Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Weekend Trip

Howdy from a relatively HUMID North Carolina, & the pun was indeed intended.  This is going to be a long, rambling post, with no particular purpose, so just know that going into it.  Won't hurt my feelings if you don't have the patience.

I took a quick trip to Kentucky last weekend, to visit my father, who is just shy of being in his mid-80s.  He'd spent Thursday night in the hospital, and when I showed up on Friday I could tell he wasn't feeling well.  I wasn't feeling well either, I'd managed to hurt my back somehow a couple of days earlier, and it was getting difficult for me to navigate on my own two feet.  By Saturday, my father was moving around a lot better than I was.

My father joined the Air Force when I was 7 years old.  Until that time I'd spent my entire life in Knott County, Kentucky - specifically Hindman and it's environs.  And I'm absolutely positive I sounded like it.  But in the summer, shortly before my 8th birthday, we packed up and headed out to Altus AFB in Oklahoma.  We said our goodbyes to grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.   My mother was sad and excited at the same time, and I didn't have a clue.  Completely clueless.  Before the next school year started, I'd been to Oklahoma, out to Arizona, on to California then back to Oklahoma.  After Oklahoma, I'd find my self in Montana, Germany, & Colorado, then back to Kentucky for some college, then off again, all over creation for a long time.

Anyway, I remember driving down a dirt road from my Uncle's house, with him and my cousin standing there watching us leave.   The next time I'd see my cousin, who was also my best friend at the time, he would be dead.

Maybe if everybody examines their life, they can find a point where there is a dividing line.  Where things were one way before and another way after.  Or maybe most people cant.  But I can, and it is very stark, and very real, and I didn't realize it for years and years.  But looking out the back window of the car as we drove on that dirt road down the hill, seeing my uncle and cousin standing there looking quite sad as we left,  is the major dividing point in my life.  That exact moment.  Before that things were one way, after that things were another.

Actually, when we left, we were taking part in a large migration out of Eastern Kentucky.  The area had been losing population for years, and continued to lose for years afterwards.  We joined the herd.  Eventually the area lost it's congressional district, and was gerrymanded into a couple of others.

Before:  I was very young.  I was part of a large extended family - I still don't really know how many first cousins I have, but it's a lot.  A large segment of them were my age, and we played and played and played.  I had aunts and uncles who I thought were all grown up, but in reality they were kids, teenagers.    In a place like Knott County, if a grown up didn't know you, they'd always ask "Whose yore Daddy?", I'd tell them, and suddenly it was like I was a member of the family, because everybody knew either my father's family or my mother's, in most cases both.   I felt very secure, no reason not to.

After:   I didn't belong anywhere, and the longer it went on, the less I belonged, even in Knott County.  The natural shyness (or bashfulness as they were more likely to say) I exhibited before, became much more pronounce after.

I had my first brush with death when I was 5 years old and my great-granfather died.  I'm going to date myself a little here - this was a man who was born in 1860, and lived long enough to pretty much scare me to death.  It was the mustache more than anything - it was a long, thick, 19th century mustache.   He was a lawyer, had at one time been the county attorney, and always wore a suit.  He was very stern, or at least seemed so to me. He scared me to death, and when he died just short of his 99th birthday, I didnt understand why people were upset.  I didnt understand why they were digging a hole to put grandpa in.  I didn't know what death was.

My next brush with death came about 3 years later,  when we were in Oklahoma.  It was the May after we'd left Kentucky, and one evening my mother got a call from her brother, who tearfully told her that my cousin, his nephew, had drowned.   I heard the words but they didn't sink in - nobody said dead.  I was in 8 year old complete denial, surely it was possible for someone to drown and not be dead.  My father was at work, either my mom or my brother called him, I'm not sure, and within a couple of hours we were on our way to Kentucky.

