The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

How Pa Got To Be Head Of His House

By Taylor Ryan © 1986

Issue: March, 1986

Taylor Ryan is the author of "My Love Is A Land So Fair." Billy McKay was the pen name I used in the Tri-State Press while covering the evacuation on Powell River when TVA built Norris Dam. For a lot of folks the evacuation meant the end of a way of life. But for Alec Bostic it meant a new beginning, in more ways than one.

Troy, his oldest son, and one of my closest boyhood friends, wrote me this account.

Dear Billy McKay: I promised to write you about how we got away from the River a few years after you folks left, and how glad we were to get away from there before the Carews and Tollivers went to war against the TVA for building the Dam.

Pa and I always thought it was stupid to want to stay in such a place in the first place. As you may recall, our farm was so far back on Yellow Branch the Lake reservoir would not have reached us if we had wanted to stay. But to us moving off the River was not the end of the world the way it was with Carew's Hundred. We were convinced of that all the more after we took a trip to the Cumberland Plateau, about seventy miles west in Tennessee, and saw all that fine plateau land practically free to anyone who would homestead it. I'll try to tell you just how it happened and what a slick one Pa pulled on everybody, especially Mom.

When we got back home to Yellow Branch Pa couldn't eat his dinner for talking about the farm we found. Two hundred acres, open range, fifty of it cleared more or less. "Level like the palm of your hand, Maggie. If we had that tract back here to Yellow Branch, you know it'd fetch a man two hundred dollars an acre - forty thousand dollars! I'm gettin' it five dollars an acre - three whole years to pay." Pa stopped only because he ran out of breath.

Mom kept shaking her head. "There's something wrong. It's too good to be true. Why it's crazy! Why hasn't somebody bought it?"

"Because the Plateau," Pa took more patience than a lightning rod salesman, "is still in the woods. It's got to have more land cleared. Got to have buildings."

"Still in the woods is right!" My older sister Orrie sniffed. "I hear they can't even give that land away."

Miss Snippety Orrie would not be able to rile Pa just now. "That real estate man, Hufsteddler, is giving me the whole year to pay the first five hundred dollars. Then two hundred and fifty a year, the next two years. A thousand dollars and she's mine!"

Of course Mom did not remotely entertain the idea that Pa was buying a Plateau farm - not actually. She just went on talking out of habitual need to throw cold water on his bug-eyed schemes - he'd wear out eventually and let her have her way all her life. This time I wasn't sure she'd win out. I had gone up there on the Plateau with Pa. I saw Pa sign that Hufsteddler's paper. It was the kind of transaction that the head of the house could transact and did not necessarily require approval of the neck that bore the head.

Mom went on:

"Alec, you'd have to build a house and barn. We're nine mouths to feed till next year's crops. Now what're you talkin' about? When we sell out and leave this house - you ever stop to think how much money you figure we'll have when we hit the big road?"

"Two hundred dollars-maybe."

"That won't even clothe the children."

"Maggie, I've got it all figured out."

"I'm sure, Alec, you've got it figured out."

"Maggie," Pa let Baby Juniper wriggle out of his hands and go scampering across the floor. Baby Juniper made a beeline for the eating table. Her diapered bottom waggled like a duck's, finally ended on the bench and she reached a chubby hand into the butter dish. Out it came with a ball of butter, to big to cram into her mouth all at one time, and gobs of it got lodged outside the gate. Baby Juniper loved her butter that way, by the handful, plain and pure. "There's a hundred and fifty acres in timber, pretty fair oak and poplar and pine, with a special handle-length cutting of hickory," Pa was still pounding away at it. "I can make a deal with Jamsie McIntosh to sawmill the lumber. Out of that I can get me a house pattern And a barn pattern-all the glass and hardware and stuff I need."

I sat on the stove wood box and watched and listened as Pa hammered away with that mountain high gleam in his eye. Mom bowed her head adamantly over the stove. She rattled dishes. She, handed the big blue gravy bowl back over her shoulder to Patrie. Orrie stood opposite Mom, handing dishes back over her shoulder to my kid brother Hobart. A hot word battle was running between Orrie and Hobart, Hobart mad as a hornet at having to do girl's work. Orrie was trying to look and act exactly like Mom, tall willowy, with honey tinted hair cut short and sassy.

This was not the first time Pa and Mom had talked about what we were up against - not the first time Pa came home with a scheme big enough to fill a gunnysack. But he'd never gone out cold sober and bought a farm before; a Plateau farm!

