barnett newman, achilles
The first of November, Thursday, I went and picked up my friend Melia, and we went to Jr's grave in Whitehead to have a sip of some liquor and pour a sip on the grave for him. This is the third time we've celebrated Jr in this way since he left the body. Melia is Jr's cousin, second or third, but between them it was just cousin. We do feel like he's with us in spirit, hoping he can see through the veil from the other side, see us laughing and talking about him in happy memories. We always are in a laughing spirit when we're there. Jr, himself, was in a laughing spirit in his life. Laughing is part of the memory of Jr. He was a loyal friend and a supportive friend in an encouraging way. He was the only man I've known I can call wise without hesitation. I was about to say I miss his wisdom, but it's him I miss more than his wisdom. Old-time hillbilly tractor mechanic, sawmiller (sawyer), cattle farmer, welder, bluegrass banjo picker on weekends, bulldozer operator, quit school after 11th grade, and pretty much was the "spiritual" hub of Whitehead. I say spiritual because the people of Whitehead respected Jr in a real way, for who he was.
Jr was a neighbor to everyone in Whitehead, neighbor in the way Jesus used the word. He did not go to church, was baptized at age 11, had his own theology he kept to himself. He believed it was all in the Ten Commandments, all the guide he needed. His humility was a good example of mountain humility. Mountain culture has a wide stripe of humility in it, which varies from individual to individual. Jr's was not of the pious church variety of humility. It came from understanding by figuring it out that living humbly is the only way that works in this world, anyway in a world where everybody knows each other. We have a fear that humility equals weakness, when Jr's humility did not. His feet were in place. He had no question of his place in the world. Somebody who might go into his house in the middle of the night would meet him with a gun in his hand he knew how to make go bang. He kept a .22 pistol on the table beside his bed or in the drawer. It wasn't for killing, only for stopping or slowing down whatever threat the other might be. He told me once, he only told anything once, when I asked him who he looked up to, he looked up to everybody. It seemed a bit of a sweeping generalization at first thought, but second thought was Jr never said anything like that he did not mean. Hillbillies don't speak in sweeping statements unless they're trying to convince you of something, which Jr never did, and conscious ones never do.
I've come to believe that Jr came into this lifetime contracted to take the fast lane to wisdom--- suffering. This man has suffered through incidents in his life that came to him out of the blue, not apparently of his karmic making, blows that would drop a rhino to its knees, at least five of them. I'd personally be beat down by any one of them. The first one happened when he was 23, married five years with Maggie, the woman he could have lived happily ever after with. She played guitar and sang, and incidentally was Doc Watson's cousin, back when Doc was Arthel the kid that went blind. Jr's older brother, Welter, older by 30 years, played fiddle. The three of them played dances on weekends. Welter came to the house on Christmas eve, 1945, wants Jr to drive him to his in-laws house in Piney Creek to see his wife and the 4 month old baby. His second and much younger wife had left him and went back to her mother and dad, probably for protection. Jr said he was "too quick with a gun." Maggie said to Jr, "He's drunk. The'll be trouble. It's Christmas Eve. If you go with him, I'm leaving you." He stayed. Welter found somebody else to take him. He shot and killed his wife, shot his father-in-law three times and he survived, cut up his mother-in-law's face, went outside and blew his own head off in the front yard.
When Jr and Mary learned what happened, Jr was so wrecked he told her she won't have to leave him, because he's leaving her. He went to Wytheville and drove a cab for a while, fell in with Theron Stoneman, who knew of good-paying construction work in Toccoa, Georgia. They went there, and from Toccoa Jr went to Decatur, Georgia, then Decatur, Alabama, working good jobs, ending up operating a crane that went 150 feet up. He was gone a couple years until his mother and dad needed help on the farm and asked him to come home. He'd tried to join the Marines, but his feet were flat as duck feet and he was rejected. His next wife, Lois, played bass in his bluegrass band, the Green Mountain Boys. One night they came home from a dance around 1:30 and the house had burned to the ground. A lightning storm had passed through. Some years later, Lois came down with cancer. Trips up and down the mountain to Winston-Salem for chemo, all the agony that goes with it, then she sat down by a maple tree to put an end to her pain that pain-killers no longer subdued. She shot herself in the head, but survived 8 days in Winston-Salem intensive care, Jr sleeping on waiting room couches, out of his mind and totally in his mind too.
In Jr's grief, Spider Woman entered the scene her fingers walking through the obituaries to find a man. In twelve years she went through all Jr's assets; convinced him to sell the family farm because it reminded her of his former wife, and move into a double-wide. He worked into his late 70s at the sawmill through the winters paying her bills. She got him down to his house, his shop, his sawmill and credit card debt so deep she couldn't spend any more on them and couldn't get new cards. One day she said she was going into town and he waited all night on the porch watching the highway for her to return. Next day a U-Haul truck backed up to the front door and a sheriff's car with a deputy telling Jr he needed to take his guns and he was there to protect her from Jr, which amounted to protecting the spider from the fly. She took everything from the house she wanted and was gone. No good-bye, kiss my ass, ner nothin, as they say. Then she tried to get what property was left for a divorce settlement and get him to pay the credit card debts. Fortunately, the judge saw through her, as everybody in Whitehead already had seen through her before Jr married her. The community of Whitehead pleaded with him not to marry her. She'd already run through one man, exactly-to-the-letter as she did Jr. After doing in Jr, she was no longer welcome in the county. No one had anything to do with her and eventually she left, and died about a year after he did.
It was a year or two after she left that I stopped by the shop to see Jr after not seeing him in several years. While he was married to Spider Woman I stayed away. Like everybody around me, I knew who she was. I felt sorrow for Jr the whole time he was married to her. I was aiming to open a music store and wanted his take on the likelihood of it working. First thing I saw was Jr Maxwell was dragging bottom, depressed unto despair. He asked me to the house for a drink of good mountain liquor. Jr was a literal connoisseur of white lightning and drank only the very best, made by somebody whose recipe went back 4 generations. I saw that Jr was not only depressed, but he was lonesome. He'd ask me to come back next day for another drink and I did, each time keeping him up on the progress toward setting the store in motion. I wanted to help Jr, but learned long ago not to attempt to help in any way that can't be done with my hands, like picking things up, carrying things, fixing things, like that. I don't dare go into psychological counseling, only because I know better. I assessed Jr was lonesome. I thought I could ease the pangs of lonesomeness by visiting him regularly. When the store started, I dropped by every evening on the way home to have a drink with him and hear another two-hour installment of his life story told like leaves falling off a tree, one here, one there, no linear order, just as they fell.
Jr's wisdom came first-hand from experience. He did not read and he stayed away from church. The only second-hand information he got was sitting in the tractor shop talking with somebody who dropped by, gazing out the garage door opening at the cars and trucks going by on the highway, whatever was the new gossip, the cattle market news, timber selling news, the long list of the variety of things men talk about when they get together gabbing. He watched no television and only listened to the radio when bluegrass was on and sometimes country. Only looked at the local paper. One bit of wisdom Jr passed to me, he said his daddy passed to him, I incorporated into my life the moment I heard it, because I already understood it, but not in such clear terms: Stay away from important people. That is what I call sound counsel. I already knew it from my own experience, but had not seen it so clearly put. The moment he told it, I adopted it into my life as a creed. It really is a great insight. All "important" people are self-important. I need say no more. I learned much more than that from Jr, valuable subtle insights into getting through difficult moments in involvements with others. Stay away from important people tattooed on the inside of my forehead is the gift of his wisdom he passed to me, like Elijah leaving Elisha his mantle, though a much lesser version. I miss the lightness of Jr's presence. The night of the morning his spirit left the body, opening the door, stepping out of the car arriving home, a big owl hooted from a tree so nearby I was surprised it had not flown when the car drove up. I heard Jr speaking to me through the owl, thanking me. I hooted back to the owl my own gratitude.
cleve andrews and jr maxwell
by tj worthington*