The Idol Quartet

Sterling Eisiminger

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“Born in the Great Depression, John and his six brothers grew up at the base of ‘Eitel Mountain,’ a few miles east of and downhill from Boone, NC. A hillock in reality, the rocky farm in the quilted community of Deep Gap (est. pop. 100) was dubbed ‘mountain’ by John to give it a modest patch of respect. Even so, in the pink of the evening, the longer shadows of Grandfather, Sugar, and Beech darkened the Eitel homestead.Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

Front: John, Jim; Second Row: Jow, with bandage over cut from lard tin lid; Third Row: Ken, Bill, Annie, Lane, on steps of Rufus Idol home, summer 1941.

Front: John, Jim; Second Row: Joe, with bandage over cut from lard tin lid; Third Row: Ken, Bill, Annie, and Lane, on the steps of the Rufus Idol home, summer 1941.

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—11/16/2015—Stories that guide our lives are unforgettable tunes. The following are “earworm tales,” historical fictions, whose quaintly shaped notes were originally “sung” in a different register by my friend John Idol, tales which I have not been able to sweep into a black hole for 20 years.

Launching Rufus

Nine-year-old Lane was climbing another hickory sapling when his grandfather yelled, “Dein verdammter Schweinehund hat die letzen Eier zerbrochen—get shut of den Hund! Und ‘runter from that tree!”

Not sure if his grandfather had actually seen him, Lane continued climbing until the hickory gently tipped over and returned him to the land his grandparents farmed without the assistance of slaves or paid farmhands. Well, his grandparents farmed most of it, for the Eitels’ hickories were planted above the house on a slope Johan had decided was too steep to plow, so he’d planted the trees to hold the thin soil and pose a barrier to any large stones dislodged above. Knowing his grandfather’s temper, Lane usually picked trees to ride that were hidden from the house, but his grandfather had a way of seeing through the leaves. His vision and strong hands more than compensated for his broken English.

Later, in the barn, away from his wife, Johan made sure Lane knew what he’d meant by “get shut of.”

Going out before dawn the following morning, Lane followed the cows to pasture, then locked the gate with the darkness inside. Or at least he hoped the few strands of rusting wire would work to hold the darkness at bay because dawn was about to break on Eitel Mountain. And on this black day, when Lane doubted the sun would ever rise again nor his folks return for him, he had a terrible responsibility to manage before sundown. As the sun rose, Lane debated his options: starvation, strangulation, stoning, or the tang of the old man’s belt. The axe was simply out of the question. Of course, if there’d been any close neighbors, Lane would have given the animal away but, until 1900, there weren’t any.

So, knowing how Rufus could chew through a leash, and without the stomach to end the life of his only friend with his own pink hands, Lane chose to fling his pet toward heaven. He chose one of the stouter hickories nearest the pond in which he’d catapulted stones to punctuate the tedium of August. Hooking one end of the leash to Rufus’s collar and the other to the straddled branch, Lane stepped away, releasing the bent sapling, unable to watch his pet’s flight.

Trotting home in tears, Lane recalled how, after the natural death of Roscoe, his first dog, he’d dug him up and held him until compelled by the cold lump in his hands to lay him back down in the grave.

But Rufus went and came back alive, unharmed except for the sores on his ears where he’d slipped his collar. Of course, Lane was thrilled, but Johan was also relieved, so much so that he agreed to his wife’s suggestion to raise the shelf in the chicken coop so that Rufus could not break any more eggs.

One could do worse than launch a beagle from a forked hickory, but Lane was better than that, and so was Johan.

Wild Blackberries and Sour Cream

Thorns are just one of nature’s ways of insuring that we pay for dessert.

Three of the Eitel boys had waded out at dawn, waist-to-shoulder-deep into the Thigpen bramble, but it was June, still early in the season, and ripe berries on these rocky slopes were scarce. Their long cotton sleeves and overalls offered little protection from needles honed by the dry, hot weather. As if to invite injury, the three had rolled up their sleeves, and John had rolled up his jeans as well, grumbling, “Are these berries worth it? It’s cooler in the dern attic.” But blood was a gold nugget of maternal sympathy.

