Saturday, January 29, 2011


Newland is the highest county seat east of the Rockies. In my twenties, it was exactly a half a mile in diameter with the courthouse precisely in the center. Newland had a police force of two officers and a chief who were also sworn deputy sheriffs. The chief had a small office and a desk in the town hall which was a prefab double-wide, set up on concrete blocks and skirted with sheet metal. We also had a 19-something former highway patrol car with over 400 cubic inches of American iron for an engine, a 4 barrel carburetor that sucked gallons of gasoline with each punch of the accelerator and moan of the engine. It boasted one of the first electronic sirens and a bubblegum machine blue light mounted on the roof with a county radio bolted under the dash. There was a 5 round riot shotgun mounted barrel up on the passenger side of the hump with a quick release. We wore dark blue uniforms with a Sheriff’s Campaign Hat and specially designed badges and shoulder patches. We were sharp. We also had a collection of town boys whose petty crimes and sense of competition with the local law could make things interesting for a bored cop in a tiny mountain town.

This new career of law enforcement was serious business for me. I could write a book of tickets a week in that little town (on midnight shift) and got the reputation of being willing to write my own mother a ticket. I probably would have done that if I’d had the chance just to say I did. One time, a group of irate citizens got up a petition to get rid of me. Luckily for me, the town leaders were of the Law and Order type and threw the petition in the trash.

Behind Greene’s Supermarket in Newland, NC, there was an empty field with a mound of dirt toward the back. It was an old pasture that looked like someone dumped a load of dirt for fill or something and stopped after one or two loads. The field was grown up with weeds about two thirds of the way to the mound and then it was just high grass. The town boys used to love to hang out at Green’s in the parking lot and raise hell half the night until the local residents complained. Then we’d run them off, arrest one or two for “Public Drunk” or just harass them into leaving by stopping them every time they moved a car.

One night Isaac Clark, the evening shift officer, called me and asked if I would come in early so we could work on something together. When I showed up, he met me at the Sheriff’s Office. I got in the car with him and we made a patrol around town and he explained the situation. The town boys had started going to the mound in the old field and he believed they were smoking pot. This was incredibly good news. Neither of us had ever made a drug bust before and this was our chance. The bad news was that the kids were smart in choosing their site for this heinous crime. No one could approach the mound without being seen from any direction. We had to figure out a way to get to them quickly enough to prevent them from ditching the stash. Having accomplished something similar one time in my short career as a cop, I was up for the adventure.

Sometime before that night, I noticed a group of boys gathered in a circle in front of a local gas station that was closed for the night. There was one orange glow moving slowly from hand to hand and I knew that it was pot. I made a couple of drive-bys and then eased the patrol car around the back streets and parked it a safe distance from the party. I slipped around the side of the service station stepping over the usual debris around the service stations of that era and when I got to the corner of the building, I peeked around. To my surprise, the circle had somehow drifted to within a couple of feet from my spot. I estimated the arrival of the roach to the kid right around the corner and stepped out at the right time, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around and said, “Hi, there. Wanna give me that and we’ll make a night of it?” The group scattered like sheep before a wolf. I heard discarded oil cans crunching and banging, people falling over old tires cursing and car doors slamming. Engines were firing all around and blue exhaust was left hanging where ratty old cars had been sitting. As quickly as I grabbed the ol’ boy’s arm he popped the roach into his mouth and swallowed it! I actually heard the ember sizzle as it hit the saliva in his mouth.

I couldn’t contain myself and my decorum as an officer of the law went out the window when I absorbed the whole scene. Before his tongue could cool and just about the time his eyes were about to pop out onto his cheeks, I cracked up. I clutched his arm more for support than to keep him in custody and laughed so hard that the tears fogged my eyes and my nose started to run. I let go of his arm and wiped my face with the sleeve of my pressed uniform and squeezed out between gales of laughter, “Go ahead, man. I got no evidence anyway.” He tentatively eased away from me toward his car looking back at me with his bulging eyes and gaping jaw until he disappeared into his wreck with rusted Tennessee plates and clattered off toward the state line.

Isaac was freshly returned from Viet Nam. Like most southern boys and especially the mountain bred kids, he was quickly made a point man for patrols. It was assumed that they knew how to handle guns and were well acquainted with moving through forests and thick underbrush. Most of those guys quickly died in the jungle because of the vulnerable positions they were assigned. Isaac told me that one of the reasons he lived was because he threw away the rifle he was issued and demanded a sawed off automatic shotgun. He said that he defoliated a lot of brush with that gun because he heard a bird flit through the limbs just ahead of him. He grinned and said, “’Course, a lot of times it weren’t no bird.”
Anyway, I determined as the senior officer, that Isaac should be point and decide how we would approach the band of weed smokers. According to his plan, we set off together, split up when we got near to being in sight of the mound and dropped to the ground. It was determined that one of us would go straight to the mound in case they split up and the other would go to the more likely direction of escape toward the road.

