Country Roads Take Me Home – a pictorial essay
Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue ridge mountains, Shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
(Daniel and I canoeing the Cheat River while on a recent vacation back to St. George West Virginia.)
If John Denver is ever fully forgotten from within the context of the American musical lexicon – the last bit of him that will pass away from memory are the lyrics from his seemingly immortal county music ballad Take me home country roads.
I say immortal, because it is said that outside of a theological understanding of life after death that you’d hear taught on a Sunday morning, the next best hope for the attainment of immortality is that an artist might create something that would seemingly contain a part of their soul – and that that thing might potentially continue to exist and relate that soul and essence long after he or she is long gone. One might point out that many moons have come and gone since that fateful day that Denver forgot how to throw the switch to change fuel tanks on his experimental aircraft – but regardless of how he died; he does live on in his music. And if he is ever forgotten, I would think that it will still be quite a long time in coming, as – at least for me – for those words have more then just a special meaning; they represent a special place. When country roads take me home, they do in fact take me to a place in West Virginia. They take me home to a little out of the way place called St. George.
St. George is a tiny mountain community that is nestled deep inside the mountains, and is seemingly a place that time forgot. It has the distinction of being the oldest settlement in Tucker county and was actually once the county seat, until a gang of vigilantes broke into the court house and took the country records and the court house bell to the nearby town of Parsons in 1893. I use the word seemingly – because there is much about this place that hides what is and what once was; what has been seemingly touched by heaven – and yet, perhaps even in a way, also touched by hell. You have to stop and talk awhile with the people or be from there yourself to get a feeling for the depth of history that this little out of the way place holds.
My childhood memory is full of trips to this sleepy little place, and I can remember so well, pulling up to Grandpa and Grandma’s house. I remember that I always slept on the top floor of their house in a room chock full of books and generations of National Geographic magazines. It all seemed so idyllic and I can scarcely say that I honestly don’t know if I ever fully appreciated the wonder and sweetness of that pure mountain air as a child. With great clarity I remember walking down Center Street, past the other quaint little houses, down to Lipscomb’s Grocery, which was run by my grandfather’s brother, Elmer. We would buy candy and I would survey the racks of Wolverine boots that Elmer kept in stock and sold to the hunters that would buy their goods from him. I remember grandpa speaking of an albino deer that had escaped many a pursuant hunter and I remember him taking us all up into the woods – and suddenly finding it there, standing in a field, where my grandfather knew just where to look – standing like a majestic, mythological creature from a different time and place. It was there – and suddenly as quickly as we had seen it in all of it’s wonder and awe inspiring glory – it was gone.
(My Grandfather Vittie Lipscomb (on on the right) and all his brothers and sisters, gathered next to his brother Elmer’s Country Store in St. George)
(The home my grandfather grew up in – now a hunting lodge)
(My Great Grandfather Father and Great Grandmother, Daniel and Rosa Lipscomb)
Gone is a word that seems to capture the essence of so much and of what represents St. George and the surrounding mountain areas to me.
