Monday, September 17, 2007

See Off This Mountain, Pt 1

My life seems to be a sine wave that runs in seven-year cycles.

Back in 2001, I spent a long evening on a piece of creative non-fiction. For hours, Edwin McCain's See Off This Mountain poured through the headset (sleep wasn't really an option), drowning out even the clicking of the keys. I'll give this song second place behind Adagio for Strings in terms of evocative capability for me.

I would be selling the story short, I hope, if I said you need to know the song to understand the story. You don't. But, in my mind, the two are intertwined in a symbiotic way. The song more special to me because of the memories; the memories that much stronger with the music in the background. If you're interested, you can play the song here. Or, if you're not familiar with Edwin McCain, but are willing to trust me, you can get the album, Messenger, here. If we share any tastes at all (and we must, or you wouldn't be here) you won't regret it.

Because the piece is long, I'm going to break it up over several posts.


“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

See Off This Mountain

(a memory evoked by the music and lyrics of Edwin McCain)
If I could see off this mountain
Through the clouds in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
On the night the stars fell
And see off this mountain
Through the tears in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
And the stars fell from the skies

In 1983, I was flying my Waspair Tomcat ultralight out of a little grass strip maintained by another flyer, who quickly became a friend. His name was Scott Lambert. His wife was Sharon. She was a schoolteacher. They were the kind of people you liked instantly—open, genuine, confident, and giving. Scott was handsome and soft-spoken, with dark, wavy hair. I can hear his voice to this day. Sharon was the sort of healthy, sensible good looking that gets even better with the passing of time. She had eyes that looked right through to your heart and put you at ease. Sharon and Scott were each in their late twenties I guess, and Sharon was about four months pregnant with their first child, and glowing, when I met her on the front porch of their small home on Main Street in Huntersville, North Carolina. She led me down the steps, around the side of the house, and out to Scott, who was working on the frame of a new ultralight in their detached garage/shop.

She's a Blue Ridge cradle
She's a mother to some
And home to the laughter
Of road weary ones

It was the ultralights that brought me to Huntersville, and to Scott and Sharon. I’d spent the better part of most weekends the winter of 1982-83 building mine, one pop-rivet at a time, in the basement of my father’s, once my maternal grandfather’s, general store. Therapy, somewhat, for a marriage the winter before that had lasted all of three weeks from wedding to separation—but that’s another story, a very short story. I suppose, after that, that I’d needed to prove I could put something together that would fly.

Having built it, I needed somewhere to fly it, and it was that search that somehow led me—though I no longer remember how—to Scott. I may not remember how I ended up there, but I remember that day. I remember driving into the small town in my Spitfire with the rag top down, and noticing the dogwoods in bloom on Main Street. I remember the sunlight filtering through spring green elms and oaks older than the town itself. I remember the azaleas in bloom along the walk that led from the gravel drive to the porch, and the dappled sunlight on the white house, and climbing the steps to the porch. I remember knocking on the doorframe and calling through the screen door was anyone home, hearing Sharon’s voice from somewhere within the house, and then her standing there, holding open that screen door and looking through me and not even waiting for an introduction before she smiled and said, “You’re here to see Scott.”
So we'll sing all the old songs
Sing to grandmama road
And we'll sing cause we miss her
And we're sad she had to go

Early in my childhood, my family used to make weekend trips to my maternal grandfather’s mountain cabin in Ginger Cake Acres, near Linville, North Carolina. Grandpa Smith lived right across the street from us in Enochville. Dal’s Bread & Bolts, formerly E.V. Smith’s Grocery, the store whose basement became the workshop for the construction of my ultralight, had been opened by my grandfather before the Great Depression. It was during those indiscriminately lean years, when “Slim” Smith fed an entire community on faith that someday those signatures on credit slips would be worth something, that the store became the center of our small town.

It was the classic General Store, having grown over the years from its modest beginnings as a cigarette stand on the opposite corner of the crossroads, to a two story brick building with bright red, white, and blue Esso, then Exxon, gas pumps in front, hardware to the left as you came in the front door, groceries in the middle, a butcher shop in the back, clothing and other staples on the right, and four separate apartments upstairs. It served as surrogate post office for more than a dozen households within a quarter mile radius whose mail sat in a common box until they filed through it to collect what belonged to them. It was during and following that depression, collecting land in payment for sometimes years of credit receipts—some accounts were stacked an inch thick behind their steel springs in the multi-paneled cabinet beside the register—that Emmanuel Vastine Smith became the largest landowner in our corner of the county.

I was barely 10 years old when I began working at the store. I swept the floors, filled the drink machines, transferred eggs from the six-cubic-foot boxes they arrived in to the cardboard, dozen-egg boxes in which they would be sold. I pumped gas with my ear leaned to the nozzle to hear the gurgle of an almost full tank and never spilled a drop, long before automatic shutoffs existed. I ground hamburger into the large trays and later weighed it out according to the customer’s request, ran the cuts for what I learned a dozen years later to call “country-fried steak” through the cubing machine, dipped oysters (“Standard or Select?”) from gallon tins into pint and half pint cardboards. When Dave Kinnerly commented that they looked good enough to eat raw I served him an oyster big enough to fill a half cup measure on the cardboard lid of a pint container and watched in disbelief as he slurped it down—an event I remembered with a smile as my copilot and I finished off our third dozen each a decade later at a squadron dining out. I sliced bologna and “lunch meat” (known as spiced ham—I later learned—outside our small corner of the world) from long paper wrapped tubes. I scraped the pasty bone dust off T-bones fresh from the band saw, and swept clean and spread new sawdust on the floor each day after school.

The basement of the store had been, for a short while, a separate endeavor, run by my grandmother, then still a young woman. I built that ultralight surrounded by remnants of a small business untouched twenty-four years after her death: wrapping paper, card racks, an empty cash register, small receipt pads with gray top copies backed with purple carbon and yellow customer copies. “Mary’s” was the only name I ever heard given that portion of the business.

The mountain cabin, named Deer Haven by that Mary, was something Vastine had built for her—a place to take her when she became too homesick for the mountains where she grew up. There was Cherokee in her blood, but you would never have known it to look at her (or photographs of her, which are all I ever saw with eyes that could remember). Not so her mother, my great-grandmother, whose high cheekbones hinted at her heritage, but whose Native American blood was entirely overwhelmed by a peculiar brand of Scotch-Irish bitterness that I’ve no expectation of seeing surpassed in this lifetime. It was Great-Grandma Ada who taught me, at ten, a lesson in the meaning of self-contradiction I’ve laughed about for three decades now. Our Lutheran pastor’s son, a few years my junior, was somewhat special. Special enough to have taken an older boy’s 410 shotgun one day and used it to pepper cars as they passed on Spring Garden Street. When I commented on Brad’s particular form of “special” in less politically correct terms, my great grandmother turned on me with a venom in her voice that to this day summons more fear in me than pity, and said with a wagging finger, “The Bible says ‘Thou shalt not judge others,’ you servant of the devil!”

Beneath the kitchen window of Deer Haven, on ground so thick with moss that it gave underfoot like a waterbed, in a clearing encompassed by laurel and rhododendron, Ada's only daughter, Mary Wyles Smith, put salt licks for the deer, and they would come, and she would watch. But it wasn’t enough. Barely five months after I, her first grandchild, was born, she became too homesick for the last time.
Continued at Part 2, and concluded at Part 3.