Feeds:
Posts
Comments

CANEBRAKE

I was elated when the 2015 Bacopa Literary Review accepted this short story for publication. Now I want to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it. For more information on Bacopa, visit: http://writersalliance.org/bacopa-literary-review. You can order a copy of the 2015 issue through Amazon. It has more short stories as well as poetry and creative non-fiction. Happy reading!

Cattle Gap

Cattle Gap

Mario stepped off the school bus into the late August heat. “Remember, no TV till I get home,” Aunt Ginny, the driver, told him. “Make a sandwich and do your homework. I’ll be home in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aunt Ginny was his foster mother, not his aunt, but he didn’t want to call her “Mama.” He had a mother. He’d just finished the first week of sixth grade, but he felt so lost. Changing classes was a new experience, and there were so many new faces. He wore nicer clothes than he used to, but old classmates still treated him with contempt.

He should have gone to middle school last year, but he had flunked fourth grade. Not because he was stupid. He’d missed too many days. Last year, he did better. He learned to get himself up in the morning, even if his mother overslept or wasn’t home. He missed his mother.

Mario checked the mail and found a letter from his father in California. “Dear Mario,” it began. “I hope this finds you well. I am quite good, as is Cissy, and the kids. The social worker was here today to do the house check. She said she saw no problem with you coming here. It will take awhile for the paperwork to get to Florida, so we have to be patient. I’m saving money for a plane ticket to come get you.”

A joyful bark interrupted him. Aunt Ginny’s dog Skeeter bounded down the driveway and knocked the letter from his hands. Skeeter always came to greet him. Mario wondered what Skeeter would do after he left. By then, there might be new foster children to greet.

“Hey, Skeeter,” Mario stuck the letter into his backpack to read later. He paused at the cattle gap. This was a relic from the days when the old place had been a farm. The cattle gap was a grate made from railroad rails laid horizontally across a small ditch. Cows would not venture to cross, but it was no barrier for vehicles and most boys.

The ditch held a little water from yesterday’s thunderstorm. It looked like a good place for snakes to hide. Aunt Ginny had warned him to beware of snakes. What he feared even more than snakes was slipping and falling between the rails. He gripped his backpack, inhaled deeply, and balanced on the first rail.  Safely across, he let his breath out. He had never lived in the country before, and there were so many things to worry about.

Aunt Ginny’s farm now grew pine trees. Halfway up the driveway, Skeeter started barking again and dove into the palmettos that grew among the trees. Mario heard a great thrashing noise. Something big was in there. What could it be? A bobcat? A coyote? What if it was a bear?

“Skeeter! Come back!” But Skeeter was too busy to obey.  Mario set his books down and followed. A fine net settled over his face and he cringed. He brushed and sputtered to get the cobweb off. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail and brushed frantically over his head and shoulders. Could the spider be on him? It would be one of those enormous yellow ones that spun great webs between the trees. Aunt Ginny hated them and killed any she found in her yard. So they hid in the woods to ensnare unsuspecting boys.

He stepped forward. Skeeter stopped barking. Mario eyes darted around and looked down. Skeeter sniffed at a large gopher tortoise which tried to run from him. Its short legs flailed against a palmetto frond, which rattled against its neighbors, creating a noise way out of proportion to the size of the creature.

Mario let out a nervous laugh. “All this fuss over a little ole turtle!” He poked it with a stick and watched the gopher’s head and limbs draw into its shell. Maybe this would make a good pet. He carried it to the house, found an old washtub, and filled a dish with water. He’d ask Aunt Ginny what they ate. He never had a pet before.

Mario went back for his backpack and let himself into the house. He fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of iced tea before settling down at the kitchen table with his homework. Then he remembered his father’s letter. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. It’s been so long. You must be nearly a man by now.” His mother had called him her “little man.” He had taken care of her when she couldn’t take care of herself. After they put him in foster care, everyone treated him like a child. His first foster parents even made him go to day care. Aunt Ginny wasn’t so bad. She fussed over him, but she also gave him independence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a father to you,” the letter went on. “I didn’t know how things were with your mother.” Mario winced. He didn’t like people saying things about his mother. “You see, after we split up, every time I went to see you, we’d fight so bad, I thought it was best to just stay away. I thought sending money every month was enough.” Mario had not been aware of any money. His mother said his father was dead. He had a vague memory of a man arguing with his mother, but he was not sure if that had been his father or a stepfather.

