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The View from My Ridge


Illustrated



by Charles E. Rice





Canopic Publishing
389 Lincoln Ave

Woodstock, IL 60098

www.canopicpublishing.com



Copyright © 2017 by Phil Rice


All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Canopic Publishing, Woodstock, Illinois



Book & Cover design by Phil Rice

Cover photo by Liane Harrold


Second edition

The photographs used to illustrate this edition are from the author’s personal collection and were taken by the author or family and friends of the author. The few exceptions are from public domain archives. When known, the photographer is named.


The drawing of the John Ross House by artist Cesar Biojo was commissioned especially for the first edition of The View from My Ridge in 2003 while Cesar was a student at a community college. The publisher is grateful to have the work remain an integral part of the illustrated edition.



Contents



Publisher Preface for the 2nd Edition

Publisher’s Preface for the 1st Edition


Intro: The View from My Ridge


Part I

The John Ross House

Playgrounds

The Post

The Mill

The Other Side of the Mountain

Grammar School

The Ritz

World War II

World War II, continued

Grandma Billings

Death and Dying

Precarious Life

Troop 33

The Scottsboro Boy

An Acre of Ground

Old Time Religion

Free Enterprise

Y-12

Pine Valley Pharmacy

Friends and Enemies

Morale Maneuvers


Part II

The Summer of 1945

Alien on Campus

Another Summer, Another Mill

The Man in the Newsreel

Bravery and Courage

The Long Journey

Vocation

Korea

The Seeds of Theology


Part III

Professional Ministry

Idealism Under Fire

God’s Responsibility

Railroad Town

Becoming a Theologian

Judaism

Paid to be Good

Secret Rendezvous

Vive La Difference

Organizational Plumber

An Awareness of Racism

Rediscovering Young People

Disposable Schools

Holy and Hostile Lands

A Peculiar Laboratory

Contending with a Cult

The Vulnerable Church


Part IV

C. L.

Jake

From Around the World

And from Different Worlds

Companions in the Journey

From Steeple to Steeple

Homemade Theologians

Ivy League Redneck

The Audience Tonight

From the Same Ridge


Part V

New York City

Flying

Fallen Birds

Houses

Cars

Scissors

Guns

Medicine

Crime

Acting

Creeks

Politicians

Writing

On the Air

Blowing in the Wind

Sweat of the Brow

A Vanishing Art

Generations

Ashes and Dust

Eccentricity


Part VI

“Get It in Your Head”

“Cover the Ground”

In Search of Welcome

Entertaining Angels

Life Is a Possum Hunt

Waiting

“Storytelling”

“Don’t Tell God”

This Kind of War

Vacations and Rainbows

The Holy Incognito

When We Grow Up

Trust Me



Publisher’s Preface to the Second Edition


In 1995, my brother Hal and I had twenty-five handmade, leather-bound replicas of the original handwritten manuscript of The View from My Ridge by Charles E. Rice privately published. As it was later assigned an ISBN, technically that was the “first” edition. The handful of people who had read either the original manuscript or the leather-bound special edition were unanimous in the opinion that this was a work that should reach a wider audience.

While I agreed, I was hesitant for two primary reasons. One, such a project was neither a simple nor an inexpensive matter in the days before “print on demand.” And two, my dad had told me he did not write the manuscript for publication. But, he didn’t specifically tell me not to publish it, and before he died in 1986, he gave me responsibility for his library and his writings—a responsibility I did not take lightly then nor do I take lightly now.

As my own career in writing and publishing began to take shape, I decided to start an independent book publishing venture in 2003. The imprint was named Canopic Publishing as a nod to Canopic Jar, an arts journal that I had been publishing on and off since 1985. Choosing the debut title was easy; turning it into a book was not.

At that time the original manuscript was in my mom’s possession. She lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I was living in Jacksonville, Florida. Step one was to convert the handwritten pages into a word processing file. My mom was not adept at using the computer beyond sending email—but she was adept at typing and at reading my dad’s handwriting. So she typed each handwritten page into an individual email and sent them to me one by one. I then used my slightly advanced computer skills to copy and paste the text from the emails into a Word file.

