Thursday, June 23, 2011


This is for James who thinks he wants to be a cop so he can drive fast.

My first chase occurred in Plumtree, North Carolina. It’s several miles north of Spruce Pine on US 19e which is, as so well said by a local guy, “Crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.”

I was sitting in my 1972 Chevy Nova at Junior Vance’s Store talking to a local bootlegger who was the current night watchman at the Tar Heel Mica Company. Clayton was quite a character that I really ought to tell you about. As we sat side by side in our cars, a load of Toe River Boys drove past us in a souped up (tricked out to you young guys) Camaro headed north on 19e. They went into the curve at the bridge over the North Toe sideways. Clayton cursed them and I spun my Nova around flipping the blue lights on, clearing the bridge just before their tail lights blinked out of sight in the next curve.

We were smokin’ in the curves and I was driving with all the skill my buddies in the State Highway Patrol taught me. I dropped my right wheels off the pavement to let them track around a left curve and straightened out multiple curves by driving right down the center of the road. My siren was screaming and I was smelling rubber.

I squalled around a curve just in time to see them head up Powdermill Road and I spun the rear around making the left onto the road. It was paved and by this time I was almost on the bumper. We ran out of pavement and spun onto gravel. The raised rear end of the Camaro slid from side to side. Even with the sexy wide tires, the gravel stole the power of the huge V8 under the hood.

The Nova crept up on them and we ran out of gravel. I heard the high grass on the mound in the middle of the tracks slapping the undercarriage and could barely see the Camaro for the dust. Then, without warning, the Camaro’s front end dipped, and the car ploughed through a creek. My little Nova dove in after them. We were out of road all together. I could see that the driver had to slow way down because the lowered front end was hitting rocks. I dodged them by weaving back and forth to ride the tires up on the rocks and stone ledges to keep the oil pan and transmission safe.

Finally, at a tiny ramshackle cabin with a bare bulb for a porch light, the Camaro driver hit the brakes, the doors flew open and they looked back at me with utter amazement on their faces. I ran them out of road as fast as they could go in a Nova 6 cylinder stock family car with lights, siren and radio installed by the sheriff. In all those steep curves, that fancy car was at a disadvantage because they messed up the suspension by changing it to make it look hot. The weight of the huge V8 was a hindrance on the rocky path and no help at all. But what the heck, what does thinking have to do with speeding? The whole thing didn't go quite 4 miles and lasted about 5-6 minutes. I'd say we never went over 50 miles an hour on those mountain roads. Big deal.

Wanna know why the fools ran from me to start with? One of the guys in the car was AWOL from the Army. I cuffed him, put him in the back of my little family car, backed all the way out to the gravel very carefully avoiding rocks and tiptoed the car through the creek, turned around at the school bus turn-around and headed for Newland earning 50 bucks from the Army for catching the little stup.


Sunday, June 12, 2011


A cop up north tazered a cow that got out; incredibly stupid but it inspired me to tell you a story.

Dottie and I had a Welsh Corgi named Corky. Corgis are bred to be cattle dogs. They’re ankle biters and so short that cows kick over them. They’re really fun little dogs that look like a regular dog that had their legs sawed off. And, that’s the long and short of it (he snickered to himself). Corky knew all about cattle. When my neighbor’s cattle got out (which happens a lot with cattle), he’d bark with a particular sound. It got so that John would ask when I called, “Are they in the road?”

“I don’t know, John. I’m off today and still in bed.”

“How do you know they’re out?”

“Corky told me.”

“Oh, I’ll be right up.”

Anyway, we had a blast with that little character. One time he caught my oldest son, Chuck, eating his food. From then on, he would guard the bag and bite Chuck every time the poor little guy got near it. We finally had to hide the dog food.

Corky was bad to chase cars and would hide in the grass on one side of the yard near the road. When he heard a car coming, he’d start to wind up, not in circles like you’d expect but more like a twirling baton. When the car got even with him, he’d shoot along the front yard beside it until he got to the property line on the opposite side of the yard and lay down in the grass to wait for the next victim (how did he know where the property line was?). He actually wore a trail in the yard that, seen from the air, would look like an old-time barbell with round weights on the ends. He never really got in the road but people in the community would ask if we were the ones who had the crazy little dog that chased cars.

The funny thing was he never chased cars going the other way, just the ones on his side of the road. We worried about it but didn’t believe in chaining a dog and really couldn’t afford a dog lot at the time. So, we employed every suggested strategy we heard of to teach him not to chase cars. One was to drive past and when he chased the car, jump out waving and screaming and running at him. Then we tried driving past, jumping out smacking a rolled up newspaper in our hands. The next suggestion was to carry a super soaker squirt gun and shoot him with water. I even tried mace as a last resort and he went off to the back yard sneezing. After we washed the little nut’s face and eyes, he went back to his point of ambush on one side of the yard.