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads
My dad tells me that his dad used to joke that cows from West Virginia have two legs shorter then the others, incurred from perpetually grazing on the side of a mountain. In looking at the fields of grass going up and down the steep mountains of the land – this does not seem like all that unlikely of a proposition. The mountains and the terrain of the region are incredibly mountainous; but not so mountainous as to ever have escaped the loggers’ axe. Two inventions propelled the logging industry into the reaches of the West Virginia wilderness, the steam powered band saw and the Shay Locomotive. The band saw should be a self-explanatory term; but the Shay is worthy of at least a few descriptive adornments – if not for anything other then it’s uniqueness in locomotive history. Most locomotives that grace modern childhood imaginations or Western movie scenes are the traditional wheel/pulley/stroke configuration. These steam-billowing behemoths could race across the expanses of the Great Plain’s desolation and in doing so, invariably pulled the two initially disparate coasts of America closer and closer – long before the dawn of modern space age travel and communication made that possible both transportive and communication-wise. But these types of locomotives, while good for speed, were not as much adept at hill or mountain climbing. Their strength could peter out on the larger hills and mountainous terrains endemic to the West Virginia landscape; hence the foundational basis for the age old children’s rhyme “the little engine that could.” Most traditionally driven steam locomotives that would seek to assert themselves against West Virginian mountains quickly switched from I think I can, I think I can – to I sure can’t. All this changed with the advent of the Shay. The Shay gladly ceded the right to quick interstate travel for its title as official mountain climber of the railroad. It did this because of an ingenious mechanism wherein the steam pistons of the train were connected to rotating worm gears that then turned the main wheels of the train. This allowed for a great deal of torque to be applied to the wheels, over and above that which was typically produced via the traditional method of locomotive propulsion design. And while they were no speed demons by any notion – and in fact possessive of a range of unique liabilities, such as a propensity for wreaking all types for rail deformations upon the tracks they strode, they climbed the steepest of grades with relative ease – compared to their conventionally-driven cousins, who’s drive wheels would often slip so much that railroad folklore is replete with stories of the rails beneath them being reduced to glowing molten sludge by the great steel wheels endlessly spinning under huge loads when confronted with the immense inclinations of the mountain rails. Owing to the rotational reduction of these worm gear drives, the Shayes had a lower steam cylinder/engine to drive wheel/drive train ratio – to borrow from a gear head/4×4 enthusiasts vocabulary – and so just as lower geared trucks can be found puling freight in and out of the mountains of West Virginia today, these lower geared locomotives were used to conduct the gritty business of logging the dense ravines and mountains in what became a logging free-for-all by so-called Timber Barons; wealthy industrialists with the money and the know-how to turn the stunning West Virgian landscape into windfall corporate profits. The Shay locomotive, and the steam-driven band saw, mixed with a lot of ingenuity, greed, and a lack of virtually any government oversight – stripped West Virginia absolutely bare of her old growth forests.
The largest tree, documented to have been cut down, was a white oak thought to be over a thousand years old, which was hewn down from the town of Lead Mine in 1913. It had a diameter of 13 feet 16 feet from the base, much like the fabled red woods of California. One can only wonder of the amount of glee such a sight must have generated when first seen by eager loggers – and yet the loss of such a magnificent element of creation; the true value cannot be calculated. There are stories of hunters in those days who would venture into the woods, only to encounter timber so thick, that a deer could not pass between the trees. Such dense growth of such impenetrable nature often extended for miles, and many a hunter would wander in circles trying to find a path back out, eventually dying of starvation- trapped in a maze of impassible old growth forest. Such a daunting peril is virtually unimaginable today. Many of the small towns in and around St. George like Lead Mine, Parsons, and Elkins, show how these timber barons came in and did their business and left veritable ghost towns behind them. Every valley and every mountain can been examined to see the remnants of an old rail bed, and everywhere you look – you can see trees, but if you know your history, you may know that life is old there, older then the hills – but the trees aren’t – they were stripped bare and the entire region thoroughly denuded.
However beautiful the land and the trees of West Virginia are – it is yet a pale resemblance to that which was found by the early settlers. All that can be seen is only the growth of trees that have grown since the logging industry burned itself out and there was no more money to be made because there were simply no more trees to be cut down. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum in terms of environmental protectionism, it is a wrenching testimony of the power of greed and unregulated industry taking advantage of not just a people, but also a land in a way that can never be restored nor any recompense comprehended.
It does not do justice to try to describe in mere words the glory of The West Virginia wilderness that fell to the loggers’ axe. The postmodernist theologian Leonard Sweet makes mention of the part of West Virginia that he calls home, The Canaan Valley area – now the inhabitation of skiers and mountain bikers and the like in a number of his books. The name is pronounced kah-nane, rather then the biblical pronunciation of kay-nan. But regardless of the linguistic twist; it was named after the biblical land; because when it was found – it was seen as noting less then a beautiful and bountiful land of no less then biblical proportions. This land too; all of its majesty and old growth forest – was cut down as well.
But it is not just man that has left an indelible mark upon the people and the places of West Virginia.
All my memries, gather round her
Miners lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye
I remember riding the bus home from school and hearing the radio newscaster speaking of catastrophic flooding in parts of West Virginia, that fateful day November 4th, 1985. For some reason I remember the entire walk from the bus to my parents front door; finding my mom sitting at the table with a look of anxiety upon her face and the words, ‘son, your dad and I are worried about your Grandparents in West Virginia’, upon her lips.
