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A Story of the Hidden Glory of a Troubled Life
By Constance W. Hall
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Constance W. Hall
All rights reserved.
A cold wind blew through the large crack of the shanty door as the black night faded to a steel-gray morning, swiftly arousing the cock perched outside, complacent about his morning crow.
Inside the chicken house, young Wilbur shifted on his makeshift bed — a heavy cotton tarp stretched across four wooden stakes tethered with twine. His patchwork quilt offered little protection against the unexpected cold. Usually, his brother, Jesse, slept with him, lying in the opposite direction with his feet in Wilbur's face, their bodies sharing warmth. However, this morning, Wilbur awoke shivering and alone. But he didn't mind. Every morning was a new adventure, and as he opened his eyes, a smile spread across his face. He was happy to have awakened before the others.
Across the crowded room, only four feet away, his parents slept together on a thin mattress made of ticking stuffed with hay, suspended off the dirt ground by four horizontal logs. He noticed his little brother's small feet sticking over the end of their bed as he clung to its edge next to his mother, seeking refuge in the night from a bad dream.
After quietly turning back the covers, Wilbur dirtied his bare feet as he tiptoed over to his three-year-old brother.
"Wake up, Jesse. Daylight's burning," he whispered. Jesse's angry hand shoved him aside, and Jesse rolled over, showing Wilbur his backside. No matter. Little brothers just end up crying anyway, he thought, and he safely made his way outside.
The colors of the morning sun bled into the sky, streaking the tops of the hills with red, threatening to tattle on Wilbur's escape before he had the chance to spot any game. He crept past two-by-fours stacked in the entry to their unfinished house and past the tarps covering bags of cement that flanked the front door. He couldn't wait until the house was finished and they could move in. Sleeping in the chicken house had lost its novelty long ago.
When he could see the woods beyond their yard, he sighed with contentment. There, above all else, he felt as if he belonged. He scurried past the chicken coop and then slowed his pace, stalking past the first few trees of his woods. Always quick on the take, he spotted a squirrel before he was a hundred yards past the barn. Without considering how close he was, he took a hasty shot, missing by a few feet. The report woke the still-somnolent rooster on the far side of the stoop and set it squawking, crowing for all his hens to awaken, erupting the chicken yard into a full chorus of chaos.
"Goddammit, Punk! I told you a thousand times not to disturb me in the mornings!" Wilbur was still close enough to the house to hear his father, Webb, hollering from inside, using the nickname Wilbur's parents had coined for him shortly after his second birthday, when they'd realized they had a hardheaded know-it-all son who wasn't afraid to state his opinion on any topic, whether or not he'd ever heard about it before. Only his parents called him that name, for no one else understood its meaning. "I'll tan your hide for sure!"
Wilbur shrugged off the threat. His parents needed to get up anyway. His father, Webb, should be working on the house already, if for no other reason than the chicken house was freezing in the mornings. His father spent most of his days in the coal mines, which was why the house was taking so long. But today was Sunday, and Webb had a whole day to work on the house. Wilbur's mother, Sarah, would start fixing breakfast soon before going to work as household help somewhere in town.
Since Wilbur was still close to their chicken house, he lingered a while, wondering if his parents would get moving. He heard his father grumble with a voice still thick from sleep, "I coulda slept a whole 'nother hour. What's with that boy? Waking us up before dawn? He'd best stay outta my way, Sarah. I'm in no mood for his foolishness, especially today."
His mother kept a nice, even tone when she said, "I'll take him and Jesse up the crick to your ma's. She can watch 'em. I'm suppose to cook and clean for the Beaumonts today."
Wilbur heard his father respond but couldn't make out much more than "too old to keep up." A second later, his mother came outside. She didn't see him in the trees, but she called to him. She smiled when he emerged.
"You come inside, boy," she said, "and help me get you and your brother washed and dressed. Make sure your daddy sees you doing something worthwhile before he gets his mind set on a whoopin'."
"Yes, ma'am," replied Wilbur meekly. Back inside, Webb had finished putting on the rest of his clothes, and he sat by the door, tying his bootlaces. It didn't take long. They slept in slimmed-down versions of the only clothes they owned, which meant long johns at night. Then they donned overshirts, coveralls, and jackets for day.
"I want the eggs gathered and a pullet cleaned 'fore you get off today, Punk," said Webb as he mussed his hand over his son's towhead. "And behave yourself at Granny's."
"Yessurr." Wilbur smiled, eager to wring a chicken's neck. Though only five, he appreciated his designation as the man in charge when Pop needed help, being too busy to take care of matters himself.
Efficient at the task, Sarah and her boys had supper plucked and hung to bleed by eight o'clock. Afterward, they headed to the home of Mary Weaver, their granny, which was a twenty-minute walk down the hollow. "I hope Uncle Ned's there," said Wilbur, throwing rocks at the grazing cows.
