Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chapter 12 - Apalachia

We drove the two lane blacktop through the hills to the small town where I had spent the first few years of my life. I hadn't been back for four years. Seemed like forever. Like so many other mining towns in the area, Hossburg seemed to by dying -- it was at least, at a standstill.  The coal veins had given out and the young had been moving out in droves. Those that stayed behind, or where left behind, managed as best they could. My grandfather ministered to them from a small Baptist church, white clapboard, with a baptismal picture behind the pulpit. He had stayed with this small church in the dying town for a long time. He could have had a big church in a larger city, but he preferred the intimacy of a small town and a small church. He never went back to the big city and the big congregations.

Route 15 runs right through the middle of town. My grandfather's rented house was just off the highway down a gravel drive full of potholes. That summer we kids spent a lot of time and effort trying to fill the holes, just because we loved him so much. He played with us; so we worked for him, whether he asked for our help or not.

My grandfather only had three quarters of the house - the downstairs and half of the second story. The other half of the upstairs was occupied by the landlady. She kept an eye on us, so that the whole family under surveillance. But, we never saw her much and were glad that we didn't. We kids used to love to jump off the steps that led to her apartment, round the back of the house. They were steep with open side rails. We would climb them and jump out the side, daring each other to jump from one step higher. I don't remember any of us ever breaking a limb, but it is difficult to understand how we did not.

At the top of the stairs was a door that the landlady rarely used. It was her back door. One afternoon while I was watching TV I saw how a thief was able to get into someone’s house without breaking in. He saw through the keyhole that the key was on the inside of the lock. He slipped a newspaper under the door  and placing a nail in the keyhole, pushed the key out of the lock. The key fell onto the paper. From the outside, he pulled the newspaper on which the lock had fallen out under the door. I did the same thing. It worked and I unlocked the old lady's door. I invited one of my cousins along and we went through all the lady’s things. We got caught and I got whipped. I never did a thing like that again. I thought I was smart, but my dad made me feel otherwise.

The house was white and fairly large. It had two porches - very nice to sit on. My grandparents mostly lived on the first floor and so when we moved back in, we got the upstairs. The stairs going to our part were at the back of the house. My parents got the first room at the top of the stairs and we kids got the other room. My youngest sister got a crib in with my parents.

Once I caught the room on fire. I had cut the cord from lamp and plugged it into an outlet. The wire heated up in my hand and melted the plastic covering right off. I dropped it to the floor and it ignited the curtains all along the window. I ran yelling "fire, fire" down the stairs. My grandfather came running up. He grabbed the wire with a pair of pliers with rubber handles and yanked it out of the wall. Then he and Grandma pulled down the curtains and stomped the flames out. Luckily, I didn't burn the house down. He didn't say much, but I got whipped when my father came home. Grandpa did burn the house down a few years later.

From upstairs I used to like to look out the window. It was a sort of private view of the world from there. No one but we kids were ever up there so it was sort of like "our window." I could see the Tioga river at the end of the yard. It was still beautiful, although not like it used to be. It had an orange color now, run-off from the abandoned mines. The water that now seeped into the river had turned every rock a burnt orange. The rocks covered the banks and the bottom of the river. Sewage from the towns along its banks also ran into the river. Once we surprised ourselves, and Grandpa too, when we caught a fish - a small perch. Grandpa couldn’t believe it came from the river, except that it too was dyed orange. He made us swear we wouldn't eat it. We tried to keep it alive in a fish bowl but the fresh water killed it.

Across the river, past the railroad tracks and up the hill was a hospital. It was the one where my burns were treated. One of my brothers was born there too. Sometimes I would sit and watch the drain from the hospital to see if any amputated limbs floated out, but I never saw any. Below the window was the cellar. My grandfather spent a lot of time down there. Mostly in the winter though, when he had to shovel coal into the furnace. I liked to watch him do that. It made him look powerful. One year he spent much of the summer down there switching it over to gas. Looking out the window, off to the right of the cellar, was an old doll house. That's what we called it, but it had originally been a storage shed. We had to smoke a hive of bees out of it once. That was fun. And even the stings were worth it!

Further down to the right there was an old chicken coop. Next to it, a red barn, left over from when this land had been a farm. Most of my grandfather's descendent's learned to ride bike by riding down the hill from the barn to the road. It wasn't too steep so you could learn to coast down it before you had to peddle. I learned on that little hill too. Beside the barn was a small woods. In the middle of the woods there were some old mining carts. There was some old mining track laying around as well.

