Saturday, December 29, 2012

A gray day on the mountain

First day back from a western swing to visit with out son in Idaho showed a gray landscape, barely a speck of color, in a cold, iron landscape. Chopped ice, hauled firewood and dried gloves by the woodstove. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Flounder

If there's a time of year when traditions are more important than Yuletide, I can't think of it. So I always think of my colleagues in the editorial department of the Wilmington Star-News years ago when each year they re-published a lovely little piece on an old tidewater tradition at Christmas: The Christmas Flounder.

We -- well, Mary Schulken and I -- liked it so much at the Charlotte Observer that we published it several times -- until Ed Williams, the editorial page editor and normally a merry old gent, put his foot down and made us find something else to write about. My friend Lew Powell once suggested I write about some equally fascinating -- and improbable -- tradition as the Flounder.  I gave it a go, trying on the Christmas Badger, the Christmas Racoon, the Christmas Rabbit, but nothing worked.

So here it is.  Grab a glass of egg nog, get the saltshaker and take out one grain, and enjoy:

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the sound
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a flound(r).
– Anonymous
If there is an old-timer in your house today, he probably is not reminiscing about the grand old tradition of The Christmas Flounder. It is practically forgotten.
The Christmas Flounder is a Yuletide custom unknown outside Southeastern North Carolina, according to Paul Jennewein, the veteran newsman who is the world's only authority on the matter.

As is the case with many traditions, the origin of The Christmas Flounder is obscured in the mists of memory, but according to Mr. Jennewein it apparently began during the Great Depression, when people in this area were even poorer than usual.

Buying and stuffing a turkey for Christmas dinner was out of the question for many. Something else was needed, something that poor folks could procure in the days before food stamps. And so it came about that one Christmas Eve in the reign of Franklin the King of Four Terms, the merry glow of kerosene lanterns and - for those who could afford the Ray-O-Vacs - flashlights gleamed over the waters of the sound.

Westward wading, still proceeding, went wise men who knew that dull-witted fishes would be sleeping in the mud at that time of night. Suddenly the sharp splash of steely gigs shattered the starry stillness.

Next day, the unfortunate flounders, lovingly stuffed with native delicacies such as oysters, crabs, collards and grits, graced Christmas tables all over the area. Non-Baptists who knew a reliable bootlegger accompanied the humble dish with a jelly glass of high-octane cheer.

It was a tradition born of hardship, but it is unique and deserves to be remembered as part of the folklore of the Lower Cape Fear.

Merry Christmas!!

Read more here:

(Reprinted every Christmas Eve in an effort to keep this grand tradition alive.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Old ties and old yarns at Christmastime

     Each year their heads get grayer, their steps slower, some years their numbers smaller.  But still they come to the red brick house on a hill in northwest Greensboro to see old friends, old colleagues from long ago, to retell stories about the characters that once worked at the Greensboro Daily News and the afternoon Greensboro Record before it was folded into the morning paper. And they come to see the man who started the tradition that brings them back: Irwin Smallwood, perhaps the most decent man in American journalism for his time. And the annual host for, I don't know, maybe 40 or so editions of an annual ritual: Irwin's Christmas Party.

Now, you might think, so what?  What of the fact that an assortment of men and women who worked together long ago keep coming back once a year to raise a glass and have a few laughs and catch up on who's gone over to the other side? What's the big deal about that? Happens anywhere and everywhere somebody is willing to open his home to folks who once toiled in his workrooms, doesn't it?

Maybe so. Probably so. But this one is different.  And when it happens, as it did Friday night at Irwin's house, you appreciate the fact that you can still see folks you busted your brains out working with, trying to get a hot story in the paper on deadline so many years ago that it's easier to count them in decades.  If you never worked at a newspaper, none of this makes sense. But if you worked for a good one, with good people who put out an entirely new edition every single day of the year, year in and year out, you know the truth of it.

