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Raisin' Cane in Appalachia
By DAVID OSBORNE
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 David Osborne
All rights reserved.
Can You Ever Go Home Again?
"Memory is like the Fountain of Youth." —Anonymous
In the late 1930's, Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel called You Can't Go Home Again. The popular phrase by the same name became a general statement in society meaning that if you leave your county, state, local area, or even country, you cannot go back without being considered a failure. Of course, there is more in that novel than meets the eye. The novel tells about a man named George Webber, a beginning writer that writes about his hometown of Libya Hill. Unfortunately, what the man wrote was so distorted that the people were extremely unhappy with him and his book. Some were so unhappy about the contents of the book that they took to writing menacing letters and death threats to the author.
George Webber could not go home because he was disliked immensely and felt threatened by the same folks about whom he wrote. Of course, in this book I do not intend to write such distortions so maybe I will be able to go home again. In addition, since most people in my hometown will not know that I am alive, I will not feel threatened. Moreover, I am already retired, so I do not have a need to impress anyone.
Anyway, when the question is asked, "Can you ever go home again?" most folks may suggest, well of course not. That is the easy answer, but let me suggest that the answer may be more complex, especially if you consider the true meaning of the question. Certainly, one cannot go back to his childhood because of his age and the fact that things change from year to year or even week to week. People and pets die, houses are torn down, friends and neighbors move away, roads and highways change and at some point, it is even difficult to recognize the old home place. Those things happened to me. There is no sign of the two houses that I lived in as a kid. However, going home again in triumph rather than failure is certainly possible if you can use your imagination.
Our mind is a wonderful thing. It allows us to drift back to any place or any time, just like a time machine. It allows us to remember the old days. It even allows us to change history, at least our own personal memories of history. The worst events in our lives can be tempered by time and imagination. Often times our memory allows us to remember clearly the good times and to blot out or alter the bad times. Does that not mean that we can go home again?
Consider my own situation; the old four-room shack that I lived in as a child could be romanticized because of a wonderful mother and a large and happy family. It could also be defined as good times with young children playing around the house, or under the house in our case, in a creek near by, or one of the many local mud puddles or swimming holes.
I dare say, not everything about my childhood was fun. When I got old enough to work, the days were filled with difficult chores. However, it was not just about the hard work, it was also the lack of conveniences. I think about the old outhouse (toilet) that we had to use as children. On cold and snowy winter nights, the distance from the house always seemed extremely far away. I can still picture that old building made of coarse slab wood with cracks in the walls and floors that invited the snakes and insects to come in.
Yes, I remember I had to visit the outhouse before anything else in the morning. In fact, I had several things to do before going to school. Waking up before six o'clock in the morning, I had to milk the cows, slop the pigs, and feed the mules. If that was not enough, I had to go to the well for water and to the woodpile to carry in wood for the kitchen stove and the big heating stove in the living room. Then I had to change into my "best-worst" clothes and head off for the school bus, and hope I did not miss it.
As an adult though, none of these chores seem as difficult and inconvenient as they did when I was a kid. After working for years in different jobs, different locations, and in different situations, those chores appear to be a piece of cake.
We all have heard folks say 'bring back the good old days.' I say forget it! No one in his or her right mind would want to go back to that place, at least permanently. However, I am sure that many of us may want to go back, if only for a short time for a brief glimpse of what our childhood looked like. Moreover, keep in mind that for most of us, this brief childhood period helped to create the adults that we became. No matter how old we are, or how many years we live, those years were our foundation, good or bad.
Now my earliest memories are of living in a holler some ways from a gravel road called Pond Creek. Pond Creek Road, a rural route, was several miles from town and, in the early years, were several miles from blacktopped roads. I remember when the big yellow Scioto County trucks came through to grade, level the gravel road, and spread the black tar. No more mud holes in the road and no gravel that hurt your bare feet when walking! Nevertheless, even a brand new road still had some drawbacks, if you did not have shoes.
Since we often had no shoes to wear during the summer, going barefoot was the norm around our house. Nowadays many folks go bare-footed because it is fashionable, but I can assure you that fashionable had nothing to do with why we went barefooted. Anyway, I can still feel the hot tar, especially in July and August when the temperature was the hottest. The tar would bubble up and would get so hot that it would blister the bottom of our feet.