When word finally came through to us, the depth of the gravity of what had happened was truly overwhelming. Within days – we were piling into the car and pensively on our way there; profoundly aware that there was no tangible way to prepare ourselves for what we knew we were about to witness.
My grandfather had been warned to get out – but he was stubborn, and refused to believe the Cheat River could rise as high as they said that it might. In addition to his ruminations on bovines, my grandfather had also made note to us that the Cheat river was known to lull a lot of people into unassuming assumptions regarding it’s potential nature in diverse regards such as depth and swiftness, and in the manner of these same qualities – it had lived up to it’s name and cheated many people out of their lives. I can only assume that my Grandfather did not take his own advice when told to leave and held to his own treasured assumptions about the river which he had known all his life. These assumptions came to an abrupt end, when he was awoken by the panicked yelps of his hunting dog outside – who was standing up to it’s snout in water, on top of its dog house. The river followed my grandfather through the front door, following the untethering of his trusted companion. It literally followed them up the steps to the second floor and then literally up the ladder into their attic. He told us later of the strange sound that the huge freezers he kept downstairs sounded like: the banging and the awful, ominous, tumbling sounds as they floated up and hit the ceiling and then began to dump their contents of frozen deer meat out, as they flipped over and open. An echoing, cascading thunder that echoed through the house – one that was at the same time both unnerving and unmistakable- though never heard before and never heard again. It was the sound of a feeding river; ravenously devouring everything it touched; the hundreds of jars of my grandmother’s carefully canned vegetables; the fruits of the countless hunting expeditions of my grandfather – everything they both ate – everything they had collected over a lifetime -both borrowed and owned.
It is sort of an unwritten and unspoken, yet acknowledged thing – that if our own house ever catches fire, and we can only save one thing- save our own well-being and health; that it would be the crochet that my great grandmother made that hangs in our own house now, but also hung in theirs. It was on the second floor, and was hung very high near to the ceiling. When the vile, brown waters receded – it was shown to have reached all the way to only a few inches from the bottom of the frame. It was probably the only item they that they owned that remained untouched by the flood waters.
(Picture of my Great Grandmother’s Crochet.)
We have no idea how old their house was; but when it’s ruins were surveyed, we pulled newspapers – which served as an elemental form of insulation from the harsh West Virginia winters, long before the advent of fiberglass – from between its broken, pried apart walls. Many of them bore advertisements of Dr. So and So’s liver pills- the kind that you used to see on Wendy’s dining tables, no doubt from the late 1800’s. My grandparents no doubt owed their lives to the quality of the turn of the century construction of their abode; for a soon as they had made their way into the cramped reaches of the attic; they felt the house groan and shudder – and looking out through the attic window – and saw the distant landscape shifting over the horizon of the white crested muddy torrent – the grinding and bone jarring shaking the ensued confirming to them that the age old stone foundation of the house had given way – and like an untethered boat – their house was washing downstream, slowly being torn apart by the raging waters. If my memory serves me correctly – their house washed down stream about 50 yards, until it lodged on a huge stump; it’s structural integrity virtually destroyed, as the entire front of the house was pulled out like a can or box top. 10 or 15 more yards, and the house no doubt would have completely disintegrated into the waters, taking with it all those National Geographics, my grandpa, my grandma, their three dogs and their cat; all of whom were rescued in one boat by those who knew that they were still in the house. Grandma would not leave without her cat – and grandpa would not leave without his dogs. Together they were all rescued – and none were left behind.
A photographer later snapped a picture of Vittie and Thelma Lipscomb standing on the stones that once led up their porch. They were still wearing the clothes that they had on when they were pulled out the attic. In the far distance one can see their house – an entire side of it pulled away, the rooms within, open and exposed; furniture caked with reeking mud. Everywhere there is mud, mud, mud – and destruction. For some time their weary gazes populated newspapers far and wide and became a testament to the pain inflicted upon a people accustomed to hardship and adversity; this time cast upon it in yet a new itineration thereof.
(My Grandparents, their house – with the entire front almost pried off – resting in the background.)