Some history:  By chance my mother, a teacher starving in South Carolina, came to Greensboro in the late 1920s to take a job in city schools. At a party she met my father -- accidentally sat on his fedora, or so the family story goes -- and they got such a laugh out of it they married, had a couple of kids.  Not long before the first of the kids were born, my mother was teaching English and journalism at Greensboro High School.  She taught a couple of boys who would become my mentors and friends and editors at the Daily News many years later: Moses Crutchfield and Irwin Smallwood.  Irwin likes to remind me he saw the twinkle in my Dad's eye long before I showed up at Wesley Long Hospital some years later.  I think she must have had Moses and Irwin in her classrooms about 1940 or so.

Many years later, when I was about to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, I went to see Irwin about a job. He hired me as a copy editor on the night desk, but he was already planning for a new venture, the first of a series of regional editions the paper would put out in neighboring counties. I moved to the Alamance Bureau of the Daily News and with the guidance of the late Ben Taylor covered four or five stories a day before the Army caught up with me.  I spent three years doing Regular Army duty, staying in touch with the newspaper folks when I went on leave.  In 1972 the papers had an opening in the Washington Bureau. I filled it for a few years, then came back to Greensboro for a general assignment reporting slot before going to Raleigh to cover state government. I'd stay there the next three decades or so, working for the Daily News and for other publications.

Irwin taught me a lot about life, by his example and his counseling. He had been a first-rate golf writer and sportswriter who kept moving up at the newspaper and eventually became managing editor.  I don't know how you manage a bunch of unmanageable individuals, but I think his basic decency and his interest in good stories were what his reporters and editors most appreciated. He encouraged his reporters to get at the interesting stuff no one else had. "What kind of person is he?" Irwin once asked when I was about to do a profile of some windbag. "What does he do when nobody's looking?"  And once, regarding another politico we all had some doubts about, there was this question, asked with a smile on his face: "Does he push blind biddies in the creek, or what?"  

One time the CEO of a big North Carolina utility company asked to meet with us to explain a rate filing or something. The meeting wasn't a good one. At the outset the big shot told a racist joke, not an uncommon thing at the time, and nobody laughed. I could see Irwin stewing about it.  After the meeting, he was still steaming. I don't recall exactly the words he used, but it was something like, "If that ever happens again, we're walking out on the son of a gun."  He didn't say "gun," either.

Every year in December, usually two or three weeks before Christmas, Irwin and his wife Ailene -- who my mother had also taught in high school -- would open up their house for a party. It began about nightfall and ended only when the Greensboro Daily News was delivered sometime the next morning before dawn. It went on that long because, Irwin knew, it was the only way those last few souls running the night desk would have chance to get by for a drink or two, a plate of food and some holiday merriment.

In those days I was  a young man, and enjoyed seeing the old lions of the paper: Carl Jeffries, whose father as publisher of the Asheville Citizen had been instrumental in bringing the Blue Ridge Parkway through the NC mountains; Henry Coble, who read everything before it went into the pages of the Greensboro Daily News (and who briefly courted my aunt Pattie way back), Jon Yardley and Ed Yoder, before they went on to fame in Washington, and a host of characters the likes of which I will not see again. There was an ex-fighter who had fought under the name the Atomic Blond -- bald by the time I knew him. There was an engaging reporter who liked to call himself "Clark Dark."  There was Ed Gray, whose sister Francis Gray Patton had been a well-known short story writer and author of a popular 1954 novel, "Good Morning, Miss Dove."

Nat Walker was the best city editor I ever worked for. His wise advice to me was always to do the right thing, hold it to 20 inches and get it in before deadline.The other night he retold, as he often will, a story about the night that funeral homes across the state were calling in an unusually high number of obituaries -- more than double, maybe triple the normal 25 or so, and when Leon Bullock  brought over the third stack of fresh obits for Ed Gray to edit before sending on to the composing room, Ed had had enough. Leaping to his feet in frustration, he shouted something that sounded like, "Dad-blamit, these dad-blamed people ought to have taken better care of themselves!"   Except he didn't say 'dad-blamit' or 'dad-blamed."

Somebody probably retold a Moses Crutchfield story that went this way. One day during the lunch hour, a disheveled, bleary-eyed street person wandered into the newsroom. Irwin's secretary Betty Walker, whose job it was to intercept the confused and straighten them out, asked if she could help him.  Obviously disturbed, he said something like, "I have a message from God to talk to Jesus." And without batting an eye, Betty said, "Well, Jesus isn't in right now, but Moses is sitting right over there and will be happy to speak with you."