The black top road was not all bad, and you may not know this, but some folks rolled up the tar and chewed it as gum. Wow! I was never into that but I do know that it happened.
I do not remember when I learned to spell the name Scioto. I guess that I never really knew what living in a county meant until those big trucks came through with the name of the county on them. It did hit home later on during the sixth or seventh grade of school when my classmates and I had to memorize the map of Ohio; it was then that I realized that the state of Ohio had eighty-eight counties, and Scioto was just a small chunk of the state. The class's job was to memorize the names and locations of all of those counties. It was a chore for most students, but I loved history and geography, so it was a pleasant task for me.
As children, we were very much sheltered from the outside world. While I was learning the counties and their locations, I had no idea that in the future I would eventually visit all of the counties in Ohio and several foreign countries; especially since during my first seventeen years I went practically nowhere. Now this may not be a big deal for many outsiders, but many folks in Scioto County and other Appalachian regions never even visited other places much less lived outside the Appalachian region. It was, and still is, not unusual to find families that were born, lived, and died in the same small area of Appalachia.
We were not among those families that lived our entire lives in the same house. We moved several times from Ohio to Kentucky and back but those moves were early on before I was six years old. Unfortunately, I have very few memories of those times. From the time I was about six until I graduated from high school, we lived in only two houses. The original house was in a "holler" (hollow for you discerning folks). The distance of the holler from the road was about a quarter mile in length, and our house stood at the head of the holler.
If you are not familiar, a holler is a narrow little valley with a creek running along the bottom of it. The creek was also called a branch. The one we lived in was deep and narrow, and we spent many years trying to widen it so that cars and trucks could get up to the house. Unfortunately, it never worked very well. Some time later, Dad hired Don Pertuset to grade a road along the hillside so Dad could get his car up to the house. The down side to that was it took away part of the garden.
I do not know exactly how old I was when we moved out of the hollow, but I was probably about eleven. Grandpa and Grandma decided to move thirty miles away to Waverly, Ohio, and live there. When they moved, we moved into the big house on the main road. This, to us, was just like the Jefferson's television show, where we were moving on up or down out of the hollow. There would be no more walking up the hollow, carrying things, driving the mules, or hauling stuff in a sled or a wagon. We could walk on gravel and blacktop without getting mud on our feet. We could see the school bus in the morning from our front porch rather than hoping that we got to the bus turn-around before it left us. Unfortunately, that luxury was not to last.
One day Dad announced that we had to pack up and move back up into the holler. It seemed that the grandparents decided to move back to Pond Creek. Having spent some time at the house where the grandparents had moved to, I for one could not understand why in the world anyone would want to return to Pond Creek when they had finally gotten away. Anyway, we put all of our meager belongings on a sled pulled by a mule and carried them back up in the holler. What we could not put on the sled, we carried on our backs. We moved in November, and it snowed several inches while we were moving. As far as I remember this was the worst snowstorm that we ever had in southern Ohio. Remember, the road was a creek bed that flooded constantly and froze during the winter, and it was very seldom in shape for automobile traffic anyway.
When I talk about being sheltered from the outside world, it was not just being far from town or civilization. We had no television, phone, running water or electricity at the house. We were not on any bus routes to get anywhere other than to school. Probably even more important was that we had very few friends or neighbors for miles around in any direction, except for our cousins, who lived a hundred yards or so down the road. Hills and valleys isolated us from the outside world.
To sum up my early years, I was born, grew up, worked at home and in the fields, went to school, and dropped out of college. In 1961, I got a job in Columbus and a couple years later, in 1963, I got married. Later in that same year, I was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Of the Appalachian three R's (readin', 'riting and Route 23), I took R number three and moved to Columbus. In the early years of adulthood, I tried my best to forget about the fact that I ever lived on Pond Creek. I tried to forget because many of the memories were so unpleasant. As the years rolled by, I began to look at the times differently. I wondered if I had been born in Cincinnati, Columbus, or another urban area, would I have grown up to be the same person that I am now? I decided that it would be extremely unlikely that I would. Maybe this is just an example of me re-writing history in my own mind.
