Mansplainin’

Version 2As if the world isn’t confusing enough, now there is gender neutrality. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that many folk have spent a lifetime feeling as if they were born into the wrong body or that they look in the mirror and see neither male, nor female. I don’t judge. After all, I had no issue with Caitlyn Jenner until I learned that she never paid the price for a DUI hit and run that he committed and that she is a Trump supporter. Really Caitlyn? You do know his stand on people like you, right?

And, well, okay, I have a HUGE issue with the non-gender-specific pronoun “they.” I have spent my life correcting bad grammar and fighting the uphill fight that is correct subject/verb usage. Not only do I wage this war against others, but also within myself. I was in college before I learned that “theirselves” wasn’t a word.

Still, with a daughter in a Chicago art school, it is my duty to stay hip to the kids these days and allow gender fluidity into my heart and into my sentence structure. Sometimes I wish that I could allow gender fluidity into my marriage. Why does Spousal Unit have to be such a MAN?

I just walked the back forty with the dog to oversee the destruction that was Spousal Unit’s version of weeding a couple of weeks ago. Dead piles of honeysuckle lay along the fence line. Did he think after he butchered all of the plants that the dead stuff would just disappear into the ground Harry Potter style? The ugly-assed chain-link fence leers at me like a drunk unable to stand straight. Honeysuckle used to hide the drunk uncle as well as its equally ugly-assed wife, the neighbors’ old wood fence. Now they stand, expecting a kiss and a hug from their long-lost niece.

I thought Spousal Unit and I had communicated. Apparently we didn’t. Sometimes I have imaginary marriage counselor meetings in my head. They go as such.

Me to MC: He asked how he could help in the yard. I told him the weeds in the side yard were out of control.

MC: So, did you ask him for what you need?

Me: Well, yeah. I asked him to weed the side yard.

MC: Did you ask that specifically?

Me: I’m not sure I used those exact words, but surely he knew what I meant.

Spousal Unit: You said the side was out of control. I hate honeysuckle.

Me: But we NEVER pay attention to that side of the back yard. I was talking about the chest-high weeds that are visible from satellite view alongside our driveway that EVERYBODY sees. In the FRONT yard.

MC: So appearances are important to you? Talk to me about your inability to set boundaries and your inability to ask for what you need.

Spousal Unit and Marriage Counselor look at me expectantly. Even in my imagination these things go south.

In a world where a word such as mansplaining exists, tell me why oh why oh why do we have to explain so much to a man. My mind can’t begin to jump to the conclusions his does. I can’t foresee that my mentioning that the weeds on the side yard (which is the term we have ALWAYS used for the patch alongside the driveway) house saber-tooth tigers will trigger his hatred of honeysuckle.

As I do in any situation that is unfathomable to me, I call my mother. Although she’s somewhat sympathetic, she can’t send much pity my way because she needs it all for herself. After all, she’s been married to my dad for more than sixty years.

My mother likes for things to be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. It’s where Girl Child gets her artistic bent. She also likes for things to be clean. I’m assuming that gene is waiting for generations yet to be born. My mother still spring-cleans, bless her heart.

Several years ago, when my paternal grandfather was still alive, my mother had spent an entire week spring-cleaning the family room. In Nanna vernacular, spring-cleaning means washing curtains, dark-paneled walls, woodwork, light fixtures and knickknacks. Not dusting them, but washing them, carrying each knickknack, each piece of Blenko glass or collectable stein upstairs to the kitchen to a pan of warm ammonia water and washing it.

In recollecting the incident, she disassociated and continued her recitation of what entailed spring-cleaning in a monotone voice. “I clean the windows inside and out, even if it is fifteen degrees outside. Vacuum. I vacuum all the dust out of the upholstery. Vacuum the lampshades. There had to be hundreds of encyclopedias and books.” She grew quiet, but I remember what happened.

Shortly after this particularly energetic spring-cleaning, my dad and his dad decided that a long-awaited home improvement project was in order. He would install lovely French doors, replacing dated and unwieldy 1970s sliding doors that led from the family room to the patio.

They brought in lumber. They measured twice and cut once. They framed the doorway and installed the lovely French doors. A fine layer of sawdust settled upon everything. “Everything on the shelves in the family room turned a sudden whitish grey,” my mother recalls, speaking in the detached way a crime victim repeats his or her story.

That tragic day is etched into my memory banks forever. My mother cried. Literally. Real tears. Anguished tears. My dad and his dad were incensed. After all, didn’t she WANT those lovely French doors? What an ungrateful shrew to wail and gnash her teeth after they worked so hard to install something she’d wanted for so long.

She remembers another day when she arrived home from work to see her beautiful silver maple, her favorite sight from her kitchen window cut to less than half its previous height and roughly shaped like a truffela tree. She had made the mistake of mentioning that the tree needed trimmed. My dad and his dad had saved money by doing it themselves. They were proud. She was devastated. She asked my dad if they’d sat on lawn chairs and just sawed from where they were sitting.

It’s not just lawn care and home improvement projects where women risk great loss if they aren’t precise with their requests. When we were in the trenches of child-rearing, where I was fairly certain that the two beings who had sprung from my body were hell bent on destroying me, that they received their sustenance from eating my brain and sucking out my soul. Occasionally, I would realize my limitations and raise the white flag of surrender.

“Can you bring home dinner?” I would plead to the father of these beasts, believing that Taco Bell was the least he could do. “I don’t think cooking is gonna happen today.”

“Sure,” he would answer good-naturedly and I’d wonder if three o’clock was too early for wine.

He would arrive home, expecting his Father Knows Best moment of clean, adoring children reaching up to him for happy kisses and stories of adventurous days. Instead, there would be a mud-covered girl child screaming at her big brother to give it back while the equally muddy boy child told her he just needed it for a minute, for this one invention that would….”

I interrupted with my own scream. “WHAT IS THIS?”

“It’s dinner.”

I would paw through the bags of raw chicken, fresh vegetables and uncooked pasta.

“No, it’s not. It’s GROCERIES. Dinner is what is already cooked. Dinner is what you put on paper plates and throw away because if I have to wash another dish, human, toy, or wall that somebody smeared with mud, somebody is going to get hurt. I did not ask for GROCERIES. I asked for DINNER.”

His face looked much like my dad’s and grandfather’s after installing some lovely French doors. It is a sad and pitiful face and one I would feel sorry for if it didn’t remind me so much of a puppy who has just piddled on the floor. That face that makes me want to scream, “No!” at and smack it across the nose with a folded newspaper. (Please note that I smack neither puppy, nor spouse with a newspaper; I simply fantasize.)

Because I don’t want to deal with that pitiful face this evening, I shall not tell him that his lawn care attempts are as effective as a climate-change denier heading the EPA. Because I can’t explain to him what I meant when I said weed the side yard, without getting a nervous tic that simulates stabbing him with a dull knife, I shall remain mum.

I do think I’ll ask him to bring home dinner. Is three o’clock too early for a glass of wine?

 

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SB2k18 Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 6

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When Going Home Feels Like Leaving Home

Families aren’t easy; nor do they have to be hard. My “first family” is as complicated, dysfunctional and screwed up as the next one, but by golly by durn, if it isn’t the best family I have. My mother might purse her lips at some of my liberal ways of thinking, but she will sit down (no she won’t; she’ll flutter around while I sit) and talk in depth about world events and how we’ve gotten to where we are, as well as what we might do to make it better. I’m not lying when I say my mother is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. Pretty is AS pretty does.

My dad is a gruff old fart with an uncanny sense of humor who worked in a steel mill for a million years, retired and because the world is unfair and the law is never on the workers’ side works at Wal-Mart for a million years more. How a plant can file Chapter 13, sell to another company and cut its retirees off at the knees by dropping their pension plan is a concept beyond my ability to comprehend. Gregarious 81-year-olds should work at Wal-Mart because they enjoy their following at Register 10. (Seriously, the man has a fan club.) NOT because they have no pension. Of course Wal-Mart keeps him just under full time so they don’t have to give him benefits.

Be still my angry, thumping, inner redneck heart.

My sister is a single mom who is private, so I don’t say much about her. She’s gorgeous. We both used to be; she stayed that way. She’s got a dry, cutting sense of humor that can slice steak. She scares me.

Her daughter – her doppelganger – is my heart. She is my parents’ heart. She is my sister’s everything. That’s a lot for a teenager to carry, but she does it well.

Because my sister never left the hills of West Virginia, the four of them are a unit. When I come to visit, I disrupt it a little. When I feel dramatic, I disrupt it a lot. It’s like they’re all comfortable sitting in a pew at church and I come in and expect them to scoot over and make room for my ample rear end. They smile in welcome, then they have to scootch over, pick up their church bulletins, scoot their purses, stand up to let me through, then scrunch up a little bit because the fit is a little tighter than it was before I arrived.

The week that Man Child and I spent with my family, exploring just a little bit of my home state during his senior year spring break was one of the best trips “home” that I’ve ever had. There was room in the pew for us and like any good church service, we left feeling uplifted and loved.

