest sugar maple trees behind our house on the hillside, I took boring holes into the trees. I then inserted my little wooden “pipe troughs” into the holes, and had then dripping down into my catchment containers. After waiting a few minutes, I saw the first few droplets of sugar water trying to run down into my waiting mason jar. (Yes, mason jar…this was a small time operation!). I soon learned through trial and error that if I slanted my bored hole slightly upward, the sap flowed out a little better. Also, I found that a little spot of chewing gum dammed up the excess sugar water and made the sap flow out my troughs a little better, as well as securing my troughs in the hole. I know I must have drilled 20 or so trees, and I had jars, cans, cups, buckets and pretty much anything else that would catch sugar water placed under nearly every maple tree on the hillside. This was about mid-morning, and as the day progressed and it got a little warmer, the sap started running faster. Some of them ran like a slow running faucet. Since my catchment containers were rather small, I nearly ran myself to death emptying them into my larger 5 gallon bucket which sat at the bottom of the hill. Eventually, I focused on the larger and more productive trees and abandoned operations at the small trees. After a few hours, my 5 gallon bucket was full of sweet tasting maple sap. It looked like water, had the consistency of water, but it had a slightly sweet taste. After getting what I believed would be aplenty maple sugar water, I gathered up my jars, cans, cups, etc. and placed a piece of clay mud into the bored holes of the tree to keep out moisture so as to prevent rot.

An old drawing of a maple sugar camp.

So with my 5-gallon bucket of maple sugar water in hand, I talked Mom into allowing me the use of her kitchen to boil down my syrup. She told me I could but that if I made a mess, I’d have to clean it up. So, using her big stockpot, I filled it about ¾ full with sugar water and started heating it. Soon it was at a boil, and I kept adding more sugar water to the pot as it evaporated away. It took several hours of this, but eventually the boiling liquid started turning the lightest shade of brown, and I just knew that soon I’d have syrup. I couldn’t help but sample my work frequently and it was starting to get slightly sweeter, but still nowhere near syrup. So my pot kept boiling and boiling, and it was clear that I’d get no more than a quart of syrup out of this, but that was still fine. Well, about the time my pot had about a quart of liquid in it, I tasted it again…nope, still very watery…so I had no choice but to keep boiling. Everyone had told me that it took a lot of sugar water to make syrup but I figured I had enough. I had thought about going back out to the trees to get more sap, but Mom told me that I’d better wait and see if my experiment worked before I went and made more work for myself. I’m sure it was more like she wanted me out of the kitchen since I’d been there for hours and hours. So I acquiesced and kept on a-boilin’!

It soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to have much maple syrup at all when I got it boiled down. As it was now, I had less than a cup full in the pot and it was still rather watery. I became resolved right then to continue and get whatever syrup I could out of this…no matter how little… since I had spent all day at it. When the liquid had nearly all boiled away, I tasted my treasured substance, and lo and behold, it was just right! I had made maple syrup! However, when I measured it out, I had just over 3 Tablespoons of it (out of 5 gallon of maple sugar water). Everyone got a good laugh over that, but let me tell you, that was good maple syrup. I shared it with everyone there, and we all got a taste, and everyone agreed that it was really good.

And that's when the real fun started. Mom came out to the kitchen and told me to clean up my mess. I’d been really careful not to make too much of one since I knew I’d be the one to have to clean it. I washed the stockpot, and wiped off the stove and table, took my bucket outside, and thought I had it all done, then Mom discovered something. She looked around and had noticed that there was a sticky film all over the walls and ceiling, over the cabinets and refrigerator, over the countertops and the ceiling fan, even on the window panes! It seems that while my maple sugar water was evaporating, the steam had miniscule amounts of sugar in it, and it had coated everything in the kitchen. Hot, soapy water was the only thing that would cut the stickiness, and Mom said we had to clean the whole kitchen (yes, she helped!). She really didn’t say too much to me, probably because if she started she wouldn’t have been able to stop! It was way up into the night before we got the remnants of my first and only ill-fated attempt at making my own maple syrup. So for the love of God and all that is Holy, if you decide to make your own homemade maple syrup, take my advice and do it someplace other than your mother’s kitchen. I old guess the old timers had a reason for making sugar camps after all!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Fish Tale

We lived up Johnson Holler at the old house at Earl’s when I caught my first fish. There was a little creek under the hill, it was no more than 2 feet wide, and there wouldn’t have been any fish in it had it not been for our neighbor, Roscoe, who worked at the local trout hatchery and who stocked the creek. Roscoe had stopped by our house and told Mom that he had put some trout in the creek, and that she ought to let us boys try to catch them.

Dad, Mom, Jason and Me at the old house at Earl's.

