Thursday, February 15, 2007

Memories of Appalachia

In reaction to the recent renewal of disparaging remarks about Appalachian culture (some nearly calling the “Scots-Irish” the basis for all that’s wrong with this country) by way too many people (including the novelist Jane Smiley), I want to begin to share here my boyhood memories of life in the mountains of North Carolina. Though my family is Appalachian, the mountains were not really my home, except spiritually and, I have found, culturally. I had a fortunate position for an observer: half “of,” half “stranger”; these vignettes aren’t written by a native, but they don’t carry the misconceptions of the foreigner, either. From time to time, I will add others.


Mary’s Chevy was a ’56 Bel Air. That was significant to me, for even by 1965 the ’57 Chevy was known as the class of the fifties automobiles—but, at 13, I didn’t want to run quite within the pack. A year older was somehow superior. Even better, in my opinion, for it took a real connoisseur to tell the difference between a ’55 and a ’56—and I could do it.

In those days, a car a decade old was a relic, but it was all Mary could afford. She worked the serving line in the lunchroom in the elementary school up toward Micaville. She had bought the car used, and probably hadn’t paid very much. I bought my own first car almost a decade later for fifty bucks, and I don’t think she could have paid much more. Mine, too, was to be a Chevy Bel Air, a ’64. Mary’s car wasn’t quite the junker mine proved to be, but about the only person who would be impressed by it was a boy just on the young side of puberty, a boy learning the language of engines, though he had yet to change a spark plug, let alone rebuild a carburetor.

My prime memory of that car, however, has nothing to do with its mechanics. It has to do with a frozen pool of blood….

I don’t remember why we were chopping wood. Mary’s little house, where I was living, was heated by a kerosene stove and had no fireplace. I don’t remember a wood stove at all—and I would, having relied on one through the winter two years previously. We had no need for fence posts, for Mary had nothing to fence in—aside from her vegetable garden—and this was the dead of winter. But, nevertheless, my roommate David and I were chopping wood. Mary was around somewhere, probably in the kitchen, but she wasn’t paying much attention to us. We’d been given our task; it was up to us to complete it.

The tree I attacked wasn’t that big. Oh, it was tall enough, but fairly slender, perhaps with a seven-inch diameter at the base, just big enough to need an axe rather than a saw. It came down easily, but I had left my bow saw down by the house so, instead of fetching it, I began trimming the branches from the trunk with my axe. Not smart. I would swing into the wood and the whole thing would bounce down and up again, my energy reverberating through the branches rather than cutting them. Annoyed, I broke another rule of wood chopping: as I swung again, I stepped forward. The blade of the axe, this time, went through the branch and right into my foot, slicing through my boot like butter.

Mary’s house was across a swinging bridge over the South Toe River from the one local paved road. She kept the Chevy on a little pull-off next to the bridge, right across from a dilapidated one-room building that housed a store (which really was heated by a wood stove). I was bleeding like crazy, but Mary somehow got me across and into the car. About all I remember is looking back at the trail of blood in the snow, and its feel in the remains of my boot—and of watching it pool on the floor of the car as Mary sped me to the nearest doctor, five miles away.

When we came out of his office some hours later, me with my foot bandaged and wrapped and a new pair of crutches, I could do little more than crawl into the car after my crutches, which I shoved awkwardly onto the back seat. Looking down as I sat, I saw that my blood had frozen on the floor.

“Mary, what should we do about that?” I was weak from the pain of the cut that had half severed my little toe and opened up several inches of my foot quite deeply, but was trying not to show it.

She shrugged as she turned the key. “When we get home, lift it out and throw it in the river. Take out the mat, too, and clean it off on the snow.”

Mary, not then, not ever, neither showed emotion about the accident nor chastised me for my stupidity. She had done what was needed from the moment I had limped into her sight, following David, who was running to her for help. She had wiped her hands on her apron, shrugged into a coat, and helped me toward the car. I doubt she said a single word to me from the first moment she saw the blood in the distance as I limped toward her until she answered my question as we started home.

She did what was needed in an emergency and then, like a good mountain person, she forgot about it.

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