I had not yet mastered book design, but my writing and book production career had put me in regular contact with folk who were quite familiar with the process. My friends Doug and Lynn Welch—collectively known as The Word Shop—took the edited word file and turned it into a PageMaker file, which I then sent a printer along with a sizable check. A few weeks later a UPS truck stopped in front of my apartment and filled my living room with boxes of softcover books. The View from My Ridge was thus published, and Canopic Publishing had become an actual entity.

The back cover text included a blurb by Will D. Campbell that turned out to be prophetic (not an uncommon occurrence for Brother Will):


Those who knew Charles Rice as friend and priest give thanks for this renewal of old times not forgotten. Those who knew him not at all will exult in the wit and wisdom of a new associate, teacher and playmate.


And that’s what happened. Initially there was a flurry of interest from the hundreds of people whose lives had been touched by my father and his work (thanks almost entirely to my mom’s tireless letter writing and phone call campaign). I have a folder of correspondence received from an amazing assortment of folks thanking me for allowing them to spend more time with their long-passed teacher and friend. That was beyond gratifying. But there was also a slowly building interest from those who had previously known “him not at all.” An excerpt from the book even made it into Writing Strategies, a college textbook by Mary Sue Koeppel.

The world of social media allowed for an even wider audience to be reached, so much so that eventually the book achieved “out of print” status. As Will had predicted, there were indeed people exulting “in the wit and wisdom of a new associate, teacher and playmate.”

Many of my dad’s closest friends have left us since that first softcover edition was published, including my mother and Will Campbell. As a result I have found myself in possession of photographs and slides from many sources that coincide with the stories in The View from My Ridge. Over the years I kept thinking that a new edition was in order, one that included photographs. But as Canopic Publishing began to grow, the resources were being devoted to the next “new” book—as Dad would have wanted. I was in a bit of a quandary.

When Dad began the handwritten version of The View from My Ridge he scrawled a simple dedication on the second page: “For my children and theirs.” That provided the final motivation. The book needed to be available for those yet to come, and preserving photos in the process would be a bonus. Unlike the first edition, the majority of the people who will read the second edition will have never seen the author strolling the earth. And so I spent a few months scanning images and redesigning the layout whenever breaks in my work schedule allowed. A true labor of love.

This edition includes only the original manuscript. The selected essays and short stories that made up the second half of the first Canopic edition have been left out in order to accentuate the author’s original focus. But a separate book of theological and ecclesiastical writings is in the works, as is a collection of personal writings. For now, please enjoy what has become the literary legacy of Charles E. Rice: The View from My Ridge.


There have been many people who have provided encouragement and support along the way. My friends Mary Ann Thompson and Janet Helwig Fortney—both of whom met the author through his writing—have been especially supportive of the book over the years, praising the work publicly and distributing copies to their family and friends. Janet also provided rare postcards to help with the illustrations for the second edition. My friend Jennifer Jackson fanned the flames of my initial impulse to update the book—she and I shared quite a bit of heritage, and she provided me with Depression-era newspaper clippings of Dad’s uncle C.L. with the Peerless baseball team (Jennifer’s father played in the same league as a member of the Standard Coosa Thatcher team.) Pati Rice provided some vital photos of Dad with his grandchildren, along with continued support for the project. Truly, there are so many others who expressed their love and appreciation for the man and his book over the years, and the few I just mentioned barely scratch the surface, but please know I send my love and thanks to each and every one.


As publisher, I would like to dedicate this edition to my aunts, Barbara Jean (Rice) Murray and Ruth (Rice) Williams, who shared the Ridge with their big brother; to my aunt Mildred Ivester-Sterchi, who grew up on the other side of the ridge; to my wife Virginia for saying “do it” and offering editorial and moral support; to all of my father’s children, grandchildren, step-grandchildren—and theirs; and most of all to my mother, Joann Ivester Rice, whose life and love had a profound—if largely unmentioned—impact on the writing of this book.