His musings were interrupted by Skeeter’s frantic barking. Mario rushed out. There was a new noise, an intense buzzing, like that of a windup toy out of control. And there, on the ground, not two yards from Skeeter’s nose, was a coiled rattlesnake.

He dared not panic. He called Skeeter, who only kept barking and circling the snake, keeping a distance of four or five feet between them. What should he do? Call for help? But Skeeter could be dead before it arrived. His pounding heart drowned out the sounds of both snake and dog. Mario crept up behind Skeeter and grabbed his collar. He dragged him up the steps and through the front door. Skeeter was an outside dog and Aunt Ginny didn’t let him into the house, but this was an exception.

After the rattling noise ceased, Mario looked out and saw the snake crawling across the yard toward the back of the house. What if it got in the house? He ran to the shed and found a hoe. He tried to sneak up on the snake, but it turned back toward him and started to coil. Mario raised the hoe as high as he could and brought it down onto the snake’s neck with enough force to drive it into the ground. The body twisted every which way, but its neck was broken. Mario chopped with the hoe until he severed the head from the body. He trembled back to the porch and collapsed on the steps.

Then he remembered Skeeter and let him out. Skeeter immediately returned to the snake, but when it didn’t react to his barking, he began to sniff. Mario jumped to his feet. Maybe it couldn’t bite, but it still had venom on its fangs. He scooped up the head with the hoe and buried it in the garden. Only now did he examine the body. He’d never seen a real rattlesnake before and didn’t know they were so pretty. This one had diamond-shaped markings on reddish skin. He had seen belts and hat bands made from snake skins. The body was thicker than his arm and might be enough for more than one belt.

Warily, he picked it up. The skin was not slimy, but smooth and cool, like glass. Mario carried it to the back porch and got a knife from the kitchen. Although he had never skinned anything before, he’d seen it done. He cut off the rattle and put it in his pocket. Then he carefully separated the skin from the carcass, which he buried in the garden. He stretched the skin on an old board and nailed it down.

Only then did he truly appreciate his feat. The snake had been as long as he was tall. He shook the rattle in his pocket. Now he knew what a rattlesnake sounds like. The deadly creature could have killed him, but he had killed it. He marveled at how easy it was to kill. He stood up straight. Perhaps he was a man after all.

Suddenly, he heard the school bus out on the road. He put the skin and the tools in the shed and hosed off the back porch. The bus turned into the driveway. He washed the knife and put it away. He slipped into a chair and opened a book as the bus came to a stop in the yard.

A few minutes later, he heard Aunt Ginny say, “What’s this?” He had forgotten all about the turtle.

“I found him in the woods. Can I keep him for a pet? Do you know what they eat?”

She shook her head. “No, you can’t keep him. They’re an endangered species. The game warden’d throw us both in jail. You need to let him go. He’ll find food in the woods.”

Disappointed, Mario hopped off the porch. The motion jiggled the rattle in his pocket. Aunt Ginny perked up as though listening, but when she heard nothing more, she went inside. Mario carried the turtle with one arm and held his other hand over the pocket to keep the rattle quiet. After he released the gopher, he returned to the house and found Aunt Ginny brushing paw prints off the living room couch.

“What was Skeeter doin’ in the house?”

“Uh, there was a rattlesnake in the yard. I didn’t want him to get bit.”

“You left it alone, I hope.”

Mario couldn’t lie to her. His hesitation told on him.

“Empty your pockets,” she directed.

He had no choice but to show her the rattle. Her eyes bulged.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the shed.” He told her the whole story.

“I don’t think it’d come into the house. It was just trying to get under the house where it’s cool.” When Aunt Ginny saw the size of the skin, she clutched her chest and hollered, “Holy Jesus! Snake that big could kill you!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’s a canebrake rattler. That’s why it’s so red. They don’t usually bother anybody. They usually just run away.”

“But it was trying to bite Skeeter.”

“Only because he was harassing it.  If you see another one, you and Skeeter stay in the house till I come home. Promise?”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt like a child again. He looked down at his feet.

Aunt Ginny put an arm around his shoulders. “Was you scared?”

“No ma’am. Well, maybe. I guess. I was afraid for Skeeter.”

“You were very brave to protect Skeeter. I’m proud of you for that.” Then she turned him to face her and put a hand on each shoulder. “But from now on, leave snakes alone. I can’t have a foster child bit by a poisonous snake.”

