20. Glimpses III: Roads, Sky, Ghosts, Winter.

Bald Truth requires incisiveness not only of perception but also of expression. “Closer than pulp and peel,” as J. Krushnamurti no doubt declared. To expose the shiny pate of veracity, your author swears off all wigs, toupees, extensions, bonnets, chapeaux, snoods, and head-dresses beaded or feathered. Farewell  the multisyllabic-millipede! Farewell the prose that lounges to the laugh-track! Good-bye to the euphemistic, the voguish, the otherwise trite, the prolix word-weeds, the esoteric, the barely-Anglicized passage of Latin, the stamen-and-pistil-raining florid, the over-liberally alliterative, the faux-technical with its parameter, and especially to the low-pants pun! So without further adieux…..  

The Stoplight is actually a composite of eight lanterns and twenty-four lenses plus No Turn on Red signs held by a physics-flouting armature (maybe a parameter). It extends diagonally across the intersection. As the metaphorical center of the County, it oversees a degree of energy and variety that would be forfeited by a Floyd Bypass.

As already suggested in Floydiana, it regulates an intermittent parade of trucks. Fascinating and intrusive, these vehicles make an ever-futile attempt—because never complete–to define truckitude. There are as many kinds as there are fiddle tunes, or types of window on this earth (the latter catalogued by Angel in Goggles as an example of the world’s multiplicity). Delivery trucks. Garbage trucks. Tankers, maybe with their own smokestacks. Vans. Fire engines with or without siren and lights. Ambulances ditto. Anyone who spots a rare intermodal container–perhaps labeled Maersk–gets bonus points. Same with any driver on West Main who, tilted uphill at the red light, looks up at the driver of a tractor-trailer who in turn studies the side-view mirror as the gigantic shoebox tries to bend around from Locust St.

Pickups? Sometimes “lifted,” either two- or four-door, they range in size from Titan to tiny. Some pull trailers. One hauled a ziggurat of hay bales. The bed of one was doubly wooden as a homemade box that impounded firewood. One long flatbed carried its duplicate. As for other loads, how about one that carried two barrels full of tangled, plastic-coated wire and turning off at a well-digging business. Keep an eye out for the old Jeep J-10, with a body that preserves rusty scratches as if used to crash through barbed wire, and a tag that reads “Farm Use.” In the space of ten minutes these exemplars passed: a bright blue dump truck which pulled—what was it, a front-and-back-hoe? A flatbed that supported two electrical units, one of them a fearsome cubic gizmo made of tubes. Another flatbed carried enough building material for a Habitat house. There goes a tree-grinder. At night the pageantry abates in its motion, sounds, sizes, shapes, and colors.

Once a many-wheeler supported a Prentice 120 boom and somehow bent itself into a C-shape as its towered above drivers who may have been crossing their fingers. Another tractor hauled a two-story double-trailer loaded with hardwood trunks that might not roll onto anyone. One truck arriving from the Christiansburg direction was so long that it couldn’t make the left turn onto North Main St.; it had to stop and wait for another truck to retreat from the far-back line. When the turning vehicle happened to pull to the roadside, down the hill, we surveyed the wheeled tableau: the tractor, identified as “Schoen,” pulled a ‘dozer with long boom like a battering ram and encircled with hoops of wire and science-fiction. At times an empty a tractor pulled a long flatbed with four pair of vertical metal pipes that bent inward at the tops to hold back–air. Another flatbed hauled what else but the cab of a truck. Not to forget the two-story tractor devoid of trailer, looking free but aimless.

One Friday evening the red light stopped a vehicle in front of Randall and Marjory’s car, so we were able to study the motor home in front of us and read its license plate,”California,” and its brand, “Chinook.” So we were amazed to see an early, primitive version of our own RV, made in Yakima, Washington. Once as a car proceeded through the intersection, four hands shot up and waved as frantic hands responded in the opposite lane. Another time I slapped my own palms on the steering wheel as I waited for green–for Beethoven needed me to help end his Eighth Symphony with a chord repeated two dozen times.  

Contrails backup

Moving from road to sky…. An invisible jet growl-purred toward the southeast into gray clouds that rushed against it. One evening a convergence of contrails in that direction revealed that airplanes were chasing the sun toward Atlanta. Such chalky lines disappear for long periods and then reappear—one day making a tic-tac-toe diagram over town (photo opposite). Once my grandson (two-and-a-half) and I stared up from the deck at a tiny silver fuselage: “Catch it!” he exclaimed. Another time I heard a roar and bolted to the valley window just in time to see a fighter jet zoom from the northwest and wheel toward over the village–its left wing pointing straight down as if to nick a silo—as it swooped toward another jet that had come from somewhere, both in chase. A strange incongruity of Floyd Time and barely subsonic, of hamlet and battle.