They calculated that 18 feet of water had come tearing through the town of St. George and a host of other like-wise little towns along the Cheat’s path; but this is only a guess; as it is documented to have been 21 feet just down the river in Parsons; where the flood stage is something like 11 to 13 feet. It destroyed the old bridge that I remember so well – and left only the broken stone abutments as mute testimony that it had ever been there. If you look up St. George on the Internet using any of the modern satellite imaging tools; when looking down at St. George, you can still see the small gray pillars next to the new bridge where the old one once stood. The irony is that they themselves had been built using the foundation stones of the old courthouse, the bell to which and legal papers within had been stolen in decades prior. Now the wild hand of Mother Nature had come at a gunpoint of her own and stolen the bridge itself and so much more along with it. The newer bridge next to it had withstood the force of the waters, but it was itself violated in a unique way; as when the waters receded – they revealed a no doubt two-legs-longer-then-the-other-two West Virginia heifer, wedged tightly between it’s steel beams; whose disproportionate legs hung 18 something feet up in the air. I often wondered if man or time honored methodologies of natural decomposing rummaged it from its lofty allocation. This image, along with that of my grandparents, garnered print ink far and wide.
The new bridge after the flood.
(Picture of old bridge abutments; the stones of which were taken from the old courthouse.)
(Further remains of the old bridge to St. George. In the distance are the offices of a rafting company Blackwater Outdoor Adventures; the takeout area and a customer are seen in the distance. If you are in this area you should check them out.)
(The view of the bridge remnants as seen from the BOA’s takeout. )
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads
The Amish came and in their own time-honored tradition built homes for those who had lost everything; and my Grandparents where recipients of their outpoured generosity and sweat. But the single story house that replaced what the bulldozer eventually claimed was just a shell of what had preceded it in size, nature and beauty. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was long gone –and like the forest, they too were only in the memory and the photographs of those few who knew of them and those fewer who actually remembered.
Walking down Center St. in St. George – I surveyed the homes, ones that were once so quaint and meticulously well-attended. Now weed saturated lots reside in many of their steads. Other homes that either survived or were rebuilt are seemingly infrequently well-attended to. Parts of St. George are still well-taken care of; but all of those along Center St, seemingly still bear the muddy touch of those waters, as they must have washed away with so much, so many things, but also the trust that such a thing could never happen, and the lingering fear, that regardless of the word spread by purported experts: that the flood was one that had to be thought of from within the context of a “once in a thousand years flood” – there seems to be a visibly manifest fear – that it happened once – and could therefore could happen again. The town has never been rebuilt to the same essence– it has never been restored to its beautiful, idyllic glory. The St. George of my youth was cut down by a flood that could not have been imagined – the true cost of which, much like the loss of the old growth forest in and around it, may never be calculated.
Much of what remains is like in kind to so much else; it lives in pictures, in memories, in a different place then the ground my eager feet jumped out onto after the long drive from and out of the city, when we left it to go to West Virginia to see Grandma and Grandpa. On some level – I knew that Grandma and Grandpa would pass on to their respective rewards; but I never thought that anything would steal that treasure trove of National Geographics from him, once hinted at possibly being an inheritance. Somewhere, probably buried in a field – lays the moldering remains of the innards of the mantle clock that my mom wanted; it’s antique wood no doubt long returned to the earth from which it came. I remember walking around the tangled, broken mess that was left of St. George when we drove up to try to help Grandma and Grandpa as they sought to reestablish some resemblance of a sustainable existence, having been – for the moment – consigned to cabins at a nearby YMCA camp. I walked through the fields along the river that had only a few months prior been ripe with corn; and were now, were ripe with the remnants of lives; property, cars, homes –and everything that the water had uprooted and taken with it. Washing machines – small children’s’ toys; I wondered what things were hidden from view that people were missing more then those things easily repurchased at a local store. For many years, there were ongoing stories of watches, jewelry and even an occasional hoard of coins that were from time to time discovered amongst the wreckage. I have no doubt that that river still holds secrets, that perhaps with some coming spring’s rains – it might someday choose to reveal the unexpected to the long since detached from the events of that day, unsuspecting passerby.