“Yes ma’am.” When he looked into her eyes, they were twinkling.

“What do you plan to do with that?” She meant the canebrake skin.

“Can I take it to California with me?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“What do you think my dad will say?”

Aunt Ginny smiled. “I think he will be very proud of you.”

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

The Jewel of Fancy Gap

In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

sidna-allen-house

The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

img_0398

Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

 

On January 21st, I had a most extraordinary experience. I stood in the midst of the largest crowd I’d ever encountered and was overwhelmed by peace and good will. Half a million strong, we stood shoulder to shoulder, packed so closely together we could barely move, yet everyone was friendly and polite. Kindness and respect for one another were the order of the day.

I’m not sure what I expected when I set out on this adventure. I was not a likely candidate for a political rally. In my college days, during the Viet Nam War, I’d pass fellow students and professors staging sit-ins on the lawn when I went to class. My sentiments were with them, but as a penniless scholarship student, my spare time was devoted to work and study. In after years, while causes came and went, I was busy with family and work. More recently, I gathered signatures on petitions for environmental causes, emailed politicians, and wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper. But I’d never done anything like this before.

When a lady at church announced plans to hire a charter bus to the Women’s March in Washington, something nudged me. This was something I knew I must do. Another lady recruited volunteers to crochet and knit pink hats for the marchers. Armed with my crochet hook and pink yarn, I lost count after a half-dozen hats.

img_0740

I marched for her and others who couldn’t.

I hadn’t realized how much preparation was required for such an event. We were asked to register online so organizers could plan for numbers, get parade permits, and arrange for porta-potties and first aid stations. I attended a meeting on how we should conduct ourselves, how to dress for the weather, and what kinds of bags we’d be allowed to carry. Those making signs were given guidelines—they should have a positive message. This was to be a solidarity march, not a protest. I didn’t want to carry a sign but was paired up with a young woman who couldn’t attend due to her disability. I wore her picture on my back, allowing her to participate in the march.

The trip to DC was an adventure in itself. We left at 6pm and traveled through the night, changing drivers in North Carolina. About 5:30 Saturday morning, the bus stopped at a truck stop outside DC to gas up and let us use the restroom. The line for the ladies’ room was long and slow-moving.  I fueled up on coffee and a banana while I waited. The clerks in the store were friendly and helpful. They allowed ladies to use the toilets in the shower rooms. I quipped that we should take over the men’s room, since we outnumbered them. Someone took me seriously. When the last man came out, a group of ladies crowded in.

Occasionally some poor man would walk in and see all those women. Thinking he had mistakenly entered the wrong restroom, the panicked look on his face was priceless! We’d invited him in and say, “You can use a stall.” Everything worked out just fine.

Here we are in DC.

Here we are in DC.

We pulled into the Naylor Road Metro station about 8am. The last time I rode a subway, you put a coin or token in a slot. No more. We’d been advised to purchase Metro cards, a sort of debit card. The man at the turn style must have been used to tourists. He patiently instructed us to swipe the cards. Over and over. He must have felt like a broken record by the end of his shift. At the end of the ride, at L’Enfant Plaza, we swiped the cards again. I don’t know why.

In front of the Library of Congress.

In front of the Library of Congress.

Marchers from Florida were to assemble on a corner of Independence Avenue near the Capitol. I had signed up for the Florida Breakfast hosted by our women Senators and Representatives, held at the Library of Congress. We went to the building but couldn’t find the breakfast. We didn’t realize there are two buildings. By the time we found the breakfast line at the other building, it was still a block long and we were running out of time, so we skipped breakfast. I found the Florida delegation but got separated from my bus mates and didn’t see them for the rest of the day.img_0750

The throng moved down Independence Ave. Spirits were high but the crowd was twice the size as had been anticipated. We reached the National Museum of the American Indian and many people were uncertain which way to go. Some tried to circle the building, only to find a dead end. I tried a passage between the museum and a reflecting pool, but there was no egress and I had to double back. Some adventurous souls took the short cut, wading across the pool. Somehow, I ended up on Jefferson Ave. Lining the Mall was a row of porta potties. I didn’t knowing when I’d have another opportunity, so I got in line. Everyone was courteous and cheerful despite the wait.