Rabbits and small animals were plentiful. We had lots of rocks from the river to throw at them. There were lots of snakes too, attracted to the rock for cover. Many of them were copperheads and rattlers. In the summer when we would go blackberry picking with Grandpa and Uncle John. They would tell us to "Watch out for the rattlers." But none of us ever got bit. Once we saw a black bear in the woods and grandpa made us stay out if it for a few days.

My grandfather kept a hammock in the woods. He liked to lie there by the hour just looking up at the sky. I always wondered what he was thinking, but I never asked him. He liked resting in the woods cause grandma never came out there. He counted on that. Besides, he was watching the kids. He loved watching us play. Didn't want to play with us, just watch. And we liked that. The older he got, the more he liked kids, and the more he spent time with us. He always said adults could learn more from kids than the other way around. That's what he used to tell me anyway. I asked him why he didn't go back to one of the big churches in the city where they would pay him better. He always said they needed him more here. I am sure he was right. I think he liked being needed. He was only happy making sacrifices. A trait my father seemed to have taken from him.

With all the traveling in my life, and all the changes, it was always nice to return to Grandpa's house. This was the only place that ever felt like home to me. Every other place was just that, some other place. I especially liked the dinning area. It was not a separate room from the kitchen, but an extension of it. It was usually crowded, and we never knew how many people would be there for a meal. You see, we kids were driven back and forth between Uncle John's and Grandpa's according to our whim of the moment. It was like having two homes.

However crowded the dining room may have been, we could always squeeze in another person. This was because the dining table was long and narrow, and had church pews on either side. You could just about squeeze as many people on one of those benches as you wanted to. You just sat closer and tighter. The table itself was really a large picnic table. At each end of the table was a metal folding chair. At the head of the table, on the wall, was a large picture of a child in a highchair saying his blessing. That always seemed to remind me that I was in a preacher's home. One could feel very important sitting at the head of this table, with the picture behind you, and the church pews on either side. Very medieval in feeling.

The kitchen was just that, a serviceable area with a pink counter top, an old toaster, and one or two other appliances. Not the kitchen of a great chief, but Grandpa could make that kitchen sing. He even rigged up the old fridge so it worked even after the handle broke off. In its place was a large spoon. It had a whole drilled in one end attached to the inside latch. You just pulled the spoon to open the door. It worked well and was a good conversation piece, except that Grandma hated it. There were a lot of jerry-rigged house parts in this area, as there was little money for repairs.

The rest of the house was run down too, but cozy. There were lots of old pieces of stuffed furniture that years ago had already taken on the shape of the human form. Where the fabric had worn off, there were covers put on and tucked in at the edges. There were rug pictures hung on the walls. Very common in this part of the country. Mostly they were animal pictures: bears, tigers and deer. Also there were numerous drawings and paintings of my father's, ones he had painted as a boy. They were all lost when Grandpa burned the house down. They were mostly scenes of the woods and the outdoors. Things I never saw my father interested in, maybe he just outgrew them. I often looked at them and wondered where that little boy was, that drew those pictures, and why I couldn't find him in my father.

I especially liked the early morning breakfasts my grandfather made. The smell of his special style of scrambled eggs mixed with the smoke of his Pall Mall cigarettes, non filtered, was a sure call to breakfast. He always seemed to know who would be up and always fixed just enough. I never could figure out how he did it. Sometimes it was just me and him. What a delight! Those times made me feel so important. So special. I can still remember his pale skin beneath his white hair, a cigarette hanging from his lips as he spread jelly on toast. Sitting in one of those large pews with him at the head of the table seemed like dinning with royalty. Nothing ever made me feel more important than that.

After breakfast, in the summer, it was nice to sit on the kitchen steps, smell the morning air, and listen to the birds.  The dew would still be on the grass, giving it that  special sheen. The rabbits would be out getting their breakfast lazily, till we let the dogs out. To the right of the steps, railroad ties were propped up against the house. They held up the house where it had ceased to do this for itself. Grandpa had floated them across the river from where they had lain for years -left over from when the tracks had originally been laid.

After the dogs did their business, the day began. My job was to play hard and my Grandpa's was to drive around town, stopping and visiting with the different people and  families that needed help. He really heard some good stories. He liked to tell them later, usually after most of the members involved were dead. He did a lot of funerals. Most of the people left in town were older, many of the men had black lung disease. Even the doctor died young, and grandpa told me that his heart was broken because his wife ran around. Grandpa bought the Doc's old car after he died. It helped him keep the good old Doc's memory alive. But he got a good deal on the from the doctor's guilty wife.