We slid on our bellies through the weeds and at the edge of the high grass; Isaac appeared running at top speed toward the mound. Half the town boys took off on my side of the field and without even thinking I took off after them. Amazingly, about half the crowd froze on the mound and long-legged Isaac simply ran up to them and caught them easily. I was racing with all the power a freight train trying to overtake a high speed rail transit and almost made it to the road. I was focused on making the leap up onto the shoulder of the road when I hit an old barbed wire fence about mid- thigh level and flipped over it like a tumbler. Rusty barbs ripped my uniform and gouged my legs and I went over completely on my back with my legs up toward the road and my head under the old pasture fence. I scrambled to right myself, snagging here and there on briars and barbs and struggled to the highway only to see – nothing. They were gone.

The street was empty. I stood breathing and catching my wind realizing that the only place the little thugs could go was across the road into the weeds on the other side. I eased myself down the shoulder of the other side. Having a freshly learned lesson under my belt, I examined every inch ahead of me before I stepped. I turned my flashlight off and stood listening with great discipline. I thought that I’d heard something to my right and slowly turned to listen again. I eased toward the sound, stopping to breathe quietly and test the air with all my senses. Then, I heard a snigger (mountain talk for snicker) just ahead of me. Those kids could hardly contain themselves in the game. I moved softly toward the sound, deeply focused and ready to leap to catch just one of them if I could. I took one cautious step after another until I stepped off into thin air.

I knew that the head waters of the North Toe River rose from springs in or near Newland but had never paid much attention to the marshy land in that area. I was unaware that I was in that area when I heard the kids hiding in the weeds just feet from me. As I stepped off into space, I plunged into one of those springs like a boulder in a quiet pond. The town boys couldn’t contain themselves. They burst into laughter and remained lying in the weeds on the other side of where I stood; waist deep in a little cove of spring water. They laughed until they were too weak to move and as embarrassed as I was, my determination to get them overcame my fallen pride and I struggled up the bank and nailed them as they lay in hysterics. “Nailed them” may be a bit strong here. Actually, I sort of waited out the hilarity, chagrined and dripping, then collected them for an impromptu march up Main Street to the Town Hall. I remember slogging up the middle of Main Street in Newland, my shoes full of water, my uniform soaked from the waist down leaving wet foot prints on the dry street. I think that they actually went with us because they were having so much fun that they could only anticipate more.

We seem to have come to a little truce after that. Isaac and I gave up trying to locate the stash after an unfruitful attempt at the art of interrogation and they moved future festivities elsewhere.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ol' Ivor

Our first house was right on Henson’s Creek in Spear, North Carolina. It’s a place in the road between Plumtree and Ingalls about 10 miles above Spruce Pine. Spear was named for a nearby mountain called the “Spear Tops.” It's one mountain with two very pointed peaks. It's incredibly beautiful and Henson’s Creek Road winds its way around the Spear Tops from near- by Mitchell County all the way to US 19e where the stream fed into the North Toe River. The Henson’s Creek Road was the route to Bakersville when it was the county seat before Avery was split from Mitchell County.

Dottie and I paid 4,800.00 for the little house. It was about three steps from the porch into Henson’s Creek and was squeezed onto the only flat spot on the whole 5 acres. It sat with its back almost against the mountain. Most of the land was so steep you had crawl up on all fours.

Upstream from our little place about a quarter of a mile was Ivor and Ruby’s house. They were born and raised right there in Spear. I would wander up to Ivor’s place through a couple of rickety gates and across his pastures. Often I’d find him sitting on a saw log under the roof of his woodshed. If he was in the house, I’d sit down and in just a minute, he’d stroll out of the house. The screen door spring screeched open and slammed the door behind him. Ruby would come to the door wiping her hands with a dish towel, wave then disappear into the dark of the tiny house. In my 20-something eyes, Ivor was an old man and carried an awesome load of wisdom for me to experience. He had stories, lots of stories about growing up in a place and time that are now only available in obscure books, old film and from rare people like him. I grew to treasure him as an elder and as a story-teller, he was a master.

Iv always wore bib overalls (“overhalls” in mountain talk) with a .32 pistol stuck in one of the pockets. “Snake gun,” he’d say and wink. He also kept in the bib pocket a cloth sack of cigarette tobacco, rolling papers and a lighter. He was never without a long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a brown, wide brim, sweat stained, felt fedora.

One time I asked him what he did for a living before he retired. He told me that he was a teamster. “Oh,” I said, “Who did you drive for?” He looked at me funny. I said, “Did you own your own truck or did you drive for someone else. I mean, you were a member of the Teamsters Union, right? You drove a truck.”

“I never drove a truck.” He said peering off toward the mountain behind his place and took a pull on his hand rolled cigarette. I was totally confused by that. It was like telling some kid today that your phone had a certain number of rings on the party line (what the heck’s a party line?). “I drove horses.” That boggled my mind. It never occurred to me that teams of horses had anything to do with the word “Teamster.” I thought teamsters paid union dues, had a shop steward to complain to about the boss and refused to unload their own trucks.

“You drove horses?”

“Yep - and mules.”

“All your life?”

“Yep. Got my first job when I was nine years old. They were building the Yellow Mountain Curve on 19e. Told the boss man I wanted a job. He asked me if I could drive a mule and handle a drag pan. I told him I could. I lied.”