Afterward, I found myself on the Mall. This park is over a mile long and nearly a third of a mile wide. There was barely standing room. A man next to me hoisted his little boy up on his shoulders and asked if he could see any open area. The child said, “No, it’s like this everywhere.” Occasionally a line of people would move through the crowd and I’d move with them. We’d jostle one another and say, “Oh, excuse me.” I knew better than to carry a purse and had a “fanny pack” under my jacket, but I was aware of no attempted thefts or other unpleasant actions.

The people—every race and religion, every state in the nation was represented, and I heard there was a couple from Australia. I spoke with a young woman from Miami was had driven here by herself for the march. It wasn’t exclusively a woman’s march. There were many men, and families with children. By the end of the day, the children were tired and the parents exhausted, but I heard no harsh words or crying children. In a post I read after the march, a woman told how her little girl had been impressed by the kindness she saw everywhere.img_0762

Eventually I moved down the Mall, past the museums. Later, a man on our bus said he’d gone into the Museum of American History to get something to eat and use the restroom. I love these museums, but I wasn’t here for that. I stayed in the crowd and ate the sandwich I’d brought. Near the Smithsonian castle, I found some open space and a tent with tables and chairs. I was glad to get off my feet and chat with the others resting there. As I made my way past a carousel, I heard loud cheering and decided to check it out.

The Smithsonian Castle.

The Smithsonian Castle.

I knew there were to be speakers but wasn’t sure where they’d be. I joined a crown squeezing by the African Art Museum toward Independence Avenue. That’s where the excitement was. This street and even the side streets were packed. I could hear speakers but caught only occasional snatches of their speeches. There were large screens and loudspeakers, but they were too far away and I was too short to see over the crowd. So I chatted with the people around me about where they were from and why they had come. Every social justice issue was represented, from Education to Racial Justice. My pet cause is the Environment. Let’s face it, without a livable Earth, those other issues won’t amount to a hill of beans.

This is a worthy cause.

This is a worthy cause.

The march was supposed to start at 1pm. The speeches went on until after 2pm. We were getting restless, partly because we couldn’t hear much of what was being said. We started chanting, “March! March! March!” Every so often, we tried to move west on Independence Avenue, but were stopped by the crowd at the next screen who were able to see and hear the speeches.

I like his sign.

I like his sign.

Finally, we heard sirens and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. A police car moved cautiously down the street closely followed by a cadre of reporters. The March had finally begun. Every so often someone would start a chant. My favorite was, “Tell me what Democracy looks like! This is what Democracy looks like!”

There was very little police presence and those I saw seemed intent on maintaining safety. As we approached the corner where we were to turn towards the Washington Monument, two policemen stood on top of their patrol car. Marchers waved at them as they passed and the policemen waved back. When the crowd began to chant, the officers made hand motions to encourage us.

At the Washington Monument, I ran into some friends from church who had driven up separately. They said they’d been by the White House, but the police there seemed quite antsy, so they left. Not wishing to place extra burden on the peace officers, I didn’t venture to that part of town, but made my way back toward the Metro station. On my way, I came to the corner I’d passed at 3pm. The last of the marchers were approaching. It was now 4pm. It had taken an hour for the entire march to pass that point.

At the Washington Monument.

At the Washington Monument.

I managed to find the Metro station and rode the train back to Naylor Road. There I met up with my bus mates. All that day, separated from everyone I knew, I hadn’t felt the least bit frightened or alone. It had been an uplifting experience. The local people I came in contact with throughout the day were friendly and proud of their city. Without exception, they’d say, “Welcome to DC.”

My feet were so sore I could barely walk. Once on the bus, I took off my shoes. When we stopped for a restroom break in the middle of the night, my feet were so swollen I could barely get my shoes on. Once I got home, I hit the couch.

My takeaway from this incredible experience is: this is a great country where so many people of all walks of life and diverse causes and opinions can gather in peace, respect, and camaraderie. My faith in my fellow Americans has been restored. This is what Democracy looks like.

Our Trip to Florida

With the turning of the year, I was reminded of this story, which took place around the New Year, fifty three years ago.

Dad was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. Afterwards, he couldn’t tolerate cold weather. All through childhood, I heard him threaten to move to Florida to get out of those Upstate New York winters. When I was around twelve, he and a friend actually took a trip south to scope things out. There, his car broke down, so he bought a Chrysler New Yorker and brought it home. That car was destined to return to Florida. A few years later, my parents sold the house, paid off debts, and we moved.

This car is similar to the one we took to Florida,

Our car was similar to this one.

