Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beloved Country: A Memory

As I recall it, 1964 began with a phone call.  Perhaps it was New Year’s Eve; I was looking after my younger brothers, my parents being out.  On the line was Bob Barrus, teacher at the boarding school I attended, the Arthur Morgan School up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, near where my mother was from.

“Your house burned down.”

“What do you mean?  I’m in my house.”  At twelve, I wasn’t too quick on the uptake.  Bob, though, probably thought I was being flip.

“Your house here, at Celo, at school.  It burned down today.”

I didn’t know how to react.  What I thought about mostly was my collection of nickels, something I’d put a lot of effort into building.  The house was more of a cottage and probably wasn't that great of a loss.  Three of us students lived there, me, Artie, and Jeff.  Along with us had been a student teacher from Antioch College named Chuck, but he would be returning to college after the break.

How I got back to school after the break is lost in my own fog.  Perhaps my parents drove me up from Atlanta, where we then lived.  Perhaps, as sometimes happened, they put me on the bus, to be picked up in Asheville

For the winter, we were moved to a cabin about a mile from the school, a place optimistically named “Walden,” its builder having first planned on constructing everything himself and being completely self-sufficient.  He only completed part, then brought in help.  Even then, the place had never been quite completed.  There was a sink, for example, but no water.  The little pump out at the spring had never been completely installed and, in the years the house had sat empty, had been vandalized to nothing.  I loved that spring from the start and can still remember it clearly, the shiny, chilly water pooling before sliding over the rocks to start a small brook.  I particularly remember the joy of disturbing the surface with a ladle.

For some reason, my memory places the outhouse slightly uphill from the spring, but I know that’s not possible.  No one would have placed it there, not even the optimist who had begun the house.

Our heat was a fireplace and a small pot-bellied stove.  There were two bedrooms for the four of us (another student teacher, this one named Pat, had joined us).  Generally, one person slept in the main room.  That one had the responsibility, on cold winter mornings (and it can get cold up there in the mountains, especially when snow covers the ground), of jumping out of bed and lighting the prepared fires in stove and fireplace before diving quickly back under the covers until the room had warmed.  Once that had occurred, the others of us would shiver in from the bedrooms to dress where we wouldn’t freeze.

We spent a great deal of our time cutting wood.  Years later, I realized just how much I had learned about saws when, asked to take one side of a cross-cut, I outlasted three teenagers on the other.  I had fallen back into the pattern learned early of letting the saw do most of the work, never pressing or pushing, pulling smoothly and gently.

We generally hauled our wood up on a small trailer attached to an army-surplus 1943 Willy’s jeep nicknamed ‘the holely heap.’  Not much else could make it up there.  We had to walk to school, so rarely returned to the cabin before nightfall.  At school, we could shower and eat before classes—and participate in chores, including cooking and taking care of the animals.  Though there were cows among the AMS community, and I sometimes helped care for them (though generally I was relegated to the chickens), we students weren’t allowed to drink the milk, but had to be happy with that coming in little half-pint cartons.

One day in the spring, Pat drove the three of us over to Eastern Tennessee (not far, really) to visit a family he knew who were building their own house.  They were a little more structured and able than I suspect the man who had started our Walden was, building out of logs they cut themselves and had planed with an adz.  To get there, we had to head down into their hollow via a series of switchbacks on a narrow dirt road, making the trip a lot longer than one might otherwise imagine, for the turns were steep and almost 180 degrees, and sometimes the edge of the road had crumbled a bit.  We were used to similar roads, but this, in my memory, was the steepest I'd seen.

A number of lean-tos and sheds dotted the area around the house.  I believe the roof was already on, but I don’t think the family had moved in yet—I think they were living in an old school bus parked on the property, but my memory on that is fuzzy.

Pat chatted with his friends and we scouted the area.  Uphill from the house, a couple of men (we had parked beside their pickup) were coiling long black rubber hoses they had dug up.  The hoses originated in an area where the trees were covered with white stuff.  There had clearly been an explosion and a fire; the structure there had been completely demolished, as little now left as there had been of our first house after our own fire.

This one, we were told later, had been no accident.  The two men were moonshiners salvaging what they could, for the revenuers had been there the day before, had chopped the still to pieces and then had blown up the remnants.

We had all seen stills before, but generally gave them a wide berth.  Operating ones were valuable, and their owners could get a little touchy when people got too nosey.  This one, though, was gone, so no one really cared.  The two men were likely known to the authorities anyway, and were now doing nothing illegal, so they didn’t mind us wandering around where, two days before, we’d have been highly unwelcome.

On the last day of the term, as I prepared to go back to Atlanta where my family was packing up to move once again (the fate, it seems, of many of the Appalachian diaspora), Pat handed me a book.  He must have seen my fascination with another Antioch student, the roommate of Lee Morgan, the son of the couple, Ernest and Elizabeth Morgan, who ran the school (named after Ernest’s father).  That student was a young Kenyan named Alphonse Okuku, and it is he who first interested me in Africa.

The book Pat gave me was Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

Both Alphonse and that book are mentioned in the Introduction to the book I edited that came out this year, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo.  Africa eventually became as important to me as Appalachia, and both remain in my heart.

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