Why is a helicopter circling over the town? It made a spectacle that was equally noisy, surprising, and distressing. Army green, or at least dark, it swooped around and around, its whap-whap-whap unchecked over roofs, yards and gardens. From the deck, I saw a defenseless Vietnamese village and half expected red-tailed missiles to hurtle into it.

With such aeronautic traffic, I remembered back more than fifty years when my friend and I took a wild-hair job as volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol. Every Wednesday afternoon we sat up in a cold, windowless hut, searched for planes, spotted them, and dialed number to report their location and direction:

WHeaton 8-1994: “I spot six jets, one blimp, and a light airplane that pulls an American flag. In the foreground a man carries a boy on his shoulders and sports a jacket reading ‘Dale, Jr. 88.’ Cars pull toward them from around the track and make such a racket that spectators wear earmuffs. This framed scene celebrates the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Daytona Beach Speedway and hangs at the office of Autoville on North Main in Floyd, Virginia.” 


As the Wellses began to drive across Laurel Branch Rd. from Slaughters’ to Slaughters’—nursery to grocery—a black car sped around the corner from Dodd Creek bridge on Rt. 221 and showed little inclination to slow down. Shaken, we let him zip past us. Pigs don’t fly but they drive.One day four or five small cars–I think they were four-cylinder stock cars for racing–played hopscotch on Rt. 8 toward Christiansburg, one hill-curve providing a signal to pass against the double-yellow lines. On that same highway, the other direction, a blue pickup shot across the double lines and up the hill like a VFX rocket (the letters of its license plate).

Some of the weekly wrecks seem to involve other drivers than speediots. Heading toward town Rt. 221, we noticed two disabled cars on the left. One was being hauled away and the other, much dented, was propped on the bed of a tow truck stationed in Margie Keith’s driveway. Against the truck leaned a woman. On the right side of the pavement, streaks of rubber became slices in the grass and then indentations down near the roadside stream that fed Dodd Creek. 

Across Dodd Creek up the long curve of Rt. 221 toward town, a night driver from either direction can infer an oncoming vehicle from the reflection of headlights in the windows of a half-dozen house-trailers. In the daytime a driver might notice some litter, thrown or blown. Randall made this collection along Rt. 221 near Annie Lane:

  • a big, rumpled sheet of plastic
  • a 3-qt plastic bleach-bottle
  • a greasy rag of a shirt
  • a cappuccino can
  • 2 plastic water-bottles, one partly shredded at both ends
  • a can of Diet Dr. Pepper (not a winner like the half-full liter of Mr. Perky he scored next to the Blue Ridge Restaurant)
  • a can of Red Bull
  • a blue-paper towel twisted at one end for a purpose that was surely not personal. 

Because of methamphetamine production, a cottage industry, people have been warned to ignore bottles that may still hold an evil genie.

One time along Canning Factory Rd., Randall saw a colorful shape that resolved into a human, specifically a female with a stuck-out thumb. He pulled to the side, invited her on board, and offered to turn off station WVTF–classical music not being everyone’s cup of Do Re Mi. “Oh, no,” she replied, “I think music is the international language.” A little confused about the whole situation, he drove her to Midway, a market on Rt. 221.

One morning after Randall turned off Rt. 221 onto Rt. 615 (just beyond the Post Office), his car rolled over the shadow of a fence whose wooden lattice of compressed X’s became diamonds on the pavement. On the way back, just past Moore Rd., the highway again veered just in time to keep the vehicle from driving right through the covered bridge of a small barn. Once he drove some friends down Rt. 221 and hung a left onto Bethlehem Church Rd. (across from the old roller rink). A vast field appeared that held about two hundred sheep. “How would you learn all their names,” wondered Ralph impishly.” “Well,” explained Randall, “you could call them all ‘Bob’ and just add numbers—‘Bob 1,’ ‘Bob 2’….”

Doncha drive through it.

One day a driver took down this fence, perhaps trying to enter the bridge.

In late October, I watched from the balcony of Black Water Loft as several people seemed to foreshadow Halloween. One man stood by a motorcycle and pulled a rubber costume-like outfit over his head. The apparent counterfeit of an elderly woman poked her cane past a woman in her forties and in black tight pants and high-heeled boots. As the actual holiday approached, a driver along North Main St. could note a figure sitting near the corner with Mullins Alley, its pants tucked into boots, its lost head surveying traffic. The next day the effigy lay on the porch motionless, crumpled, the victim of a high wind. Somewhere in the annual Halloween maze at Slaughters’ Nursery sat a scarecrow corpse. Its chest rose up and down realistically as it stared aghast at nothing. As I continued to walk by, it lunged as if to grab me. Startled, I reached down and put my hand on its forearm to feel warmth.

One election day, 2013, Floyd County voted 2019 to 1129 for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. On the state level, however, the Democrat won by the length of a vaginal probe.