A drag pan was a piece of horse or mule-drawn equipment that scoops dirt and moves it to another place and dumps it. But it didn’t dump its self. The driver had to lift up on the handles to make it scoop dirt and then press down to allow it to dump. No hydraulics, no electronics or motors, just rock hard muscle. The driver had to handle the mule at the same time, the reins draped around their necks. There was no riding. The drivers walked behind the pans in circles scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping all day. It was a man’s job.

“Iv, how the heck did you learn how to do that at nine years old? Did your dad teach you how to drive horses?

Ivor turned his upper body toward me, propped the nearest hand on his thigh with his elbow up. His cigarette stuck to his lip. “Naw. We was too poor to have horses.”

“How did you farm, haul wood and plow your garden?”

“By hand – just by hand. Like I said, we was poor.” He squinted his eyes at the ridge that ran behind his house and angled toward mine.

“How did you learn enough to get the job?”

“I hid and watched. I knowed I could do it.”

“At nine?”


Iv said the boss man watched him until payday. He gave Ivor his pay and then he said, “C’mon, boy,” and walked him about a mile up 19e to Burleson’s store. In its day, it was a genuine country general store (I’ll tell you about that another time). He bought Ivor a shirt, new bib overhalls and his very first pair of shoes out of his own pocket. Iv told it like he was still amazed at the man’s generosity.

“How long did you work for them, Iv?”

Ivor was sitting on his log with his legs spread. He was leaning on his knees looking straight ahead as if telling the story to his mountain. At my question, he pinched the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, pulled it away from his mouth and spit a stray bit of tobacco between his feet to punctuate. He looked at me from under his hat and said, “We built that road all the way to Spruce Pine.” He never said how long it took but he said it with great drama. I caught the meaning of his pride in doing the work of those hard days and the feat of building a mountain road with mules and men.

We both sat on our logs under the roof of his woodshed leaning on our knees and looking at his mountain. The only sound was Henson’s Creek just behind us pulling me away from my time into his.

Friday, January 07, 2011


I once broke a guy’s fingers with my butt and a football. Sounds nasty but it wasn’t really. It was entirely satisfying for me and a learning experience for a bully. It was also a private little victory that made a bit of meaning out of years of unmerciful badgering, picking, teasing and even some physical abuse by school yard tyrants.

I was bullied a lot in Philadelphia schools. I was a country boy uprooted from the Appalachians of Western Pennsylvania and planted in the harsh culture of the big city. I didn’t understand the blustery strutting and crowing of young males bent on establishing pecking orders in practice for life on the streets. The guy in question was just one more tormenter plaguing my life.

He just wouldn’t leave me alone. Wherever we met; in the hall, boy’s room, or on the practice field, the guy was always messing with me in some way. He wasn’t sure about me physically, so he never laid a hand on me but it was constant, relentless harassment.

As far as the game of football goes, I loved playing center. The center’s main job is to snap the ball to the quarterback and block opposing linemen. The “snap” is when the center lifts the ball from the ground and hands it to the quarterback who has his hands placed right under the center’s butt and up against it. One of the things that fascinated me about the position was that, unlike other linemen, I had to snap the ball to the quarterback and then block in the same amount of time the other linemen had to just block. Getting better at whatever I do is a theme in my life. To be a better center, I reasoned that if I used a dumbbell with weights to exercise my arm in the same motion as the snap, I could increase my speed.

It worked but it also increased my strength. I was really unaware of that benefit but my quarterback knew it well. Apparently his hands would sting if he took the ball poorly. But Joe (the quarterback) learned how to take the snap from me. I noticed that I rarely ever felt the ball touch his hands. He was smooth - we were a team.

Bully apparently didn’t understand all that and one day when the coaches were busy teaching at some other place on the field, Bully started in on me about being the center. Joe said, “You couldn’t take a ball from him!” Bully scorned the idea and looked down his nose at me. Joe smirked at me and said to him, “Go ahead, try it.”

I felt weird to think that this guy would have his hands between my legs but I bent over the ball, took it in both hands as usual and took a peek back between my legs. Bully’s upper hand was against me with his fingers drooping down not splayed out like Joe’s. The light dawned as I looked forward and focused on the ball. When he called for the snap, I drove the ball backwards with all the force I could muster in my arm, chest and back.

Bully screamed. When I looked around he was dancing around holding his hand and cursing. He was bending over clutching his hand to himself one second and unbending, standing upward and lifting the injured hand to his eyes in the other. He kept that up that ritual of pain until the coaches rushed over to see what in the world was going on. He fell to his knees clutching his throbbing paw. I certainly didn’t expect such a spectacular result.

The back field coach asked Joe what happened. Joe shrugged and said, “He took a snap from Bradstock.” Coach shouted over Bully’s cry, “What! Why did you do that? You can’t take a snap from him! How stupid can you get?” Coach turned to me and gave me a dirty look. Bully was after all, a pretty good halfback. I shrugged and kept a straight face.

Bully wore a cast on his hand for a time, disappeared from the football team and left me alone. Justice can come from strange places and be really sweet for a country boy in the big city.