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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


robb burris 2004

This morning an email from my friend Lynn Worth to say our friend Robb Burris died Saturday and his funeral was today. In a way I feel sorrow and in another way I feel joy. Sorrow perhaps for the slap-downs in Robb's life, his never ending despair in the later years, a pit he could not dig his way out of. Brings to mind the central image in the Japanese film Woman In the Dunes. A man goes into a pit in the sand with a house down in the pit and a woman living there to see what it was about. He couldn't climb out of the pit because the walls were sand. He did the best he could, but the sand had him. Eventually, he fell into comfortable there and chose to stay when rescue came.

When I first knew Robb, he was doing well as director at Sunbridge nursing home in Sparta. Loved the work, got on good with the staff, felt like he was doing important work. I was at the store, Backwoods Beat Music in Sparta, in the first months, when Robb dropped by from time to time. He seemed in a good mood most of the time, went to a church in Baywood that embraced him and he in turn embraced them. It was his spiritual home. In his life before, he could say, he'd been down so long it looks like up to him. He played rhythm guitar in a band of his cousins, nephews of Galax fiddler Otis Burris, Southern Pride. It's a hard-driving old-time band with James Burris playing the fiddle.

Drinking goes hand in hand with mountain music. When a musician surrenders to the Lord and gives up drinking, he usually leaves the band he's playing in and joins a gospel band. Robb had alcohol issues that he had no control over. When he was with the band, they were drinking. He was somebody liquor took ahold of and wouldn't let go. It almost killed him. He ended up in the hospital, almost dead from liquor poisoning, and had to cut it out all together. He left the band, not because he wasn't comfortable with them drinking, but they were uncomfortable with him not drinking. Robb's life rose and fell, rose and fell.

Robb had to do AA to get off the liquor and stay off it. He'd done well and his life was mended. He played guitar at his church and sang. Had a good wife. One day he told me temptation talked into his ear, the Independence nursing home wanting to hire him for director. He was happy where he was. The stakes went higher and kept on going higher as he declined until he couldn't decline any more. That was the end of Robb's well being. He was strapped down every minute at work, worked all the time and the good mood went out of him. There came a time his doctor, a new doctor, doubled his dosage of pain medication, apparently unaware of Robb's addiction problem.

According to Robb, that extra medication kicked in his addiction issue and he became irresponsible. He was caught filching pills. Charged. Fired. Made the front page of the Galax Gazette accused of stealing pain medication from helpless old people. His home paper. Grayson County. Everybody he knew and had ever known. Humiliation to the Nth degree. He fell to the bottom of his pit. Got 6 months. He told me later that prison is worse than you can imagine. What he had to go through behind bars, in addition to the valley of humility he crawled through on his belly from the day of the charges, took him down like a shipwreck.

I'm with the late attorney Lorne R. Campbell of Independence, who believed our American penal system cruel and unusual punishment; therefore, unconstitutional. He couldn't change the enormity of the system, but he could keep people out of prison. It was his belief that mountain boys don't belong in prison. I brought that up to Donna Shumate one day, about the penal system as cruel and unusual punishment. She said, the catch is, it's cruel, but it's not unusual. The experience of humiliation all the way to the bottom broke Robb's spirit. Robb was never the same after the prison time. He avoided people he knew. Shame. He'd try to rise up out of it, and it never worked.

Robb was defeated. I remember Jim Senter was defeated by prison. Another who need not have gone there in a realistic legal system. These are gentle natured people who are no threat to society in any way. Robb is someone who's crime did not deserve to be paid for with his life. It was a minor crime. I don't care what you say about drugs and all that crap. I'm looking at living in a civilized society that has a perspective that's more or less realistic as the ideal, not as the reality. It is not the reality. And I don't want to hear, they deserve it. They do not deserve it in at least 3/4 of the cases. The sister of a friend of mine worked as a psycho-therapist in a prison in Atlanta. From the inside she said our penal system is so horrible, she attempts to ease it somewhat for a few of them. She said the system cannot change until the American people change. If our penal system is a reflection of us, all I have to say is, Yikes.

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