Still, we left feeling unfinished. There was so much we didn’t do, didn’t see. We brought bikes to ride around the small town of Milton. It snowed. We didn’t bike. We didn’t go see where my mother was born. We didn’t visit graves. We didn’t climb around in my parents’ attic. We didn’t go to Blenko Glass. We didn’t see a lot of folk whom I love. My Aunt Pat. Aunt Janet. Jennifer. Shelley. Bari. Liza. Kim. People I’d told I’d stop by while we were up there. We didn’t go get ice cream with my niece.

We DID do so much, though. We did so much it’s taken me a month to write it down. We did see people. I saw my twin aunts. I love those girls and yes, they will always be girls to me. They’re only a couple of years older than I and they make me smile wider than most people do. They love dogs almost as much as I do. (Okay, maybe even more.) They have the most generous hearts of anybody I have ever known. Lisa is an artist. She and her husband are regularly featured in the local news for their holiday décor. Teresa is a cook. She’s her own Meals on Wheels. She literally feeds the town of Milton. If you get a wart removed, be sure that Teresa knows and you’ll get a slice or two of mouthwatering pound cake, my grandmother’s secret recipe. If you get a limb removed, you’ll probably get the whole cake.

We did all that we could do. We explored curvy roads. We ate our way through at least ten counties. We saw monsters and we saw men. We experienced history already made and history being made. We saw despair. We saw hope. We saw lawmakers, law breakers and law enforcers.

On our way out of town, after tearfully waving goodbye to my mother in her driveway, we stopped at Stewarts Hot Dogs. Spousal Unit declares Frost Top the best; I declare Stewarts and we always argue on the way out of Huntington as to where we will stop. When he’s not in the car, it’s no contest. The carhop came to the window and we ordered. A mini van pulled up and I’ll-be-durned if it wasn’t two people I always intend to see, but never really get to squeeze into the schedule.

Man Child and I jump out of the car to love on Rick Haye and Marilyn Testerman. Those incredible shots of Marshall athletes at games? The just after dusk photos of the Memorial fountain? Rick, and often Marilyn, took those photographs and they’ve been taking those photos for a few decades. Rick is the Photographic Services Manager at Marshall. The above photo is of the Marshall Memorial Fountain.

I used to work with Rick and Marilyn when they were wedding photographers (there’s a whole series of blogs I could write about that) and we reminisced about the time their daughter was born while Rick and I were shooting a wedding. Rick missed her birth by mere minutes and we ran into the hospital where officials of some sort stopped me and said, “Family only.”

I didn’t miss a beat. “I’m her sister.” We ran back and I saw my very first newborn baby. Oddly, nobody questioned how Marilyn and I could be sisters. She’s dark-headed, tall and round-faced. I’m not. I watched this couple with their newborn baby and I felt like something from the poorly-written Twilight trilogy. This baby is imprinted on me. That kind of community isn’t bought.

Rick and Marilyn are grandparents now. We caught up as best we could, before hot dogs arrived and I spilled Marilyn’s Diet Pepsi. They needed to know that some things never change, including my inherent lack of grace. We returned to Pollyanna, our hot dogs (yeah, definitely beans in the sauce – shame on you Stewarts!) and a six-hour drive back to Nashville.

I’ve been slightly depressed and a little lost since returning to home that isn’t quite home. I built up my West Virginia library. I’ve followed Hillbilly Hot Dogs, the World’s Only Mothman Museum, Maria’s Drive-In and Matewan’s “Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center” on Facebook. They don’t seem to miss me.

Girl Child came home from college over Spring Break. She was happy to be home, to see her horse, to be fed, but she was restless. I understood. She loves Chicago. Nashville is home. I squeezed her and said, “Welcome to my world, honey. For the rest of your life, you will be torn between two places you love.”

When I first got that 1959 Tour-A-Home canned ham camper and named her Daisy, I really did imagine I would pull her behind my trusty Honda Pilot and write from places far and near. I imagined my computer open on my lap as I wrote next to a campfire, golden retriever by my feet, Spousal Unit strumming mandolin down by the river.

I believed I had to make those trips in order to have something to write about. I was wrong. I had forgotten that the stories are like Zen. Wherever you go there you are. Wherever you are, there the stories are also.

*Photo credit: Rick Haye

 

 

 

 

SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 5 Part 2

Cops and Trains and Bullets, Oh My!

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The farther you go into coal country, the higher the mountains are, the more rugged the terrain. It seems as if there is a collective goal to cut into the mountains. Rivers cut through them, with millions of years of erosion forming valleys and hollows. Roads cut through them, and around them, with the occasional backlash from Mother Nature as she sends boulders plummeting onto blacktop. Coalmines cut through mountains, and to the dismay of anybody with a lick of sense, cut off the top of them, in a misguided attempt to glean from planet earth the fuel that she can provide.

With John Ramey stories in our head and John Ramey food in our belly, we continued moving southwest, to our destination, Matewan. The 1987 movie stars, among others, David Strathairn, who starred in another West Virginia story, “We Are Marshall.” He portrays beleaguered, but strong, leaders really well.

In “Matewan,” he played the part of the town sheriff, Sid Hatfield. What I did not know is that the Matewan area is also where the seeds of dissension between the Hatfields and McCoys were planted. We aren’t huge followers of that particular story. I kinda hate that a bunch of poorly-behaved hillbillies recreated a tawdry rendition of Romeo and Juliet that included a pig, pawpaw trees, and long-held grudges. I really hate that those poorly-behaved hillbillies get far more attention than a man named Sid Hatfield, who isn’t even part of that clan.

Sid Hatfield was the law in those parts and when push came to shove, Sid Hatfield stood by his people, and stood up to the big city bullies who came to town. Coalminers and their families wanted to unionize; mine owners and their minions did not. When Man Child and I came around the bend to Matewan, it was Sid Hatfield’s story we wanted to hear.

The most notable thing about the town of Matewan is a mammoth flood wall that guards it as if it were Jericho. Flooding is an issue in West Virginia, just as tornadoes are an issue in the Midwest (and sometimes Nashville). My dad just test drove a truck, saw some rust where rust shouldn’t be and furrowed his eyebrows. My mother noticed, when the passenger door was open, that there was mud inside the speaker in the door. The truck had been in a flood. Be careful buying “pre-owned vehicles” from West Virginia.

After numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan finally got a flood wall. The problem is, after numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan also lost a great deal of its population. People get tired of trying. People leave. I know because I’m one of the ones who left.

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There is really only one street in Matewan, besides the main road. Everything was closed, except for the bank and a Mexican restaurant. When some folks get their way and everybody is deported, I imagine the Mexican restaurant will shut down. We stared at the closed sign on the door of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and pouted. As a tourist attraction, I suppose it doesn’t get much spring break activity.

We circled back to the street that crosses the Tug Fork and enters Kentucky. On the other side of it is a train depot. Oh, look! It’s a museum! I barely got the car in park beside the depot before Man Child was running across the parking lot. “I like trains!” he hollered. It is his mantra. Sometimes he’s still nine years old.

Inside the Matewan Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center was my holy grail: swag. There were also three extremely friendly and helpful folks, one of which took Man Child back into the museum and started up the videos. I stayed to shoot the bull with the other two and check out the swag.

There are museums such as the one where Girl Child attends school, the Art Institute of Chicago. There are museums such as the musty-smelling Civil War shop and museum in Murfreesboro where Man Child attends school. There are even museums where there are three arrowheads and a snuff can under glass and an admission charge. Although not quite the Art Institute of Chicago, this museum was much better than the Civil War or DIY museum and when I wandered back to find my offspring, I slowed my pace, drawn in by the history this one small town holds.

When we could tear ourselves away from the museum, we told our three new bffs that we’d be back. We wanted to see some of the places highlighted in the museum. We wanted to see Sid Hatfield’s grave. They said it was across the river, in Kentucky. We drove past the floodwall, over the river, into Kentucky, We forgot the instructions. We stopped to ask a Kentucky State Trooper parked in front of the dollar store.

West Virginia and Kentucky State Troopers have earned my respect over the years. I’ve known several personally and been rescued by their ilk when I was broken down on the side of the road. Generally, they’re nice guys who are also bad asses. I was more than a little nervous with Man Child jumping out of the car and hollering towards a Kentucky patrol car “Do you know where Sid Hatfield’s grave is?” This guy busts meth labs. Do we REALLY wanna ask him directions?

Trooper Jason McLellan shook his head, no he didn’t know where Sid Hatfield was buried, but he knew where the pawpaw trees were. “Follow me,” he commanded.

Yessir. Rightawaysir. That’s not mine, sir. I’m holding it for a friend. And I have no idea what the hell the pawpaw trees are, but yessir.

We followed him up a hill, back down into a steep drive and parking lot next to the river. I was ready to wave thanks, y’know the pointer finger salute from the steering wheel that shows just how cool I am. Instead of driving off, Trooper McLellan climbed out of his cruiser and walked over to a historical marker. He wasn’t as tall as Man Child, but he shor was bulked up. I had no doubt he could take a guy DOWN. Man Child and I looked at each other. What? Is he giving us a tour? Or is he gonna make my kid raise his hands above his ankles?