And to Dad.

Philip Rice, 2017


Publishers Preface for the First Edition


My father, Charles Edward Rice, wrote the bulk of The View from My Ridge in 1977, while living in Nashville, Tennessee. An Episcopal priest, he was appointed diocesan consultant for the Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee, John Vander Horst, in 1968, but with the Bishop's retirement in 1976 came a period of limbo for the consultant. Although still on the payroll, his duties were lessened considerably and it was understood by all that he was seeking a return to parish ministry. The author of a dozen or so articles and theological essays published in various periodicals, he spent much of this transition period at his typewriter compiling a manuscript drawn from his professional experience. The completed work, entitled The Political Shape of the Church, remains enigmatically tucked away in a footlocker. Following the completion of that ecclesiastical study, he began writing a series of essays recounting his childhood in Rossville, Georgia, where he was born in 1929.

Although he normally banged out his ideas on an old typewriter, for this diversion he chose instead to write in longhand, using a hardbound "blank" book. The pages were 8" x 11" and he decided to confine each essay to a single page. He may have written rough drafts or outlines—given his discipline and preciseness as a writer it's hard to imagine otherwise—but the handwritten quality retains an air of spontaneity while the space limitations highlight his talent for literary brevity, already a lauded hallmark of his oratory style. Initially a memoir of growing up in a small Southern mill town during the depression and World War II, The View from My Ridge evolved into a set of prosaic vignettes, each self-contained yet thematically linked as part of a continuous narrative.

In January of 1978 he moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to serve as rector at Trinity Episcopal Church. The first seventy-eight or so installments of The View from My Ridge were finished by that time, and over the next few years he would add only an occasional entry. He was rector of Trinity for considerably longer than any of his previous pastorates, but the composition of the Ridge pieces devoted to parishes and parishioners precedes his tenure there, so such essays as "From Steeple to Steeple" and "Homemade Theologians" do not include references to the many people who helped shape the landscape of his final years as a clergyman. The reflections he might have penned on his time in the Smokies, had he lived into retirement, defy speculation, but suffice it to say that some of the most profound and enduring friendships were begat during his years as a preacher in that bustling mountain village.

Readers may note that few of the traditional biographical highlights—such as his marriage, his children, many of his closest relationships, etc.—are given little, if any, ink in The View from My Ridge. But those who have an understanding of the book's author will understand and accept this fact. For better or worse, he pandered to no one, and providing gratuitous affection or attention was not his style. Such omissions also reflect his keen sense of purpose as a writer and as a preacher: He sought to point the way based upon the observations from his “ridge” and the lessons he encountered as he continued the climb. The responsibility for the telling of our journeys is our own; each must individually seek to traverse the path to the ridge top to discover the view that awaits. And the path, like the view, is eternally unique.

In the world he surveyed, blood is not thicker than spirit, and family ties are defined by limitless bounds, and to that family—and theirs—we offer these essays, for as he states in "Writing,"


When I sit down to write I am sitting once again on the brow of a solitary ridge not knowing what, if any, worlds my thoughts may touch. Whatever, I know that words are powerful, both spoken and written. Our Lord cautioned us that the idle word is no light matter. And in Biblical terms words are deeds—and deeds, in turn, become language.



Philip Rice

2003

The View from My Ridge


Missionary Ridge is a long wooded spine running almost north to south across the Tennessee-Georgia state line, five miles east of Lookout Mountain. It is a piece of terrain made highly visible by Cherokee history, early missionaries to the west, and the Civil War. It vies with several mountains in giving a scenic frame to Chattanooga. Before interstate highways the ridge was broken only by two natural gaps and three man-made tunnels.

Much of my boyhood was lived out on a several-mile stretch of the ridge. The section of ridge between Rossville Gap and McFarland Gap was home turf. In those days only one house and a dirt road straddled the top of the ridge between the gaps. Along the bottom of the ridge ran the Central of Georgia railway. Our house stood on the ridge's apron, about 100 yards from the railroad.