Before hunting season opened, three deer enjoyed safety in someone’s yard: the two fawns studied us as we hiked past and a larger, fake one, ignored us. In late November, one of the final bags of the season came from Seven Springs Farm. Our one-quarter share from the CSA was heavy on roots: 

  • 2 small sweet potatoes
  • 7 small carrots, tastiness inverse to size
  • 4 beets, invitingly dirty, their long roots sticking from end like crawfish feelers
  • 1 butternut squash
  • 1 head cabbage
  • spinach leaves.

The Wellses’ share required them do tasks like checking the fence to discover where the deer got in, cutting lettuce-leaves off at the ground, swishing lettuce heads in a tank to get the sand off, and cutting weeds from rows so long that they disappeared with the curvature of the earth. While others may do this work, I’ll  stay home and write a song called “Four hours, that’s my farming forever.” I little resemble resembles one native who wakes up at 5:30, feeds sixty-five cows on his parents’ farm, lays bricks in another county, and returns to feed the cows.

With the initial frost, our little gingko tree somehow kept its leaves; after the second, they lay scattered flat around its base like undie-scraps. Across Rt. 221 from Annie Lane, the tangle of kudzu on the high bank looked like a massive green wave held back by Moses; next day it looked dark-dry green; soon, brown, shrunken, and last year’s. One mild day—can those be bluebirds?! But they were supposed to migrate to Florida like our Floyd pals who spend half the year in Sarasota. Had they returned north early, deceived by the warming of the earth? Apprehensive, I phoned Woolwine House Bluebird Trail and learned that this species lives in Virginia during the whole winter. And as for birds, where did this great, solitary crow come from? Perched atop a tall Virginia pine—roughly even with the gaze of anyone standing on our deck—it bared its shiny black front to the southeast. “Probably a raven,” said Jane Cundiff, when I reported this glimpse; “they’re here now.”


        By Fred First, July 6, 2016.

As the weather cooled, I was strangely pleased that the courthouse sentry faced the warm lowering arc of the sun. But at other times I felt like one of the Jews in a short story who would avoid the “chilly shadow” of the unwanted civic Christmas tree by walking three blocks east to buy a loaf of bread. (“The Loudest Voice,” by Grace Paley.) This soldier barks out an impossible challenge: “Observe without judging!” Wide-brimmed and canteened, he regards the symbolic south from a high pedestal. The Floyd Chapter of the DAR installed the monument to honor the Army of the Confederacy in 1904, a few years before the death of “Captain” Tompkins.

A different soldier will be perceived by every passer-by, white or black. Randall views him with uneasy respect but without veneration. The statue is a dignified memorial, sharply more so in contrast to the Reb-X-flags that identify a small minority of citizens. They have no “niggers” to keep them from forming the mudsill of society. (My ironic and uncharitable reference to the racist theory of James Henry Hammond, 1858). They are proud, would-be deserters from the United States of America who metaphorically camp out in the bush, stoking their unreconstructed smoke. By contrast Randall thinks of himself as a prime beneficiary of the dragged-out, self-destructive preservation of the Union, for he ventured to the South a hundred years later and has spent most of his life there.

“Don’t tread on me!” So threatened the slave-owners and all who were inclined (or figuratively drafted by social pressure) to join the revolution. But all the tombstones! Acres and acres of them in hundreds of places–like stumps that never grew into trunks and then into family trees. And all the ghosts! They parade by the statue as generations who never lived, the never-born offspring of the never-existed, whose potential ancestors died by Minié ball, mine, microbe…. Imagine that in the crowd you recognize the never-married Mary Stuart and Kate, daughters of “Captain” Tompkins, strolling arm and arm with their husbands, who uttered the words “I’m gone” before they could say “I do.” Following each couple are their children, who lead trains of families that combine with gaily-dressed wraiths as far as the eye can see, multitudes of no ones.

During WinterFest at the JAX, dozens of Floydians looked at handmade artifacts—knitted, kilned, soldered, canned, brushed, felted, recyled, upcycled, carved, or tie-dyed. Upstairs in the old barn, no surprise that a singer graced the large room while a pair of musicians strummed. The eight gorgeous quilts hung from the ceiling, four on each inward-inclining side, several of them billowing from their wooden frames like sails on the Fleet of Art.

Randall found it imperative to laugh with Pat Sharkey, Director of Tourism for the county. She dreamed of making something of the water tower with its rust-blotched central pipe and surrounding legs. Why not a hot tub at the top? Inspired by her vision, I dared to imagine a glass elevator that would carry naked people to the summit, but I acknowledged the drawbacks in winter. Or why not hang swings from the tank and then rotate it fast enough to make the seats rise by centrifugal force while people hold on screaming? Hey, maybe a rocket to blast into space, or at least into the air above the county: “Down there,” intones the guide, “is Harman’s gas station with its old-time ‘ding-ding’ cable running to the Marathon pumps.” 

