Tom VanBuren Pruitt was my intro to the people of these mountains. I met him the first time a few months before I came to work with him as caretaker of the Stern farm in Air Bellows, originally the Caudill farm. Tom was in his pickup, arm rested on the door with window down and I was standing outside the door in awe of seeing up close someone from another world, from the world before electricity, like all our ancestors. I was in awe that the Tom I'd heard about was so close to the earth, lived with feet firmly on the ground.
I'd just graduated from college a few years before, which I did because I needed education. A neurotic kid in high school, I didn't learn a whole lot. I took the tests and managed to get along passably, but not driven to make As. My As came when it was a course I was interested in, and then the A was automatic. I cared about the subject. I didn't want to learn facts and dates and Latin names of body parts. I wanted to be able to read a book with comprehension, learn principles this world operates by, learn how to learn. I felt like I was way down at the bottom where education was concerned. I didn't want to "use" the education for a good paying job. I didn't want a good paying job, just wanted to be able to understand things a bit better.
I learned Ted Stern was looking for someone to live at the farm year round to take care of it. Beef cows and christmas trees. Would work with old man Tom Pruitt, who was 72. I was 34. Just a year before, I'd had an experience with Our Lord that I can only say in a few words turned my direction 180 degrees, backwards from the direction I was going.
I didn't even know what direction that was, but it didn't feel right, emptiness. I looked at the people farther along in the direction I was going and saw emptiness. Felt a kind of inner crisis such that I got on a bus and went away until I found what it was that was calling me. Only told one friend where I was going, sworn to secrecy, and came back 4 days later, a new me headed in the direction of the real me, away from the unreal me.
I'd been considering tech college to learn carpentry and work outdoors. I wanted to labor, work hard day after day, in semi-solitude. I felt like I'd just been born and needed a beautiful world to live in, like the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I can work and get to know a whole new kind of people, a totally different culture that happened to speak English, so I didn't have to learn a language too.
Tom would spit while he talked. He told me that down at the Whitehead Store somebody said they could put an A-bomb on the moon. This was 1976. Tom replied, "What do they want to do that for? Th'aint nothin up there." He looked at me with Arctic blue eyes that said, I sure did say that. I thought Tom and I will get along very well. I felt good about the future, jumping out of the world I knew my way around in, into a world I knew nothing about but Walker Evans and Doris Ullman photographs of Appalachian poverty.
I loved hearing the rhythm of Tom's talking. It was music to ears that were so used to grammar according to tests, just about my only experience theretofore. Later, when I took friends visiting from other places up to meet Tom, they always came back saying they didn't understand a word he said. I didn't have any difficulty understanding him. I loved listening to him talk and understood it all. It was the same language and the same accent my grandmother talked, which puzzled me. How could a woman in Kansas talk with the same accent as the people of these mountains?
Thirty years later I learned my grandmother Worthington's whole extended family of a dozen mostly grown kids picked up from East Kentucky and went west to Kansas where they settled before she was born. I'd heard that two of her brothers from Kentucky played fiddle. No way to verify it that I can think of. She grew up in a home where everyone talked like people from East Kentucky talk, like around here. She listened to Grand Ole Opry and loved Little Jimmy Dickens, "he's little but he's loud."
Without knowing it for 30 years, my parachute landed me in my grandmother's culture. All that time it was so inexplicably familiar I called it, and still do, the home of my soul. When I was 5, 6 and 7, I knew my greatgrandmother Worthington, who went to Kansas with her husband and kids from Ninemile, Tennessee, a Hale, in the Cumberland Plateau region. Grandmother's people were from the same Cumberland Plateau, just over in Kentucky. Grandmother and grandfather knew each other in school, spoke the same accent, shared the same beliefs, mountain kids growing up on farms in Kansas.
All that came to me 30 years later. It was there then, I just didn't know it. The background stuff God knew when he blew my parachute this way. That moment of meeting Tom I didn't realize where his accent and the way he spoke took me within at the time, it seemed familiar like something I'd heard in a dream and forgot the dream. It was 30 years learning why Tom's talking was so familiar and comforting on such a subtle level. When I say these mountains are the home of my soul, now I understand why.