"There's better things for you to do with your time than hang around that good-for-nothing," replied Sarah.
They reached Granny Weaver's, and Sarah said her hellos, not seeing Ned in his usual spot — asleep on the cabin floor. She kissed her boys good-bye and then walked back up the hollow to meet Mrs. Beaumont by nine.
Their visit didn't last long. By noon, the boys had grown bored, so Granny Weaver sent them home with some bread to eat. The morning chill had given way to a crisp late-September breeze by the time they arrived back home. They saw Webb put down his hammer and get out his own lunch of leftover biscuits and lard. "The house is looking good," said Wilbur.
"It's coming along," said Webb. "Now that I've got the framing finished, I'm waiting for Carl to come and deliver the plywood and plaster." Carl Jamison owned Jamison's Building Supply in nearby Clarksburg. It was a one-man operation handed down from father to son. During busier times, a delivery might or might not come when scheduled, but local construction was in a slump, and Carl couldn't afford hired help. In 1941, vivid memories of the Depression still weighed on people's minds. Back then, only backyard gardens had staved off starvation, and the unfortunates who hadn't planted had begged and stolen food to survive. Nowadays, people hid surplus money behind walls, buried it in jars, and stuffed it under mattresses in preparation for the next inevitable economic crash; the future looked bleak in the eyes of the elders.
The boys occupied themselves in the yard. Webb wet his fingers, dabbed the bread crumbs from his lap, popped every visible morsel into his mouth, and then reached for a cigarette. He'd just lit the unfiltered Camel, when he heard Carl's familiar engine round the bend. He stood to greet him as Carl's truck lurched into the driveway.
"Hey, Carl, right on time."
"Well, seeing as you're my only drop today, I ought to be."
"Sorry to hear. Business still slow?"
"Yep. I'm gonna have to go into the mines myself if'n it doesn't pick up soon. You're my only paying customer. That said, here's the slip for today's load." Carl handed him a bill for $700.
"God almighty. Is this everything to finish the inside?"
"Yep. I reckon one or two more orders will do. All's you got left is the siding and the whatnots your missus will want put in — you know, 'frigerator, stove, lights."
"She wants an inside commode too. Better figure that in."
"Will do. Come by the store when you're ready," said Carl as he collected seven crisp hundred-dollar bills from Webb and bid farewell.
Wilbur marveled at that amount of money. It didn't occur to him that it was odd for his father to pay in cash or that it was unusual to conduct business as they did, on a handshake. All he cared about was moving into the house, which Webb insisted would be possible before winter if his help showed up.
Webb went to work nailing plywood, and the rooms began to take shape. Wilbur watched him hammer, thinking that this house was going to be a mansion. It certainly dwarfed the three-room cabin where Granny Weaver lived without running water or a bathroom. Like exclamation marks, privies dotted every property among the hollows; the more-fortunate inhabitants lived upstream.
Wilbur could already see the house taking shape. A set of concrete steps ran up the side of a steep hill just off the main road, leading to the front door. In the hill, Webb had dug out a basement, and a lower doorway exited the back. The basement steps went up to a main foyer, which fed a small sitting room, master bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Another staircase ran opposite the front door, in the sitting room, and led to the second bedroom. Webb had pointed out a large stairwell landing, telling Wilbur that it would be his and Jesse's spot because the family would save the bedroom for guests.
Ned showed up to help at three o'clock. "Hey, Webb. Sorry I'm late." He nodded to the boys.
"Where you been — sleeping one off?"
"You know how it is. I planned on turning in early, but Charlie showed up at Ma's right as I headed to bed. He wanted me to go riding, and well, I couldn't be rude. Before you know it, the sun's coming up, and we were in the hole ten dollars," explained Ned.
"Gettin' hustled in pool again?"
"We were ahead twenty at midnight. Don't know what happened."
"Who? How'd you pay 'em?" Webb had heard this before, the only variation being Ned's creativity of payment.
"A couple of slickers from Jane Lew. Never seen 'em before. Said they were scouting troubled companies to buy. They let me slide with an IOU after my girl told them where to find me. Bitch. I'm suppose to meet 'em again tonight. So ya see, I gotta work here today and get something to give those boys or stay away from Ma's."
"You ain't gonna be here long enough to earn shit."
"I can work till dark, and you can pay me what you will. Okay?" Webb handed his brother a trowel and pointed to a large bucket of plaster. "Get busy, you sorry son of a —"
Wilbur and Jesse made for the woods.
The sun hadn't yet set when Sarah returned. Wilbur and Jesse ran screaming to their mother, faces smeared in dirt, Jesse's nose caked with snot. Wilbur held a dead groundhog by the tail. "Lookie, Mom. I got supper."
"He's chasing me, Mama! I don't wanna hold it!" cried Jesse.