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He pointed to three pawpaw trees about 25 yards away, then pointed to the historical marker. I’d heard the stories and saw the mini series, but I never really realized there was a “Pawpaw Tree Incident” as part of the Hatfield and McCoy saga. Now, I do.

Once again, Man Child and I listened and learned things. We learned about the Pawpaw Tree Incident. We learned that a pack of cigarettes can be a cop’s greatest weapon. “I had a tweaker in the back seat banging his head on the cage. I said, ‘Buddy, stop that.’ He kept on banging his head. I said, ‘Hey, quit banging your head on my cage!’ and he just kept on doing it. Finally, I said, ‘If you quit banging your head against my cage, I’ll give ya a smoke.’ He looked up like huh? And he quit banging his head.”

One day, our Kentucky State Trooper friend was serving an arrest warrant. As he pulled up, he saw the perpetrator running off into the woods. He hollered at him. “Come on Jeff! Get back here!”

Jeff was hiding behind a tree, and a beer can. “You got a warrant?”

“Yeah, Jeff. I gotta warrant. You know, Jeff, I can see you.”

“I ain’t goin’ to jail agin McLellan.”

“Come on out here and we’ll smoke a cigarette.”

“McLellan, you ain’t gonna whip my ass are you?”

“If you get my shoes dirty, I might.”

We glanced at our reflections in his spit-polished black shoes and took a step back.

Jeff emerged from his hiding place and had a smoke. Then he went to jail.

Jason McLellan originally hails from Maine and calls himself a Yankabilly. He seemed pure Appalachian to me, but he pulled up his trouser leg (must be a cop thing – pull your pants above your ankles) to reveal the story of his life on the back of his tree-trunk-sized calf. A beautiful mosaic of colorful tattoos encompassed a life fully lived, with representation of the states of Maine and Kentucky, military service, police service and even time in Italy. Not all of the tats were explained and I imagine Jason McLellan has lived a life as colorful as his tattoos.

One of his first calls as a state police officer in Eastern Kentucky was for something along the lines of “adolescent beyond control of parent.” He told us the story. As McLellan climbed aboard the front porch, a wood pallet propped up four cinderblocks high, he heard, “Shit! The Law’s here!”

It was the first time he’d heard his profession called “The Law.” Standing precariously on the porch, he greeted a large woman who answered the door. A very large woman. She had a Camel unfiltered in one hand and was yanking on something with the other. He stood, waiting for the cinder block and pallet to collapse if she stepped out of her trailer. She yanked and yanked and tugged on a tube of some sort.

Finally she hollered back into the trailer at someone unseen to the trooper, “Gitcher fucking rocking chair off my HOSE!” The item in her hand was released. She takes a pull from the Camel, expels smoke, then lifts an oxygen mask to her face and takes a larger pull from that.

Officer McLellan stuttered. “Just doin’ a wellness check ma’am. Looks like everything here is okay.”

We could have listen to his stories for the rest of the day and probably would have, but for two hard-looking women rising from the riverbed like zombies from graves. One held a leash with a beagle attached to it; the other held a metal detector.

“There ain’t nothin’ here,” they claimed as they stepped toward us. They were in overalls and boots. Their skin was wrinkled parchment, their hair over processed straw. The wind blew and I smelled skunk, the same kind of skunk scent that wafted around Bonnaroo.

They continued to bemoan that there ain’t nothin’ here and apparently the area’d done been picked over. McLellan advised them of another lesser-known location where bullets and such could probably be found. I thought he meant the trailer with the pallet front porch, but apparently they were all talking about numerous Hatfield and McCoy battlefields. He gave them directions. They repeated them. Incorrectly. A gust of wind rifled the straw on top of their heads and a smell of burnt coffee tickled my nose. I always wondered how so many people could burn coffee around high schools and colleges. They must not be paying attention.

Initially, I’d assumed these old battle-axes were lesbians and I was ready to raise the rainbow flag and shout, “You go girls” for being so brave in the bowels of coal country. Then I noticed they were flirting with our state trooper (we found him first) and they told us they were sisters.

They wandered off to their pickup, the front grill covered in vertical sections of pvc pipe, looking for all the world like a pipe organ in a church. That evening I asked my dad what that could possibly be and he grinned. “For their fishing poles.”

I need to let my sister know that my retirement plans of living with thirty cats, drinking cheap gin and eating cat food have been replaced with traveling the hills of West Virginia with her, wandering riverbeds with a beagle and a metal detector and fishin’ on the warm days. It’s a goal.

As they climbed into the truck, they kept hollering back the road number. “Three nineteen?” Since their destination had apparently changed from finding shit to finding home, the road number had changed as well.

McLellan hollered back. “One-nineteen. Go left and then down the road and you’ll find one-nineteen!”

“Three-nineteen?”

McLellan repeated his instructions.

“We go left and then git on three-nineteen, right?”

Man Child, State Trooper and I were LOSING it. We all chimed in. “One-nineteen! Corridor G! The Robert C. Byrd highway! That will get you to Charleston!”

“We go left and then three-nineteen, right?”

McLellan shook his head. “Yep! That’s it. You’ve got it.”

They waved out the windows of the pickup truck, gravel crunching beneath the tires, skunk/burnt coffee smell following behind them. I looked at my offspring and said, “Whatever way they’re going, we’re going the opposite.”

We hated to leave, but Nanna was going to have dinner ready and it was our last night there. We said goodbye to our new best friend and wished him health and safety. Of course we Googled him, learning that when he graduated from the academy, he received the “Ernie Bivens Award, an honor presented to the cadet who, in the opinion of the Kentucky State Police Academy staff supported by input from the cadets themselves, distinguishes themself as a class leader, strives for academic excellence and has excelled in all phases of the academy’s physical and vocational training.”

It didn’t say anything about common sense policing that knows to carry a pack of cigarettes as a calming agent, give directions, serve as tour guide, tell great stories and become an integral part of a community that is as different from Maine as marijuana is from burnt coffee.

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We stopped back by the Train Depot to buy the swag and say goodbye. The fellow who had taken Man Child back into the museum asked him if he wanted to see something cool. Does a bear crap in the woods? He disappeared for a minute and returned carrying yellowed papers in plastic sleeves and handed the original police reports from the Pawpaw Tree Incident to my son. If he’d shown us those the first time we were in the museum, we would not have understood what was in his hands.

We played tag with a coal train on the way back to my parents’ home. Every time it went through a tunnel and beat us to the crossing, we knew the engine was winking at us like a favorite uncle who continually wins at checkers. He’s not going to give it to us. We have to earn it. Finally, the tracks went down one side of the mountain and the road went down another. Man Child sighed. “I like trains,” he muttered.

We made it back in time for my mother’s Swiss steak. This week had gone much too quickly.

 

SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 5 Part 1

118796-MMS-1522166754676-attachment1-20180309_141007The Liars Table and Other Stories

From the last supper, to the Knights of the Round Table, to women gathered at a table on “The Talk,” movers and shakers of the world have always huddled around tables to share ideas, progress reports, predictions, plans and bald-face lies. In this spirit is the world renowned Liars Table at Shonet’s in Milton, West Virginia. My father grins and calls it the “Table of Knowledge.” We don’t contradict and we don’t scoff. Like beauty, knowledge is in the eye of the beholder.

Amish have Rumspringa. Jews have Bar Mitzvah. My father celebrated his grandson’s coming-of-age by inviting him to the Table. Man Child was floored. He was going to the Liar’s Table! Unlike any other college spring breaker anywhere in the world, he was going to awaken at the ungodly hour of seven to do it, but by golly he would have a seat at the Liar’s Table! He chose his wardrobe carefully, wearing the jeans he’d only worn three times without washing, as opposed to four.

I spit on my hand and wiped a smudge from his cheek before he took his leave. My mother and I sniffed, waving tear-stained handkerchiefs in the air as our men pulled out of my parents’ steep driveway in Pawpaw’s beat-up truck. That poor thing is Mater in the original “Cars” movie. It coughs and pieces of it crumble onto the Wal-Mart parking lot. “But the engine’s good,” Daddy grumbles and he takes my child with him to the land of biscuits and gravy, manliness and that particular clink of flatware against china only heard in a diner.

While the men were doing man things, my mother and I worked out at her gym. Once again, white-headed octogenarians circled me like piranha as I grunted, huffed and begged my body to not pass gas. YMCA swim class flashbacks triggered me. The Silent Generation is stealthy in its steely-eyed ability to supersede my place at the gym.

I wondered if it were intentional that women were working out at the gym while men were eating biscuits and gravy at the diner. There are far more widows than widowers in my small town. Is this part of a plan?

When we reconvened at Casa Nanna & Pawpaw, Man Child was splayed out in the family room floor like a starfish washed ashore. He clutched his distended belly. “Omigod Mom. So. Much. Food. The omelet was as big as the plate. They used twelve chickens for the omelet.” He rolled over and farted, not demonstrating the restraint I used at the gym.