When Dad got home from work Mom told him about the stocked fish, and how I wanted to try to catch one. Dad then borrowed a fishing pole off of my Uncle Fudge, actually Fudge gave me a pole with an old closed-face reel, it was green as I recall, and I used it for years. Anyway, over the next few weeks, I tried and tried to catch a fish with no luck. My favorite spot was the little water hole that Mom used to get water out of the creek to use for baths and such. It was a little wider at this spot, maybe 3 or 4 feet across, and about a foot deep. I was only 4 years old at the time so I was never allowed down at the creek unattended, but most of the time, I was down there fishing by myself with my Aunt Big Six or Mom watching me from the nearby holler road. I know I just about drove them all crazy with my incessant stammering about wanting to go fishing.

One day in June (I just remember it was in June but not any particular part of the month) luck caught up with me, and I hooked a trout. It was a strange feeling, I felt it tugging at my line and once it was hooked, I saw the trout roll over in the water. Well, I was too excited to reel it in, I just took to hollering “I caught one, I caught one” and I took to running up the hill towards Big Six, all the while carrying the fishing pole with the line still rolling out of it. It was about 30 feet up to where Big Six was standing, and she, still not believing that I had caught a fish, told me that I had a helluva mess with fishing line stretched through the briers and grass between the creek and the holler road. I kept saying, “I caught one, I caught one.” In an effort to get me to shut up, Big Six decided to walked down over the hill to check it out first hand. As we got down to the creek, she saw that I wasn’t fibbing, there it was, a medium sized rainbow trout. It was flopping around on the creek bank, apparently when I took to running up the hill, I somehow managed to drag the trout out of the water. I was as proud as could be.

My Kindergarten photo, taken soon after the fish incident.

With Big Six’s help, we got the hook out of the fish’s mouth, and she handed it to me to carry up to the house. Mom was waiting for us at the front door, she heard all the commotion and knew that I must have lucked onto one. My Granddad, who was visiting at the time, kiddingly asked me if the fish was blind or crazy, because it had to be one or the other to allow me to catch it. Mom then asked me if I wanted a fish sandwich made out of my trout.

Well, up to that point in my life, I never realized that fish sandwiches came from actual fish. As soon as it dawned on me that my fish was going to have to die in order to have a fish sandwich, I cut a fit saying that nobody was going to eat my fish. Mom then asked me if I wanted to put it back in the creek, and I wasn’t up for that option either. I thought I was going to make a pet out of my trout! Mom, who said we’d better get the fish back into some water if I was going to think about what to do with it, produced a gallon canning jar full of water, and we put the trout in it. It took to swimming around (this ought to tell you just how big this fish really was), and I thought I had a prize.

I remember soon after this, we had to go into Franklin for something and I insisted that I take my jarred fish with me. I showed everyone who would look when we were in Franklin. I remember we parked right in front of the old IGA store in Franklin, and me and my granddad stayed in the truck while Mom and the other kids went in the store. Whenever someone would come out of the store, I’d hold up my fish and holler at them, “Lookee here what I got!” Nearly everyone stopped to look and to talk with me, and they acted like it was a whopper. I was beginning to be thoroughly convinced that I was a fisherman extraordinaire!

After showing my fish to everyone in Franklin, we went over to my Granddad’s house to wait for Dad to get home from work. Granddad lived between where Dad worked and Johnson Holler, so he’d see we were there and stop by. Soon after arriving at Granddad’s, I decided that I would put Swimmy (a name I got from a book that I really liked at the time titled "Swimmy") into the water hole behind Granddad’s house. They figured there was enough fresh water coming into the water hole to keep my fish alive, and it was small enough that I could visit my trophy fish whenever I wanted. Looking back, it really is a wonder a coon or a hawk didn’t scoop out Swimmy, but they never did.

Taken before the fish incident, but while we lived at Earl's.

As with any prized possession of a child that age, I soon lost interest in Swimmy, and while everyone knew Swimmy was there, we didn’t give it much thought. As the summer wore on and it got dry, Granddad’s water hole was drying up. I remember them telling me that I needed to get Swimmy out of the water hole and go put it in the river or he was going to die. Well, of course, I was having none of that, and one day about a week later I remember poking around near the water hole, and I noticed that there was a half eaten fish laying in the cracked mud. I don’t recall that I was terribly upset, but I must have been because I remember it. I recall going around to the front porch where everyone was at and saying that Swimmy was dead, and as I put it, “his belly busted open and his guts came out.” They all told me that I was warned that I needed to put Swimmy in the river, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I brushed them off, and just let it go. Soon the neighborhood cats ate what was left of Swimmy.

