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Tuesday, January 18, 2011


the barn

This small barn, top floor for keeping hay, bottom floor for keeping calves or a cow or two. It has a couple of feeding troughs. Tom Pruitt built the barn. He cut the wood, took it to John Richardson's sawmill at the foot of the hill in Whitehead and it was sawed there by Jr Maxwell, who was working the sawmill for Richardson at the time. My affection for the barn is in that it was built by two men who have told me the stories of their lives over a period of years. In telling me their lives they were also teaching me their culture. Tom's life was around farming and his Lord. I learned the history of Air Bellows from him, the stories of the lives of what he called "the old people," the people that were old and died when he was young, one and two generations before his. He could tell me back that far and no more. Jr too, could only tell his story involved in bluegrass banjo picking, bull-noser driving, sawmilling, tractor fixing, to a couple of generations back. The same with Tom's brother, Millard, whose life was involved in the Regular Baptist church among the preachers, farming, pipe factory, the Esso station in Sparta, carrying the mail.

These were the people who taught me the culture my parachute landed me in the midst of. When it comes to people I have known who lived their lives by the integrity of their own beliefs of what constitutes a life lived honestly in God's eye, these men are the ones. All three of them lived in God's sight, and all of them, I believe, were beloved in God's intimate care. Millard, the preacher, was the more pious of them, though not by a lot. Millard's piety was inside himself. He didn't act pious, though he was a man conscious of his thoughts, words and actions. Millard was a preacher I have no doubt was indeed "called" by God to preach in the Regular Baptist Church. I have seen the conviction of his belief so convincingly I believe it too. I've seen that Millard didn't settle for hocus-pocus. It had to be a great deal more convincing than something you're not quite sure if it came from God or from ego or imagination or from wanting it so much. He didn't want to be a preacher. He struggled against the call to the peril of his health, gave in and got well.

I found in an old hillbilly of the Blue Ridge Mountains a scholar who studied the Bible with serious intent all his life, talked with other preachers and men who studied serious questions in the Bible, studied deeply, such that all I could do was listen. He did not believe the earth was a round planet hurtling through space unimaginably fast, but it doesn't mean he was without knowldge. He was an incredibly intelligent man. Born in a priveleged class, he could easily have been CEO of a major corporation. He played old-time fiddle, banjo and guitar. Couldn't play them outside the house. Once he took up preaching he had to quit playing for dances. Singing, he had a singing voice from the soul of these mountains like Ralph Stanley.

Millard can be heard on an album CHILDREN OF THE HEAVENLY KING: Religious Expression in the Central Blue Ridge, recorded by the Library of Congress in the early 80s. It's a 2 cd set, and can be found at for $16 + shipping. It's worth it. It's worth 10 x that. Millard and his church have 7 tracks on it, singing Jesus Is Coming Soon, When The Redeemed Are Gathering In, How Happy Are They, Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone, a prayer and some preaching. It has other preachers and other churches singing in the different styles of the different churches in the region. It is a beautiful collection of what it calls itself, religious expression. The devotion I have to call spiritual, because it is only housed in the religious, Millard Pruitt was a monk to his Lord and Savior, his every thought, word and action in the presence of the Lord. It didn't mean he had to pretend to be something he wasn't. It meant he was all the more obliged to be himself, who he was, even when it meant alienating certain people, because he didn't bend his beliefs and opinions for no man.

Tom lived in the presence of his Lord the same as Millard did. It wasn't like God, Jesus, Savior, Lord, whatever you want to call it, was off paying attention somewhere else. Tom Pruitt lived in the actual presence of God. Tom was a liquor maker and a weekend drunk until one Monday morning when he was 36 he didn't remember anything about the weekend. He put down the liquor and gave his life to the Lord. Tom had it too. When he'd set to talking about scripture and Jesus, his talking took a rhythm like a preacher just before he's about to be overtaken by the spirit and he's off into preaching. Tom's face glowed pink when he talked like this, his pale blue eyes shone brilliant with joy or grace, whatever you'd want to call it. He'd get on a roll at the verge of taking off preaching, and he'd stop. He'd say, "I wasn't called to preach. I don't have the gift." I can see in retrospect that God landed me in Tom Pruitt's neighborhood, in the proximity of one of His monks. Tom indeed was a monk. He could sit in his rocking chair that didn't rock, spit backer in a Maxwell House instant coffee jar on the floor beside his chair, straight down the center of the opening every time, and stare at the wall in front of him all day every day and never be bored. Day after day for years. Tom quit going to church over overhearing a preacher lie about him. "He told a lie."

Jr Maxwell was every bit as devout as Millard and Tom, lived just as much in the presence of God, though in his own way. Jr thought the ten commandments sufficient guide to live by and knew too much about what preacher say and what preacher do. He didn't respect preachers, but for a few. He liked to listen to old-time preaching on the radio every once in awhile, but not often. He read church as not the way. Jr lived his life as himself, which is sufficient unto God. He was what God made him and there was no need to act any other way before God. Jr had a drink of liquor every day since he was 14. His daddy gave him his first liquor, taught him to respect it, not make it a taboo. It was his daily medicine that cured certain ills, and when he wanted to get drunk, all he had to do was have a few more drinks and pass out. One day he said to me, "I don't know if I'm going to heaven or hell." I said, "Hell wouldn't have you." He looked at me funny for a moment, questioning in his mind if I meant that the way it sounded, then he saw my meaning and a smile came to his face.


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