He mumbled into the carpet. “There are leftovers in the fridge. Like an entire meal of leftovers. Half an omelet. Biscuits and gravy.” My dad was in his recliner, lips pursed, head shaking in disappointment. His offspring had failed him once again. I had raised a weakling who couldn’t finish a simple Shonet’s breakfast. I’m sorry Daddy. He can’t shoot a basketball worth spit either. He’s really smart, though.

My foremost concern was that Man Child’s infirm stomach would ruin our plan for the day. Our raison detre. Driving into coal country. When I tell people I’m from West Virginia, usually the first response is, “I have an aunt in Roanoke.” I refrain from asking if they were home schooled or just slept through American History and politely comment that I’m happy that they have an aunt in Roanoke. I have a sister-in-law in Kentucky, which is ALSO a state that borders WEST Virginia.

The second comment usually centers around cousins-marrying jokes and I smile through bared teeth. Shortly after they’ve made themselves feel superior and brilliant, they will ask me about coalmines. “Well, I’m from the Huntington/Charleston area,” I say. “And that is usually more steel mill, chemical plant kind of industry. The coal mines are farther into the mountains….” As I continue with my soliloquy, their eyes glaze over and they mumble something about their aunt in Roanoke having married her own cousin and wow that’s really interesting.

Man Child had never been into coal country and he was fascinated by the entire concept. One of his favorite movies is Matewan. One of my favorite books is Denise Giaradina’s Storming Heaven. Both are only slightly fictionalized accounts of the mine wars. I had a kickass history teacher in college, Dr. David Duke (who is married to my kickass English teacher, Dr. Rainey Duke) who taught a class in industrial history that forever marked me as a pro-union kinda gal. The people of coal country, their plight, their rugged, challenging lives pull at me and I can’t explain it. The fact that this also pulls at my son, who has never lived in West Virginia is unexplainable even more.

Clutching his distended belly, he insisted he was up to a trip to coal country. Obviously I would be driving. He was barely coherent, continuing to mutter about the omelet the size of a dinner plate, biscuits and gravy. As we made our way to Charleston, via I-64 for the third time in a week, I asked him about the Liar’s Table. He confessed he was slightly disappointed. The day’s agenda seemed to focus on bellyaching that Trump was being treated unfairly. One man, a pro-union Democrat, sat quietly as the others teased him. I advised my offspring that perhaps today’s lesson at the Table of Knowledge was observing that man sitting quietly, remaining with his friends, despite their divisive rhetoric that has become rote words of recitation. Perhaps his allowing those words to bounce off him will show his friends that he is still there, still their friend, and contrary to what FOX News would have them believe, still the same American he has always been.

We turned onto US-119, known as Corridor G, and also known as the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the same Robert C. Byrd for which the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope is named. There are few things in West Virginia NOT named after the famous pork barrel king who directed federal money to his poverty-stricken state whenever and however he could. My loftier self “tsk tsk” judges for this overt use of power, but the underdog fighter in me high fives the fiddle playing Renaissance Man and wishes the Mountain State still had that kind of champion.

We passed the Chuck Yeager Memorial and Man Child woke from his stupor to holler, “This is where Pawpaw and I were yesterday!” His head swiveled like the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. “Except it wasn’t this road. It was curvier.” Good Lord, my dad had driven all this way the day after driving the Monongahela Forest? What the hell is he made out of and can I have some?

Man Child was surely getting his life allotment of curvy roads. His veins running with 75% West Virginia blood (his paternal grandmother was a Kentucky lady), he wasn’t one bit tired of them, either. In fact, he became petulant as we sped down the four-lane highway. “This is a boring road.”

“Oh for cripe’s sakes, son. Sometimes it actually IS the destination and not the journey. If we take the rural route to Matewan, we won’t get there before the sun sets.” Besides, I still had PTSD from driving Route 10 when I worked for my uncle.

Right after getting a BA in journalism, my first post-collegiate job was as the Marketing Director at Associated Grocers. AG was an independent wholesale grocer who tried to battle the chains by offering independent grocery stores the benefit of bulk supplying and therefore lower prices. My uncle ran Associated Grocers and yes, I, the beneficiary of nepotism, became his Marketing Director.

As such, I coordinated all of the advertising for the stores, which meant I regularly had to go to each store to have them sign off on their ads. Although not quite the era of stone tablets, this was before FAX machines were a common office supply. Independent grocery stores are notoriously rural and in less affluent garden spots of the world. I was driving to Chapmanville, Logan, and Williamson West Virginia, with the occasional foray into Pikeville Kentucky.

We had company cars. K cars. Lee Iacocca, I gotta tell ya buddy, those cars were AWFUL and they couldn’t stick a curve to save their souls – or OUR lives. There was one instance where I took a curve too fast and the tail end of the car swung out into the gravel just as a coal truck was coming toward me. After that, I took my own car into coal country. A Datsun 280ZX Turbo. I shouldn’t be alive.

I regaled Man Child with these stories as I pulled off of 119 and into the city of Logan. Man Child lived in Flint, Michigan during his freshman year at Kettering University. When the K car and its ilk failed and the automotive industry changed, cities such as Flint and Detroit deflated, like a jumpy castle after a birthday party. The silhouette remains, but the substance is gone. In similar fashion, from a distance Logan looks like the town it always was, but as we drove down the streets, passing shuttered storefronts it seemed as if the air had been let out. This happens when a place, or a person, or a generation, or a culture depends fully on one thing. The car industry is different than it used to be. GM will never be the heartbeat of Flint, Michigan. The coal industry is different than it used to be. It will never be the heartbeat of Logan and other towns like it.

We circled up and up and up, to the top of a hill, so we could have an overview of the city. I felt uncomfortable. Unsafe. Later, an uncle told me he’d been placed in Logan with his job for a while and it wasn’t a good place to hang out. I remember Lettie, who owned the grocery store in Logan, a large gregarious woman who always made me feel welcome and safe. Sometimes it’s not only industries that change.

We continued southwestward, off of 119 now and into the small burg of Delbarton. Even back when I considered Logan more or less safe, I have always been wary of Delbarton. Back in my day, the cheerleaders weren’t allowed to go to the away games if we played Delbarton. Those people were rough.

Because I had NOT eaten an omelet the size of a dinner plate or ANY biscuits and gravy, I lost all sense of wariness and reason. I was getting peckish and after all, middle aged, menopausal hangry me is as much a threat as anybody who grew up in the hills, valleys, and hollers of coal country. On the left side of the road a bright red building with a bright yellow door beckoned. I whipped into the parking lot spewing gravel from the tires. Sat in the idling car. Food characters cut from plywood danced on the façade. We read directions on another plywood board, “Blow horn for curb service.” That seemed complicated, calling attention to ourselves. I put it in reverse. The wooden happy face hamburger frowned. I put it back in drive. Moved forward a couple of inches. A fellow in what looked like turnout gear, but could also be coalminer clothes, or even what the stylish hunter wears, overalls with fluorescent horizontal stripes on the legs, motioned for Man Child to roll down his window. We have Very Liberal Bumper Stickers on our car. We were going to die.

“Go on in. It’s the best steak sandwich you’ll ever eat.” He grinned to reveal perfectly aligned beautifully white teeth. Delbarton was dispelling one stereotype after the next.

“In fact, that steak sandwich is so good, I pay for mine in advance, so I can just go in and say, ‘Gimme my steak sandwich.’”

Man Child and I looked at one another and shrugged. I slammed Pollyanna into park. I mean, if they’re that damn good. “Tell John that Jimmy sent ya!”

John Ramey, a shy, reticent man, was behind the counter when we walked in. “Sit anywhere!” he bellowed as he gestured to the two tables. We bellied up to the bar, errrr, lunch counter and told him that Jimmy sent us. “That Jimmy’s a crazy un. He pays for his steak sandwich in advance.”

I have no idea how long we were in Maria’s Drive-In because I think it might be an alternate universe. We learned that John and his wife Jan have an ugly daughter who is a student at Marshall, for whom they named the restaurant. Poor thing is so ugly that they had to create this restaurant for her so she’d have something to do with her life. He whipped out a photo of her. Poor thing indeed. Scarlett Johannson should be so ugly.

Like any waiter in a fine dining establishment, Monsieur Ramey explained the menu to us. Man Child was fixated on the steak sandwich. After all, it was Jimmy’s rec that got us to walk in the door. I looked down my nose through the reading glasses part of my progressive lenses. I wanted to know my options.

Apparently, their secret chili recipe is so good that Taco Bell offered him a “small fortune” for it. No dice. It’d been in the family for 118 years and in the family it would stay. I bemoaned the loss of deliciousness of my favorite hotdog stand, Stewart’s. Their hotdogs just hadn’t seemed the same to me in recent years. John had the answer. “They put beans in it now, to save money.”

The gall.

We placed our orders. Hot dog for me. Steak sandwich and fried mushrooms for Man Child. Sorry nutritionist. I’ll get back on the wagon when I return home. We waited on the food. We learned things.

Delbarton was a kinder, gentler Delbarton than when I was in high school. Civic pride was in place. Parks were created. John owned a lot of land and was cleaning things up. “But that across the street. My brother’s in charge of that and he doesn’t take care of things like I do.”