It may sound crazy to load up the family and take off on a 1000 mile move with no solid goal (as in job or place to live), but that’s what we did. Of course, there were preparations. Dad built a utility/camping trailer with a canvas top. Clothing and dishes were packed inside and our mattresses laid on top. The canvas lid could be propped up like a lean-to roof, and with a camp stove and ice chest, we had all the comforts of home, right? No need to buy ice—Dad yanked a couple of ice sickles off the eaves of the house. They were as big around as my arm and people in Florida were astounded.

Our other belongings were left with my grandparents or loaded on the back of Dad’s truck which he stored in a friend’s garage. The plan was to return for the truck in a few weeks. (Those few weeks became a few years.)

Dad's old truck years later. It used to be green.

Dad’s old truck years later. It used to be green.

So, one cold day in late December, 1963, we set out in the Chrysler. This was long before mini-vans, and even a station wagon wouldn’t hold all of us. Have you ever traveled with a half dozen or so kids crammed together in the back seat of a car?  It was the middle of winter, so we huddled together for warmth. We didn’t fight among ourselves. We couldn’t. There was no room.

Besides, we were off on an adventure, fulfilling a dream.

In the middle of the night, somewhere in Virginia, Mom was driving and hit a deer. I woke when the car stopped. Mom was in the front seat, but Dad wasn’t. There’d been no damage to the car, but the deer didn’t fare so well. Later, as Dad told the story, another vehicle stopped but they couldn’t find the deer. Suddenly, the injured animal leaped up out of the roadside brush and one of the men whipped out a gun and shot it. Dad thought this was a good time to leave. He said, “Well, boys, you got yourselves a deer!” Then he high-tailed it back to the car, jumped in, and off we went.

With eight kids and limited funds, you don’t stay at motels. We were geared up for camping, but it was too cold, so we kept going. The Interstate Highway System hadn’t been built yet, so travel took more time than it does for most folks nowadays.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve with our first taste of Mountain Dew, which at the time was a “hillbilly” soda. I thought it was delicious. The formula has since been changed, and/or my tastes are now more refined.

When we crossed into South Carolina, two very disparate things greeted us: a palm tree and South of the Border, tourist trap extraordinaire. The palm was a sable (or cabbage) palmetto, symbol of the “Palmetto State,” also the state tree of Florida. At the time, South of the Border straddled 301 and sold artifacts from Mexico. Now days, it caters to I-95 traffic and sells cheap souvenirs.

Sabal Palm

Sabal Palm

In Savannah, I got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. A high bridge took us over the river, and off to the left was a sparkling patch of blue. In much of Georgia, the highway ran through mile after mile of pine forests. My parents commented on the lack of guardrails along the deep, water-filled ditches. If someone went off the road, they’d never be found. We rolled into Florida on January 2nd.

We stopped in the Ocala National Forest, near Salt Springs, for a few days. Dad pulled up to a little country store and asked where we could camp. The proprietor gestured to a tree on the edge of his parking lot and said people sometimes camp there, so we did. The man was very nice, but instead of a Southern drawl, he talked so fast I couldn’t understand him. He might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I wonder if he got tired of us asking, “What?”

We were now in sunny Florida, so we put on shorts and went for a walk down a sandy road through a hammock of palm, oak, and cypress. It was sunny, all right, but it was COLD. An arctic blast had followed us south and we about froze to death. After a day or so, my parents decided to go farther south.

We settled in Moore Haven, on the south side of Lake Okeechobee. You couldn’t see the lake because of the levy around it, and you could get to it only by boating down a canal. We stayed in a campground near the lake until Dad got a job and we rented a house.

In reflection, it’s amazing how much has changed in the last half-century. In some ways, though certainly not all, this was a simpler, more innocent time. Not many children today are privileged to have the remarkable experiences we did.

You can read more about Moore Haven and our other early adventures in Florida in “Hurricane Dora”: https://marieqrogers.com/tag/hurricane-dora/

260 White Crosses

To cross a desert on foot is to risk your life. Some make it through, arriving at their destination safe and alive, but some do not.

Last November, I joined a BorderLinks delegation to Arizona and Mexico. BorderLinks is a non-profit, faith based organization that offers educational immersion experiences on border and immigration issues. Our group of twelve from Florida and three from North Carolina spent a week in Tucson with an overnight visit to Agua Prieta, Mexico. The trip was heart-touching and enlightening, and one of the most moving experiences was the Healing Our Borders Prayer Vigil.

on-the-way-south-026

The Arizona desert can be beautiful.