And there was a magnificent staff: Ned Cline, a nonpareil political reporter; Jerry Bledsoe, a fabulous storyteller, columnist and author of true-crime books; Stan Swofford, a bulldog investigative reporter who, if there were any justice in this world, would have won the Pulitzer Prize for his revelations about how the Wilmington 10 were railroaded; Sherry Johnson, a classmate and versatile reporter who went on to be sports editor of dailies in Wichita and Raleigh, Rosemary Rogers Yardley, a graceful writer whose opinions on world affairs broadened readers' understanding of a complicated world; Jim Jenkins, a talented feature writer in Greensboro who went on to become (and still is) the workhorse and backbone of the News & Observer's editorial pages for decades in Raleigh. I've left out a number of crackerjack newspapermen and newspaperwomen who could have worked anywhere in the country; a lot of them chose to stay in Greensboro. 

Those Christmas parties at the Smallwoods went on for many years until Irwin retired. At some point he revived them as a sort of reunion, and when possible out-of-towners would come back through town just to see the old crowd.  Irwin's wife Ailene died some years ago; so did Moses Crutchfield, and for a while Irwin and Fay Crutchfield kept company.   Last week, I saw Irwin's daughter and Moses' daughter at the gathering, and in their eyes and thoughts you could see Aileen and Moses and the kinds of people they were.

The parties don't go on until the Daily News is delivered any longer. For one thing, it's called the News-Record now, a shadow of its heyday self, when people across the state subscribed and no politician would miss an edition.  Stan Swofford doesn't sing the risque version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" anymore. None of us stays up late any longer, and the ranks of those who attend has thinned as the years have taken their natural toll.

But I take heart from the words of my longtime friend Mae Israel, who my mother had taught in her last year in the classroom about 1969, and who worked at the Daily News before going on to successful careers at the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post.  Just before the party broke up the other night, at least for us, she said something like, "You know, I haven't worked at any other place where something like this happens -- where people have such strong ties to each other that they keep coming back year after year.  It really was a remarkable place to work when we were there."

She is right.  I enjoyed just about every day at the newspapers and newsrooms and magazines where I worked for so many years. But I've yet to see another place like the newsroom atmosphere cultivated  by those who worked at the old Daily News in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  I didn't know how lucky I was then, but I know it now.  It was a gift.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cooked your holiday ham yet? No? Here's how!

Well, shoot, lookahere, it's barely two weeks before Christmas and I've been so busy trying to wind up work on a book that I plum forgot what ought to be a Christmastime tradition around these parts: A great recipe for the best ham you ever ate.

It's important, of course, this being the Southern Appalachians and all, and as Southerners we have a duty to eat good pork and support an industry that has given the free world Smithfield hams in Virginia and pit-cooked barbecue in North Carolina and even something they call BBQ in more Southern climes.   Plus, you're going to need some ham and some greens and some black-eyed peas on New Years Day, assuming you want to start 2013 off on a good foot.

My Dad considered himself one of the world's foremost experts in eating ham.  Not the raising of ham, or the curing or the cooking or anything else related to the fixing.  Nossir, he just liked to eat 'em.  The ones he especially liked he called "hammus alabammus" -- from the pet pig Salomey belonging to the Yokum family in Al Capp's sometimes hilarious comic strip, Li'l Abner.  Dad would rate how country a ham was by quarts.  "That was a three-quart ham we had tonight," he'd say, referring not to the volume of ham we'd just wolfed down, but on how many quarts of water he'd likely have to drink that evening to deal with the salt factor before he hit the rack.  The more quarts, the better he liked it, and don't mention any of this to his salt-obsessed doctor, who'd surely read him seven riot acts for consuming so much salt and revving up his heart rate to about the same pace as Ol' 97 when it came screaming down the line toward Danville.

But I digress. The thing about the ham we've learned to enjoy up here is not only how good it is, but how you can make a house party out of fixing it. Or not, as you see fit, but it's always good to have a little Irish whiskey around to sip on while dreaming of what that ham-in-the-works aroma really means.  It means you are about to do some fine eating.