I can attest that John takes care of things. The place was spotless. The two women working in the kitchen behind him cooked like real cooks do. As they methodically made our meal, silently dancing to a choreography known by families who cook together, by friends who cook side by side, there was no loud diner clanging, no assembly line production. There were simply two women making food and rolling their eyes at John Ramey’s stories they had to have heard a thousand times already.

We continued to learn things. We learned that one of the reasons West Virginia split from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War was because of the Greenbrier Military School, to which John Ramey had gone. Federal funds had created the school that was creating soldiers. So much for believing my noble people had divorced themselves from slaveholders. Still, anybody in West Virginia who waves a Confederate flag is certainly not celebrating his or her heritage. West Virginia was Union and being Union is why it became a state.

Greenbrier.Military.School

We learned that his father placed John Ramey on a train to Ohio, when John was only four years old. He was sent to live with his grandmother because his dad was a ne’er do well who knew he couldn’t do right by his son. Although painful, this parental rejection, John Ramey is grateful for his dad’s foresight. He was, indeed, a ne’er do well and spent time on West Virginia’s most wanted list.

We wiped up the last bit of hot dog sauce, licked up the last crumb of a steak sandwich and we bid adieu. We promised to come back and we will. I love, love LOVE a good hot dog and I like to learn things, no matter where the table of knowledge may lie.

 

Next: Mines, mine wars and a Kentucky State Trooper.

 

SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 4

IMG_7645Eye of Newt, Oil of Not Olay and Heroes

By Thursday, our Spring Break of “let’s go help the old people,” had beaten Man Child and me to the ground. We waved the white flag of surrender and my mother noticed it was a little gray, so she laundered it with bleach. The woman irons my dad’s boxer shorts and one could cut steak with the creases in his khakis. I remain a disappointment to them.

Pawpaw grabbed my offspring for an adventure. Man Child looked at me the way he did back when I dropped him off at Mothers Day Out. Twenty years ago, I would walk around the corner and cry. This day, I merely looked at him with remorse. Sorry, Dude, you’re on your own. I have my own battles to fight. I turned to my mom, who was panting like a puppy ready to play. Oh. Dear. God. She wanted to Do Things.

This is where I make a confession. Go ahead and ridicule. Spousal Unit does. I have become victim to the pyramid scheme of essential oils. I love these things. I love the oils. I want ALL the oils. Because I suck at pyramid schemes, I don’t ever talk anybody into repping the oils, therefore building the “pyramid” below me and perhaps earning income. I just buy the oils. Because. I want ALL the oils. Spousal Unit reminds me that we have two kids in college, a 14-year-old Honda Pilot and an extremely high maintenance horse and he’d love to retire some day.

Whatever. If he retires sooner rather than later, he’ll just get on my nerves banging around the house sooner rather than later. Besides, I’m going to write a novel that will make us rich. First, I have to find the perfect oil that will enhance my creativity. I don’t know why he doesn’t understand these things.

After all, I had to have a vintage camper in which to write a novel that will make us rich. And I had to have a roll top desk on which to write a novel that will make us rich. And if somebody would remove that damn pea from under my mattress, then perhaps I would rest well enough to be able to write a novel that will make us rich. I really don’t see the problem here.

Since I clearly wasn’t going to be able to stare at my navel (which tbh I haven’t seen for at least fifty pounds) or scroll through Facebook for hours on end, with my gitterdone overachieving mother in the same ZIP code as me, I wooed her with a day of sitting at the kitchen table and concocting essential oil elixirs.

I sat at the kitchen table. She buzzed around like a hummingbird, getting out coconut oil, melting coconut oil, finding containers, making tea, fixing breakfast, stirring coconut oil, fixing lunch. I used to think my dad was So Rude when he would growl at her from his recliner, “Would you just sit down!?!”

Mea culpa pater familias. I get it, dude. I get it.

We measured and stirred and sniffed and stirred and created our potions. And talked. Lordamercy our mouths were dry, we talked so much. I have never had trouble talking with my mom. She’s a listener. She’s wise. Nanna quotes are the foundation of my family. My kids will have an issue. They’ll ask for advice. My answer – 90% of the time is – “What does Nanna say?”

“When it seems like it’s everybody else, then it’s time to look at yourself.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Pretty is as pretty does.”

We were such overachievers that afternoon, that not only did we make a coconut oil-based pain reducing body cream, and catch up on all gossip, pertinent or not, we also solved all the world’s problems and fixed my sister up with three or four perfect men. Of course, those men were either in Hollywood, or married, or both, but the point is, we knew who was perfect for her. I don’t know why she never listens to us.

As the afternoon rolled on, we grabbed my niece from high school. Her car is in the shop and my lips are sealed. (She totally had a wreck, but since she’s okay and the car will be fixed, there’s no need to talk about it. I mean, it’s not like it was in the middle of town and her old neighbor and one of her teachers saw it. And it’s not like the mother of one of her friends was there and walked her through the experience as if my niece were her own daughter. ‘Cause, y’know in small towns nobody really helps one another, so nobody knows what’s going on and it’s not like if you have something go wrong, you’ve got thirty voicemail messages asking how people can help and three casseroles waiting at your front door.)

We arrived at Cabell-Midland High School, the sprawling educational home of nearly 2,000 students. Formed in 1994, when many West Virginia schools morphed from community to county wide, Cabell-Midland was born of two arch enemies: Milton High School and Barboursville High School. My dad still bears resentment. I think Barboursville must have beaten him in basketball or something and the man can hold a grudge. It didn’t bother me as much. I always thought Barboursville boys were cuter, anyway, so I was happy for my niece.

I did find fault with one issue at the school, however and since I had been fueled by the morning conversations with my mother, I knew we had the answers to fix everybody’s problems, including Cabell Midland’s afterschool pickup. I felt compelled to let the administration know that the schools in Nashville have a FAR superior method of picking kids up from school. For one thing we call it “hookup.” That right there will solve 90% of the problem. Change the name. For another thing, bumper cars is only fun at the fair. One way in. One way out. Traffic flows in the same direction at all times. And for the love of Pete, either get a stoplight, or somebody on Route 60 to direct traffic. Darwin reigns supreme in the Mountain State and it begins in high school when you’re pulling out onto a busy highway.

I refrained from marching into the principal’s office and giving him my free advice and instead navigated the parking lot. Sometimes I wish I were Catholic so I could justify crossing myself. With Niece safely in the car and strapped in with her trusty tennis racquet, I guided Pollyanna through the parking lot filled with teenager vehicles. There were fewer lifted trucks than I had imagined and more Toyota Corollas. Through the kindness of strangers under the age of 18 who allowed me to join the river of traffic, (you guys are SO gonna change the world), I made our way to Rt. 60, shut my eyes, put the pedal to the metal and turned left.

Nobody died.

My sister won’t let me steal her daughter, bring her to Nashville and keep her. I don’t understand it, really I don’t. I love this kid. She is one of the most incredible creatures ever put on this earth. She’s gorgeous (looks exactly like my dang sibling), athletic, smart as a whip and funny as hell. Therefore, she belongs with me.

Alas, I am the only one who believes that, including the perfect niece. Therefore I just hoard the time I am given with her. On that day, she spent the afternoon with us at the kitchen table as we continued our witchcraft brewing of essential oil concoctions. We made a lavender-infused bath salt for relaxation and a peppermint drenched oil to help perk us up. We made a hair tonic, of which I immediately applied to my own scalp. It wasn’t pretty, but my niece laughed so it was worth it. We continued to solve the world’s problems, most of which center around the opposite sex.

We had to quit trash talking their gender when the men-folk came home from their morning adventures and settled in front of the television for an afternoon of Westerns. My dad watches the Western Channel as if it were his job. Because he’s a busy man, he rarely sits down and watches one movie from start to finish, but he says eventually he gets to see the entire flick. Sometimes he’ll catch the end of “True Grit” and at other times, he’ll watch the middle. Eventually, he’ll piece together the entire movie. This man meets his goals more than anybody I’ve ever known.

ChuckYeagerI learned the following day from Man Child, that during their Thursday adventure Pawpaw had met his goal of showing his grandson where Chuck Yeager had been born. Obviously West Virginia grows some tough critters and Chuck Yeager is among the toughest. For those who slept through history classes, General Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager is the fellow who first broke the sound barrier. Among other things, he was a combat pilot during WWII, and a test pilot for the Air Force. There is a bridge named after him, on the West Virginia Turnpike, and there is a rumor that is neither confirmed nor denied, that he flew UNDER that bridge on the day of its dedication.

Another tough old bird that hails from the uneven terrain of West Virginia is Hershell Woodrow “Woody” Williams who used to go to my parents’ church. Now he’s busy with Super Bowl coin tosses and such. Woody Williams is a Medal of Honor recipient. Something to do with Iwo Jima, a flame thrower and heroism. Seriously, you shouldn’t have slept through history.

My hero, dozing in his recliner, had spent the good part of the day driving my son all over Lincoln County the day after driving nearly 13 solid hours, so he could continue to show his grandson history lives outside of a textbook.

