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.


At Wednesday, 26 December, 2012 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came by your blog by accident.
My father bought your old house and enjoyed many chats with Ivor L. They were unique men from a different time. And no...the house has not yet been washed away; Despite MANY floods since and the loss of the driveway!


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