Writing about my Pruitt friends has brought a tsunami of memories rushing in, remembering the people I knew in that time, half my life ago. The county had not yet been discovered by realtors. A small percentage of people here were from Away, like me. In the early years I longed to know some people from cities, people who read books (gave up on that one right away), but the people living here then from Away were here because they didn't like people, wanted to get away from people. I'm not what you'd call gregarious, but I need and value other people. I came here to get away from my urban distractions to a place surrounded all the way around by the green world to work at hard labor on a farm, learning farming the old-time way before electricity. Working with old man Tom Pruitt, who did everything the old-time way, I felt like a one-man Foxfire book, an observer learning by doing, working side by side with Tom stretching barbed wire, digging fence post holes and tamping in the posts. Tom taught me to plant a post so it will never wiggle and to stretch wire that will never sag. Never, of course, is an exaggeration for emphasis, meaning 20 to 40 years, depending on the kind of wire used. Tamping around a post, it was important to tamp it good and hard around the very bottom of the post and tamp it good all the way up. Stretching the wire from the bottom up, the wire will hold tight for many a year. Another farmer taught me to staple a wire from the top of a fence post to the ground, stapling it to each wire on the way down the post and poke it into the ground. Lightning striking the wire will be grounded. I did that about every hundred feet or every ten posts. Grounding the lightning strikes keeps the wire from rusting so fast. Evidently, wire fence not grounded rusts much faster than grounded wire. I'm not saying this is scientific fact. It's what Tom and some other farmers taught me and I observed it in my own experience.
In a time when the Pruitt fellers went off in different directions, Tom invited me to go one Saturday night to his brother's church in Glade Valley called Laurel Glenn. Actually two Ns. The member who made the sign over the door with his router spelled Glenn like the man's name, not like glen, meaning a stand of laurels among the trees behind the church. Nobody cared. Same difference. It was a Regular Baptist church, mountain old time religion, the real deal, that met on Saturday night and Sunday morning once a month. The other churches in the Association were used, each on its own weekend, as the people went around from church to church. I knew Tom had a preacher brother here in the county, though didn't know who or where. Tom didn't go to church any more. He'd been a member at Landmark, then a Regular Baptist church in Whitehead, now a Union Baptist, where he'd got saved in his early 30s, quit drinking, (he was a weekend drunk -- a drink til you pass out kind), quit making liquor, and joined the church. At one of the churches in the association, the Little River Association, of half a dozen Regular Baptist churches in the county, there was a new preacher who did not pass any of the tests to indicate he was God-called to Tom's satisfaction. The church was a bit divided over it, as a preacher who was not God-called invariably divided churches. The God-called preachers do their preaching without ego. The preachers that called themselves preached from ego. One Sunday Tom heard this preacher tell a man he was talking to that Tom had said something Tom did not say. The preacher lied on him. Tom didn't like no lyin preacher. Lying on somebody is serious business in the mountains. Tom lived by the moonshiner's code. Lying on somebody can get a man in serious trouble.
The Saturday night meeting Tom invited me to his brother Millard's church was the occasion of a visiting preacher from the West Virginia coal mines, Walter Green. Tom had not heard Walter in several years. He was an almighty preacher. Tom wanted to see what I'd make of it. Id' never expressed an interest in his brother's church, though had been curious, assuming it would happen one day, or not. Tom's Bible was a basic New Testament with red letters. He only read the red letters. For him, the red letter words were spoken by God's voice directly. All the rest of it was about God. Tom didn't have time to concern himself about God when he had access to the voice directly as spoken. I felt no need to offer anything to it about translations. I was in full agreement about KJV already. I found it extraordinary that my parachute that landed me here where God planted my feet on the ground was next to Tom Pruitt who saw it exactly as I saw it. Why fuss over studying about God when we've got raw God there in the red letters. I tend to think of Paul a saint wannabe. Paul was the one to start churches, not Peter. Jesus did not want churches, did not want a religion to follow him. He was the red letter man. He was not about control or power. He was about yielding, the core of the martial arts. He taught us how to live our lives as a martial art, avoiding conflict by yielding, awareness of the flow, finding inner peace in giving, in compassion, in a loving heart. Tom was there. Tom is someone I call a true Christian. He lived the teachings of his Lord and it made him a beautiful soul. No piety about him in any way.
Walter Green did not show up that night. I heard him later, two or three times. That night I heard Millard Pruitt and Ray Caudill sing together, both in their 70s, sounding like ancient American Indians singing in a language I about half understood. I had never heard anything like it. Their sound was so ancient it was universal. I don't recall the hymn title, but it's a pretty good guess to say it could have been Rank Stranger. It's a song that is sung in an awful lot of the mountain churches, a song Ralph Stanley sings at every show and recorded several times. It was one of Millard Pruitt's top favorite songs and he sang it such that it makes one think if he could sing that song with a bluegrass band, a banjo and fiddle, it would be right there with Ralph Stanley, without the Stanley influence, but the old-Baptist influence they share. Hearing Millard Pruitt sing was a great moment in mountain music every time. It's the same in the old-time churches throughout the mountains. A lot of the old preachers could really reach your heart in their singing. Millard Pruitt's singing was straight out of the heart, like Ralph Stanley's. Millard and Ray Caudill together was a great Southern duet of gospel. They didn't think of themselves anything like that. From their way of seeing it they were praising God. Millard preached that night and it was just as Tom told me it would be, which I had a hard time imagining with nothing to go by. The spirit tapped in, took charge of Millard's voice and spoke what it had to say through him. The spirit speaking through him was not Millard Pruitt talking. I was in awe, as was everyone in the place. Tom had told me when the spirit hits the preacher, you will feel a chill run up your spine. You look around and you'll see everybody in the house is feeling the same thing. It was so. His preaching that night was indeed a divine moment.
Tom's face was glowing pink long before the end of the meeting. I found when Tom was at home and talking to me about parables and his interpretation of such stories as virgins with the lamps and the one that let it go out, something like that. I forget how he had it figured out I'm not sure I got it when he told me. He believed the earth was flat, has found nothing to convince him it is a ball spinning in space. He told me when he was in school the teacher said the earth was round like a baseball. Tom's response, "I aint never seen no mountains on narry baseball." That sealed it for him. I didn't mention that if the smoothest pool ball you could find was blown up to the size of the earth, the mountains would be unimaginably high compared to our mountains on earth. The earth reduced to the size of a baseball would be slicker than the smoothest ball bearing ever made. A baseball the size of the earth would have mountains so high they'd go way up out of the atmosphere. He was in his mid seventies, this was his cosmology. I could not see that it made a bit of difference in a man's life if the earth is flat or round. Of course, it means a great deal for an astrophysicist, but for somebody who throws hay bales to the cows off the back of his pickup and who uses a chainsaw to cut his firewood, I can't see that it matters. It's the same things going on either way. Sun rises, sun sets. Moon rises, moon sets. Flat or round, it's all imagination anyway. Tom's cosmology was Fifteenth century in science and religion. He was fascinating for me. I did not know there were people in my land that still thought the earth was flat. I did not realize until then how slow cosmologies are to become universal. I've come to wonder if there are people whose belief system doesn't come far enough to consider the question. We have living examples of belief systems all the way back to people who shot monkeys with poison darts. Some still do.
all photos by tj worthington