Grandpa always wrote his sermons on Saturdays. But he thought about them all week, and sometimes even discussed them with me. Sometimes we kids were the inspiration. We would hear in the sermon, something we had been talking about during the week. The sermons didn't seem that hard to write; he wrote one draft and delivered it from those notes.

He had a little study off the living room. It jutted out from the house like an afterthought. But because of this, it had two sides of windows which gave it a nice view. The room was unheated, but he used it in winter too. His sermons often reflected the weather and the view from his study. In the summer his sermons were warm and beautiful and optimistic. In the winter, they were somber, cold and chiding. He'd catch cold in that unheated room in the winter, and would often have coughing spells during his Sunday morning delivery. Having to stop and then continue. Several times he actually caught pneumonia from being in there half a winter's night. If I were up late on a Saturday night, I could hear his three fingered pecking on the old black manual typewriter.

Grandfather ran his church from top to bottom. He painted the walls, hung the pictures, fixed the plumbing, and every Saturday dusted and mopped the sanctuary. Sometimes I wondered if he knew that the church didn't mean as much to others as it did to him. Maybe he was working too hard? I never told him what I thought about the church. I certainly never wanted to help clean it. I just hated to see him do it. Yet, he never complained, never asked for help. He just did it.

Sunday mornings were more like a rat race through hell than preparation for worship. There was too much duty involved. All this feeling of duty overrode everything and made us solemn. Grandpa would be tired, because he had been up half the night, harried and hurried, wanting us to all be ready on time. He didn't want his family to be late and set a bad example. But grandma was always late. I don't think she wanted to be there on time, the way she always managed to not be ready. I really thought she did it on purpose. I guessed she hated him. She certainly didn't seem to want to have much to do with him. She lived her own life - had her own pet projects - missionary support work. What better time to show contempt than Sunday morning. She did manage that. She really made his life miserable. Rather than fight with her he usually ended up leaving before the rest of us so he wouldn't be late. We would follow later when Grandma was ready. Good thing Grandpa had two cars.

His cars were both the same, so he must have liked that model Buick. I can't remember how he managed that, being so poor, but he loved his cars. They were the original V-8 car, the 1958 Buick. God those were slick looking, gangster type cars. Black with those silver eyes on the side of the hood. He thought these were quality cars and he kept them up himself. Dad used to love to drive them. I liked riding in them because they were so smooth.

Grandma would usually arrive with the children just after the service had started. How appropriate. Made her point every Sunday, just like clockwork. Grandpa would stay mad the whole rest of the week. The church really did have a small congregation, and the choir always had a poor showing. Half the time no one showed up to sing in the choir. So my Aunt would sing solo - impromptu. She would have to sing solo because no one had come to church early enough to put on a robe and sit in the choir section. And there was almost never a choir practice during the week. Just not enough members. If we children or other young adults happened to get to church early on a particular Sunday we were usually drafted into the choir. It wasn't easy to refuse. So any Sundays that we were there early, my brothers, sisters, and I would sing. We knew most of the hymns so all that had to done was put on a robe and sit in the choir section. Sometimes we didn't even know what we were going to sing until my aunt would pass a note to us telling us what page to the hymn was on.

All my grandfather would have to say was, "And now we will have the next musical number," and we would stand up and sing the chosen hymn. The old ladies in the church probably didn't hear well enough to know whether we had practiced or not. Maybe they didn't care. But I really don't think the congregation was aware of the spontaneous nature of their musical entertainment. From the church pew the services seemed to run fairly smooth. We knew all the hymns by heart, so we could always sing them fairly well. When my aunt sang solo she always did a good job too. We helped keep grandpa's church going. Altogether we made the old church seem better than we knew it was.

Sometimes without warning grandpa would announce in mid-service that his grandchildren would sing a song in Congolese. There was no such language as Congolese. In the Congo there were 250 different dialects, we sang in Kikongo because that's what our African hymnals had been written in. At Bangala we had spoken Kituba, the local dialect. He would never ask us ahead of time if we wanted to do this. He would just slip it in on us. He suspected we would refuse. I never liked singing in a foreign language in church in front of a bunch of old ladies. It never made me feel special, more like a fool actually. Freaks in a circus would better describe my feelings about it.