Eitel Mountain (elev. 3,000 feet) was certainly cooler than Wilkesboro (elev. 1,000), but not as cool as Sugar Mountain (elev. 5,000), where the berries were still weeks from picking. Altitude, their father said with a wink, was “relative,” like his ne’er-do-well brother—a burden, but still a brother. A century earlier, his great grandfather had chosen Deep Gap just because it wasn’t flat . . . or 5,000 feet above sea level.

After two hours of arduous picking, the green, red, and blue-black fruit staining their shirt tails was dumped in a galvanized bucket—drumming like squirrel paws across a tin roof. Once in, the green ones were poked below their riper kin in hopes they’d darken some before supper, after which Annie, their mother, had promised them a rare treat.

On their way home, they detoured by the Holmes’s barn, deserted since the bank had repossessed it and then, as their father had imagined, let it slip between the vertical files where it had lain on the floor of a file cabinet for two decades.

Standing beside the barn, the brothers scanned the premises, and then pulled down three chestnut planks that had clapboarded the structure since the time every fourth tree in the southern Appalachians was an American chestnut. After pounding a few rusted nails flat with a stone, they headed for the grove of white pines on the steepest slope in Watauga County. At the top of the slope, they braced their berries beside a pine and commenced “needle sledding.” In midwinter Maine, it might have been called “tobogganing,” but no scarves or woolen toboggans were necessary here, just a high tolerance for splinters.

Resting in the shade at the bottom of “Slippery Slope,” as the three joined their strength for one last climb, John spotted the gray head of a neighbor above them walking uncommonly fast toward home. “Hey, Miss Susie,” John yelled, but he received no rise from a woman reported to live on laundry starch.

When they returned to the shallow imprint their bucket had formed, they understood Sue’s silence, and off they sprinted in the direction of the farm house squatting on the north boundary of the Holmes’s “property.” As they came over the ridge, they saw her through a break in the trees swinging two buckets but, as they approached Sue’s sagging porch, she was squatting beside a single pail, a rusting relic of her dead husband’s still.

“Pardon us, Miss Susie,” John asked after he’d caught his breath, “but did you see a bucket of berries by your white-pine slope?”

“Can’t say as I did,” replied Sue, rising to go inside.

Thwarted in their efforts to negotiate, the brothers limped home where Annie declared, “I’ll bet you spent more time playin’ than pickin’ ‘cause when you’re pickin’, your eyes are on your work.”

The boys’ defenses were soon overwhelmed.

“Well, you can’t put spilt milk back in the udder, and ‘Slippery Slope’ once was hers,” Annie offered, so let’s hose out that stall and pitch some fresh hay. We won’t have berries and sweet cream tonight, but I reckon Sue Holmes needs that fruit and our zinc bucket worse than we do. I hope you picked more green ones than usual—would you listen to me! I sound hateful as Job’s afflicted brother. One of you boys run this cream to Miss Sue before it sours.”

A few days later, John walked to the mailbox and discovered a berry-stained bucket hung on a fence post. In it were five pennies and two hen eggs on a bed of pine straw, all nesting in Annie’s serving bowl.

In a rocker on the sturdy chestnut planks of the family porch, John would later write:

“Beauty and Forgiveness”

Watching the hawks
beguiling the groundswell,
one sensed old grudges
releasing a faint smell.

The stolen berries,
the abducted sleep
were all forgiven
in one fragrant sweep.

A Rabbit for Ted

Born in the Great Depression, John and his six brothers grew up at the base of “Eitel Mountain,” a few miles east of and downhill from Boone, NC. A hillock in reality, the rocky farm in the quilted community of Deep Gap (est. pop. 100) was dubbed “mountain” by John to give it a modest patch of respect. Even so, in the pink of the evening, the longer shadows of Grandfather, Sugar, and Beech darkened the Eitel homestead.

One spring day, Dr. Thigpen, one of the Eitels’ neighbors who, like many in the area was distantly related to Daniel Boone, offered a puppy to the boys on their way home from a luckless fishing expedition. Filbert had chewed through his leash three times in two months, and Thigpen had concluded that his three-month-old beagle was “too short to hunt.” As Mrs. Eitel would later observe, “Doc always was an impatient man.” Seeing how Filbert immediately took to the boys, Thigpen said, “He favors you more than me—shucks, all I ever did was feed him.” But the welts along his spine bespoke malpractice.