Without ever receiving a paycheck as such, my parents have always been teachers.

That evening, my sister and I went out to dinner, realizing that it hadn’t been the two of us in a couple of decades. We had more to say to one another than Christopher’s Eats closing time allowed. What is it about family that makes time go so quickly? Each day of this week was slipping past faster and faster and I was getting grouchy about it. Spousal Unit was leaving plaintive texts asking when I could talk on the phone. He missed us. I missed him. He used the dog as bait. I REALLY missed the dog. But I didn’t want to take a single second away from that rare thing of fully being where I actually was, even if it was acting goofy with my sister in the hair care section of Kroger.

 

 

SB2k18: Take Me Home Country Roads Day 3

IMG_7482The Worlds Largest “Fully Steerable Radio Telescope”

I don’t know if living downstream from “Chemical Valley” mutated his DNA, or if a steady diet of Vienna sausages and Oreo cookies creates superpowers but my 81-year-old dad is beyond human. In similar fashion, although locals believe that my mother is a good, sweet Christian woman, my sister and I know that she obviously made a deal with the devil earlier in her life to still have the metabolism she has, the figure she has and the energy she has.

These people wear me out. Literally. I spent a week with them and had to come back to Nashville just to lie in the floor with the dog for the next five days. Daddy called yesterday just to “check in,” then said he needed to go because my mom was spring cleaning and flipping over their king size mattress. She might need help.

I need help trying to make the bed. Fluffing the pillows is exhausting.

By Day 3 of our Spring Break West Virginia excursion, Man Child and I were ready for some rest, but Pawpaw had taken off work and was determined to show his grandson the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. “But it’s predicted to snow,” we whined.

“Get in the car,” he groused. “We’ll go until we have to stop.” I was catapulted to the early seventies and Sunday drives that left me nauseous, but educated. If my first grade teacher was going to discuss the state flower, we were going to drive into the mountains to find rhododendron and bring some home. Of course it was against the law, but it was in the name of education.

Man Child rode shotgun, while my mother and I cringed in the back seat. The sky was heavy and gray. Sheets of sleet dropped sideways from the heavens. Speeding tractor-trailer rigs spewed dirty precipitation on the windshield, limiting visibility. I hoped Spousal Unit and Girl Child would continue to thrive after our untimely demise. I debated texting them with my last will and testament, but I didn’t want them to worry.

We continued north on I-79 and I broke out some essential oils. My mom and I sat in the back seat snorting oils like we were coke-addicted music producers. “Here, try this,” I offered her some lavender. “It’s calming.”

“Ooh. I like lavender,” she answered, rubbing it on her like lemon for a tequila shot. She breathed in heavily. Man Child’s head swung around.

“I smell essential oils.” Damn. Busted. I felt like William H. Macy in “Shameless.” Terrible parent, I am. Terrible.

We crested a mountain, along with twenty or so of our closet friends, long-distance truckers. The road was covered in white. I breathed in a mix of lavender and frankincense, a “spiritual” oil. I figured I’d go ahead and get a head start into the spiritual realm for when one of those suckers slid and pushed us off the edge of a precipice.

Daddy took the Buckhannon exit off the interstate. Ah. That must mean we are almost there. My former boss at a Nashville ad agency hailed from Buckhannon, where his father was a state trooper. Jud told stories about his dad climbing down into hollers and busting moonshiners when he found their stills. People from West Virginia always have stories.

From Buckhannon, we travelled to Elkins. Ah. That must mean we are almost there. Elkins is a cute little college town and I was enjoying its small-town charm when Daddy swung a sharp left and then u-turned into a parking lot. I swallowed down my breakfast for the second time and looked out the SUV’s window at a 10-foot-tall statue of a female Native American atop an eight-foot-tall podium.

http://www.hiawathascountrystore.com/index.html

Hia-the-store

We had landed at the infamous Hiawatha Country Store in Elkins, W.Va. I jumped out of the car and headed in. Ten-year-old me wanted ALL the things. I do so love swag. I wanted kitsch. I wanted t-shirts. I wanted moccasins that I could wear to school and make Cindy Grass jealous. My 23-year-old son grabbed my arm with excitement. His “Ohmigod mom, this PLACE,” jolted me back to the reality that it’s been a few decades since I was ten years old. It’s actually been a decade since HE was ten years old. Sigh. I needed to be a grown up, so I slithered over to my mom who was tittering at smart aleck postcards. She loves being right at the edge of orneriness.

As I was paying for some postcards, my bladder demanded I acknowledge its presence. My bladder is codependent as hell and ALWAYS wants my attention. I asked the clerk if they had a public restroom. No, she answered and looked quickly away. At the same time, there was a big old West Virginia boy hanging around and I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I hoped he was a friendly, but he lurked and made me nervous. Sometimes people can hang around and they’re just hanging around, but lurkers, they can mean trouble. He nodded to the clerk and asked where the bathroom was. She told him. I bit my tongue and squeezed my legs.

I was gathering up my postcards and receipt when she glanced up at me, looking as guilty as my dog after he’s eaten cat poop. “We don’t usually let people use our bathroom. They can make a mess that I have to clean up, if you know what I mean, but if you want to use it after he’s out, you can.”

After ten minutes passed without his exiting the not-for-public powder room, I realized he hadn’t been lurking so much as pacing in pain and that yes, now I do know what she means and she would certainly have to clean that up. My family agreed to enjoy the hospitality of the gas station across the street.

Not only did we enjoy the hospitality of the gas station across the street, we also enjoyed playing with the pinhole security window of the establishment’s back door. My parents stood in amazement as Man Child and I took turns running outside to show each other that the image was inverted “just like a pinhole camera!” We were so busy with the advanced security system that we ignored the advice from our elders that we “might want to get a snack” because “it would be a while until we get to another place that has food.” My parents each got a slice of pizza. Man Child and I scoffed. That’s not a snack. That’s lunch and it’s only 11 a.m. Geez, these old people probably belly up to the Shoney’s salad bar at 4:30 for dinner.

Besides, we’re almost there.

As we drove into the Monongahela National Forest, trees reached over us protectively as clouds covered the sun and dropped snow on our lone white Ford SUV climbing higher into the mountains. White packed snow replaced shiny wet blacktop. I started taking hits of essential oils again. My father is the best driver I have ever known, but these roads looked slick.

My parents were calm, chewing on their pizza, him reaching his slice back to her so she could remove his pepperonis. Sixty-plus years of marriage will do that. Words aren’t needed for her to pluck off the heartburn-inducing pepperonis as he keeps his eyes on the road ahead.

It’s 50 miles between Elkins, West Virginia and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. As the crow flies, I think it’s about 30. Somebody once told me that if you straightened out West Virginia, shook it out like a wrinkled sheet and laid it flat, it would be the size of Texas. When you’re driving those wrinkles on snow-covered roads and a tendency toward carsickness, you kinda wish for a big old hot, steaming iron.

Two hours later, we rounded a curve and saw it. The world’s largest “fully steerable radio telescope.” It looked like a baby bird with its mouth open waiting for Mom to bring a worm. I was impressed, but y’know, we’re in West Virginia, where the dish satellite is the state flower. It looked like a satellite dish. What I didn’t realize is that we were still miles away.

When we got to the observatory grounds, my jaw dropped. This thing is HUGE. It’s as tall as the Washington Monument and the dish surface is 2.3 acres. You could get one helluva cell signal in these parts. Except you can’t. Thirteen thousand square miles create the National Radio Quiet Zone surrounding the observatory so that Daddy telescope and all of his baby telescopes can do their job. That means most of the eastern part of West Virginia can’t have cell phones, microwaves, decent radio stations, ham radio, or cable TV. I suppose one catches up with one’s church gossip through tin cans connected with strings and apparently smoke signals are okay. As exciting as this ginormous technological outer space monster is, I have to wonder if it really helps my home state progress and enlighten when so many people are left in the dark.

https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/10/08/218976699/enter-the-quiet-zone-where-cell-service-wi-fi-are-banned

Of course Man Child about dirtied his britches. This was everything he stood for. A lifetime of nerdiness, blowing stuff up, building radio stations with little more than a bunch of tiny pieces and a soldering iron, and getting a degree in drone technology culminated in this one moment, when he could become one with Big Daddy Telescope. Mesmerized, he strode toward it, SLR film camera in hand, as if he were Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

IMG_7483

I’m pretty sure I heard the five-note sequence that beckoned the space ship as Man Child became smaller and smaller in the distance. I hoped the aliens would be kind to him and provide him with Mountain Dew and bow ties. This was going to make his girlfriend very unhappy with me.

Luckily (for us earthlings at least), his camera messed up and he came trotting back. It had eaten his film. He thinks the camera glitched. I’m pretty certain that the Men in Black from Point Pleasant had come and ensured that he didn’t get any close-ups of bug-eyed people with no apparent sex organs. (I always wonder, were there no Adam and Even aliens? They’re always running around naked, so apparently they didn’t eat the forbidden fruit and become appalled at their nakedness.)