You know, I never did like the taste of fish, but I would eat fish sticks (albeit reluctantly) if Mom made them for us. But after what happened to Swimmy I completely refused to eat any kind of fish or seafood again. I am now going on around 27 years in my fish free lifestyle. Now I have such an aversion to it that I can’t even stand the smell of it without getting sick. Really, I physically throw up if I smell cooking fish, as evidenced on a trip to Red Lobster where I only got the door open, and they got pile of vomit on their welcome mat. This is much to Shirley’s chagrin since she loves fish and seafood and I won’t allow it in the house, and if she eats it, it has to be when I’m not with her. Maybe psychologically, Swimmy affected me more than I know.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Granddaddy's Strongbox

One of my most precious possessions is an old antique strongbox passed down to me from my great-granddaddy Don. The box came to me by way of my brother, who got it from our granddad Rich, who got it from his daddy, Don.

The strong box is worn with age, and rather beaten up in appearance, but I don’t have the desire to paint it or refinish it. I want it to remain just as Granddaddy Don knew it. How it came to me is a story in and of itself. I told you that before me, the strongbox belonged to my brother. Well, he wanted rid of it because he claims it is haunted. He said for as long as he had it, the box would be visited by Granddaddy Don who would rifle through it on occasion. He won’t tell me the whole story, and I really don’t care to know it, but Granddaddy Don is welcome to look through his strongbox whenever he wants to. I figure the most he will do is holler out, “Hell bohunk, where’s my…?” or tell me as he once did when I was a little boy, “Just for that little boy, you’ll get nothing more.”. In any case, I am only the temporary owner of the strongbox, and the treasures it contains. Come with me and I’ll show you some of them.

As I open the strongbox, the musty smell of old papers floods the room. Everything seems to be coated with a film of some sort. I can’t describe it but you can feel it coating everything. The contents are strewn about in the box, I’m sure it is the result of many searching relatives looking for money. While I never got money from Granddaddy Don, I got stories and the strongbox, and to me, these are worth more than all the money in the world.

The first thing that I see in the strongbox is an old White Owl Cigar box. Inside there is Granddad’s old corncob pipe. It looks store-bought, which is odd considering what a skin-flint he was. I’d have figured he’d make his own. Also, I see a little case, inside are two medals that Granddaddy got in the War. He was in World War 1 so perhaps these are from that bloody war. Also, there is an old pocketwatch, I don’t know where it came from, but I know Granddaddy must have treasured it for it to end up in his strongbox.

There are also a few old ratty books, worn thin and covers missing from frequent use. By the time I knew him, Granddaddy had poor eyesight and no longer read very much, so these books are evidence that he must have liked to read in his younger days. Since I mentioned Granddaddy’s bad eyesight, I remember one time he was sitting in his favorite chair beside of the living room window. He would sit for hours just watching the world go by. I remember one day he hollered for Grandmaw to come in and look at something. She did, and he said, “Hell Mary, there’s a fox out there in that bush”, pointing to her lilac bush. Grandmaw looked and told him, “I believe you’d better look a little closer, that’s not a fox, it’s a fox squirrel.” Granddaddy, trying to save face retorted, “Hell Mary, you must have scared him away when you came to the window.”

Among my favorite items in the strongbox is Granddaddy’s old calendar. I remember he used to religiously write down the high and low temperatures for every day of the month. Only when he was sick and in the hospital did he miss a day. I like to look over the temperature for the days of every month, scribbled in his shaky handwriting, and wonder what Granddaddy was planning to do by preserving this information. Was he keeping a log for some reason, or was it just a hobby to pass the time.

Also in the strongbox were a few pictures of my Dad when he lived with Grandmaw and Granddaddy, and some ledgers where Granddaddy kept track of his finances. If Granddaddy owed you a penny, he made sure it was paid to you, and if you owed him a penny, he wanted it paid with interest! He lived through the depression, worked the timber camps, later owning his own timber business that operated on the land that is now the Fredericksburg Battlefield outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Still later, after the timber industry collapsed, Granddaddy made his way to Baltimore where he worked for Glenn L. Martin airplane factory where he was a supervisor during World War 2. He stayed with the Martin company and retired from there, at which time, he backtracked on the hillbilly highway and returned home on the mountain.

There are many memories buried in this strongbox, and many fascinating stories, perhaps sometime I will share some of them with you.

Do any of you all out there have similar items that are priceless to you, based solely on their sentimental value?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Storms A-Comin'

Storms a-comin’! Those words used to fill me with delight like none other. When someone called out those words, it usually meant that there wouldn’t be school for a few days, and that meant that we could spend the day sled-riding and playing in the snow.

