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Monday, November 15, 2010

REMEMBERING TOM PRUITT

han shan



Friday night I heard the Highlanders play Catfish John, one of my favorite old songs. Mama said don't go near that river, don't be goin around old Catfish John, but in the morning I would always be there, walkin in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn. Catfish John was an old black man who lived down by the river bed, possibly a freed slave with nowhere to go. Good story of a kid, I presume, who had taken a shine to the old black man and became his friend. Brings to mind Tom Sawyer and old black Jim, and a wonderful read, The Last Algonquin, a memoir by a man telling of knowing this old Indian living, if I remember correctly, on a remote spot on Long Island. He was the last living member of the Algonquin tribe. The boy's mother wanted him to stay away from the Indian, but the kid was learning so much and had developed such a high respect that he can't ignore old man. The boy knowing Catfish John found somebody from another world that was gone forever to tell him about the time gone by and what's important in life.




Tom Pruitt was my Catfish John in the early years on the mountain. I knew him 14 years before he died, which hit hard. Tom seemed to me like somebody who would never die. It didn't seem right that someone like Tom Pruitt could die and take with him all his useless knowledge from another time that is gone forever. He saw all the Air Bellows people die out and the young ones sell the farms to flatlanders until he was the only one of mountain blood remaining on the mountain. It was that way the whole time I knew him and for perhaps that many years before I arrived on the mountain. Tom lived as simply as it was possible to live. In his later years the garden quit producing. It had been the garden spot about his entire lifetime and the soil was gray as moon dust. He would hoe a row for beans and sprinkle fertilizer into the trench to make things grow. They grew, but finally stopped. He was past a garden then, anyway.




I came here from only living in cities before, and dove in headfirst. I wanted to learn a new culture and get closer to God. I wanted to start over. Hit the reset button. I'd come to a dead end in my own life, where I was not happy, just trying to figure out how to live in the world with little inclination for it and coming up on a sign within that said FAIL. I really did come to a standstill within. Nothing I wanted to do, noplace I wanted to go to. My mind was really screwed up with a world of unspoken expectations to satisfy, a world whirling as fast as it could go around money. Money was the motivation that drove everything, and I wasn't interested. I didn't want to be in the money whirl. I wanted to be motivated by something real, not unreal, but the world all around me was nothing but unreal in my interpretation. Sucking up to the rich, climbing the ladder, focused on money, more money the ongoing goal. I'm one who would rather live simply on the least possible money.




I value time more than money, which is to say with time I can do a lot that I want to do, with money I do and think what it takes to get the money. In my lifetime I can't think of anyone I know with a huge amount of money that it truly benefited, though there are exceptions and those exceptions I value. Bill Wilson who got Pioneer Eclipse going and made an immense fortune in a short time, lost it in a short time and is now in prison where he's been quite awhile. I believe the only way I could ethically live with that kind of windfall would be to go on living as I live and give it away. An immense amount would go to BROC and an equally immense amount to Hospice. That's not going to happen, but this is how I believe I'd like to handle it---doesn't mean I would. I'd probably buy a corvette, more land than I need, a bigger house than I need and give myself a heart attack shopping. I'd rather not have to think about it. I know I would not handle it well, because I have no experience and no training in its use.
My only experience with money is to put a paycheck in the bank, pay bills and be out of money til next payday. I know no other rhythm. Much younger I would think being rich was as good as it gets, though after growing up and knowing a few, I don't see they have anything I don't have but a whole lot more stuff. Most of the rich people I've met or seen, I'd think the money was wasted on them. Why not go to somebody who could use it intelligently, not meaning me at all, but the principle of it. Doesn't seem fair. But it's like our government. Intelligent men or women stay out of it. We get the people who want it, which isn't necessarily intelligent ambition. Politicians are like evangelists, holding out the open palm of desire. It makes me question Obama's intelligence for wanting to be president in a time when intelligence is a liability in American politics---always has been, more now than ever.
In my early years in the mountains, still in the urban belief systems, I remember saying to Charles Dysart, who was new here then, that I did not want to get old like Tom. He said, You won't, which consoled me mightily. Years later I laugh out loud at myself for missing everything. By now, 34 years of living in his culture, I understand and value the way Tom was and would be happy in my 70s, unaware of what's the latest, what's cool, what's expected, what's acceptable. Tom looked at the wall beside the fireplace and spit backer into the fireplace that had no fire. He had a wood-stove standing in front of the fireplace with a pipe out the back running up the chimney.
He sat staring at that wall all day every day that he was awake in the house the whole time I knew him. It was the screen his mind played on. He sat in his rocking chair that didn't rock like a Zen monk comfortable in his mind, thinking about his Lord. He didn't read well, only read the red print in his New Testament, the only part of the Bible he read. Like Thomas Jefferson, Tom didn't trust Paul, and all the rest of it was stories. What's real is what the Master said, and that only. After a certain point in getting to know Tom I saw him as a monk in his own pilgrim way. He'd quit going to church over a preacher he believed told a lie on him, and to make it worse, believed the preacher had not been called by God, but was self-called to preach. Tom was a philosopher first. A couple of his brothers were called to preach, while Tom, who wanted to be called, never was. Tom's last half of his life was given to loving God and treating the people around him right. Now, after years of thinking about what Charles said, I wouldn't mind at all being just like Tom as an old man. He kept out of everybody's hair and everybody kept out of his.
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