What had me excited, I was in on the deal with Pa heart and gizzard. Win or lose, one thing we knew; Inside of three months we had to be moved out of our old home place. It belonged to my uncle Doc Millard Carew now.

"We can move in with brother Peevie," Mom had been saying for weeks, and Pa saying, "We can burn the house down over our heads or go walk off over a cliff, too." Uncle Peevie might be a brother to Mom and Uncle Millard but you'd never have guessed it in a million years.

Anyway, homesteading a patch of wild Plateau was Pa's choice. Me, I was putting the Plateau first, the cliff second, and Uncle Peevie last of anything whatsoever. Meanwhile Pa, in his woolly headed fashion, was looking out for us.

He was the only one who quite comprehended - leastwise he was the only one who saw anything good coming out of our ruin. Our home had gone to pay for what Pa called his sickness. Nobody agreed with him about his ailment, at least not his own brother-in-law. Ever since Uncle Millard diagnosed it "Pure Laziness" Pa and he had not been on speaking terms.

Mom, like us youngins, was born in this house. It had been, when she was our age, the handsomest house on Yellow Branch, the farm twice as big then, the coves black loamed as river bottoms. Mom's folks, the Jake Carews, had been the finest folks (but the sorriest farmers, Pa declared) in the community. Miss Maggie Carew (before Pa married her) was always voted the prettiest girl at the pie supper. If anybody had the spirit of Carew's Hundred, that all this land where a Carew had set foot was sacred ground, Mom's folks had it.

That, though, was so long ago that now the clapboards on the house were the dead gray of a dirt dauber's nest. Its oak insides were gloomy as caves. As for the farm, Pa swore it had grown to be the worst rundown patch of sawbriars on Yellow Branch, except of course Uncle Peevie's half. That didn't make it any precious to Mom. She had heired the place. Pa come, so to speak, as part of her inheritance by way of having been the hired man since away back before the old folks died. That was a sore point with Pa.

A real sore point.

"Maggie, I've had my eyes on that Plateau farm for years. Now me and Troy and Jamsie McIntosh have been up there. We've seen it with our own eyes. It's the kind of land a man can make an honest-to-God living on. I'm not drinkin' a drop and you know it when I say I can work sixteen hours a day on that Plateau. Ask Troy. Just ask him."

"It's high," I explained. "Two thousand feet higher than down here. Pa says it would cure his sickness overnight."

"Fine dry climate, Maggie."

"It's the coldest place in the State," Orrie butted in. "You hear about it on newscasts all winter long - the Plateau freeze - the Plateau blizzard."

"It don't matter if the winters is cold, it's a dry clean cold," Pa protested. "Gets right in your blood, makes you tingle like a million dollars. Sun shines bright in summer, too, but that mountain breeze always blow. Heat don't burn you. Soon as I got up there, I swear my lungs felt clean as a whistle."

"You still haven't told me - Mom was getting nettled - how you aim to do it."

It was then that Pa looked desperately at me. "Me and Troy talked this thing out. Jamsie heard us, though, every word of it. Jamsie'll tell you I didn't tell Troy he had to do it. I just asked Troy what he thought. Now you ask Troy yourself."

"Ask Troy what?" It alarmed Mom.

I said, "I'm going to take a year out of school and help Pa."

Mom's look withered Pa. "Alec, that's not fair to Troy. You know it's not."

"Mom, would it be the first time a seventeen-year-old took off to help his parents in a pinch?" I interrupted.

"Fiddlesticks!" Mom was really vexed. This was about the first time one of her youngins had got seriously mixed up in one of Pa's schemes.

I said, "It's the only way Pa and I can figure things out. Pa wants to make a home for his family."

"Yes, but..."

"And I want to go on to school. Even to college like Uncle Millard."

"That's why..."

"In one year's time the two of us can get the Plateau farm in hand. From then on Pa can help me through school."

"Troy, you skip your senior year," Mom couldn't believe her ears, "You'll never graduate from high school. Much less go any further. We'll be stranded the rest of our lives up there in that backwoods."

"If we stay here I'll never get any further than high school."

"At least you'd get that far!" huffed Orrie. "But if all you want to be is a backwoods stump grubber..."

"Troy," Mom was saying, "Do you actually believe in this crazy thing?"