This set of instructions first appeared online, I think, in a blog of The Charlotte Observer, but it has its roots in the Person County N.C. community of Roxboro.  My neighbor Barnie Day passed it on to me a few years back and has demonstrated several times in the past year that this thing works well every time. I can't improve on Barnie's writing or his cooking, so here it is, in his own words.  Enjoy:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

[Also available, our scouts in the field have advised us, at Slaughter's in Floyd. And now, back to Barnie:)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn.

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA

Monday, November 26, 2012

An honest American buck -- all 12 points

Stopped by some friends' house the other evening for a holiday glass or two with Debbie and Barnie Day, who live down the road from us, and heard the best deer story I've heard in quite a while. Up here on Belcher Mountain, folks take their deer hunting the same way they take their deer meat: seriously.
This one involves 14-year-old Ryan Shorkey, a young man from Charlotte who can shoot the daylights out of whatever he's aiming at. I took some photos of him and his Belcher Mountain pals on the first day of dove season in September at the Days' place.  When the first or second dove flew over, Ryan was up and on it so fast I missed the shot.  Ryan didn't.

I knew from his father, Steven Shorkey, that Ryan was an excellent competition shooter. He has hunted since he was 10. And if you give his father half a chance, he'll let on how proud he is of Ryan: "You may know he is an accomplished shot-gunner. He shoots on a competitive sporting clays team (about 30 kids aged 9 to 18) out of Richburg, SC called the Rocky Creek Clay Dusters. Their home club is Rocky Creek Sporting Clays. He shoots in tournaments all over SC, and this past year, ranged as far as Nashville, TN (Southeast Regional Championship) and Macon, GA (NWTF annual tournament, where he won a new shotgun for being high scorer in the preliminary round). Those last two tournaments are for "all comers", i.e. mostly men, not just for kids."

Ryan lives and breathes hunting. Watches hunting shows.  Works on his shooting. Turned down a ticket to a UNC football game to hunt.  But even before the season began, he was working for this day, his father says:

"There are not a lot of 14-year old boys (or men for that matter) that will sit in a deer stand from before sun-up till 2PM, peeing in an empty Gatorade bottle when needed, to hunt deer. He is a determined little man.

"Ryan put in the time on this buck. We scouted the area in late August with Alan Black to determine where to put the stands. Then went up the following weekend to do just that. Installed a trail cam and salt licks too (at a point in the season when it was legal). He moved his stand twice in the ensuing weeks to have a better view/shot at whatever might appear."

When I saw Ryan Saturday evening, warming his shins by a roaring fire in the Days' all-purpose living room, he was a little down but still excited from the hunt. Early that morning, in frigid weather hovering somewhere around 29 degrees F, Ryan was in his deer stand over on the yon side of Woolwine. When he got a good look at the deer, it was right below him -- and it was an astounding 12-point buck. Now, the only 12-point buck most hunters will ever see up close up will be in a wildlife magazine.

 Ryan shot, but wasn't sure he shot the buck where he meant to. The buck bounded off.  Ryan and his dad went after him an hour later. There were plenty of signs of blood, but Ryan and the hunting party he was with couldn't find him. They searched all day, but that buck was nowhere to be found.  It was bitter cold, his dad recalls, "with winds gusting to 30 mph, making the wind chill likely in the high teens. But he didn't say a word, he just put his head down and on he went. He was crawling on his hands and knees to follow the blood trail."

The next morning Ryan had to be in church in Charlotte, where he is an acolyte. His dad was having a little car trouble, and enlisted some local guys who can fix anything with moving parts to replace a bad alternator on the SUV.

Meantime, Barnie, councilor to many people from many different walks of this life, was thinking about that 12-point buck and the young man who shot it.  Be a shame to let that thing go, undetected down there in the bush, he thought. So he got on the horn and organized a search party to go after it -- Alan Black, Joel Honse, Darryl Conner's blue healer, Smokey, and Steven, and off they went.

It was rugged terrain, Barnie recalls:  "Rough, up and down country.  Isolated, with good thickets, ample creeks, heavy mast crop.  Prime big buck habitat."

It was Alan Black, the county attorney who, like many folks up here, can do anything, who found the deer after a few hours search Sunday. It was gut shot, and instead of heading for water downhill, the buck had circled behind and above Ryan, and laid up, Barnie said, in a "terrible thicket." They manhandled it out, rustled it into the back of a pickup truck and took its portrait.