We had been foreigners long enough and it had hurt to be reminded. We didn't like being exploited any further. For much of our lives we children had felt on display, open to ridicule, for being different. We had been gawked at, spit on, beaten - this was more of the same. We didn't like being different, we'd had enough of that. We wanted to fit in, blend with the crowd. We didn't feel that knowing a song in a foreign language made us special, we just happened to know it from living overseas.

So, here we would be, dressed in our sweet little Sunday clothes, cute and clean as china dishes, feeling just dead. We sang our little songs and while the old ladies smiled we were dying inside. I would have liked to spit in their beady little eyes, and on their mink stoles, that were just a little deader than they were. While I would be singing, I would be thinking back to just a few weeks before, when I had been in Africa sitting in church with wall to wall native children who didn't give a damn about Jesus. They were only there because it was the only thing going in town. They were mostly there to look at the white kids. They would sit scrunched together on the pews in front of us, all turned around looking at us the whole time. They paid no attention to the sermon, only to us- talking about us, looking at us, even reaching out and touching us. We were like animals in a zoo. A zoo without walls, yet one could not escape. Singing in front of the church in Hossburg felt no different. Still on display, still feeling used and abused.

Finally I had had enough. My grandfather gave his usual announcement that we would be singing immediately following the prayer. While we were supposed to be praying, with our eyes closed, I made a ruckus and waving my arms till my grandfather opened his eyes and noticed me. I looked him right in the eye and shook my head, "No." He saw that I meant it. After the prayer he announced that he had changed his mind and went on to something else. He never asked us to do that again. He knew I would never do it again just to please him. Being used by a minister of the Lord is no better than being used by anyone else.

My own father never came to my grandfather's church. He was usually out somewhere else conducting services of his own. Sometimes he would drag us along and we would always end up having to be witnesses for Christ because we were "missionary kids." This made us special, the kind of special I hated. But my father thought his mission overruled any objections we might have. We were messengers for the Lord whether we wanted to be or not. That same feeling of being a circus animal would overtake me and make me feel disgusted with my father and everything related to the church. We would put on a performance, but that is all it was, a hollow, shallow piece of work. It was always well received by the congregations in spite of my developing hatred of them. I may have looked tame on the surface, but inside I was seething.

As the year progressed I felt more and more like the whole church scene I was involved in was a psychological cage. The cages varied according to denomination, but they were still cages. Some were like gilded cages, others stainless steel, some like rusty cages. I heard the same nebulous stupidities every Sunday. I saw the same blank ignorant faces and felt the same subtle cruelties. I was being raised in the church, but was learning to hate everything connected with it. Even as a child I knew that my feeling was odd. Most of the other children didn't catch on to what I was seeing and feeling, and I didn't know why. Were they dumb? Did they just not care? I didn't trust the adults around me, and I didn't trust the kids around me. I felt like a total outcast. How was I to trust my own mind when all the adults and other children didn't see things the way I did? It was like seeing red when everyone else saw green. It took me years to figure out that my own mind was worth trusting and that I was right, at least for me.

As for my father and his faith, I never resented him for it. If he wanted to risk his life and sacrifice his health and well being, that was his choice. I only objected to his dragging us along. My mother was passive and we children were captive. We had no choice. This was his trip, not mine. I didn't want to go on this ride. My health and my mind were my own, and I felt he was responsible for protecting me, not subjecting me, to this mental torture and traveling hell!

I did not want to make the sacrifices he did. I didn't want to make sacrifices for the natives, even less for the little old ladies in the small town churches. Their lives were already spent. Why should I be their Sunday morning entertainment. I didn't have my childhood for myself, it was given away to others, and I couldn't stop it. I just wanted my life to be mine. I needed to play and be free to discover myself. Not be told who I was and how to be every single second of my life. I didn't want to be a model for church congregations. I wanted to be on in my own skin, in my own mind, on my own turf. I wanted to forget all the grown up stuff - all that religion. I could choose that later, couldn't I? Maybe after I had completed my childhood job - playing -that wonderful activity that comes so naturally to children. I did not want it now! The alter of sacrificing, suffering, physical or mental, religious or otherwise, was not one on which I was voluntarily going to through myself. I was glad when my father decided he was going back to Africa alone. It was still too dangerous for families we were told. He left and we stayed behind living at Grandpa's.

end chapter 12

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