Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mountain folk

A successful corporate lawyer from D.C. decided he had enough money and had had enough of high-powered law, so he found a cabin in the mountains of WV about two and a half hours from Washington. For six months he went into the nearest two once or twice a month for supplies, cut wood, read all the books he'd been meaning to read, slept deeply and well, and discovered what a joy it was to be alone.

One day, there was the first knock at his door since he'd been ensconced in the mountains. It was a huge mountain man--6' 6" at least, about 300 pounds, with bib overalls, sturdy boots and a plaid shirt large enough for a sheet in the city guy's bed.

"Howdy," he said, "I'm your neighbor. I live 'bout three ridges over but there's a path through the woods to my house. My name is Jeb."

The lawyer introduced himself and shook the huge man's hand.

"I come over to invite you to a party at my house next Friday," Jeb said.

The lawyer was a little lonely after his idyllic months in the mountains so he said he'd appreciate coming to Jeb's party.

Jeb smiled widely, then grew serious, "I have to warn you, there's likely to be sum drinkin' at my party...."

The lawyer nodded. He had limited himself to one glass of wine at dusk and was ready for some drinking.

"'Sides that," Jeb said, "there mite be some fightin' and there'll almost certain be some sex...."

Even in Georgetown, strong drink had led to disagreements and senusal relationships, so the lawyer said he understood.

"Good," Jeb said, "I'll be watchin' for ya...."

As the large man turned to go, the lawyer said, "By the way, what should I wear?"

"Don't matter none," Jeb replied, "It'll jest be me and you....."


I'm mountain folk. I grew up for 18 years in the southern most county of West Virginia--MacDowell County, aka "the Free State of McDowell". I'm a hill-Billie, a mountaineer, an Appalachian (pronounce the penultimate syllable to sound like "latch"--it was the war against poverty and Walter Cronkite who decided it was pronounced with a long 'a'. We never said that.)

MacDowell County is about the size of Rhode Island and had, when I grew up there, about 60,000 citizens. Now it's below 30,000 and nature is taking it back, thank God.

People often think of me as Southern--about like referring to an Irishman as "British"--that bad. I've never understood the South anymore than, after most of my life, I understand New England. I am a stranger in a strange land.

My people were all, one way or another, from those wondrous two islands that make up the British Isles. Quite a bit of Irish, some English, Welsh and Scots blood as well. Family names give it away: "Bradley"--Irish or English, meaning 'broad lee' or 'wide valley'; Jones (adopted by my maternal great-grand father at Ellis Island to replace O'Connor because he and his two brothers had such a falling out on the boat they all changed their names so they could never find each other again), McCormick (pronounced Ma-Comik by my family for reasons I'll never know), Sadler, names like that. Scots-Irish mountain trash. So I am.

Have I mentioned yet in these musings that when I was at Harvard Divinity School I discovered the more I accented my mountain accent the more brilliant people thought I was? Anyone who talks like the Clampets on the BEVERLY HILL-BILLIES must be smart if he/she can say anything half-way intelligent.

People still acknowledge my accent though I've lived in New England for the last twenty five years and don't think I have an accent anymore. OK, I can not distinguish in spoken language between a writing implement and a small, sharp thing made from metal. "Pen" and "pin" are the same word to me. And I do say "in-SURE-ance", which is how it should be pronounced. A funny moment in Appalachian pronunciation: Once at a wedding here in god-less New England, I told the couple in my homily that "commitment" is what would 'cement' their relationship. Of course, I pronounce that quickly hardening mixture of material "SEE-ment". I noticed the couple was staring at me strangely and my assistant at the time had buried her head in her hands. So, since they hadn't understood, I kept saying it: "SEE-ment, SEE-ment, SEE-ment...." If you can't imagine what most people thought I was saying, leave me a note and I'll get back to you.

Mountain people are different from people who can see more than a hundred yards in every direction. There is an almost DNA 'narrowness' to us. We live in hollers and have to look straight up to see the sky. The world crowds in on us, even in the wilderness. We are surrounded, always, and can't imagine the vistas of other parts of the world. Driving across Indiana, I become, inexplicably claustrophobic...there is too much space to function in. We develop a remarkably wry sense of humor. Since life is so 'close' we are used to it. I can sit at the ocean and stare out for hours. Nothing like that horizon is familiar to me. I love it but it both frightens and delights me. Such space, such openness, such distances....

Jimbob and Bubba were out hunting, not far from where the DC lawyer's cabin was. Jimbob grabbed his chest, turned purple and fell over. Bubba took out his cell phone and, wonder of wonders in those hills, had bars. He called 911.

"My friend Jimbob just fell over," he said. "I think he's dead."

The 911 operator said, "the first thing to do is make sure he's dead...."

"OK," Bubba said, carefully putting his cell phone on a tree stump.

The 911 operator heard a rifle shot and them Bubba picked up the phone and said, "OK, what's the second thing?"

Mountain folk--they're my people.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.