If only I had known that so much, so much more would pass away – I would have savored every movement. I know I would have pushed aside my ADDHD propensities and I would have undistractedly acknowledged the full experience of every detail of West Virginia as it once was to me. But you never know – you never truly know, either by the graceful hand of God, or a cruel trick of fate; you truly never know what you really have, not just until it is gone – but sometimes when all of that of which it is, is all so swiftly passing from between your fingers – into memory and mere photographs; being washed down by a sometimes cheating river of life – into forgetfulness – either to be discovered and remembered by someone, or – as is much more likely the case – to be locked away from remembrance forever, buried under the mud of time and progress and a world distracted by the here and now of its own needs and priorities, which so much seems so much like the same indifferent-to-the-future attitudes of those who squandered on their own accounts what they had, what they remembered – what they had to give, long – long before I ever forgot to try to remember that which came to be so precious to me.
I hear her voice, in the mornin hours she calls to me
The radio reminds me of my home far a-way
And drivin down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday
(St. George Academy standing in quiet repose.)
Along Center Rd, just down from where my Grandparent’s house once stood, there is an old school house, standing among the gravel and the weeds that surround it. We stopped there to see it and to read the historical marker that bore witness to both its age and a snapshot of the history behind it.
It was built in 1885– no doubt by a relative connected back through the ol’ family tree, a certain fellow by the name of William H. Lipscomb. Interestingly enough, the old school house had survived the flood; and it’s survival was credited to the fact that a construction crew was in the process of moving it closer to the road. It is theorized that being jacked up as it was – as one does with large buildings when they are moved about – that the waters passed beneath the structure and spared it a fate shared by almost all the buildings surrounding it. Whether it was by grace, or by fate, or a construction workers inadvertent inclinations – the wrath of the flood passed by it and left it intact. A look through the shimmering glass gave a view of a vast treasure trove of historical knickknacks and documentations, all ordered, numbered and carefully presented as though awaiting a steady stream of museum visitors – ones that never materialized to darken it’s door. During a conversation with Keith Lipscomb, the son of my grandfather’s brother, Elmer Lipscomb – who once owned the old store – who now himself served as St. George’s Postmaster – we mentioned that we had stopped by the old school house. His eyes lit up, as we had failed to have the foresight that the town’s Postmaster no doubt knew everybody who was anybody – and therefore a somebody who might have a key.
(Relaxing with our relatives; Keith and Sheila Lipscomb.)
A few moments later, we were taking the short drive over there, on our way to get a key. With the turn of the lock – the old school house opened its doors to us, and we walked in with the dust of centuries seemingly undisturbed beneath our feet.
(The steps going upstairs)
I speak figuratively- as it was all very clean and tidy. But it certainly felt like we were going back in time. The faces of a thousand pictures peering back as us, back from times long past, places long changed, people long gone on. I opened up one book, saved from a centennial celebration that took place in the 70’s – and there, sure enough, was a hand drawn advertisement for Lipscombs’ grocery.
(An advertisement for Lipscomb’s Grocery from a booklet printed during St. George’s bicentennial celebration – found among the many documents in the old school house.)
There were pictures of the old Courthouse, long before it had been broken into and relieved of the county seat. I saw a picture of the old bridge, who’s stones I would reach out and touch the next day, while canoeing with my brother through those deceptive and jealous waters of the Cheat. Soon we were joined by another group of people who had never been in the old school house either, and were eager to take advantage of the now opened door. The soft conversations of our family and the others looking over the contents of the old schoolhouse were gently and unexpectedly punctuated by the old school bell tolling. My youngest brother, Daniel, had evidently found the rope, and had given it a few sharp pulls – and its voice soon began to echo throughout sleepy St. George. I wondered how long it had been since it had spoken. I wondered how long it had been closed up, and unopened to curious visitors like ourselves. In the old days, a ringing bell heralded either a celebration or imminent danger. I looked out over St. George, as the old school house bell softly peeled throughout the town – and thought to my self, St. George are you listening? Is anyone listening?
(The Courthouse in Parsons – in process of being restored. It is here that the county seat wound up after being absconded at gunpoint from St. George’s courthouse.)
Along our circuitous route, we eventually stopped at Fairview Cemetery; a meticulously cared for collection of graves nestled far, far up in the mountains.
Herein lay both one of my Great Grandmothers & Great Grandfathers, Daniel S. and Rosa C. Lipscomb.