The brothers took turns carrying Filbert home as they discussed where they’d house, feed, and clean him. Behind the barn, their father had penned up three goofy hounds that he used for coon hunting on Powderhorn but, being a different and smaller breed, Filbert, the boys speculated, might have a difficult time. Mr. Lane Eitel solved the problem when he said Filbert could bed down under the front porch until he grew large enough to defend himself. But until that day arrived, he would have to be chained, for his own safety.

If the Eitel boys had sprouted tails, they would have drummed the floor like Uncle Joe slapping his hoedown bass with Arthel Watson, the blind guitarist who lived nearby. Despite the fact that this was another meatless Friday, they just whooped and danced across the kitchen floor until Mrs. Annie Eitel called a truce.

At her insistence, the boys taught Ted, formerly Filbert, the farm and household rules. Mr. and Mrs. Eitel were secretly pleased to have a “Ted” around the house, for he reminded them of the son who’d died of influenza, and whose black-and-white photograph had cast a gloom over the parlor as long as John could recall. Hearing the name so often finally brought the lost lad back to the table.

The first order of business was the protocol of crossing US 421, the two-lane, concrete highway that fronted the house. Cars heading up to Boone driven by those college boys from Appalachian State or the moonshiners rolling down to Wilkesboro seemed to think the posted speed was merely a recommendation. So before Ted turned one, he was taught with a bag of pig ribs to approach the highway, sit, look both ways, and then run across the road. There was a blackberry bramble opposite the Eitels’ farm that housed a warren, and Ted liked nothing better than to chase the freeloaders out of the vegetable garden and back to the bramble, despite the confusion of thorns.

One Saturday as Bob, the tallest, and John, a somewhat shorter “organ pipe,” sat rocking on the porch stuffing their sleeping bags with fresh straw, they saw a rabbit dart from behind the house with Ted drafting on its hindquarters. Lacking its pursuer’s manners, the rabbit dashed across the road while Ted stopped, sat, and looked both ways before continuing.

For perhaps the better part of an hour, the two boys followed Ted’s halloo over the ridges and hollows of Tompkins Knob. Then, before Mrs. Eitel rang the supper bell, Ted reappeared on the far side of the road, sat, looked both ways, and waited for several cars to pass. As he sat waiting for the last in this pulse of traffic, the driver of a black Ford pick-up swerved off the road in a dusty, deliberate arc directly over Ted. He may never have suspected the danger he was in, for the Eitels’ benevolence had surely led him to ignore the welts on his back. However, the two Eitels who witnessed this crime were under no such illusion. The dull thudding of Ted’s body bouncing along the truck’s undercarriage stalked John’s dreams for weeks.

Like a mistreated animal hungry for an ankle to chew, Bob took off running up 421 past Gap Creek Baptist toward Boone but, when he arrived, courtesy of a friend who’d given him a lift, he found the town was full of black Ford pick-ups, any one of whose drivers might have been the culprit. Thumbing back home in the shade of Grandfather, he wondered what he would have done if he’d caught the driver, whose face was just an ill-considered blur.

When Bob reached home, John and his brothers were in the midst of the funeral. John had already read the Twenty-third Psalm and preached a sermon cribbed from Thomas Wolfe, so Bob joined them in singing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” punctuated with sobs. When they’d finished, they placed the burlap-wrapped body of Ted and a soup bone in the hole they’d dug, and Bob hammered in the cross that Mr. Eitel had made for them. John pulled up a fistful of his mother’s daffodils and jammed them in a milk bottle, but Mrs. Eitel, a recent convert to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, declined to attend the Baptist ceremony, though she had donated the soup bone.

A couple of days later, as John told Doc Thigpen, “We got to missing Ted so, we dug him up.”

After the boys tired of stroking the dog’s cool, damp hide, Mr. Eitel appeared with a rabbit he’d shot that morning for Easter dinner and laid it in the grave. “This way,” Lane said, straightening the cross, “he won’t be near so lonely.”

Poor Man’s Foxhunt

After Dad gave me a house key, he said, “I reckon your britches are long enough now to go foxhuntin’.” Many Saturdays, he’d left home late in the afternoon with the hounds, but he was always back in time for church. Trouble is, I’d never seen a fox brush flying from his mirror. Neither had my brothers.

Now I’d seen pictures in books, so I figured we’d be fitted for “pinks” at the stable where we rented our horses. Galloping on horseback would be a challenge, but if I held on with both hands, how hard could it be? The first time I rode our mule, Mussolini, Dad said there were three rules to riding: “Get on,” “Don’t fall,” and, “Repeat if necessary.” Beyond the first, I’d never tested the others, given that Mussolini’s top speed was “meander.”