Pawpaw wanted to show his grandson where he went turkey hunting for several years, so we waved goodbye to Big Daddy Telescope and drove down to a convenience store to ask directions. It had been a while since he, his uncle, a friend and my 80-some-year-old grandfather had been in these mountains pretending to hunt turkey. Because he only brought home maybe two turkeys and one sad-looking squirrel in decades of hunting, we kinda knew it was a way to justify getting out of the house and away from the three women who dominated my dad’s existence.

Buffalo Mountain Road was the other way (this is how one gives directions in West Virginia: just go this way a little bit and then go the other way for about a mile, then you’ll see the old bank. Turn right and go thataway ‘til you’re at the top of the mountain). We passed the telescope again and screamed. In a matter of minutes, it had changed position from baby bird looking for food to pterodactyl looking for prey. More than two acres of mass had gyrated from a cereal bowl position to a klieg light position. It was like Big Daddy Telescope was looking for Man Child. I felt sorry for the big old thing. I feel the same way when my boy is away from me.

We saw the old bank, turned right and went thataway, then realized we should have gone thisaway, so turned around, headed to the top of the mountain and found the hunting “cabin.” Please know that during all those years of turkey hunting, the womenfolk fully believed that these trips were their men’s version of going into the woods and beating a drum. We had civilized them and they needed to commune with nature, become one with their ancestors, grunt in acknowledgement of one another as they ripped recently cooked-over-a-fire flesh from bone with their teeth.

My dad pulled up to the gate and stopped. Gate. I said gate. Le château was safely ensconced behind a gate as if it were the estate of a country music legend tucked in the outskirts of Nashville. It had once been an old school house, pale gray in color. A chimney, made of local stone, rose from the center of the house. A front porch looked out on the mountains and valleys with an excellent view of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. The roof of the porch created a deck that was accessible from a second story bedroom. According to my dad, a schoolteacher once rented the place and grew marijuana on the front porch. This gated community was nirvana.

I leaned back into my seat, happy that my dad had met his goals in showing his grandson the world’s largest “fully steerable radio telescope” and his “roughing it” hunting lodge. Now we would eat lunch, right?

Several harrowing hours later, with my stomach rumbling more loudly than the wheels of the tractor trailer who’d been playing Duel with us on hairpin curves, we were on a four-lane highway. Civilization! Food! Cell service!

But nooooooo. Pawpaw the Superhuman had yet another goal. He wanted his grandson to see one of the world’s longest single-span arched bridge. How was this man still driving? I had begun gnawing on my arm and was hallucinating that the back of my son’s head was a bowl of spaghetti. The only thing that kept me from chewing on his noggin was that I wasn’t sure it was gluten free.

My dad drove over the New River Gorge, turned around and drove back. There. We’d done it. The New River Gorge Bridge. When he has a goal, my dad doesn’t let silly details like getting out and actually looking at the structure get in his way. He could check “Take grandson to New River Gorge Bridge” off his bucket list.

By this time, my codependent bladder had awakened from her nap and reminded me that it had been a LONG time since Elkins. I told her if she didn’t behave, my stomach was going to ingest her because it hadn’t had attention for far more time than my bladder had. They both got into it and I didn’t have an essential oil available to calm them down.

Daddy swung a sharp left and my head got involved, bitching that it had ALWAYS been sensitive to motion and my stomach told it to shut up because it could kick in nausea faster than a headache could even think about poking my eyes out.

I tried to remain chipper. After all, if the old man could keep going, then so could I. It was obvious that Man Child was fading. Oh dear, my parents were going to know that I raised a lightweight. Stay strong, son. You can do this!

I looked over at my mother, who just four years previously was completely paralyzed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Her recovery from that is the stuff of which medical journals are made. She still looked hardy, perkily looking out the car window. Good God, man, what was in that pizza?

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Daddy pulled the car off the road into a parking spot. Hawk’s Nest. Omigod, I love Hawk’s Nest. I love everything about Hawk’s Nest and at that moment I loved the Hawk’s Nest ladies room most of all. I limped, Quasimodo, style up the stone steps to the stone cylinder that held the restrooms. A sliver of evening sunlight shown upon the throne and a chorus of angels sang.

With my bladder gloating to my other organs about the attention it had received, I grabbed Man Child and said, “We’re going for a walk.” He had never seen the Hawk’s Nest overlook and he had no idea.

Like Girl Child in an art supply store, Man Child was speechless with awe and delight. This overlook had everything. Scary height. Beautiful scenery. Train tracks! And a TUNNEL!!! Even a story about the tunnel tragedy highlighted on a historical marker! We love historical markers! The story on the marker is sobering, though, made more so when further research is involved.

Often considered America’s worst industrial disaster, construction of a three-mile tunnel for hydro-electric power in the thirties was just one of many abuses the West Virginia worker has suffered. The project allegedly killed more than 2,000 men, many of whom were black and – much like the African-American lives lost in Katrina – remain unaccounted for and unnamed. Once again, the beauty and rugged grandeur of my home state is covered in a film of heartbreak and tragedy.

Just past Hawk’s Nest, around a few hairpin turns where – as the saying goes – you kiss your own ass as you round the curve, is Gauley Bridge. If one is a white water rafter, one knows about Gauley Bridge. Just past Gauley Bridge is Glen Ferris. If one is someone who eats, one knows about Glen Ferris and the Glen Ferris Inn.

Situated on the bank, and I do mean Right On the Bank of where the Gauley River meets the New River and creates the Kanawha River, this haunted old building houses a hotel with a restaurant where cops come to eat. Cops are like truckers. You want to eat where they eat. Cops and truckers know things.

We were seated two tables over from a four-top of officers of the law who checked out Man Child’s large jean cuffs. I hoped they wouldn’t ask him to raise his hands above his ankles. We ordered food. We ate food. Without dishonoring my parents’ cooking, because they both make some awesome fried chicken, I scarfed down the best fried chicken I’ve ever had the great fortune to eat.

With a nod in the generation direction of my nutritionist, I didn’t eat any of the homemade rolls.

I still regret that.

I regretted even more that we were still almost two hours from home. My poor dad had to be exhausted. Man Child or I should offer to drive. I mean, the old guy’s been driving all day and he’s probably plum tuckered out. “Let’s go!” he hollered and herded us into the car. Good Lord almighty, man, are you not even gonna swill some of that free coffee in the hallway. Waitaminute. I think I forgot my phone omigod he’s got it in drive.

He had met his goals for the day. Like a horse who knows it’s dinner time, he was heading back to the barn, whether we had hold of the halter or not. At one point, belching mashed potatoes, as we careened around a curve on two wheels, I audaciously declared, “Daddy, these curves are making me a little sick.”

“Well, I’m trying to straighten them out for you.”

Well, yeah, the straightest distance between two points is a straight line, but when one side is a mountain going up and the other side is a mountain going down, I think we need to reconsider going straight on a curvy road.

When we got home, Man Child and I staggered into my parents’ house and fell facedown onto our beds. Nanna and Pawpaw stayed up and cleaned out the car.

 

SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 2

IMG_7442Flat Daisy Falls Flat; W.Va. History is Made

Way back when I first anticipated getting a vintage camper to turn into a writer’s retreat and travel the country, I actually anticipated getting a vintage camper to turn into a writer’s retreat and travel the country. Clearly, Daisy had other ideas.

I bemoaned my and Daisy’s difference of opinion to Man Child while traveling the back roads of West Virginia during his spring break. Much to his chagrin, I used it as a life lesson, elucidating the loss of dreams and how we can grow from them. For instance I will never be a professional dancer and Daisy will never line up with other campers on the banks of the Kanawha River, pink flamingo lights twinkling in the twilight. I could, however, end up dancing on the pole and returning home to a Daisy that is tucked between meth labs. One must be careful and specific when tossing a dream out to the universe.

We can also alter our dreams a little bit. Since Daisy can’t travel and I’m a freaking genius, I decided to bring a Mini Daisy with me on my journeys. Through the generosity of friends, I have a couple of really cute miniature Daisies that I can photograph in spots of interest. That requires my remembering to bring the dang thing with me, though. Sigh.

Although not quite up a creek without a paddle, I was in West Virginia without a Mini Daisy, so I had to rethink ways to bring Daisy to my travels. Once again, because I’m a freaking genius, I remembered my offsprings’ second grade projects that centered around the book, Flat Stanley. In the book, young Stanley is smashed flat by a bulletin board, resulting in his ability travel anywhere he wants as easily as a sheet of paper. The kids’ school project was to make flat versions of themselves and send them to someone (my parents of course) who would take those flat versions of themselves on adventures. My parents ROCKED this assignment. Flat Caldwell kids did some amazing things, from having tea at the Greenbrier to climbing beneath the New River Gorge Bridge. I just knew Nanna and Pawpaw would be SO excited to know that their daughter is a genius.

When I announced that I would use my friend Claire’s drawing of Daisy to create a flat Daisy, the response was less than enthusiastic. In fact, there was no response at all. I thought maybe they didn’t hear me. After all the television was turned up pretty high and Everybody Loves Raymond IS captivating. That’s okay. It’ll make more sense when they see it in print.