Several paths climbed the steep west side of the ridge, ending at various points along the dirt road on top. One such path cut its way along the side of a hollow near our house. It led to a point on the brow of the ridge where the ridgetop jutted westward and noticeably higher than other spots. That point was special to me. Countless times through the years I hiked up there and sat alone—or with my dog—and turned a boy's eyes toward the distant horizons. I wondered and fantasized about the world that stretched before me. I pondered God and man and things from that vantage. In a way, I still do so.

I hope to write in the pages that follow some of the events and experiences that have happened in the shadow of my ridge.

Part I


Madeline Billings Rice with her 6 mo. old baby


The John Ross House


Wherever my life was going, it had started on April 9, 1929 in the John Ross House. And as my Grandma Billings would later kid me, I came into this world "bass ackerds"—which means "breech-birth." Grandma was on hand and spanked the first sounds of life from me while Dr. Wilbanks worked to help mother make it through the ordeal. Grandparents and parents moved with me from the Ross House about six months later.

Very early though I was told of my auspicious birthplace. It was the home at one time of the chief of the great Cherokee Nation. Part Indian and part Scotsman, Ross distinguished himself as a statesman and was instrumental in early missionary work among his Indian people. He led them westward on the "trail of tears" when white land grabbers forced them out of their native territory.

During the Battle of Chickamauga the Ross House served as headquarters of Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army. A Matthew Brady photo exists showing Granger and his staff on the front porch of the house.

Built in the late 1700's at the gap of the ridge, the house has now been moved back some 200 yards to the very foot of the ridge. It is restored to its original two-story log structure and is open as a state museum.

In grammar school days the kids would not believe me when I boasted I was born there. In the late thirties when F.D.R. came to the valley to open Chickamauga Dam his motorcade came through Rossville. We kids were let out of school for the occasion. We ran the two miles from school to the main street of Rossville to see the President. It was a thrill, especially when his car stopped for a couple of minutes just in front of my birthplace.

I was born on the first floor in the east end room. Directly above this room was a small room with no windows or doors. One of the stories we were told held that this was a sacred room for the Cherokee—inhabited only by the spirits.


Drawing of the John Ross House by Cesar Biojo (2002)


Playgrounds


Every child is an actor. His world takes shape with his imagination. As he plays he sorts out roles and scenes which shape the adult he will be. He likes stories because he is enacting stories. He needs space—a stage—to do this, safe from adults who would interrupt his lines. For many a very narrow stage is left. We had a magnificent ground for our childhood plays.

The ridge itself challenged our imagination and skill. Every hollow and spring branch and steep path was touched by our footprints. We built huts and dammed up streams. We caught crawfish and sought snakes under moss overhanging running waters. We discovered well-hidden scenes of nature's beauty and jealously kept them secret.

We ran barefoot through green pastures and caught June bugs or made kites of sagebrush. We had abandoned mines to recklessly explore and the ruins of an old cement plant to climb about. We had thorn thickets, pine thickets, and a maze of red clay ditches that were made for our play.

The railroad itself was one long play line. We knew every culvert and often crawled in them to await the next train. We put pennies on the rails, counted crossties, and walked barefoot on steel from crossing to crossing. We climbed trees and made swings that would soar high over deep gullies. We ate green peaches and picked wild blackberries. We made wagons and sped down the slopes of the ridge. We found roomy caves underneath hollow stumps and we drank clean water while lying face down in a spring. All this belonged to our vast playground.

But the ground does not make the play. We sought and found our playmates in terms of mutual imagination. Better to play alone than be with those who do not see the magic possibilities of the playground. In those days, as now, some do and some don't. The world of man is cleft by that elusive difference.

The railroad in Rossville, Georgia


The Post

 

Some three miles east of my ridge the grown-ups had a playground of their own. We called it "the post." Soldiers of two world wars knew it as Fort Oglethorpe. During the thirties it was the home of the Sixth Cavalry. It was located on the edge of Chickamauga National Military Park—scene of an earlier adult game. During WWII the Post served as an induction center, a WAC headquarters, and a POW camp.