I looked Mom in the eye, not wanting to say it. "I believe just as Jamsie McIntosh said to Pa. Every man is due a chance to show what he can do. It's about time, Jamsie says, that Pa had his chance."

Mom started turning colors. Pa, getting to his feet quickly, threw me that one fast look. From here till doom's day, his tone told me, all I had to do was whisper and he'd dive under ice or walk baresoled on hot coals for me. "Maggie, you see what this Yellow Branch life has done for me. Cost me the farm. Left me worse off than a broke-down barn door. Can't do two licks of work without I'm tanked full of medicine."

"Medicine. Alec?"

"All right then!" Pa had stuck his foot in his mouth that try. "Whiskey-and-ginseng bitters. Medicine. Booze. Call it what you want to. I'm sick to death of this grubby place. Having to dope my brains before I can stomach a day's work. That Plateau air is what I need. That and a little hope. When I get up there, on my own fresh land, I'll make up for all we lost down here."

"Your own land?" Mom accused. "You mean this hasn't been your land?"

"I mean," Pa quavered, "A place you didn't heir. If this had ever really been my land, why is it I never had the right to refuse it?"

"Now Alec," Mom tried pacifying, "Today we had our potatoes and turnip greens and sorgums and cornbread. Nothin' fancy. But our children aren't starving. All I'm asking, what would we do when our corn and potatoes run out?"

Pa made grasping motions in the air. He was in the mood for sarcasm now. "Wild game. I'm a dead shot. Got medals in the war to prove it. Them Plateau woods is full of squirrels and rabbits and ringneck pheasants."

"Deer, too," I added.

"Lizzards and snails?" Orrie tittered.

"You're goin to rile me once too often, Miss Snippety," Pa glowered over her.

Mom, perplexed, looked every which way, a plate in her hand which Patrie reached around and took. Things had come to such a dead end for a moment that Hobart catching Orrie's back turned, flung his dishcloth behind the stove, and took a glad hop and a jump out the back door. "Alec, no use you to rail and rant. You know there's nothin' we can do but move in with brother Peevie."

It was like waiting for thunder after lightning's done blasted the chimney. But Pa didn't blow up - not the way we expected. He dropped his arms and dangled them into two heavy weights. They pulled his shoulders down till he was hunchbacked. At moments like this we youngins wondered how the strain that was always tearing our parents apart could be mended by the love that always seemed to prove stronger than the strain.

"You want to know the truth," Pa said finally. "I planned it so we'd lose this misery hole. Last three years I pretended sick. Weren't a bit more sick than Troy there. You'd never allow the farm to be sold. Only way I could figure how to get rid of it was to shunt it off on some dumb doctor for bills and tonic."

"No use you're carryin' on like that, Alec. You know it."

"When I get up there in that Plateau air, I'll prove it. Prove there ain't a thing wrong with me except hope was dead. I'll never touch a drop of spirits. I'll work sixteen hours a day."

Mom's action, the way she turned back to the dishpan, spoke more finally than words. Just then Patrie said from the window, "I see Uncle Peevie coming down the hill."

Pa's hand came up into two balled fists, and set his shoulders straight on his spine again. "I'm going' in and pack my belongin's," he said grimfaced. In a dead silence he walked through the kitchen and into the living room and we heard him go into the bedroom and slam the door.

Mention of Uncle Peevie's name always gave Pa the weak trembles. The thought of moving in with Uncle Peevie was positively the last straw.

Uncle Peevie was a hermit. He batched in what Grandpa Josire Carew used to call - the renter's house, across the west ridge, living on wheat bran and clabber milk. He never forgave Grandpa and Grandma Carew for deeding the home place to Mom, leaving him the rougher west-ridge section.

Uncle Peevie was the kind of man who would hold a herd of steers nine years waiting for a better price and finally sell them at a loss. He'd been my mortal enemy since I told it on him how he mistreated his calves in wintertime - in dead winter, when snow covered all the pastures, he'd walk up to a rickety calf, a 'basket of cobs on his arm and one nubbin ear of corn in his hand. He'd get the calf licking out its tongue for the nubbin, then shoot a cob in its mouth - real neat slight of hand - he'd let the calf keep looking at the nubbin so it would chew and swallow the cob.

