Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The gloaming...the lesson learned...(& other ramblings)

Times were hard. Not "Swarthmore, take the children to school in the Cadillac, the Rolls is being detailed" hard but "are we going to have enough to eat this week" hard. It was the fall of 1958 or '59, somewhere in there and my dad was a coalminer. Back then, that didn't mean what it does now. The big money and the UMWA were still a dozen years away. Reality was something called the Southern Labor Union, $1.00 an hour, dangerous conditions and hard work. The wolf wasn't at our door, but if you sat in my grandmother's rocking chair on the front porch after supper, you could hear him howling down in the Studhoss Bottoms.

A wildcat strike had broken out in eastern Kentucky and quickly spread to West Virginia. Those good ole boys from the hills and hollers had finally had enough. They felt they were being worked to death for pennies while their cheap labor made the coal companies millions. The only thing worse than a mad hillbilly is a mad hillbilly who knows he's right. They set out to shut down all U.S. coal production. This included the mines in northwest Alabama. One morning my dad (and every other miner in this part of the world) was greeted at the entrance to his workplace by a picket line, manned by people he'd never seen before. These boys weren't playing around, either. A couple of days later, they got into a gunbattle with state troopers at a mine entrance just north of the Winston County line, off Highway 13 above Eldridge. My dad and everybody else turned around and went home to worry. Worry about feeding their families. Worry about simply surviving 'til the strike was settled.

Willie Nelson was right. It's funny how the passing of time changes things. Next time you're riding through Bazemore, slow down and look at the pile of blocks and timbers in front of Butch and Rhonda Hudson's house. You'd never know that this spot was once the center of a busy community. That pile of rubble was Ector Hollingsworth's general store. You could get anything at Ector's store, from Watkins Horse Liniment (guaranteed to cure everything from the common cold to leprosy) to a center-cut pork chop. It was a wonderful place. It was wonderful mostly because of Ector and his wife, Miss Ethel. I've never met two finer people. This was where our family did all our shopping. For everything.

It was almost dark as my dad pulled the old Chevrolet into the gravel beside Ector's store. I could tell something was bothering him. He was quiet and almost nervous, which was out of character for him. We got out and went inside and I heard my dad ask Ector if he could speak to him outside. The three of us went out the door on the back side of the building into the twilight. I remember standing under an old goose-neck light fixture painted white, with a naked lightbulb shining. Dad explained to Ector about the strike and told him he might not be able to pay him off every Friday, like he had always done, until the strike ended. I'll never forget what Ector told my dad. He said, "Red, don't worry about a thing, we'll all get through this just fine." He put his hand on my head, leaned down toward me and said, "Don't you worry either, son. Everything's gonna be okay." Did you catch that? The "we" part? There's no doubt in my mind every bell in heaven rang just about then. Folks, that's how one decent, compassionate, upright man treats another decent, compassionate, upright man. Although I was just a child, I knew I had witnessed something very special. And please, don't think you can do or say things in front of your children and they won't remember them years later. I'm not sure I could tell you what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can quote that conversation from over half a century ago word for word. Some things God doesn't mean for you to forget.

As I've told you before, I don't dream much. But when I do, it's generally something serious or something that has real meaning from somewhere in my life. Once or twice a year I dream about that afternoon at the store. It's always after I wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and am trying to go back to sleep. I'm somewhere in that place between sleep and awareness. That twilight place my Irish grandmother called "the gloaming." She said it was the period between the time the sun disappeared and until it became completely dark. According to her, this was when "the magic happened." Maybe she was more right than either of us realized. Just maybe. My dream always begins the same. I'm walking south on the Bazemore road just above the store. I know it's a dream because I'm walking, strong and confident. No pain, no limp. It's wonderful. Off to my left, I see Miss Cora Hollingsworth going inside after working in her yard. Over to the right, Jerry and Larry McCollum are going up the steps into their house, somebody's calling them in to supper. As I walk on, there's an old frame house on the left which belongs to Bill McCollum. The house where Rhonda and Melissa Lynn grew up hasn't been built yet. To my right the store is still there. The lights are on and I can see Miss Ethel inside, patiently waiting on the last few customers of the day. I take two or three more steps and it's then I see them. There at the door under a naked lightbulb are two men and a little boy. The two men talk quietly for a minute or so, the older man rubs the little boy's head and says something to him and then they do something strange. Instead of going back inside the store, they turn and walk alongside the building toward Butch and Rhonda's house. The two men continue to talk quietly and the younger man reaches and takes the little boy's hand and the three of them gradually fade into the misty twilight. Gone.

But they're not really gone at all. They're just...walking in a different place. Men like my dad and Ector Hollingsworth never die. The good they did, the lives they led, the things they stood for, last for eternity. They've joined a long line of other good men. A line that stretches from here all the way to heaven. God help me remember the example the two of them showed me that day. God help me pass their lesson on to others. God help me hold on to that afternoon in the gloaming so many years ago. God help me be worthy of a place in that line someday. God help me...please.

The Old Gray Lion

This month's recommended reading: The Oxford American Magazine.
Cheap rates, great writing and wildly disparate observations of the things that make our part of the world so special.

This month's recommended movie: Fandango, starring Kevin Costner.
An absolute delight from start to finish. The adventure at the Pecos Parachute School may be the funniest thing I've ever seen. The ending is visually stunning, the sound track is great and the final stages are filmed in the most beautiful little town in Texas. One of the best endings ever. If I remember correctly, everybody can watch. You will never forget Truman J. Sparks or his airplane. That's a promise.

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