Three things stand out in my memory of childhood about the old 6th Cavalry: we could hear the sounds of their guns when they held "sham battles." They played a lot of polo. Every Saturday a detachment would visit Rossville, cross the state line to the nearest beer joint, get drunk, stagger back into Rossville and challenge the two-man police force. All this energy would find a far different use after Pearl Harbor.

The post—which to us included the park—belonged as a memorable part of our world. As we approached puberty some of us boys would hike out there, spread a picnic lunch in the shade of a Confederate monument, and watch the WACs march. A few years later it would be a popular courting ground. Once bloody Chickamauga Creek provided several swimming holes. And my uncle taught me how to drive on the winding asphalt roads which envelope the park.

Perhaps it was the existence of the Post that gave many of our boyhood games a martial flavor. We made a few muzzle-loaders from spent 50 cal. cartridges and added them to our arsenal of flips, BB guns, wooden swords, and plain rocks. And we contrived our own war where truce sometimes came only with an injury—or the approach of suppertime. Even adults could endure wars if their truces could be so easily signaled. And yet, even in our boyhood battles we imagined we were preparing for "the real thing." And we were.

The Post



The Mill


To a boy's eyes the smokestack of the woolen mill seemed as high as the ridge itself—unless you saw it from the top of the ridge. The mill in those days was one of the largest of its kind in the world. And for most it dominated and shaped the world of Rossville, Georgia. There were a handful of smaller industries, but when we mentioned "the mill," we meant Peerless.

We didn't know it, but we were what sociologists would call a mill town. The first thing one learned about a neighbor was that he worked in the "card room," "weave shop," or "dye house." Uncle Johnny, who owned the mill, and the white collar people of the mill usually did not live next door.

The mill gave Christmas parties with presents for employee children. It sponsored a strong athletic program. The Woolens fielded a winning semi-pro baseball team and basketball team and raised several generations of softball players. Even those of us not gifted athletically came under this competitive spell and acquired some measure of sports skill.

There were mill houses, mill dances, and mill Boy Scouts. There was no mill union. The town crier was the mill whistle at 7, 3, and 11 o'clock. When a teenage friend announced he had a job at the mill, you knew he had become an adult. Soon he would buy a car as a sacrament of his adulthood. Next would come marriage.

Very early I realized that I was glad that my father didn't work in that mill. Many good men did spend their lives with the time clock card as their only diary. At the age of 16, I worked a summer there. I knew then I could wait a long time to own a car.

The Peerless Woolen Mill (1947)


The Ritz


Rossville had one movie house, or "show," as we called it. The Ritz was on the main street one block inside the Tennessee line. I saw my first movie there—Pennies from Heaven. I marveled how they could get all of that action and scenery on one little stage. When I learned more about how movies were made I wondered why they didn't film one on my ridge. It was the perfect location for a Tarzan, a Western, or even a Buck Rogers.

As we grew older we realized that the Ritz was not one of the better theaters. Still, we patronized it, at least through high school. Some parents would not let their kids go to the show inasmuch as their preachers thundered from their pulpits about this great sin. Our church was more liberal. But I was well into high school years before I was allowed to go to a movie on Sunday. After all, we were asked, what would you do if you were in a movie and Jesus came?

Jesus didn't come but a war did and we went to the Ritz to whet our patriotic appetite for Jap blood. We leap-frogged from Wake Island to Bataan and on to Tokyo by way of the silver screen. And we had to put up with some romantic scenes in between. Only the newsreels—the eyes and ears of the world—reminded us that real boys were gone from the Ritz and some of them would never again eat stale popcorn. But we were still kids and could be forgiven for thinking that going to a war movie was a patriotic thing to do. The Ritz did its bit for the war effort.

The Other Side of the Mountain


The billboards boasted that you could see seven states from Rock City atop Lookout Mountain. From our front yard you could see Rock City. At least you could see the massive rock cliffs where the "city" was painted and pasted in. But from my ridge, even on a cloudy day, you could see forever.

