“The house was crowded, the times were hard (the Great Depression era), but the fun and games unlimited, at least we children thought so. Tag, hide-and-seek, stilt-walking, London Bridge Is Falling Down, Farmer’s in the Dell, hopscotch, and other games amused us, and we were sorry to split up when Uncle Fred and then Dad saw fit to build their own places. Of course, since the separation was only a matter of a few hundred yards, our games went on and on until we put our childish pleasures aside and became work-hands, not a happy trade-of.” John Idol, in Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the book from which these columns are excerpted.
Out to Pastoral
by John Idol
BURLINGTON North Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—6/25/2012—Before our move to our own place, we lived together with the family of my Aunt Ella and her four daughters, Betty Ruth, Virginia, Mary Sue, and Ruby and, at times, with my grandmother and her son Alfred and daughter Josephine.
The Jerry Watson House
The house was crowded, the times were hard (the Great Depression era), but the fun and games unlimited, at least we children thought so. Tag, hide-and-seek, stilt-walking, London Bridge Is Falling Down, The Farmer’s in the Dell, hopscotch, and other games amused us, and we were sorry to split up when Uncle Fred and then Dad saw fit to build their own places. Of course, since the separation was only a matter of a few hundred yards, our games went on and on until we put our childish pleasures aside and became work-hands, not a happy trade-off.
Except for warmth coming from wood-burning cook-stoves on either side of the partitioned lean-to, the house was heated by fireplaces on opposite ends. Typical of its time, the house had no insulation, and its clapboard siding had sizable cracks and numerous holes left by knots that had fallen out over the years. Only a blazing fire in the hearths kept Arctic weather at bay in winter. Cornbread baked in cast-iron skillets provided a welcome inner heat. Those blazing fires as their flames licked the upper reaches of the hearth led my cousins, my brother Jim, and a neighbor kid or two to a foolhardy project: we wondered if it would be possible to send the flames up the entire length of the chimney to stick a forked tongue into the air above.
We set about our experiment by fetching chips from the wood shed and gathering twigs in the yard, piling our combustibles higher and higher and watching flames disappear into the hollow of the chimney. We then rushed outside to see if the flames had reached the chimney top. They hadn’t. We quickly rounded up more fuel and heaped it upon the fire. Out we ran again and waited for the flames to leap out. To our great glee, they did, and our excitement sent us dancing and shouting in the back yard. Our commotion aroused the attention of our elders, who came to see what all the fuss was about. One look at the chimney top spurred them into action. They went running for buckets of water to dash on the fire, and they pulled twigs and chips from the hearth and rushed outside with them to douse the flames.
As they peered intently at boards nesting against the chimney, they saw whiffs of smoke drifting upward. “More water!” they shouted and then flung bucket after bucket on the smoking butts. “If they’ve set fire to the creosote,” Grandmother said, “we’ll have a devil of a time putting out the fire.”
Luckily, the flames had not had enough time to do that. The fire died quickly from their efforts to stop its spread.
Annie rounded up her little pyromaniacs, and Ella joined her in scolding and spanking the firebugs in her midst. “You couda burnt the house down, and you wouda if we hadn’t heard all that fuss you was a-makin’.” Deservedly, our butts were next to burn, for we got the switching our foolishness warranted. A question with a sobering intent gave us inward pain: “Where do you think we could’ve et or slept if the house had burnt down?”
We mulled over that query tearfully. If we had been smart-alecky, we might have said, “The barn.”
A sprawling barn some 75 or 80 yards from the house was a virtual playhouse for the Idol boys and the Greer girls. It was a great place to play hide-and-seek, for it had several stables, a big loft, an attached shed that served as a milking station in foul weather, and the pungent odor of hay and manure. Piles of hay in the loft afforded almost undetectable hiding places. On rainy days the loft provided a place to romp. The shed could be pressed into service as a spot for playing hopscotch or jumping rope.