Tuesday afternoon we left Tucson and traveled to the border town of Douglas, Arizona. This was my first visit to Arizona and I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the state. We drove through desert alive with cacti, mesquite, and wildflowers. Beyond stood breathtaking mountains streaked with purple and other hues. We made a pit stop in Tombstone. This state is so full of history, I plan to return someday to explore what I missed.

In Douglas, we stopped at a MacDonald’s a few blocks from the Mexican border. Soon, we were joined by Pastor Mark Adams, a local Presbyterian minister, a group of Presbyterian Youth, a handful of local people and visitors, and Sister Lucy, a Teaching Sister of Notre Dame.

Prior to 1994, when NAFTA was passed, there were no recorded deaths of migrants in the desert, but this soon changed. Rural Mexico saw economic collapse and small farmers lost their homes and livelihood. As a result, many went elsewhere to find work in order to feed their families, some to the United States. With changes in the political climate and tightening of border policies, the most desperate resorted to entering through remote desert areas.

The same beautiful country I rode through in the comfort of an air conditioned van can be lethal for someone on foot. By 2000, the number of deaths had risen to alarming rates. Many humanitarian organizations were formed, including Frontera de Cristo which leads the vigil every Tuesday evening in remembrance of those who have died trying to achieve the “American Dream.” In Cochise County alone, between 2009 and 2015, the remains of more than 260 people had been found in the desert. Since then, the death toll has risen and upwards of 6,000 have lost their lives in the desert southwest.

A van arrived with a load of white crosses which we transferred to a shopping cart. Each cross bore a name and the person’s dates of birth and death. There were more than 260 of them. But some had no names, only a designation “No identificata” and the date of when the remains had been found.

Pastor Mark Adams giving instructions for the vigil.

Pastor Mark Adams giving instructions for the vigil.

We each took three crosses and lined up along the street leading to the border crossing. Pastor Mark held up his first cross and spoke the name written on it. Everyone else responded, “Presente!” Then he laid his cross against the curb. The next person in line held up a cross, we said “Presente!” and the cross was set down a few feet away.prayer-vigil-013

Down the street we progressed. One by one. Some of the fallen were women and children. My turn came. By now I was struggling with tears and could barely pronounce the name through the lump in my throat. When we each had set down our last cross, we took another from the cart and continued down the street, announcing names, “Presente!” and laying the crosses against the curb, until only three were left, which Pastor Mark took for himself.

One of my crosses had no name. On it was written, “Mujer—No identificata” (unidentified woman).” More tragic even than a name of a child who had died, was this woman with no name. Who was she? How did she die? Did she perish of dehydration or heat exhaustion? Or was her death more swift, by drowning in the large ditch at the border?prayer-vigil-011

My Mujer was certainly someone’s daughter, probably someone’s sister. Was she married? If so, what became of her husband? Was his name, or lack of it, inscribed on another cross? Did he survive to go on, unable (or afraid) to report her death or claim her body? Did she have children? Where were they? Waiting for her to join them in the Land of the Free? Or did she leave them with relatives in her quest for work so she could send money to feed them?

And why, oh why, do we not know her name? Were her remains so scattered that no clothing, papers, or possessions could be traced to her?

After the last cross, save three, had been laid down, we gathered in a circle at a park within sight of the border. One by one, Pastor Mark announced two names, one of them a teenage boy, and another unknown. One by one, we “Presente’d” and he laid each cross in the center of our circle.prayer-vigil-016

Standing there in the cold night, listening to prayers for the families of the fallen and for both of our countries, remembering the dead and praying for a peaceful solution, I was moved by the tragedy of so many hopeful lives cut short.

Whatever you may think about those who were lost, about their motivations, their judgment, these were living, breathing souls, like you and me, with hopes and dreams, struggles and sorrows. Some died alone and some in the company of friends or loved ones who had no choice but to go on. And even the unknowns, the No Indentificata, were loved and mourned by someone.

On that cold night in that border town, as we returned to the parking lot, picking up the crosses as we went, we all mourned for our brothers and sisters, those children of God, whom we never met on this side of the border between life and death, but who had become real to our hearts.

 

HALLOWEENING

 

Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.

dscf7298

My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!