(My great grandparents)
My Great Grandmother died in 1986, Daniel Stearns, in 1944, while my grandfather was far away in the war. He was never told of his father’s death, and only learned of it after returning home. That Uncle Sam was remiss in reporting to a son his father’s death in even a remotely timely fashion – remained a sore spot for my grandfather for the remainder of his life.
A few feet away lies the headstone of my Great, Great, Grandfather and Great, Great Grandmother, Lina A., and Stephen M. Wiles. I remember seeing my Great Grandmother, but my mom remembers my Great, Great Grandmother holding me.
(My great, great grandparents)
Only a few miles away, along a mountainous gravel road called Hile Run, can be found another remote cemetery where a too-many-greats-to-recall Grandfather, Levi Hile and his wife rest. Before we came home, we spent sometime winding around the roads that circle St.. George. Later – we learned that we were mere miles from the grave site of Ambrose Lipscomb, a great to the umpteenth power grandfather of mine who had served in the Revolutionary War. There are too many Lipscombs slumbering in these mountains to count. Generations of the family tree are planted in the ground up here; in more ways then one.
In rest, here is also found the ominously conjoined gravestones of Kenneth Hebb and his daughter Melissa Ann
Ken Hebb bought the old country store from Elmer Lipscomb, who rests with his wife only a few yards a way – which is now a small Church of God storefront; bearing little resemblance to the small country store that I remember it as.
(Elmer Lipscomb’s Country store as it is today, Church of God storefront)
Mr. Hebb suffered a heart attack while driving with one of his daughters, on the way to the hospital to see another one of his daughters – who was in the midst of childbirth. In the same day, a daughter brought forth life; and a father and his youngest daughter passed into eternity. There was a coal truck involved; everything else is just details that can be summed up in their shared day of passing from this life and the words that grace the back of her gravestone next to her father; inscribed next to the image of a phone with it’s receiver off the hook; Jesus Called.
A little bit of hell – a little bit of heaven. As my brother and I paddled down the Cheat, we’d from time to time step out and explore a river bank. Along the way, here and there, lay the occasional, proverbial tire and some odd end of something or other. One we chanced upon what looked like a thoroughly rusted and battered water tank of some kind. I wondered if it was something that had been casual discarded by some goofball, as is the case with so much other river detritus. But it could not be ruled out as some kind of secretly held reminder, coughed up by the river from where it had been hidden after being taken by those muddy waters that fateful day. Had it been inside somebody’s home? And was this all that was left of it and everything else owned by the person who had once perhaps purchased it – a rusting, barely recognizable remnant of a past that only the river could testify of, were she to ever speak – 90 percent buried in river rock? If I remember correctly – they never found my grandfather’s scout after it was washed away. Logic would dictate via the laws of physics that the entirely of a fairly sturdy 4×4 would not entirely necessarily dematerialize or melt away under the affluence of water alone. Was his truck merely found somewhere down stream and expediently crushed at a recycling plant somewhere with no regard to documentation of VIN numbers or anything; or – does it lie somewhere, buried under the tons of rock that were surely shifting about en mass – just where does Grandpa’s trusty scout lie? I stood before the twisted, dented wreckage of something from somewhere and pondered what other things lay beneath the rock. It was a beautiful day – and in almost all parts of the river, we could get out and move about, were we desirable of such activities. The quietness of softly gurgling waters belied their capacity for wanton destruction. Such beauty– always had; and always will – save the building of massive dams such as TVA has done to the Tennessee River – serve in the continued capacity to provide a deceptive mask: their capacity to deliver unbridled hell. But perhaps the river cannot be faulted entirely; as perhaps she merely does in fact speak to us, not of her deeds and capabilities – but more so not just her nature, but that she flows from a land, the essence of which must surely serve as her defining lifeblood. For she is both beautiful and deadly, life giving and life taking; truly a little bit of heaven- and a little bit of hell. Under the encroachment of such accusations, she, and perhaps the land itself, would not shirk such admonishments – but might merely point out that such is common to not just to them, but to the larger business of life itself – that everywhere there is history and that history is both a story of hope and despair, overcoming and subjugation, long life and futures cheated. I can sing the song of the river and I can love soil of the land – not just because I am rooted in her history and those who have both loved and contended with her; but because I am also deeply connected with the hopes and despairs, love and pain, tragedies and successes of those who have been connected to life here, both with me and before me in this little out of the way place.