The barn had potential for danger, too, as I learned one day when I forked some hay into a manger and tried to arrange it so that our cow could get to it easily. Behind vertical slats were boards shaped as a kind of wedge into which the hay was pitched. I climbed into the wedged space and attempted to push small bunches of hay through the slats. That was easy enough, but I wanted to know if I had shifted the hay within reach of our cow. To see, I had to push my head between two slats. No problem—my head went through with only slight pressure on either ear. I was pleased to see that the hay I’d arranged could readily be chomped by our cow.
Though the forward motion was no big deal, getting back out of the manger was a frightening struggle. The slant of the wedge offered little foothold, and my ears seemed to have grown to elephant-size since I had pushed them through minutes before. Tentative movements backward resulted in sharp pain in both ears. Twisting my head to avoid hurting my ears was not a solution, for I was no longer presenting a vertical oval to the slats but a slanted one.
I began to fear that I’d be trapped there in the manger for life. Brother Jim had watched me in my struggles and now offered suggestions for escaping the trap. None of them worked, until he found a plank to pry the slats wider. His rescue efforts were quickly rewarded when I stepped forward through the space he’d created and joined him on terra firma again. After that escape, I left the task of pulling hay through the slats to our cow. She did wonderfully well and, never, as far as I know, feared for her life in pulling the hay through. Such is the wisdom of so-called dumb brutes.
A “spring-house”* sat about 20 feet from the west side of Jerry’s house, fed by a pipe leading from a hillside spring some hundred yards away. Cold water spilled from the pipe into a trough where butter, milk, and other items needing to be chilled sat. Buckets of water were carried inside the house for
drinking, bathing, and cooking or for heating prior to wash-day labors.
Wash-day was a time for hard work, pots and tubs to be filled with scalding water, clothes to be soaked, scrubbed on washboards, wrung by hand, hung on clotheslines, gathered when dry, folded, or piled in stacks if ironing was required. A sudden shower or snow storm added to the work-load, since clothes had to be quickly removed from the lines stretched across the backyard and brought inside to dry. Putting up lines inside a crowded house to dry them meant extra work as well as adjusting our nostrils to the none-too-pleasant odor of Oxydol or home-made lye soap. We children sometimes made a game out of the maze created by the aisles of strung-up clothes. It was fun trying to work our way through the clothes to the front door or to the fireplace when we came inside.
At Home with Annie & Lane
It was to this spring-house that my brothers and I went for years to fetch pails or tubs of water for Annie’s cooking or washing needs. Pails were easy enough to handle, but tubs proved a messy way of carrying water a distance of roughly 300 yards. To cut down on the number of trips we’d have to make from the spring-house to our own place, we filled the tubs to near capacity. Even with the most cautious of steps and efforts to balance the load between us, the water sloshed out of the tubs and muddied our feet in summertime or seemed to freeze into ice cakes on our pant legs or in our shoes in winter. Besides, the weight of the water seemed to turn tub-handles into razor blades as we struggled beyond the Jerry Watson barn to our home.
My brothers and I were probably happiest when Lane announced that he was digging a well and installing a pump. Annie was even happier when Lane told her that he was running a line from the well to her kitchen. That meant that she could have water at the twist of a knob, even if, for a while, she had to work the lever of the little red pump that he’d brought inside from its first home at the top of the well he’d dug on the west-side of our house. An electric pump wrought instant changes in everyone’s lives. In time, it would mean the addition of a bathroom and a bathtub, and the end of Saturday night scrubbings in the kitchen from water taken from the reservoir of Annie’s wood-burning cook-stove.
Saturday-night scrubbings became less frolicsome and carefree when a sister, Joyce, appeared amidst us. She mustn’t see us, Annie proclaimed, and rushed us through our weekly ritual of removing dirt and getting ready to don our Sunday duds for church the next day. We stepped into tubs, scrubbed hard, dried off, and fell into whatever play remained before we’d have to put on our Sunday faces. Our play sometimes found us taking a hand of Rook in a game that Lane enjoyed almost as much as he liked to hear his hounds chase a fox too proud of its prowess to sneak into a hole and elude its pursuers. Lane played Rook with joy, zeal, and a kind of recklessness that belied his otherwise cautious nature.