At sunset, they began the nightly chores: feeding chickens, collecting eggs, and stewing chicken. The boys had plucked and gathered dandelions while walking home. Sarah boiled them and added them to the table's bounty. She sent Wilbur and Jesse to summon their father for the meal. "Hello there! I'll be right along!" hollered Webb from the construction site.
"Are we done for today?" asked Ned.
"I reckon. Here's two dollars' pay — and more than you've rightly earned," said Webb. Ned took the money and loitered about as he listlessly tried to help Webb clean up. "I'll get it, Ned. You can go now." Ned left swiftly on foot, wearing a bulging army-surplus jacket. Webb started picking up his materials for the night but halted and swore.
"What is it, Dad?" asked Wilbur.
"Goddamn good-for-nothing son of a — he took two new hammers, a saw, and my level."CHAPTER 2
Before settling his family in West Virginia, Webb held a steady Monday–Friday job working for the Public Works Administration on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesboro, Virginia, blasting through rock and granite to create the roads connecting Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sarah found work cooking and cleaning for a wealthy family in Williamsburg in exchange for room and board for herself and her two sons; Webb would visit only on the weekends. This arrangement continued until the federal money ran out and Webb's employment was terminated.
While in Williamsburg, Wilbur had learned to fish with regular success at three, catching brook trout and bass from a stream. Wilbur's father had previously shown him how to whittle a pole and rig the line. After weeks of catching only enough to eat, Wilbur hated to stop fishing once he caught his legal limit, because he knew he could easily catch more. Earning money by fishing entrepreneurially, he arbitrarily raised his limit to ten and began knocking door-to-door with his string of goods, selling fish for a nickel each. The general store in Williamsburg sold rods and reels for $1.25, and by the end of the summer, he'd earned enough money to buy himself a brand-new rod.
When Wilbur was four, Webb had taught him the art of trapping by learning how animals lived. They watched rabbits, groundhogs, and possums in their natural habitats. Wilbur sat for hours, blending into the forest, until he could predict each critter's movement, and then he'd set traps along their expected pathways. His lust for hunting was so great that it became the only time when he sat quietly. Sarah gladly let him go off on his own, getting him out of her hair while she tended her chores in Williamsburg.
Once the Blue Ridge Parkway was complete, Sarah quit her job, Webb packed up his family, and everyone moved home to West Virginia. On one cold Saturday night — the second weekend in November — Wilbur and his family sat on their cots in the chicken house, eating a supper of stewed squirrel, potatoes, and onions obtained by their own efforts. Their small garden yielded a variety of root vegetables, cabbage, and lettuce due to Sarah's planting after the summer harvest. Being a natural hunter, Wilbur had bagged three squirrels with his father's 20-gauge shotgun (a prized possession given to Wilbur after he mastered his trapping skills) earlier in the morning.
Wilbur first saw the 20-gauge when his father hung two shotguns on the chicken house wall, just out of his reach. The other was a 12-gauge over-and-under. Both had belonged to Webb since his childhood, and he used them to provide food for his family. Sarah had bragged about their son's remarkable hunting skills, but Webb didn't imagine the depth of Wilbur's talent until he saw the bounty Wilbur regularly brought home. It made him proud to see how well his son provided for them, and he also felt somewhat relieved, because Wilbur's contribution allowed him to concentrate on building their home.
"Would you like to learn how to shoot?" he'd asked Wilbur one night after noticing him stare at the guns again. Wilbur would be six years old soon, and since he'd proven himself responsible, Webb felt he was ready to handle a gun.
"Sure would, sir. Can I shoot the big one?"
"You're a worthy trapper, Son. Maybe it is time you went after the big game. Let's see how you do with the littler one first."
Webb had spent the first two weeks back home settling onto the land, making supply preparations to build, and teaching Wilbur to shoot. He'd then returned to the coal mines full-time.
Six months later, he ate supper with his family after putting the last coat of varnish on the living room floors of their new house. "Well, Sarah, this is the last supper we'll eat here," he said.
"Do you mean it? Can we move in tomorrow?"
"Late tomorrow. Give the floors time enough to dry. But yes, I think we can." His proclamation lent a special significance to supper, and they enjoyed their meal in honor of a life they'd soon leave behind.
Granny Weaver; Ned; and Webb's sisters, Eula May and Cora, and their husbands, who'd all traveled from the adjoining county, made a rare appearance and joined the family Sunday afternoon to celebrate the move, meeting Sarah for the first time. They sat in the sparsely furnished house after touring the rooms, giddy over someone in the family having indoor plumbing, when a knock at the door interrupted their revelry.
Webb went to the door. From his seat, Wilbur couldn't see who was there, but the stench of cigar smoke wafted inside.
"You Webb Weaver?" Wilbur heard. It was a man's voice, rough and gravelly.
"Yeah, that's me."
"Nice house you got here."
"Thank you. Can I help you?"
Excerpted from Valedictorian by Constance W. Hall. Copyright © 2016 Constance W. Hall. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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