My cousin drowned in Troublesome Creek, a body of water that is 99 miles long and flows into the Kentucky River I believe.  Most of the year, it is probably ankle deep in the area where he drowned - but in the spring it can get very high, and can be very dangerous.  They were visiting his uncle who ran a service station across the road.  It took me decades before I realized the terror of that afternoon and early evening.  My cousin must have felt terror, pain and absolute panic in those moments before died, struggling, but not able to get his head above water.   His parents, ready to leave, couldn't find him, probably at first felt irritation.  As time when on they started feeling panic too, I'm sure.  They probably checked the houses up the hollow behind the service station to see if he was playing up there.  And as time went on and as it began to get later, the horror of that flooding creek must have become more and more of a reality.  At some point I'm sure the police were called, at some point they dragged the bottom of the creek (I don't know if these were people trained, or just local people volunteering to try to find him), and at some point they found his body.  His parents, who went for a visit with a very active and intelligent 7 year old son, went home childless.  I don't know how they dealt with it.

I'm not just throwing "intelligent" around, either.  In one of the country's poorest counties, my cousin's parents had advanced degrees in education from the University of Kentucky.  My cousin was learning to draw and paint, and I have a feeling could read well above his grade level.  Anyway.

No one knows what happened, no one saw it.  But my cousin was dead.  And I was in complete denial about it all.  But how does an 8 year old deal with a 7 year old's death?  Probably by being in denial.

Later that summer, after school was out in Oklahoma, my parents decided it would be a good idea for me to learn to swim, and signed me up for lessons at the town swimming pool.  It was very reasonable, except I was terrified.  I had (and I guess still have) an unreasonable terror of being in water over my head.  The instructors, who were nice people but were probably only high school students, could not do a thing with me.  I thought they hated me, but on the last day (about 5 days or so after I started), they sat down with me and talked to me,  said things to make me laugh, gave me some chocolate cake, and talked to my mother and that was the end of the swimming lessons.  It took me decades to link my cousin's drowning with the terror I felt in that swimming pool. At the time I didn't make the connection.

Decades after my cousin's death, I have not forgotten.  He was less than a year younger than me, and I wonder what his life would be like.

Knott County has changed a lot in the decades since my father joined the Air Force.   I mean the topography.  A lot of the mountain tops have been blown off for strip mining (or surface mining as the operators prefer to call it).  I think there is probably flat land now all the way from Hindman to Hazard and beyond in both directions, and Knott County & Perry County have no business having that much flat land in them.  But that's the way it is.  Strip mining pays well, but it's a hard, dangerous business, both for the people and for the land. 

Go to google & type in Knott County Kentucky, then look at a satellite image of it.  You'll see a lot of green rugged looking terrain, but you'll also see a lot of gray (or light brown) patches.  Those patches are mountain tops that no longer exist.  They are mountains that have been flattened, valleys that have been filled in, creeks that have been buried, and on and on. Every one of those mountain tops had a name. The operators will tell you that it's a good thing, that when the mining operations are over, there's land available for economic activity that didn't exist before.  And they aren't wrong.  But I can't help it - it's very ugly, and I don't like it, and it's a very high price to pay.

So anyway, I visited my father, visited my cousin's mother (his father died 2 years ago), visited my brother, and some more cousins.  Everbody's doing fine, just a little older than they used to be.


Heather said...

I have a few of those lines. When I got a new mother and when we left Maine for Texas.

Yeah you dated yourself! Your only a couple years older than my hubby and one year older than my stepmom.

Oh the horror of going home childless. I really would like to stop crying now..
I'm amazed you even tried to learn to swim.

Does make ya wonder what kind of envirmental changes have been done due to cutting away the mountain tops. The things we do to the land, some good some not so good.

Great post and yes you warned me, it was long!! LOL!

linlah said...

My line was a move from a move from Nebraska back to Colorado.

Your ramble was good.

A Valdese Blogger said...

Heather: Yikes. I'm getting old. When I had a child I truly understood what my aunt & uncle went thru & I don't know how they did it. Stip mining does do a lot of nasty things - changes the whole landscape, wipes out habitats, pollutes streams and creeks big time, but it also provides employment. I don't like it, but it is reality.

linlah: Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've read this little essay 3 times now and can't think of a truly appropriate comment except to say, I enjoyed it very, very much.

Patti Anne said...

It's a good thing you didn't publish that poem about him that you sent me when we were first together. There would be tears all over the internet. Life is all about death. My earliest memories are of funerals in parlors, the way they had them in the South in my youth. I cannot smell a rose yet without thinking of a dead body. Darling, this was a very brave post! I wish I could have been there for the little boy facing his cousin's death. Well, I hugged him all night!