Steven Shorkey  had this to say: "Lots of guys get 8-points, many fewer get 10-points. Fewer still 12 -points or better. That is the "Rhodes Scholarship" of deer hunting. Hopefully it isn't all downhill from here regarding trophy whitetail bucks for him. I think it will just make him a more discriminating deer hunter from here on out. The vast majority of deer hunters will go their entire lives without even seeing a 12-point, much less get a shot at one, much less kill it."


Sunday, November 25, 2012

A walk in the gorge

Had a big crowd of folks at the groaning board on Thanksgiving Day. We ate turkey and a wrap-cooked ham, Martha B's spectacular cornbread dressing and squash casserole, and Frannie, still cooking at 90, whipped up two great pumpkin pies.  Here are the satisfied diners:
Three generations: Front row, Jack B., Carol Strickland, Anna Palmer, Mary Minor Betts.; Second row, Xan Palmer, Jack Palmer, Frannie Strickland, Martha B.; third row, Karen Johnson, Bill Strickland, John Betts, Juta Geurtsen

The day after Thanksgiving we took a walk down the Rock Castle Gorge, a national recreation area that runs from its head in the Blue Ridge to its foot in the western Piedmont. They call it the Rock Castle because of the stupendous rock fall about halfway down the Gorge, where some folks think it looks like a tumbled-down castle with massive crystalline rocks.  Hard to see 'em in this little picture, though.

 It was a lovely stroll of perhaps 5 miles from the gate at the Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins operated by contractors for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service, down to a parking area near the old Civil Conservation Corps camp not far from Virgina Route 8.  Back in the 1950s my parents took us on a long trip up the parkway, and we stayed at the Housekeeping Cabins, just a few miles from where we live now, one night. I hear the Park Service is looking for a new vendor to run the cabins but is having trouble finding one -- and that the cabins might not be operating unless some infrastructure improvements can be made. That would be a shame.  But the hiking in the Gorge will always be good.
Juta and John

Martha B., Juta, Mary and ye olde Ink Stained Wretch. Photo by JBIII

We passed, by my count, at least eight stone chimneys on the way down, indicating the narrow gorge has been occupied by a number of families over the years, and crossed the Rock Castle Creek at least three time by dancing across on the rocks.

 Crossing the creek were Mary Betts, John Betts and Juta Geurtsen, who we're turning into a farmhand back at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club, starting with the short course in Tractor 101:
Juta tractoring along in the high field, with an academic adviser clinging to the three-point hitch

Ready to plant something, or mow it, or put down some  postholes....

Meanwhile, back in the woods, down near the bottom of the Rock Castle Gorge lies a handsome house that once belonged, according to an account I found by our Meadows of Dan, VA neighbor Leslie Shelor, to Sam Underwood and his wife, Addie Belcher Underwood.  I had heard years ago that the National Park Service had bought the land but granted the owning family a life tenancy in the house. I don't know if that's true, but Leslie Shelor's account of the Gorge and the Underwood house, still looking good after all these years, is worth reading. Her words, written for a website called Blue Ridge Gazette in 2006, follows this.  I hoped to learn more but did not find a Part Two on the website.

From Leslie Shelor:
Part One: Rock Castle Gorge

Image: Edith Underwood and Ruby Underwood in Rock Castle

Ruby Underwood was born in 1913 in a little hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Rock Castle. She was the sixth of eight children born in a time of large families and small communities of subsistence farms. Her life spanned seventy-nine years of great change in the mountains that she called home.

Ruby's father, Samuel Henry Underwood, descended from Pennsylvania Quaker stock, independent thinkers that were churched for various reasons and left Pennsylvania for the freedom of the mountain frontier. Her mother, Addie Belcher, was of solid German descent. The Belchers were some of the first settlers in the Rock Castle community, with early deeds showing their presence shortly after Patrick County was formed.