Since we lived way up on the mountain, we could see a storm coming over Spruce Knob long before it ever reached us, so when someone hollered, “Storms a-comin’”, it wasn’t because they had heard about it on the news or radio, but rather because they could see it breaking over the mountain to the west. You see the mountains are so high where I come from that when a storm comes over Spruce Knob, it always drops its precipitation before it crosses North Mountain, since the mountains somehow affect the way the air flows, and creates a micro-climate. This unique weather pattern has been studied by professional climatologists, to the east of North Mountain there is what is called a “rain shadow” caused by the mountain, and they don’t get the weather than we do in Germany Valley on the west side of North Mountain. All I know is how it generally works and that when someone hollers “Storms a-comin’” it means just that.

A storm a-comin' over Spruce Knob.

I remember the snows that we got when I was a kid. The kids and adults would all get together at the old homeplace and a huge bonfire would be built at the top of the hill. We’d all bundle up in layers of clothes, and sled-ride all day and sometimes into the night, warming up by the fire. The hill we sledded down was actually the road that led up to the house, but when it was bad you had to park your vehicles down at the mouth of the holler and walk up the hill, or else you’d be stranded. The road was very fun to sled-ride down, when you first started it was really steep so you’d pick up speed, and just as you were going really fast there was a sharp turn that you had to maneuver or else you’d end up down in the creekbed. After you rounded the turn, you had a gradual decline for several hundred yards. If you were on a good sled, you could ride all the way out to the state road. I remember the old homemade wooden bob-sleds went the best, they went really fast and really far, but we only had two of them and there’d usually be around 15 or so of us sled-riding.

We’d sled-ride on anything that was slick. I remember using old pieces of house tin to ride on. It went really good, but you had to be careful not to cut yourself on it if you wrecked and it was hard on your posterior if you know what I mean. I remember one time my Aunt Clucky was riding on a piece of house tin and was clipping it off at a good pace, but the tin was hard to steer so she didn’t make the turn and ended up down over the rock pile and into the creek. We all ran to see if she was okay, and heard her cussing before we ever got to her. So we knew she was okay. However, the house tin had cut into her rear-end. She had a pretty bad gash, but she was most upset about cutting a big hole in her blue jeans. She said they were her best pair.

Burns Holler covered with snow. The upper part of this is where the turn is located.

One time we didn’t have enough sleds or house tin, and we’d run out of garbage bags (which also go really well in the snow), and someone wondered if a truck hood would go well in the snow. We went to an old junk truck that my granddad had for parts and some of the older boys removed the hood. We figured we’d try it out first down through the garden before we started down the holler road since the garden wasn’t nearly as steep. Well, we all piled on the truck hood, and we even used some old pillows to cushion our butts. It was really comfortable. Well, once we got the truck hood sliding real good, we were off. We just kept picking up speed the further we went so we figured it was good that we tried it first in the garden rather than the holler. About that time, somebody noticed the guide wire for the TV antenna directly in our path. They hollered “Duck”, and we all did…all that is except for my Aunt Pat who looked up to see what we were hollering about. Well, she looked up just as we passed under the low-hanging guide wire, and it caught her right at the neck. Everyone kept going except Pat who lay gasping in the snow. “I caint breathe” she kept saying, only to us it sounded like she was saying, “I caint breeze.” Well for some reason, my Dad got tickled at her and started laughing, and then we all just busted out laughing. Aunt Pat didn’t see too much humor in this, but it was one of those moments where even if it had killed her, we’d of had to laugh. Aunt Pat wasn’t seriously hurt, Dad helped her up and we tugged the truck hood up to the top of the hill and took off on it down the holler with Aunt Pat riding alongside the rest of us. As I recall, my Dad and Uncle Fudge took the first run down the holler road to make sure it was safe and to break a path for us in the snow. We rode on that old truck hood all winter after that. It was one of the best sleds ever.

I also remember one time a bunch of us were racing down the holler on our makeshift sleds. There were about 4 of us in this race and we rounded the turn at a pretty good pace. Just then we noticed our Cousin Toomey coming up the holler road in his 4-wheel drive pick-up. He saw us about the same time we saw him, but there was nowhere for us to go. We thought about bailing off the sleds but we were so close that we’d probably still have run into his truck, so we done the only thing we could do…run over the hill into the creek. So we all steered ourselves over the hill, through the raspberry briars, down over the rock pile which dropped off into the creekbed. I tried jumping just as the sled went over the cliff that dropped off about 10 feet into the creek, and I landed on the other side of the run bed. The other three were smack dab in the middle of the creek. We were all laughing like we had good sense!!!

Me, Jason, my Aunt Nawa and Cousin Bub in the last days of sled-riding.

Nobody sled rides down the holler road anymore. The last time that I know of was in the late 1990’s when my Cousin Bub was little. It’s a shame too, but I guess it was inevitable as we all scattered out to make our own way in the world. But the memories of sled-riding down that holler road come back to me every time I watch the weather on TV and am reminded that a storms a-comin’. When these thoughts come to me, I find myself scouting around for a piece of house tin, a garbage bag or even an old truck hood.