(Canoeing the cheat with my parents)
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads
You have to be from a place to know the full depth of a place. You have to be human to be able to plumb the expanse of that place’s history and its stories. When I return to St. George, it is more then just a pilgrimage; the roads that lead there take me home – not just to a place that can be called home, but also to a place that I understand. When I am there – I am deeply connected, and though I spend the largest portion of my time in a veritable concrete jungle, when I am there – I feel a part of the place. I both understand, and feel understood. And in such manner – I can tell people that I am a damn Yankee , born in Deaconess Hospital, in the proper confines of the big, dirty steel town of Cleveland Ohio; and when I am there, I know her stories too; the smell of the open market, the sound of a thousand buses and pedestrian’s shuffling feet – but another place also calls my name; and I both answer and speak with her – in a native language and fluency that all who are touched by her both know, speak, and respond in.
Everyone should know where they are from. Those bereft of such knowledge are among all men most destitute in ways that cannot be soothed by any rich man’s assets nor any skillful handyman’s product.
In History of Tucker County by Homer Floyd Fansler, published in 1962 and later supplemented by History of Tucker County by Cleta M. Long – which was published in 1996 (both denizens of my library shelf), Fansler includes a poem written by the first principle of St. George Academy, A. W. Frederick – who oversaw the old school between the years 1885 to 1886. Fansler notes that Fredrick left the school to go to what he thought were greener pastures; but his own aspirations did not work out; and he spent his later years thinking of his years in St. George. While Teaching in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, he penned The Saint George Academy and sent it to his former students. It is clear in parts – yet enigmatic in others; with both clear and unknownable elements and thematic components: potential references, as noted by Fansler, possibly to other teachers and events that Frederick experienced when he taught at and administrated the old Academy. Here, Frederick is conversing in history; conversing a shared and private language, in ways unintelligible to those removed from his own shared-with-his-friends experiences, much as we are often in relation to own own. He too was connected back to a place – that all roads seemed to lead back to – and regardless of how far his life and teaching vocation would take him – home would always be in a little place called St. George.
The Saint George Academy
By A.W. Frederick
We remember, we remember that old building, now askew;
There we figured out our future, we were young and it was new;
But it matters very little what it was or how it looks,
For outstanding and momentous was our battle with the books.
In long years of school endeavor never was a better found;
All were helping each the other – each for self, but all hands round.
In that old hall academic right was regnant, kindness won,
Culture lured by high ideals smiled on duty fondly done.
There it was we reared our castles earthward up with skyward reach,
Felt the strength of human weakness, civic gospel learned to preach;
There we sought and found expression, found ourselves as things of worth –
Found the many things of value that enoble this old earth.
As the teachers are the school is, and the school the teachers make
Or mold through cooperation; so a brief survey we take:
One so stately, soulful winsome gave the scions her heart,
Buds to bloom and bless the children, taught them choose the better part.
One was called away by sorrow, she bereft a father dear;
And her helping hand withdrawn ceased to bring us help and cheer.
One a Hercules in effort, true as Lee to duty stood,
Yet as gentle as a Zephyr breathed around him deathless good.
Like the hand with ring of magic, one threw lights upon the screen,
Glad if others were transfigured and himself remained unseen.
We, the teachers have depicted, one and all would fain recall,
Were it not some films are wanting, pictures turned against the wall.
In our union and communion there is purpose, there is plan;
As with clustering constellations so with spirit ties of man.
There is no death! The stars go down to rise upon some fairer shore,
And bright in Heaven’s jeweled crown they shine on forevermore; –
So it is – inspiring doctrines of the Christian faith we learned;
Who of us have mystic knowledge, know beyond for which we learned?
We remember, we remember, the Academy when new,
There we figured out our future, sought to find a key and clue.
May we never forget the roads that lead us back to where we belong; and if we grow deaf – may its call be the last sound we grow mute to; it’s memories the last of that which shall pass from our memory; the emotion of it’s joy and pain the last thing that we are able to still feel and know.