Rock Castle, now known as Rock Castle Gorge and National Park Service property, possibly was named after the quartz rocks that are found in the area. Some think that "Rock Castle" is a corruption of "Rock Crystal". Others think that the name came from the bare rock cliffs that show in the side of the mountain; looking up at them a fanciful nature might think that they looked like stone castles. The community was large enough in 1861 to appear on a railroad map printed at the time, while other communities, including Meadows of Dan, were left off. Oddly enough, there was no railroad through the area, but the 'main road' on that side of the mountain, a steep wagon trail winding up the mountain, went through Rock Castle.

Ruby grew up in a community of farmers that were nearly all related to her; those families not related had lived side by side for generations. Stories of life down in Rock Castle reveal a close-knit community. Gatherings at the Bear (or Bare) Rocks, a large tumble of huge boulders that thrust out of the mountains, included picnics for the entire community, singing, exploring of caves and a little courting while children scrambled over stones and into crevices with an abandon unknown in today's world. There was a cave somewhere in the rocks, or nearby in the mountains, where the local explorers wrote or carved names and quotations. There was the "Potato Hill" named for its shape or the fact that potatoes grew well there. Rock Castle Creek tumbled down the mountain, usually in sight of the main road.

Sam Underwood's two story frame house stood above Rock Castle Creek, surrounded by gardens, pastures and outbuildings. A Delco plant provided electricity for lights in the house and a large stone chimney with fireplaces and cookstoves provided warmth. Ruby and her sisters helped with the cooking, tending the chickens and gardening, while her older brothers got out early to tackle heavier chores. All of the children helped with getting in the hay, and Ruby, as the smallest, was sent atop the haystack to stamp the hay down as it was pitchforked up. The hay had to be stacked with particular care, and Ruby remembered how itchy and hot the job was, clinging to the pole in the middle and marching around on top of the slippery hay as the stack rose higher beneath her bare feet.

Apple orchards also surrounded the houses and apples were stored in cellars, along with potatoes and onions, or dried for the winter. Before the chestnut blight devastated the mountains and robbed the settlers of the rich bounty of the chestnut tree, the children were sent out to gather the chestnuts to be sold for cash money for necessities that couldn't be obtained on the farm. The money for Chestnuts provided sugar, coffee, and shoes for the children to wear to school in the winter. Thousands of pounds of chestnuts were shipped from Patrick County each year to markets in the Northern states.

Family was important to the people in the mountains, who still count kin as far away as fifth or sixth cousins. Ruby's large extended family included uncles and cousins that lived down in the mountain as well as more distant kin in the surrounding hills. Ruby's grandfather, Reed Belcher, was a Civil War veteran. When she was small Addie and her sister took turns caring for the old man, bringing him up and down the mountain with the seasons. Ruby remembered them sitting him up in his rocking chair in the farm wagon to transport him from house to house.

Reed Belcher's story was one that is remembered by the family. He and at least one of his brothers went into service with the Confederate army, but their father kept one or two of the boys at home, either because he needed the help or he felt that he had risked enough with sending the boys that had gone. There are conflicting versions of this tale, but Ruby's story is partly supported by documentation. A Confederate conscription force came through Rock Castle "hunting for Belchers", according to the Confederate captain's diary. They found the old man at home but the boys had fled into the rhododendron thickets and were well hidden. One version of the tale has the mother of the children flinging a dipper of water in the captain's face when he demanded refreshment for his troops. Most versions agree that when the troops couldn't locate the elusive Belcher boys, they 'strung up' the old man from a tree in the yard by his neck. Apparently they just pulled him up in the tree to strangle, rather than actually hanging him and breaking his neck. The boys were nearby and with their mother were able to rescue their father.

Image: Alfred Underwood family, including Sam Underwood

When Reed heard the story, he was so disgusted he quit the Confederate army and went to Ohio, joining up with the Union force. It's said that there was some family feeling about the situation. Reed received a small pension, while other members of the family that had fought for the Confederate forces didn't qualify. Ruby said that to tease the old man the older boys would sing "Dixie" to infuriate him.

Henry Dillon was a neighbor who taught a school in the area and acted as an unofficial doctor during emergencies. He said he obtained his education from reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He and Sam Underwood had a good bit in common; Sam was a reader and subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution, which couldn't be touched by anyone else until he read it. His children were all great readers, especially Ruby, who read the heavy newspaper even when she was too small to understand the stories. There were a few treasured books in the house, read over and over and shared with the children.