Anyway, I am now certain that the successful person that I became had its beginning on Pond Creek Road. I did not like being poor or impoverished but doing without material things taught me many important lessons. One of the things that it taught me was patience. I was going to live on Pond Creek until I could get myself out. No one was going to do it for me. Wearing hand-me-down clothing taught me humility. The discipline that I received from my parents has held throughout my lifetime. The hard work that I was required to perform became a life-long habit for me. I must say that the kind of work that I did early on was very different from what I decided to do as an adult. The difficult times that I went through as a child influenced me to get an education and allow me to have a career that would securely provide for my family and me. In addition, because I always had empty pockets as a child, I was determined to save money for the future.
As I got older, I tried to remember whom I was, where the family and I came from, and how we came to be the family that lived up in the hollow on Pond Creek Road. Unfortunately, I did not really listen and remember all of the stories that my relatives told, and now many of the older members of the family have passed on. A lot of the information that affected our lives has been lost forever. In spite of the research that I have done, facts are lacking and what we have left is memories. Even the memories are tempered by some small amount of reality and a large dose of emotions. Still, I believe that remembering the past should be important to all of us even if the good old days were not always so good.
One of Webster's definitions of nostalgia is "longing for something past." I suspect that everyone dabbles in nostalgia from time to time, especially when things just do not go the way they planned. The initial reaction is to blame society and the current state of affairs for the problems or concerns that they are facing. We all know that we cannot change the past, but we still yearn for the "good old days."
In case you have forgotten, think about this. If you lived in the 1950's, telephone booths were available on almost every other street corner. Not that the phone booths are important for phone calls, but think about poor Superman, and I'm talking about the real Superman, George Reeves. If he were to come today, he would find no place to change into his uniform. He probably would have to find a Verizon cell phone store. If not, how could the man of steel save the world without changing clothes in a phone booth? It probably would take so long to find one that the world would certainly explode before he could find the villain. Oh! You mean that Superman was not real. Well, so much for that thought!
Often times when we are feeling melancholy we yearn for the good old days. You will hear statements like, "Things were so simple then"; "We did not have crime problems or drug problems"; "Kids did better in school." Kids were not fat or obese because we did not have McDonalds or Burger King to sell all of the fast "Fat" food."
I would suggest that many of the same problems that we have now were also prevalent in the good old days. There was smoking, drinking, fighting, killing, and many other problems that we see today. It may have been that many of those problems existed, but we may not have known because of the lack of communications. In those days we had no cell phones, fewer phones, fewer televisions, and farther to travel. In other words, "lack of communication" could have blinded our memories.
Change for most people is difficult to live with. I remember my father and grandfather telling stories about their childhood and then they would add, "Not like the old days." Well, it was not like the old days, but was it better or worse?
We can rationalize by saying something like, "Well that's just progress," or maybe even, "You can't stop progress." If we have a scholarly person around, he or she may say, "Change is inevitable." All of these things are true, but change has brought on its own set of problems.
These cliché's remind me of going through college in the 1960's and listening to people say that they were trying to find themselves. I never really figured that out. How did they get lost? I always thought that one of the reasons for that search might have been because of the many philosophy classes in college. If not that, then it could have been people just learned to be a philosopher because of too much time on their hands. My impression of a philosopher is just a person that sports a beard or mustache, long hair, and he considers himself a consultant. (That is not exactly true. Some do not have beards or wear their hair long.)
Why, you may ask, would I classify the philosopher as such? It is simple. It is my opinion that a college degree in philosophy is about as worthless as a confederate dollar in 1866. Philosophers usually only ask questions or make observations and seldom provide any reasonable answers.
Come to think of it, I believe that my father was a philosopher. He did not of course have a college degree and did not have a lot of time on his hands, at least early on, but he often made what I considered worthless observations. As a kid, I was prone to using other names to call him other than a philosopher but fortunately, I got over that stage in my life.
Anyway, consider some of Dad's observations such as, "You kids only get hurt when you are playing. If you were working you wouldn't have gotten hurt." I heard that for weeks when I got hurt playing football. I thought the injury would get me out of work, but guess what. It did not.
Excerpted from Raisin' Cane in Appalachia by DAVID OSBORNE. Copyright © 2013 by David Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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