The first primitive who decided the earth was flat simply did not live in a valley or in mountain country. For us the whole world was shaped into mountains and valleys with an occasional ridge to break the pattern. The perpetual question for the imagination was, "what is the next valley and mountain like?"

The sixty-odd mile trip to Scottsboro, Alabama gave me some early answers. The family went by car. I was fascinated with each trip although the journey seemed endless. A high point would be the car ferry across the Tennessee River. And Grandma Hayes would greet us with a fresh batch of teacakes.

I began to notice that there were towns unlike Rossville and people not quite like hometown folks. Unlike many of my buddies, I had now been in three different states. Then our pastor took some of us to Copperhill, Tennessee and I set foot in North Carolina. The travel bug—along with malarial fever—found its way into my bloodstream.

From then on I would not be satisfied with just seeing the other side of the mountain. But wherever I would go I would miss my ridge—until I would learn to take it with me. And I would also learn about mountains and valleys which God did not make.

Grammar School

 

The two-story brick school perched on a steep hill. When I started in the "primer" grade the same building housed all eleven grades then required in Georgia. Before I had completed seven grades they built a high school at the foot of the hill.

The teaching at that grammar school was solid stuff: readin', ritin', and 'rithmatic. The elementals I learned there would be appreciated through ten years of higher education and beyond. There were no frills or "life adjustment" courses—just traditional content. We were punished as well as graded for "deportment." Minor offenses led to "holding books"—two books in each hand with arms extended horizontally without sagging of elbows.

We romped at each recess and played the games of the season: marbles, tops, or mumble-dy-peg (with pocket knives). Better not be caught with any of this equipment out-of-pocket in the classroom. We played "scrub-up" softball. Only the bigger kids usually had a turn at bat before the bell rang. Some of them risked smoking cigarettes or "rabbit" tobacco behind the cover of an old wooden fence. When caught they were paddled and expelled. The same dreaded penalty was meted out for cheating.

The Depression was on and you could spot the poorest kids by their tattered overalls, flour-sack dresses, and bare feet. They also wore homemade haircuts, yelled "core" when another kid bit into a fresh apple, and brought "fat-back" on biscuit in their lunch sack. It was a treat for any of us to buy our lunch at school: soup, milk, and maybe a popsicle.

Less than half those kids would go through high school. And the idea of college was so remote it was never mentioned. Part of the mystique and authority of our teachers was that they had actually been to a college.

Author is front row, second from left



World War II


Patriotism was taught from the first grade. The day opened with a prayer and pledge of allegiance. On special dates we gathered in the auditorium, heard a speech, and sang "Dixie." But we were scarcely aware in the late 1930s that the biggest war ever fought was just around the corner.

On Sunday, December 7 our family had just returned from church and had our usual big Sunday dinner. I turned on my grandfather's Philco radio hoping for a football broadcast. Instead a newscast was underway. The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor. I mentioned this as a matter of curiosity to the family and wondered aloud, "Where is Pearl Harbor?" There being no football broadcast I sought out some of the boys, and we plunged into a game of our own.

Next day at school Pearl Harbor was located for us. And we could sense from the tone of the teachers' voices that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was not something that the Marines could quickly settle. We gathered around a radio and heard President Roosevelt say something about "infamy," which we didn't understand, and about a "state of war," which we thought we did understand. We bragged and boasted that Americans could lick a bunch of little yellow Japs in a matter of weeks.

Some of the older boys rushed off and joined up. For the rest of us life went on pretty much as usual for a few weeks. Then we heard about Wake Island, Corregidor, and Bataan, and whatever else was said, they could not be painted as American victories. Still more of the older boys went off to service. We were told it would last perhaps two or three years. Then we speculated whether it would last long enough for us to get in it, too. Until then we had to be satisfied with our sham battles.


World War II, continued


And it did seem to go on and on. And while it did we became adolescents. We took part-time jobs and bought Defense Stamps. Enough stamps pasted in a book could be turned in for a War Bond. We collected scrap metal of every sort and turned it in to that invisible melting pot which somehow would spew it in deadly doses at the enemy.