Another neighbor was a woman farmer who raised her children and kept the farm alone, with only the help that the neighborhood folks could spare her. She was well-respected as a hard worker and self-sufficient woman, and was called "Mrs." although she never married, as far as can be discovered. One of her sons stayed with her and took over the farm as she grew older, staying there with her until the Park Service purchased the land.

Ruby's early childhood years were spent deep in Rock Castle, where she was surrounded by family and friends and wealth in the form of a large and loving family to protect and provide for her. Necessary chores were done, even by small children, but there was plenty of time to play with cousins from up and down the mountain and to explore the creek and surrounding hills. Children invented their own games, toys were few and treasured but imagination was boundless.

To Be continued....

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dancing bears and other mountaintop critters

Just the other day I glanced out the window while running through the 12-bar blues on my 53-year doghouse bass and saw a bear scampering along in our side yard. It was a revelation. I'd been hearing about bears on this property for years but never had seen one on our acreage before.  Well, OK, once a friend and I were taking a pre-dawn walk on the road out by the mailbox when we saw something darker than the surrounding dark cross the road.  We're both ex-Army, and executed an immediate to-the-rear, march movement.  We decided it was either a Buick or a bear, and given that Buicks usually make more noise, it probably was a bear.

We've seen them down the road over by U.B. Handy's old cornfield, and once walked up on a bow hunter in our woods who said a bear had just passed by a few minutes earlier.  But never saw one on this property until the one that walked by.

Except, of course, for Tom McCraw's wildlife pictures, taken from a camera he strapped to a tree down in our woods. Tom and his family live down in Mt. Airy, and during deer seasons we know we'll see him or his dad or his brother or all of them at once pretty regularly. They keep several deer stands in our woods, and they're good about keeping a watch on the place pretty much year round. Sometimes they come up in the summer with the kids just to walk around and see if they can catch sight of something.

 Tom's camera surely has.  In these pictures, taken within the last couple weeks, you'll see shots of bears, deer and turkeys from that automatic wildlife camera.  You'll note from the trees in the foreground that it's the same spot in the woods.   Not long ago Tom got a shot of an unusually exotic -- our dog Sadie, a French Brittany Spaniel nosing around the in the same place the deer and the bear like to come.  We're going to have a keep a closer eye on her.

 Check out the bears:

 And the turkeys:
And the deer:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The election and the Wabash Cannonball

Last night was the first Election Night I haven't covered as a newspaperman in at least two decades -- and I'll have to say there's something to be said for not having to instantly analyze an election based on insufficient data, on deadline, after too much coffee and not enough thought, and turn in 800 words on a topic that could very well turn out to be overtaken by events before it hit the streets.  Those nights when there was barely a trickle of results before the presses made their first runs were intense. Staring into a computer terminal, nerves and phones ajangle, I could feel the blood popping out on my forehead and my heart rate rushing along the tracks with roughly the noise and velocity of the Wabash Cannonball. -- "Listen to the jingle, and the rumble and the roar," as that old bluegrass standard put it.

Last night was different.  Drove over to Mitchell Music Co. in Floyd, hauled out my 1959 Kay upright bass and sat in on a jam session with 9 or 10 musicians playing old-time songs of heartbreak, lost youth, mournful blues and a fair amount of semi-sacred gospel tunes.  There were four guitars, one fiddle, one five-string banjo, one mandolin and two basses -- mine and something I'd never seen before, a U-Bass, a ukelele with fat polyester strings and an electric pickup that sounded fine -- and the fellow who played it was good, too.  I didn't give the elections a thought for nearly three hours.  All in all, a much more pleasant evening than trying to figure out what meant what on a too-short deadline with too much caffeine flowing in old veins.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Don't know if this tree made noise when it fell

So yesterday I noted that the howling wind from Sandy's remnants was still with us, as it is this morning, but that no trees had fallen.   Yesterday afternoon, I rolled in from a trip down to Winston-Salem and saw that I was wrong -- that a three-stemmed (but long dead) locust tree had capsized after taking on too much wind.