It sounds stupid but he learned fine. He learned what our car looked like. So, we borrowed cars. Corky smartened up. He then started looking for who was driving and wouldn’t chase anything with me behind the wheel. Finally, to keep him from getting hurt, we chained him in the back yard and took him in after we got home from work.

The problem with that was that he’d chase the sound of the cars and race from one end of the chain to another. He wore a muddy path in the grass running back and forth and was usually a mess by the time we got home. He also chased the sound of the cars inside the house. He’d wind up in the living room before we even heard the car, careen through the house into the kitchen and slide to a stop just before plowing into the refrigerator barking the whole way.

All of that created a real problem for me. I worked swing shifts with the Sheriff and when I was on midnight, I had to sleep during the day. Corky drove me crazy. I’d drift off to sleep and Corky would hear a car coming and start barking just outside the bedroom window. Pop, my eyes would be wide open. After staggering through several midnight shifts, he awakened me again one morning. I was very tired and furious. I thought you little b……, I’ll fix you once and for all. I got out a single shot 12 gage shot gun and a shell. I figured the roar of the gun might scare him enough to shut him up. I didn’t want to hurt him, so with evil glee, I opened the shell and dumped all of the shot out. With eyes heavy with sleep and a really angry disposition I opened the window, lifted the screen, laid the gun beside me on the bed and waited with growing anticipation. I thought, “I’ll try to hit him with the plastic wad and sting him along with the noise of the gun. That’ll fix him good.”
Finally, Corky started to bark and wind up. I looked up and he was right outside the window. He barked louder getting ready for the car. I eased up with the gun carefully slipping the barrel out the window so he wouldn’t notice it, aimed it, braced against the kick of the 12 gauge and pulled the trigger. Corky had noticed the movement and stopped for just a split second making the shot perfect.

Instead of the roar and mule-like kick of the gun, it just went “fop” and the white plastic wad sailed out of the muzzle so gracefully that both Corky and I could see it arch in the air and hit him between the eyes. Without the seal of the plastic shell and the weight of the shot, there was not enough pressure in the chamber to do anything more. When it hit Corky, his ears went up, he cocked his head and looked at it lying on the ground in front of him and then looked up at me as if to say, “What the heck was THAT?” Well, I cracked up laughing. I pulled the gun out of the window and laid on the bed laughing and when I regained my strength I knelt on the bed, leaned on the head board to look at Corky again. There he was still looking at the wad and back at me with his ears cocked. At the look on his face, my laughter welled up again and I shut the screen, lowered the window and fell asleep with the delicious feeling of joy that the brainy little dog gave me.

One day we came home from work and Corky was lying beside the road. When I picked his body up, I saw the broken chain where he’d worn it thin. I’d so hoped he’d never catch one of those cars he was chasing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Uncle Ivor

This is for his niece, Debbie.

Ivor was a mountain man who set many things in motion in my life when such things should be moving. One was the age-old ability to lie with great aplomb. Ivor was a master. He was a poised, talented story teller. I loved his lies. He sat in his open wood shed on the only chair. The customary audience (me) was relegated to “saw logs” (mountain for any length of cut-down tree from as long as a whole tree to short pieces ready to be split into “Stove wood”). He represented something that I missed growing up.

I was born in the Appalachians in South Western Pennsylvania. It was, underneath, coal mining country and on the surface, farm country. Just when I was getting the soil under my fingernails and one leg was getting longer the other from walking on mountain slopes, Mom and Dad moved us to Philadelphia. I really never could get used to it. People talked funny, school teachers were not friends of my parents and could even be cruel. I was also confused when someone would point out a hill. The whole damn place looked utterly flat to me. Furthermore, it took weeks before my legs evened up and I stopped walking in circles. I got along OK but the abiding disgust and outright hatred for that big city and, thereafter, every other city grew from the compulsion to bulldoze farms, build houses that all looked alike and pave over everything. “Progress,” city folk call it.

One of the many things I missed in that heap of civilization was learning how to tell stories and tell them well. There were very few places left anywhere where one could find real gathering places for men with a fat pot-bellied stove and thick sliced bologna and cheese sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise. In Eldora, PA, you had to go to a “Beer Garden” or one of the ethnic clubs in near-by towns. The industrial age had pretty much beaten the life out of my neighborhood with modern stuff that Ivor’s’ community was just getting to. In that dry county, good story-telling without sloppy drunks seemed to still be stocked with people like Ivor. Nor did they leave story telling up to producers, actors and special effects.

Special effects for Ivor was spitting sharply to punctuate his point, peer into the mountains thoughtfully, lean on his thighs and turn his hands open and up as if what he was saying was undisputable. He would also underscore his visuals by propping one hand on the thigh nearest me, twist his body to face me and speak with authority. Another one of his special effects was to quietly and thoughtfully get a rolling paper out of his overhalls, tap the right amount of tobacco onto the paper woven between his fingers to make a scoop shape, lick the paper and roll it, then stick the neatly made cigarette to his lip. Lighting it was a whole different set of effects. The cigarettes might dwell on its perch waggling with his lip movements until he had a different point. He’d snatch it from his mouth; point it at me pinched between thumb and forefinger. Then he’d start the lighting process.