He bet high, wanting almost always to see what was in the “kitty,” and hoping that his partner would have the right cards to help him win the hand. Sometimes, he succeeded grandly; at other times he and his partner took only a few tricks. “Shootin’ for the moon,” was his constant goal, and his path, sometimes, to triumph. He loved, as the saying goes, to go out in “A Blaze of Glory!” These games were a Saturday-night special, a time when card-playing neighbors took turns challenging Lane and his sons.
Annie rarely played a hand, the role of hostess delighting her much more. She served coffee, home-made grape juice, pound cake, apples, and candy, sometimes fudge of her own making; at other times sticks of peppermint candy that Lane, like his father, brought home. I don’t recall that she rated
games of Rook high enough to treat its players with slabs of her celebrated chocolate and butterscotch pies. They were Sunday fare. Her family and guests at Sunday dinners mustn’t
be disappointed, she thought, by not having generous slices of these favorite pastries. If the group gathered around her table wasn’t too large, she loved to load the dessert plates with a slab each of her specialties.
To our objection that two pieces were too much, she said, “Oh, I know how much you like my pies, so I made enough for a slab of each.” These slices were not as large as the ones she handed round when we told her we’d take only one piece, but they proved sizeable enough to wreck any diet. But, my, how good they were! I’ve never tasted better.
Annie saw us off to school every day. Since we lived less than a quarter of a mile from Deep Gap Elementary School, which stood on property that Grandfather Jerry had given Watauga County for the school, we walked. Except in the coldest days of winter, the walk was pleasant, for there were few cars and trucks to disturb our trek. We headed off to school in the morning, came home for lunch—the school not having a lunch room until later—and hustled home in the afternoon to listen to our favorite radio dramas, The Lone Ranger ranking far above anything else until WW Two brought us Hap Harrigan.
We galloped across Western plains and knew in our hearts that Tonto and the arrival of trumpet-blaring cavalry would save the Lone Ranger if his own wiles were not up to the task. We were less certain of how Hap and his side-kick, Tank, would fare. Facing Western outlaws was one thing—being gunned down by a Messerschmitt was another. We lived agitated lives week after week as these dramas played out.
More to our immediate concern, however, was dealing with the Siberia expresses that assaulted our faces and ears as we headed from the school to our house on wintry days. Our coats were thin, our ears usually covered only by a toboggan or an aviator’s cap, our hands ungloved or un-mittened. The
stretch of US 421 lying between our house and the school offered no shield from Arctic blasts. Frigid winds swept down the highway, easily penetrating coats and caps, piercing into pockets, rendering useless any ear-muffs we clamped around our heads. Freezing temperatures would make victims of us all. We often made our way homeward backs to the wind, since facing it was torture. Protect ourselves as best we could, we often arrived home shivering, close to being frost-bitten, aching from the cold.
On entering the house and finding an oval wood-burning stove, the cheapest on the market, made of tin and lightweight metal, glowing red-hot, we rushed to put our frozen paws as close to it as possible. Annie pulled us back, explaining that we’d burn ourselves because our hands had no feeling. “Put them in this lukewarm water and thaw them slowly,” she said. She had a pan of water heated to that temperature and led us to it. Gradually, our fingers could move again, and our hands lost their blueness. Then we could eat, often devouring tomato or potato soup with gusto to warm our still chilly innards.
Coming home from afternoon classes was even tougher, for temperatures had dropped as the sun sank and no hot soup awaited us. But that pan of lukewarm water was ready—and gladly used.
That pan had steady use during the winter months. If not for thawing us out when we came home from school, then for our rides on sleds from the backside of the house or from a shorter slope to the west of it. We couldn’t all afford store-bought sleds, those sleek affairs with metal runners. To get everyone a sled, we built a few of our own from scraps of lumber Lane brought home from some construction site. The material he carried home should have ended up, as most of it finally did, in Annie’s cook-stove. Before it did, my brothers and I found pieces long enough for runners and connecting slats. Unlike the store-bought sleds, they couldn’t be steered. In our ignorance about the grains of wood and the need to have them match, we sometimes built sleds that refused to go straight down the hillside.