We bought comics and balsa-wood model airplane kits and learned to identify the silhouettes of enemy and friendly aircraft. And with cheap binoculars or naked eyes we scanned the skies for Stukas or Messerschmitts. If the Germans came toward Chattanooga they would come in right over our ridge. They would bomb the Peerless because they made army overcoats and blankets. They would bomb Chickamauga Dam and flood our valley. And so we kept our vigil, half hoping and half afraid it would pay off.

We only saw B-24s and a few B-17s and C-46s plus the training planes which left Lovell Field and crisscrossed the valley. We heard and read of spies and we distrusted German family names. One of our first grammar school teachers had a German name. And he lived with his small family in the solitary farmhouse atop our sector of the ridge. One day we spent several hours lying in the high grass a hundred yards from his house. We had binoculars and a canteen. We watched—and we watched—and we saw no swastikas—no foreigners—nothing. We walked down the ridge to eat.

The Central of Georgia obliged our curiosity. We watched troop trains and freights loaded with tanks and guns go their way. And President F.D.R. came along the same track one morning in veiled cars. He was en route to Warm Springs, Ga. via Ft. Oglethorpe. Armed troops were posted at every crossroad along the track. At 11:30 the night before they had stopped me at our crossing and scared hell out of me. I had been to the Ritz to see Gone with the Wind. Meanwhile, gold-starred flags replaced a few of the red, white, and blue ones in the windows of our neighbors.

Grandma Billings


Inside us and all around us the world was changing. One of the reliable exceptions was Grandma Billings, my mother's mother. Born in Niota, Tennessee, the oldest child of a poor tenant farmer's brood, she knew about wars and rumors of wars. And she knew about kids, religion, sex, work, courage, money, and education. She could not read or write but she had wisdom and what some moderns call "charisma."

Red-haired and physically strong, she could out-work anyone I knew. She was sensitive to pain and full of good humor until she died in the 1960s. Though untutored in letters, she had a philosopher's gift of looking at life—and death—as a whole. She performed as mid-wife, nurse, cook, yard-woman, gardener, and mother superior to four generations.

She married and sustained a man who was cut off from his own well-to-do family because he married a lass from a tenant farm. When his work as a foreman of a line-crew with a power company was terminated by the advent of TVA, he relied more than ever on his wife Annie. She never lost hope—or faith—and passed more than a portion of these to him, and us—and others.

Unlettered herself, she believed passionately in learning. "Get it in your head," she told us, "for what you get in your head they can't take away from you." Whenever our prejudice reared its ugly head against other religious denominations, "niggers," yankees, or whomever, she had a way of reminding us that the world—and God—were larger than our narrow minds.

But she had her own way of deflating pomp and presumption. Following a funeral in our church where the florist had encircled the pulpit with a flower-wall, she told me, "That preacher looked like he had just won the Kentucky Derby."

Grandma Billings


Death and Dying


Even before World War II we kids in Rossville had been exposed to death and dying. One of my earliest memories is of learning that my dog Cain had died. He had dropped only a few yards from our house and I walked down to see him and saw his bloated stomach. He had been poisoned.

We were required to go to church and that included funerals. We went to funerals, whether Methodist, Baptist, or Holiness. We heard the sounds of grief and the preachers who measured their worth by how much the sounds echoed. We walked by open coffins and gazed quickly at the mask of the dead. And we dreaded bad dreams and the dark for a night or so.

Polio hit our community in the late thirties. Several of our playmates were dead on arrival. They seemed too young to die but their absence from us reminded us that we, too, were not too young. We wore "asphitidy" bags like charms around our necks to ward off this scourge which Salk and science would later corral. And we went to the funerals of our friends. At one of them we formed a children's choir and, by her parents' request, sang over the dead girl, "Oh, Say But I'm Glad." It was her favorite song.

We learned that cars can kill. And guns and drowning. Just across my ridge about two miles south was a cemetery that received most of our dead. We didn't play near there. We only went there when we had to do so—and wore our Sunday clothes.


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