I was glad we were leaving Yellow Branch, if for no other reason I wouldn't have to work for Uncle Peevie again. He paid twenty-five cents a day - if I worked a minute under ten hours he docked my wages a cent and if I made him mad he wouldn't pay me no how. It was no trick to make him shrieking mad. We hung a hog with a block and tackle, the mule started a little to quick and Uncle Peevie got his hair hung in the pulley. Then that time he fell out of the tobacco shed and looked up and saw a sprig of his moustache hanging on a nail. Both of those times I laughed and it cost me ten hours hard labor for nothing both times.

"I don't believe it's right of me to let poor Alec run loose any longer," it was Mom's usual reaction after a bout with Pathis time, though, her tone betrayed the bewilderment of a woman realizing she's not at the helm any longer. Already I've let him lose the farm.

Orrie, in her usual smart fashion, urged a crackdown. "He's tryin' to get us in worse fix than we're in already."

"Orrie," I almost came up off the woodbox, "that ain't possible and you know it."

Mom paid no attention to either of us. "If I were'nt eternally sorry for him, I'd have him put in the crazy house."

Then I did get up. A flare of feeling for Pa shot through me. "You've listened to Uncle Peevie till you're aping his spiteful talk." I never talked that hard to Mom before.

She wrung out her dishrag. She hung it on a nail behind the stove. She kept standing behind the stove with her face to the wall. I looked out the window, seeing Uncle Peevie crow-hopping down the ridge. I heard Mom sniffing.

Orrie turned from cleaning the top of the stove. She looked down her nose at me, chilly as a morning cucumber. "I'd rather move in with Uncle Peevie a thousand times than go to that backwood."

Patrie was thirteen. She was smart enough to take my side in just about anything. She piped up. "Orrie don't mind to move in with Uncle Peevie. She don't expect to live there long - hopin' she'll get herself married off to Basil Edenrose."

Orrie threatened to stuff her dishrag down Patrie's mouth but just then we heard Hobart outside speaking to Uncle Peevie. A stomp sounded on the porch. Then Uncle Peevie flung the screen door back

He stood, scarcely higher than the door button, eyes crowding close to his little pug nose. The wart on his right cheek jiggled three black hairs. His countenance pooched out sourly on top of a bundle of moustache. Like a sullied-up kitten Uncle Peevie glared at Mom's red eyes. "I want me a drink of water," Uncle Peevie said.

Orrie fetched him a dipperful. His horny Adam's apple crawled up on each gulp and squelched it down. "Lord, Peevie, Alec's'done it this time," Mom said. "He's bought a farm on the Plateau."

"What'd he pay fer it with?" Uncle Peevie said.

"Uncle Peevie, you ought to take your steers up on that Plateau," I said it for pure meanness. "They've got free range laws up there. You know what that means? It means you could sponge off everybody's pastureland."

"I'll pull your chain," Uncle Peevie told me, "when I want you to bark."

"Alec claims that high climate would cure his sickness," Mom said.

"What sickness?" Uncle Peevie spat.

"I know but Peevie, you didn't cross the waters and fight the War like Alec did. If you'd got a dose of that shellshock, you might have queer notions too."

"Horse feathers." Uncle Peevie always said that to let you know he didn't want to hear another word.

We heard the, bedroom door open then. We heard Pa come walking stiff-legged from the living room into the kitchen. The lumpy suitcase he carried looked green with age but it kind of grinned, the toe of a sock hanging through its lip.

Pa barrel-chested his way up against Uncle Peevie. He picked Uncle Peevie up with one arm the way he'd lift Baby Juniper. Uncle Peevie yelped and scratched at Pa's ear. Pa sidestepped and dumped Uncle Pevie in an awful clatter right in the stovewood box.

"When you move out of this house," Pa said it to Mom, "Make sure you burn up all the trash."

He yanked his hat brim over one eye. At the doorway he turned "I'm on my way over to Jamsie McIntosh's. I'm closin' that deal with him to sawmill the timber off that Plateau farm. I'll be breaking' ground and puttin' in my buildin's. That's where I'll be if you ever care to come."

Pa let the screen door close gently behind him. He did not look back.

After one wail even Uncle Peevie was quiet. Mom moved slowly toward the door, following Pa. She stood there, looking through the screen. A kind of wonder finally stole over her face....

Well, Billy McKay, I could go on with the story step by step, but it only follows Pa's blueprint all the way. That is how we got to the Plateau. After one year Pa put me through graduation, and with the help I got from Uncle Millard, Pa has put me most of the way through college now.

If you ever get the chance, go down and see how Uncle Peevie's faring.