Flat Daisy made it to one adventure, a barbecue joint in Hurricane, (pronounced Her-uh-cuhn). I caught up with my buddy Dyann the graphic designer who tried to hide her eye rolling at Daisy’s presence on the table as I took pictures. Dyann is good at a lot of things, but not at hiding her eye rolling. That’s okay. It’ll make more sense when she sees it in print.

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As Man Child and I traveled the hills of West Virginia, my home state was taking its own journey. Teachers were on strike. Every single county school system was shut down tighter than my mother’s pursed lips when I would stay out past curfew. Once known as a birthplace of the labor movement and home to the infamous Mother Jones, the Mountain State had limped away from its history of union strength. In fact, The Washington Post published a piece titled, “How the birthplace of the labor movement just turned on its unions” in 2016.

It was beginning to look like the citizenry of West Virginia was remembering its roots, though and twenty thousand teachers were striking to improve the state’s standing of 48th in the nation for teacher pay. It was national news. It was international news. Well-spoken, intelligent, strong people who knew they were in the right were repping West Virginia to the world. Man Child and I were there for the experience and we were excited.

My family members were not so thrilled. My niece was looking at less time to study for AP exams and more time in the classroom during hot summer days. I understood that and yes, the extra days at the end of the school year will suck, but when people talk about sacrificing for one’s country, this is what I think that means. To me, thousands of teachers fighting for what is right is as about as patriotic as it gets.

As far as education, students seeing their third grade teacher, their history teacher, their tennis coach amid a sea of multi-colored, multi-sized, multi-aged women and men in red t-shirts standing up for themselves and their students is a lesson we all can learn. As Man Child said, “These kids’ kids are going to be reading about this in their history books some day.”

One thing I love most about this whole thing is that it was schoolteachers. These people don’t mess around and some version of them have shaken each and every one of us to our core at some point in our lives. Tell me something. How long would YOU be able to defy a hoard of freaking SCHOOLTEACHERS!?!? I’m imagining my determined, steely-eyed sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Dillon when she demanded something be done and the excuses started pouring in.

“Well, Mrs. Dillon, we just don’t have the….”

“Excuse me Mr. Carmichael, I believe I told you we want a five percent raise.”

“No. I don’t wanna.”

“Mr. Carmichael.” Mrs. Dillon squints ever so slightly.

Because this Carmichael guy is the class bully, he digs in his heels. “No. I’m not going to give it to you. You can’t make me.”

Mrs. Dillon raises her perfectly manicured eyebrows; her silver hair catches the afternoon sun, temporarily blinding the object of your attention. “Mr. Carmichael, would you like to stay after school? Or perhaps you’d rather put your head on your desk.”

He’s becoming petulant now, “But the…” and then mutters under his breath, “Dammit.”

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Nine days into the no-school toe-to-toe negotiations, it looked as if the Mrs. Dillons might win. Man Child and I didn’t want to miss the action, so after barbecue and Failed Flat Daisy, (who remains, forgotten at a barbecue joint in Hurricane, W.Va.) we hauled butt to Charleston, the state capitol. Radio news reported that the collective teachers had won. I wanted to see the sea of red shirts. We knew it was going to be crazy and we were looking forward to the mess. Dyann had secured a spot for me to park in her friend’s driveway, because it would be impossible to find a spot nearby.

We careened into the capitol complex on two wheels to discover that the circus had left town. It was the day after Coachella. Two minutes past midnight in Times Square on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. The bread aisle in a Nashville Kroger twelve seconds after a snow prediction. There wasn’t even the occasional fluttering flyer skating on the wind. These are teachers and teachers pick up after themselves, glaring at you until you do the same. A small group in red shirts scurried across the street. These people didn’t stick around to celebrate. They had papers to grade.

We were dejected. I didn’t need my friend’s friend’s parking spot. We had our choice of spots right there in the middle of the complex. We had missed seeing history being made. With a deep sigh, I told Man Child that it was still the most beautiful capitol building in the US and we should go through it anyway. He sighed. Sure.

First we had to go through security. Apparently, I have become so dull that security officers don’t give me a second glance. Overweight middle-aged women in comfortable shoes don’t provide a threat, (unless they’re marching in protest of low wages and shut down an entire state’s school system for nine days). However, hipster young men with Red Wing boots and big cuffs apparently do.

Man Child had to walk through security twice. Then the guard mumbled “Raise your (undecipherable) above your ankles.” Man Child is like huh? Guard repeated “Raise your (ants?) above your ankles.” He pointed downward.

Realizing that I can, indeed, speak Appalachian, when there are visual aids, I excitedly translated, “Raise your pants above your ankles!”

“Oh!” Man Child obligingly bent over and raised his cuffed jeans to show his boots and skinny ankles sans weaponry. The guard motioned us onward and we laughed so hard it echoed within the marble hallways.

“I had NO idea what he was saying, Mom. I thought it was ‘Raise your hands above your ankles’ and I’m like, uhhhh…they ARE?”

“I know, right? I thought maybe with all the knuckle-draggers that come in here, they had to start asking them to raise their hands above their ankles.”

“Mom, I thought I could speak southern, but I’m gonna need subtitles.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that being able to understand what comes out of West Virginians’ mouths doesn’t necessarily mean one understands West Virginians. We are a complicated people. What else explains the birthplace of the labor movement becoming the burial ground of the average working man and woman?

We oohed and ahhed over the beautiful building in which so much – and yet so little – progress is made to further the lives of mountaineers. We studied the portrait gallery of governors. “I met that one, Jay Rockefeller, when I was a little girl and was starstruck. He was SO tall and handsome.”

We walked on. “That one spent time in the pokey. Wonder if he ever shared a cell with the Tennessee governor who spent time in the pokey.”

“Your paternal grandparents were good friends with this guy. He was governor two different times, making him the both the youngest AND the oldest governor the state ever had. Our porcelain cake plate and server were a wedding gift from him and his wife. And this guy here…yeah. He’s a weird one.” We moved on down the hall and found ourselves standing in front of the current governor’s office. I don’t know much about him, except that he has a lot of money and he owns the Greenbrier. It’s hard for me to not judge after he turned the Greenbrier into a casino, but at least it’s not a Wal-Mart.

Just behind us, a guy wrapping cable into a circle spoke. “He just left to sign the bill.” We nodded our heads as if we knew what he was talking about. I was more interested in cable-wrapping guy’s way cool British accent than I was who just left where to do what. Still, I looked in the direction he pointed.

“You’ll catch him if you just go that way. He’s gone to sign the bill.” Not completely sure what he was saying or why we should care about what he’s saying, we nodded our heads again. I just wanted him to keep talking so I could hear his accent. He loaded up the cable and a camera that had been attached to it. “CNN” was on the side.

Are you kidding me? A CNN camera guy with a British accent? Man Child, meet your new step-daddy. Spousal Unit will surely understand.

We still didn’t really understand what Step-Daddy was excited about, but since we wanted to go to the state museum, and that appeared to be where he was pointing, we followed his directions. About fifty yards ahead of us, a Really Big Guy with Really White Hair and an entourage hustled toward the same building that was our destination. Man Child and I looked at one another and shrugged. Whatever THAT was about. We walked into the building that housed the museum. There was hubbub. Lots of hubbub. I asked the guy at the information desk how to get to the museum. He looked at me strangely. What? Now I’M hard to understand?

Information guy said, “The museum is downstairs. He’s signing the bill in there,” pointing to the auditorium in front of us. We were getting swept into the stream of humanity rushing to get into that auditorium.

The information guy looked at me strangely again. “Is this okay?” I asked him as I disappeared into the mob.

“Yes,” he answered. “It’s a press conference. It’s for the public.”

We stood in the back of the room, not really sure we were someplace we were allowed to be, so I wasn’t one bit surprised when an official looking woman with a name tag and a clipboard told us we weren’t supposed to be standing there. Some people standing next to us were offended. “We’re with the governor’s office,” they huffed.

“Uh. We’re not. We are definitely not with the governor’s office. Sorry.” I prepared myself for the humiliation of being escorted from the room.

She said, “Take a seat. It’s getting ready to start.”

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For some reason, that’s when reality mixed with knowledge mixed with illumination. Man Child and I looked at one another. Holy crap. He’s going to sign the BILL. That bill. We wanted to see teachers in red shirts marching in a historical strike, but we get to see teachers in red shirts – so many teachers in red shirts – witness their governor turn their effort into law. Hell yeah, I’ll have a seat. Bring the popcorn. We sat down and kept nudging one another. Hehehe. He’s gonna sign the bill. Hehehe. We’re here to see him sign the bill. Damn, he’s a big guy. Hehehe he’s going to sign the bill. Oh man, don’t take questions first. Just sign the bill. Shut up man from California. Let him sign the danged bill.

He signed the bill and the photographs I took aren’t that much different than the photographs posted by the BBC, New York Times, Atlantic, Washington Post and probably – but I never got to see it – footage shot by our British-accented CNN camera guy.

I looked smugly at Man Child and bragged, “We are Forrest Freaking Gump” and the fact that he understood the reference to a 24-year-old movie classic made me even happier than our dumb luck.