Off we’d go, hoping to keep up with the store-bought sleds, but dropping quickly behind and fighting the sled’s tendency to run a curved line. A quick cure, if we could find a thin and narrow piece of metal to attach to the dragging runner, was to tack on a metal runner and then head back up the slope for another try. These home-made sleds were never a match for the professionally crafted ones, but they did get us down slopes in fun-filled ways. Yet, they never made it to US 421, as our store-bought sleds often did.
Our favorite sled run started more than 300 yards from our house, beginning at the uppermost fence line of our pasture. We could push that distance 100 yards further if we went to the crest of the hill and started from there. But a ride of over 400 yards proved too short, if the conditions were right for a longer one. Conditions were usually right when we had a heavy snowfall. That meant we could zip
by the lower side of our house, hit the driveway leading to US 421, and, digging in our toes for a sharp left turn as we came onto the highway, we could coast all the way down to Deep Gap Elementary School, the total length of our ride approaching a half mile.
We rarely got to go the full distance, since cars, trucks, and busses with clanking chains sometimes spoiled our fun. If Lane had been around to see our venture onto 421, he would have given us more than words of wisdom. A little “hickory tea” would have been his sternly applied wisdom. But what was a burning butt to a joyride of such majestic sweep?
Our companions in these sledding adventures, the shorter and the longer ones, were brothers Newland and C. B. Watson, B. L. Greene, and brothers Brook and Kent Greer, all close neighbors. We played together winter after winter, riding singly on sleds when not too many of us went out at the same time, doubling up if we ran short of sleds, and moving snow from drifts to our runs when warm fronts threatened to thaw them.
No doubt our greatest thrill was racing down the hillside behind our barn. Sleds pulled into place about halfway up the southern slope of Idol Mountain, we lined up, and, on signal, rushed forward like bob-sledders to get a jump on our competitors. Off we flew, heading for a wide gate at the bottom of Lane’s barnyard, and ending just short of our house. There were no prizes, just bragging rights, for certain sleds seemed to outdo others, or, perhaps, it was better driving skills. Learning just when to drag a toe or twist a steering-handle surely came into play.
Lane had built two gates on the bottom side of his barnyard, one wide enough for loads of hay to move through on sled or wagon, the other about three feet wide, amply wide for a person going to milk the cows or slop the hogs. The gate was hinged on a thick locust post and could be left open when there was no threat of a cow or hog venturing through. The fastener was attached to another heavy locust post. The gate was wide enough for easy passage through—for one rider.
The system we agreed upon when our races brought us to this gate was for the rider slightly behind another to drag his feet and follow the leader through. Not to ease up would mean risking a head-foremost crash into one of the solidly planted locust posts. Racing brings out the daredevil, I’m sure, and on one tight race between Brother Bill and me, that was the case, for as we approached the gate, side-by-side, neither of us would slow down and let the other ahead, each holding his line as the opened gate and its heavy posts loomed ahead. The opening was wide enough for two sleds, just barely. A matter of fractions of an inch separated us from a skull-cracking or bone-breaking crash into one of the posts.
We each slammed together just a yard or so short of the gate, neck-and-neck, held on tightly to our sleds, and shot past the gate and into the backyard of our house. Only then did we tremble, as we realized, upon looking back, how closely we’d come to causing each other a foolhardy jolt. To this day, I shake when I visualize the two of us rushing full-speed into that narrow gate. Yet, there’s a kind of lingering pride because we handled our sleds so skillfully. The daredevil spirit dies hard, even if sometimes the act inspired by it ends in disaster. If Lane or Annie had witnessed our headlong rush through the gate, they would have wondered what kind of fools they were raising. But they’d done more than wonder—they’d have forbidden us ever to come through that gate on anything but our legs.