 If it blew over in the night or the day, no one heard it above the screech of the wind -- maybe because it's not big at all. I expect we'll get out the chain saws to make firewood billets and the splitter to bring it to size and the tractor to yank the stump this weekend.  At least we shouldn't have to wait for the wood to season. I think it's ready now.  Come to think of it, the storm did us a favor on this old tree.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The sounds of Sandy

It's been raging around here only since sometime Sunday night, but it's beginning to sound like it will be with us forever.  At 5 a.m. today the wind from extratropical storm Sandy's wake was still screeching around Belcher Mountain.  It has stripped almost every leaf from the trees in our woods, sent the angel trumpet vines to an early end, knocked over heavy pots containing dwarf spruces, scattered deck chairs, turned over rockers and brought down limbs all over the place.  Each day I wait until dawn to see whether trees have come down, too. If this storm had arrived in September, with a summer's full dress of greenery still covering their limbs, I expect we'd have to be cutting more firewood from toppled trees.

The sounds remind me of those lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He was writing about a ship surrounded by ice, but it serves Sandy's purpose nicely:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Old farm in fall

Right on up to about a week ago I heard some low-level grousing about how this autumn wasn't measuring up to last year's, or was it the year before?  Then came last Tuesday and Wednesday, fiery days that set new standards for jaw-dropping splendor. They surely were the peak of the annual riot of color, but every day up here lately is a glorious stroll through sun-dappled tunnels of gold and crimson and amber and I don't know what-all.

Just today I was trying to catch up on some long-delayed garden chores, pulling up the last of the tomato cages, coiling the hoses and rounding up the usual wagonful of hoes and dibbles and tater grubbers and an old chisel we used to get after tough weeds, when I looked around at the color of the light -- and dashed back up to the house for the camera.

If the old folks' calculations are right, this is something like the 112th Fall for the old homestead down by the creek.  A wise old man once told me the house was built around 1900, and the springhouse a few years later.  No telling when the corncrib went up, or the shed next to what was once a small dairy barn but now services the asparagus bed, or the old shed 50 feet away that slumps and slides a little more each year back into the Patrick County clay from which it rose and withstood many hard Belcher Mountain winters.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bill Friday, Virginia's gift to North Carolina

William Clyde "Bill" Friday was born 92 years ago in the Rockbridge County, Va. community of Raphine, but he moved with his family to North Carolina as a child -- a historic event that in time would change North Carolina for the better.  Friday's contributions to the state can be measured in the progress North Carolina made in the second half of the 20th Century, when Friday's sure-handed guidance of the University of North Carolina system  contributed to the state's economic progress, the increase in its college-going rate and especially in his raising the expectations of students from low- and middle-income families that at the 17-campus UNC system, it would always be possible to go to college.

Bill Friday was my friend, though I never could quite bring myself to call him "Bill."  He did not have a doctorate and didn't particularly like to be called Dr. Friday, though many did.  Most of the time it was simply "Mr. Friday," and many was the time when Friday would have some issue on his mind, or a suggestion for an editorial, or a story one of our reporters might tackle, and when I answered the phone, the conversation would start this way: "Hello, old friend. This is Bill Friday...."

I'll miss his friendship and guidance, and his even-handed approach, as will North Carolina, but perhaps our policymakers will keep his approach and his convictions in mind in future as they make tough decisions.

Here's a piece I wrote for today's Charlotte Observer about Mr. Friday:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fogsoon season

Well, it was winter the last few days -- never got out of the mid-30s on our ridge Monday -- and it was fogsoon season as well.  You know fogsoon, don't you?  Wet, raining from all directions ("It even rained upside down," as Forrest Gump once observed), and soaked everything even when it wasn't raining.  Then if neither the sun nor the wind comes out, nothing dries out.  "You cain't do nothing", to paraphrase the late James G. "Squirrel" Garrison.

Today, however, the stars and a sliver of moon were out brightly when I crawled out of the sack at 5 a.m. to grind out my quotidian of 1,000 words. Now the sun is out and bearing down and the wind is howling at 15-20 knots.  There are whitecaps out on the hayfield, and there's a small craft warning for garden tractors and wheelbarrows.  Might be best to stay in the slip, and turn to the traditional make and mend work before splicing the mainbrace sometime in late afternoon.