One time as we discussed my conflict with a local preacher, he got out his lighter, flicked it producing a flame with the sound of scraping metal of an old Zippo lighter and said, “Well, I’ll tell ye” (the flame burned in his hand). “Knowing him and knowing you.” He put the cigarette in his mouth and moved the flame toward it taking a draw creating a coal on the end. Ivor clapped the lighter shut, stuffed into the bib pocket and said, “If there’s mud in the creek, there’s bound to be a hog in the spring.” He said that, upper body facing me twisted at the waist and one eye squinting against the smoke. He lingered just a moment then settled back to contemplate the mountain quietly making the wisdom of his revelation more dramatic.

I consider that to be one of Ivor’s most profound statements. I will admit for the first time as I write these words, the statement completely baffled me. Unfortunately, I was too young and daft to ask what the heck he meant. I was looking for affirmation that the preacher was a dumb cluck and that I was right. At first, I thought that’s what it was, but as time moved along, I slowly began to wonder just what he meant. Later in my life, as I studied that statement like a Buddhist koan, I began to worry that he was mocking me. As 60 crept up on me, I realized that as country and as roughly hewn as he was, he was a true southern gentleman. He refused to say anything that would harm either one of us and simply said there had to be something wrong and we should look for the source of the problem. Now that I’m somewhere near his age, I respect that very much. With all my education, I know that I could never say it quite as well and certainly never with as much color.

Well, anyway. I wanted to tell you about his lies. There are so many that I’ve forgotten over the years and so many that I remember I can’t begin to tell them all in one essay. I hope you have a picture of Ivor in your mind as I tell you one that caused me to laugh out loud which brought Ivor all the way around in his twisty position to laugh with me.

As described in the story, “Ole’ Ivor,” Our house was 5 paces from Henson’s Creek. Ivor had built the house and built a stone wall. He built a dry wall which is a wall built with no mortar. The rocks fit together so well that it had stood for 20 or 30 years before this incident. It supported the bank and kept the creek in its place all that time. There was a foot bridge (“foot log” in mountain terms) to the other side where we parked. It was made of 2 locust logs about a foot thick with boards nailed down for a walkway and a layer of plywood on top of that. The thing was about 20 or 30 feet long and incredibly heavy. It just laid on concrete blocks on one side and right on the dirt on the other about 5 feet above the water. It bounced with every step. It had had the lovely effect of scaring the wits out of my wife when I had the urge put extra spring in my step just to hear her fuss.

One night a storm roared through our part of Avery and between the sound made by the rain on the tin roof and the flooded creek was a thundering noise that we had to shout over. We couldn’t do anything but lay wide awake in bed. Suddenly, we heard a wham, bam, bubbalam, blaboom. I jumped up expecting to see one of our cars careening downstream and instead saw a washing machine tumbling over and over in the current and hit our bridge. Relief washed over me and I was about to close the door when I saw the washing machine forced under the bridge. The machine driven by the hydraulics of the creek wiggled against the weight of the bridge and lifted the lower end carrying it in slow motion downstream.
Me: “Oh, No!”

Dottie: “What. What the matter!?

Me standing in my skivvies on the porch: “We just lost our bridge!” All at once the machine shot out from under the bridge and the heavy locust logs settled down at an angle on the bank with one log propped on one side and the other propped on the far side. The bridge twisted like Christmas ribbon candy.

I lay awake all night with the sudden revelation that the house could be swept away if the creek got up high enough. I had another horrible vision of Ivor’s unmortered wall washing away to let the creek undermine the house. It was a nightmare of visions. The darkness made thoughts of losing everything including our lives so inevitable and so scary that there was only one thing to do – go talk to Ive.

First thing the next morning, Dottie and I both called in and took the day off until I could get the bridge set back right. As soon as possible, I slogged through the remaining creek water in the yard upstream from the house toward Ivor’s. He was already in place smoking.

“Whew, rough storm.”

“Yep, purty rough.”

“Old washing machine nearly took my foot log out.” Ivor squinted at the mountain and grunted. I paused a long time figuring out how to phrase my question without sounding too scared. “Ivor, you think this creek could get high enough to wash away my house?”

“Shoot,” he said still looking at the mountain. “I seed this creek get so high, ye could look plumb under hit.” A momentary silence took place and the tension broke inside me. I laughed it out into the mountains. Ivor did his twisty thing looking full at me holding his hand-rolled cigarette pinched in his fingers and made a duet of the laughter.

After a time and some instruction from Ive, I went back down stream, used a truck, some logs and the concrete blocks to prize (mountain for pry) the bridge back into place and never worried about flooding again.
God, I loved that man.