We knew nothing of skiing except what we’d seen in photographs. Ski runs weren’t built in the mountains until the 1960s. Thus we had to say “No” when soldiers on the move from Fort Bragg to some post to the west asked us about skiing when a portion of a convoy carrying them to their new
installation stopped before our house to allow the soldiers to stretch their legs. Truck after olive-colored truck laden with olive-clad soldiers pulled to the shoulder of US 421 and parked for several minutes. Hundreds of soldiers climbed down from the truck beds and clambered up a bank leading to a stretch of orchard land facing the highway.
My brothers and I bashfully approached them, impressed by their helmet-clad heads and sharply polished boots. Here was WW Two practically in our front yard—trucks, jeeps, howitzers, tankers, whatever wheeled vehicle the unit was moving west.
The soldiers greeted us and began asking questions. The ones asking the most questions must have come from where skiing was common. “Do you boys do any skiing here? Looks like a great place for it.”
“No,” we said, “but we do stand up on our sleds sometimes and pretend that we’re skiing.”
“That sounds like fun,” one of the soldiers said. We continued to chat as the soldiers took up their canteens or unwrapped packages of crackers or candy bars.
“It is fun, but a little dangerous, too. We never know when we’ll hit a rough spot and be thrown off our sleds.”
Some of the soldiers laughed. “But we bet you’re back on your sleds in a jiffy and ready to try again.”
“That’s right,” we said. “We’ll try and try until we get the hang of it.”
We’d have offered the soldiers apples if the season had been right, but it was midsummer and only hard, green Buckingham apples were growing on the trees where the soldiers were taking their break. From the leading jeep in the convoy, we heard a horn honk and then an order barked out. The men ambled back to their trucks or jeeps, piled in and were driven away, waving to us as they left. The convoy moved off onto US 421 again, resuming its place among a stream of military vehicles flowing past our house for the greater part of two days.
Impressed by all the military gear and vehicles, we were much too young to ask ourselves if those soldiers would live to ask admiring kids if they’d ever gone skiing. We had as little concept of death by battle as we did skiing on real skis.
Nonetheless, US 421 had opened a wider world to us. It was an olive world of trucks, jeeps, friendly soldiers, and a troop movement telling us our nation was at war and that young men were preparing to wage it.
Seeing those young men in uniform reminded us that we had an Uncle, Alfred, serving in the army. His absence left Myrtie, our grandmother, alone, a condition she disliked. She wanted companionship as well as help, more of the former than the latter, since she was capable of hard and steady work and fully capable of keeping house. She was not living in her house, but in Alfred’s, a circumstance that came about when she remarried after the death of Jerry. His will stipulated that if she were to
take a second husband, the house and all property in his estate would go to his children.
Her remarriage was short-lived, since she wed a tubercular widower, whose first wife was my Great Aunt Ida, the youngest daughter of John Nicholson and Thirza Greene Idol. Armfield Waters, Myrtie’s second husband, had neither home nor money to leave her.
Myrtie had returned to Jerry’s house to be with her children, crowding in to share it with the growing families of daughters Ella and Annie and teen-aged daughter Josephine and pre-teen son Alfred. After some years, Ella’s family moved to a small house near Deep Gap Elementary School; Annie’s to a smaller board-and-batten house built amidst part of Jerry’s apple orchard. Josephine married Lee Ashley and went to Ohio to live, joining her brothers Joe and Max and sister Mary, who had already settled in or near Coshocton. Thus when Alfred had to report for duty, Myrtie found herself in the house alone.
Publishing Editor, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s Note: It is a privilege to be able to share chapters from John Idol’s Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains with the readers of Weekly Hubris. Please continue reading along with us next time, when we share chapters titled “Myrtie” and “Farming Alongside US 421.” My own family history, on my mother’s side, mirrors John’s almost exactly, though my mother’s family “came up” in Upstate South Carolina as opposed to Appalachian North Carolina. However, reading about John’s forebears brings to mind my own family stories, and reminds me of what privations the generations that endured The Great Depression and World War Two faced, cheerfully, living in deep poverty in the rural South.