After chores, we packed hot dogs, a loaf of Wonder Bread, and a bag of marshmallows, put Franklin and Eleanor in their traveling boxes, and drove the ’37 Ford in a cloud of cigar smoke from Deep Gap to Eitel Mountain.

“How we gonna see the fox, Daddy? The sun’s almost touchin’ Grandfather now.”

“There’s no need to see, Johnny; we’re gonna listen to him and the hounds run.”

“Ain’t we gonna get us some red coats with brass buttons and yell ‘Tally-Ho’?”

“You been readin’ books again, son? Ain’t no thoroughbreds and no red coats neither—just a campfire, franks, friends, a fresh box of White Owls, and the music of the hounds.”

When we reached Eitel’s broad summit on the shoulder of the night, we found four men and a pack of dogs snarling and straining at a fear-tainted fox that one of the men had trapped in the Pisgah National Forest. Soon as our dogs had a noseful of him, Mr. Haskell freed the wretch while I tried to restrain Eleanor from dragging me into the dark.

A few minutes later, we unleashed the dogs and settled on knapsacks around the fire. Between skewering franks, feeding the fire, and pitching the tent, we mostly just lay about quizzing the stars, blowing “owl farts,” as Dad said, and speculating on whether Winston’s bass or Franklin’s tenor was leading the choir.

The more I thought about that fox though, the less it seemed like a fair fight. When I said so, Dad flicked his cigar and said, “If God made clothes from animal hides for Adam, I reckon it’s OK to get rid of a chicken thief on my own land.” Knowing I was outnumbered, I crawled down in my feathers and said nothing about this “felon” being an import.

In the morning, Dad lifted some blood off Franklin’s snout with his thumb and smeared a thick arc across my forehead.

On my twelfth birthday, Dad presented me the Remington my grandfather had bequeathed, but after Dad beheld my face when I shot that rabbit thumping its feet and grinding its teeth, he never took me on a blood hunt again. That was fine with me because the poor beast’s twisting flips and frantic rolls looped through my dreams for weeks.

In high school, some vegan friends and I ordered fox urine from a Maryland mail-order house. When it arrived, we soaked a sponge wrapped in burlap and dragged it around the farm one Saturday, continuing the trail right up the ramp of Stan South’s panel truck. When we’d corralled the dogs, we drove them to the South’s farm and fed them Milk Bone biscuits. Lane was not pleased, but he humored up eventually, and I resumed my carnivorous ways.

In college, I petitioned the elders for another hunt, not because I wished to run a beast into a mortal lather, I just wanted to tape their idiom after they’d given those Four Roses time to bloom. At the time, I was writing a paper for a folklore class at App State. After I’d had a few snorts myself, I told the circle that up North many aficionados of their sport had replaced Reynard with a hired hand who sprayed fox urine from horseback. Mr. Haskell rose and approached the fire, “Guess you’ve never seen what a fox kin do to a hen house or a family that’s got to have them eggs? Guess they don’t teach that at App State.” They didn’t, but I understood.

Years hence, the Owls started feeding on Dad’s lungs, and the Duke doctors almost killed him with their radiation trying to save him. I rushed home from Clemson with the old tape, snuggled the speaker up close to his ear, and pressed “Play.” Well into the night, the two of us sat listening to the banter of dead friends, the October wind blowing up Grandfather, and the polyphonic chorus of the hounds fading over Medicine Ridge.

Note: Skip Eisiminger and John Idol were fellow professors, and devoted friends, at Clemson University, and remain close, geographically and ineffably, in the foothills of the Great Blue Ridge. John Idol grew up in the mountains, attended Appalachian State University, served as an electronics technician in the United States Air Force, and took his advanced degrees in English at the University of Arkansas. He spent most of his years as a teacher at Clemson, and held positions as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society (for which he served as editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review), and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. His books include studies of Wolfe, Hawthorne, a family history, Deep Gap Days: A Crazy Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains (see ordering information below). Idol was long a Contributor to Weekly Hubris, and his columns, and excerpts from his memoir, may be found under his byline in our Archives Section [https://weeklyhubris.com/author/jidol/].

John Idol Book; Deep Gap Days A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Sterling Eisiminger

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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