 

This summer I spent a few weeks in West Virginia with my granddaughter Tiffany and her family. They live near Kearneysville in the state’s eastern-most county, Jefferson County. Her husband Justin comes from a huge extended family. Both of his parents came from large families, as in ten or so kids, and their parents as well. He said none of them move away. They just stay there, generation after generation. He has so many cousins, known and unknown, that he wouldn’t date a girl from West Virginia. He played it safe, he thought, by marrying a girl from Florida.

My great-grandmother came from three counties away, Hampshire County, from the little community of Slanesville. Like Justin’s family, her forbears settled there in the 1700s and stayed, until one of the wandering Rogers, my great-grandfather John Thomas, married her and carted her off to upstate New York. I can see why they stayed. Unlike most of mountainous West Virginia, this area in the North River Valley is blessed with rolling hills and good farmland.

Slanesville, WV, looking toward the North River

Slanesville, WV. Looking toward the North River

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I like to do a little genealogical research. This can be challenging because these folks practiced subsistence farming and recycled most everything. They even recycled names. Say you have a man named John. He names his oldest son John. Half of John’s ten or so children might be boys. John, Jr. and each of his brothers name a son after their father, and in only three generations you end up with a half dozen or so men with the same name, and many of them are cousins about the same age. I’ve run into this sort of thing trying to trace my roots. I try to sort them by birthdates. Have you ever written a number or date wrong? Family historians are human, and records are not always accurate, if they even exist. Hampshire County libraries have good historical records, but I’ve been stymied by who is my ancestor and which are distant cousins. So before venturing over to Hampshire County, I went through my notes and wrote down the vital statistics of the people I was looking for.

One branch of the family tree is the Hietts. The name has variously been spelled as Hiatt, Hiet, Hyet, Hayet, and Hyatt. And the line is full of Johns. My ancestors John and Mary Hiett, Quakers, were born in England and joined William Penn in Pennsylvania around 1700. They had a large estate near Philadelphia and produced several children, among them, John Hiett, Jr. He married Margaret Stephens and they eventually ended up in Hampshire County, which at the time was part of Virginia.

Poring over my notes, I found an interesting tidbit: after they left Pennsylvania, before moving on to Hampshire County, the Hietts owned land in Frederick County, Virginia. In those days, the colonies were divided into large counties, which were later broken up into the smaller counties we know today. The part of Frederick County, Virginia where John, Jr. and Margaret lived is now Jefferson County, West Virginia! My ancestor Evan Hiett was born there in 1748. Wow

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek, West Virginia

Several miles downstream  of the Hiett holdings.

Several miles downstream of the Hiett holdings.

The Hietts lived on Opequon Creek. I’d crossed that creek a dozen times going to and from Martinsburg. They lived upstream, near the town of Middleway.  “That’s just up the road from here!” Justin said. So Tiffany and I drove up the road to Middleway. I expected, at most, a sign indicating where the historical town once stood, but I was pleased to find Middleway is still, in its own way, thriving.

august-2016-189

Main St. Middleway

Main St. Middleway. My ancestors settled in the neighborhood before these houses were built. 

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Opequon Creek flows from what is still Frederick County, Virginia, forms the county line between Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, and empties into the Potomac River. John, Jr. had farms on both sides of the creek. Property records still exist, so one day I may go back and locate them.

When John, Jr. and Margaret moved to Hampshire County, Evan went with them. He settled in the town of North River Mills where the restored Hiett Log House still stands. (You can see this house at http://www.historichampshire.org/nrm/building/finelli.htm).

In 1784, Evan “Hyett” was listed as the head of a family of eight “white souls,” with one dwelling and four out buildings. He married Sarah Smith and their daughter Margaret married Benjamin McDonald whose father had emigrated from Scotland. One of their descendants was Rebecca McDonald Rogers, my great-grandmother.

Evan’s brother John Hiett III stayed in present day Jefferson County. Eventually, some of the Hietts and their descendants scattered to the Carolinas, the Midwest, and who knows where else. But not all moved on. Uncle John is reportedly buried at the Hopewell Friends Cemetery in present day Frederick County, Virginia, less than ten miles from Middleway. Sons are fairly easy to trace, but daughters marry and change their names. Who knows what names my distant cousins in Jefferson County go by?

Uh, Justin, I hate to tell you—maybe you didn’t go far enough away to find a wife who’s not your cousin.

%d bloggers like this: