Today has been an all day review of where I came from inside myself to where I am now inside myself. Sandy, son of the farm I used to caretake, was here for the first time since he became the owner of the mountain house. I had not seen Sandy since before he started Law School, and he's been lawyering for 35+ years, as long as I have lived in the mountains. We used to be from the same culture, urban. He still is. In the time he's been practicing law, I've been a minimum wage laborer in a remote region of the Blue Ridge, living in mountain culture long enough that I have over time faded into the culture to the point it is now my own. I love the culture and the people I know so much I get choked up and teary-eyed talking about them. A few times talking with Sandy sitting on the deck I choked up telling him a little bit about this world. It is a different world from the world he knows. He asked about finding some white liquor. I said, You have to know somebody. I told him as a lawyer he surely knows somebody who can find him some at home. Right away, he knew who it would be. Moonshine is the only thing people from outside the mountains think they know about the mountains. First thing they say is where can they get some. I don't know. You have to know somebody. I've learned the moonshiner's code and value it as a worthy code. I've taught myself to live by the code, even though I don't know how to make liquor.
I learned the code best from Jr Maxwell, and Tom Pruitt before him. Jr lived by the code because his life from birth was this world. Everybody in the mountains lived by the code until the drug business came along. Old-time liquor makers don't like and certainly don't trust any drug people. They rat before they're charged. The moonshiner's code is the mountain code. Don't rat, ever, for any reason. Keep everything you know about certain things to yourself. In the old days, the code was created by the threat of revenuers where somebody who ratted might end up dead or their house burned down. It was a serious time. Everybody stood behind their own people in the face of outsiders. The movie LAWLESS, starring Guy Pearce, is a good story of liquor makers in the 1930s. Pearce's character comes to the region from Chicago, an arrogant slick dick. The film was true to the mountain people, even respectful of them. Mountain people were used extensively in the film as extras. It's a true story told originally in book form by the son of the man whose life the story tells. Seven years I listened to Jr Maxwell tell me his life, the people he knew, experiences in his bluegrass band, how he drank while he played. He said drinking while making music, in his case banjo, you play better and better to the point where it starts going bad. He would drink to the point of his freest picking and hold it there. One of his fiddlers, his favorite through all the years, would drink all the way to oblivion before he stopped drinking. Jr understood his liquor very well. He used it for medicine. He drank a little every day. He told me, "I like to work like hell all week and get drunk on weekends." That was the rhythm of his life. I've been slightly drunk with Jr a few times. He is a fun drunk and I am too, so we didn't get in a fight. We laughed til our ribs were sore.
Visiting with Sandy and Eric today I was all over the place in my mind. Seeing Sandy took me back to Charleston years and the College. I saw him after all the years and it was like it had been a week. I was flashing on changes in my attitude toward life in my time in the mountains. Today I found the mountains, mountain culture, the people I know and have known, the very best influence I could live with regarding my spiritual path. The mountain people are God loving people to such a degree I feel like I am living in a place I could easily call holy in that so many lovers of God live in these mountains. Of course, there are the society church goers where they look down on the country churches. It's in the country churches that the spirit is alive and well. It's in the music too. It is tradition in the mountains that a bluegrass band play gospel songs in their song list. Bluegrass albums until recently have had gospel songs sprinkled among the others. When Ralph Stanley sings a gospel song, his fans love it in a big way. He can make you feel a gospel song. That's what is outstanding about Ralph Stanley, he makes you feel the song he's singing, whatever it is. For one thing, I have found Ralph Stanley's music one of the most enriching aspects of my life. And mountain music all the more. My mountain friends add a richness in my life, too, that I could not find living in a city. Eric tells me I have to see Portland. I'll love it. I have to see Oakland. I'll love it. I told him I don't go into airports anymore, because I refuse to submit to police state. Then I can drive. Cities have no appeal for me. These are different. He said, Tell me one thing you know about Portland. I said, It was once a redwood forest.
I was looking today at the people I've known over the years, the older ones all dead. Now I am one of the older ones. Now, I'm telling stories from the past, filling in younger people on how their ancestors lived and the kinds of people they were. While I was taking care of Jr, Lisa Tucker from Social Services came by a few times before we got involved with hospice. I knew her great grandparents. I asked her if she ever knew them. They died before she was born. Nobody had told her anything about them. I told her they were some of the best people anybody could know. The old man's name was John. This is from over 30 years ago. They were very well respected people. I told her, "You come from good people." When she told me she was a Laurel Springs Tucker, I felt like I already knew her. This is another aspect of rural life I like a lot, knowing people by their extended families. It sometimes makes me long to have had the experience of a loving family. I tell myself what I had was right for me. And it was. The farther I get away from it in time, the more I'm able to see I needed grounding at the start. It set me into an adult life of re-parenting myself, teaching myself, learning as much as I can take in, driven in reaction to the force against knowledge I grew up in. I was not allowed to read in the house, so I learned to isolate myself to read. Reading became a passion because it was forbidden. Not forbidden like told not to. But, if you have time to read a book, you have time to mow the grass, wash the car, whatever came to mind. That was my message to stop it. My adult life has been spent reading as much as I could, and now in the later years I want to go back and read certain ones again. I'd like to read War and Peace again, but oh it is so long. It is also so beautiful a story told so well that when I finished reading it the first time, I couldn't read anything for several weeks, because no writing could satisfy the taste for beautiful writing Tolstoy spoiled me with.
Especially today I was looking at Justin, Crystal and Vada. I've known Justin all his life and Vada all her life. These are people I love as though they were my own. A year or so ago a man I know started running down Justin to where it was about to warm me up. I said, "Before you go too far, I have to tell you Justin is the same as my own." I felt satisfaction saying it. I knew it would be spread all over Whitehead by end of next day. That was ok. I wanted Whitehead to know it. In my heart, Justin, Crystal and Vada are same as my blood. Sandy assessed today that my love for the mountain people is a love of drama. I affirmed it, without really meaning it, though could see a case can be made for it. It's really not the drama. The drama makes good stories to tell, but the stories one tells are not necessarily the ones close to the heart. It's the character of the mountain people I love. I know people in these mountains, Whitehead in particular, I can trust totally, and they can trust me the same. Jr Maxwell, one of the first people I met here in 1976, withheld his trust until he saw in his last year that he could trust me when he couldn't trust anybody else. A month, thereabouts, before his spirit left the body, just before his mind went away, he said to me, "We're closer than friends. We're more like brothers." It was one of the great honors of my life. At about the same time within a week or two, he said, "I wish I could pay you for what you've done for me." I said, "You paid in advance. I'm paying you back. Five years of sharing with me the best liquor made on this earth is worth something to me." Another was the day Jr's spirit left the body. Two men at different times in the day said to me, "You get into any kind of trouble, all of Whitehead will back you up." A woman who had grown up with Jr, same grade in school, a neighbor all their lives, said, "Now Whitehead knows who you are." It may not sound like much to somebody else, but to me those are among the most valuable moments of my life. Earning the trust of mountain people is no small thing. I feel more affirmed by the trust of mountain people than anything else in my life. I value their trust absolutely.
all photos by tj worthington