Sadly, however, this year the Humane Society table was not attended by Ms. Betty “Sunny” Bernardine (Appendix 2). She left many two-legged pals in the Society, many of them also Came Heres: from New York, California, Ohio, Vermont, North Carolina, and Germany (information courtesy of Lynn Chipkin).


Marge and I adjourned to Dogtown Pizza/Sun Music Hall. There, a band of five high-spirited guys played as many stringed instruments: guitar, bass fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and violin (wielded by Mike Mitchell). I helped extend the age disparity among dancers to seventy years. People admired the flapper-style hat that Marge had just bought at WinterFest. And her fellow exercise-class member demonstrated a few wine-powered squats, which were requited by your up-&-down author, all to bluegrass music.

As the seasons changed with the countless traffic-turnings from green to yellow to red, the roof of one car bore a netted Christmas tree through the intersection toward the Parkway, while another arbormobile turned left and carried on toward the Post Office. In front of that building, Wanda found Randall’s Christmas present stuck in the grass: a flamingo of modest size but outrageous color.

At Black Water Loft, at eye-level from the balcony shone the double red-lights at the corner, Christmas-y against the gray clouds. One woman crossed South Locust toward Farmers’ Supply against a biting wind (and perhaps against the light); wrapping her coat around a baby, she raised her right arm to thank a driver waiting behind the line. (Having grown up in Tibet, she had met her American husband in an Italian restaurant in New Delhi.) Farmers’ Supply had the chill taken off one millions items by the old cast-iron coal stove, Warm Morning Model 524, fed by wood during the day.

At Slaughters’ Nursery, Randall broke an agreement with his spouse by having another re-plantable Christmas tree loaded into the car. Later, with its rootball swaddled in burlap, five of us (including Dolly of the two wheels) strained to pull it backwards up the front stairs. Marge backed into the corner of the rail, causing a painful outburst and a bruised marriage. Once again I tried to defend my purchase: since the forester had urged us to plant white pines on one side of the pole barn, why not vary the group with a Fraser fir? Besides, dear, its origin is Southern Appalachian.

Once again our grandchildren visited their second home in the country. To someone from Charlotte, Floyd County is an exciting place, cooler in both summer and winter, favored by occasional snow (with cardboard furnished for sliding). It has a path cut through the woods where a child can walk beneath the trunk of one bowed-over tree and along the horizontal trunk of another. It boasts real horses and cows, not just those in children’s books, that dot the hillside across Floyd Highway in ever-varying compositions. And Sid’s first experience with live theater, Wind in the Willows, was performed by the Young Actors Co-op in the Sun Music Hall; “That was good,” he declared as he began to leave at intermission.

On a cold afternoon I lifted the three-and-a-half-year weight of Julien so he could spot the twiggy home in a bushy evergreen. “Are there eggs?” No, snow. Then we unlatched the door to the bluebird house and saw the nest that still remained (eggless again, sorry). Then further down the lane we came to another I had promised. Woven with a sort of papyrus around the twigs of a branch, it bore only a lacuna. Again I lifted him so he could peer in and see the glistening yellow-and-black insect that had given its final service to the wasp colony by unintentionally patching the hole. (“Poor verdant fool,” wrote the poet Richard Lovelace about the improvident grasshopper, “and now green ice.”) Grandson expressed a need to take his cold hands back to the cabin, so “Pampa” held one and then the other as they climbed the hill, stopping only to admire a set of contrails. Later, Mommy asked Julien what he liked most about his visit to the cabin: “The hike to see the nestis.”

One day when the sun had climbed high enough to defrost the outdoors, I enlisted the boys to go on an expedition to photograph a couple of “rustiques” (Chapter 30). Afterward we parked in town, where they they raced up the inside spiral-stairway of Black Water Loft while I took the outside one with its three gyres. The lads seemed to charm the barista enough that she piled whipped cream on their hot chocolate despite my repeated assurance that they didn’t want any.

Next day the lucky children were invited to explore part of the Firsts’ eighty acres. Members of several families and generations crossed Goose Creek over an icy plank that led from the mainland to an enclave of pasture and woods. As we hiked across the clod-grass, I called far ahead to the Firsts’ grandchildren and proposed a race. My challenge was accepted by Taryn, six years old, who yelled something about “the tree.” Suddenly aged and deaf, I limped toward her, asking that she turn back and clarify the plan. When she did, a miracle! I sprinted past her! But as I approached the tree, there was a pair of them! I stopped in my tracks, looked back, and asked her to point out the one she meant, whereupon she ran up and touched it to win the game and leave me disconsolate.

Nameless Creek ran near a line of rocks, snowy and most of them carry-one-at-a-time. What was their purpose? To form a dike? Maybe to clear a field for agriculture (a job I was relieved to miss). This project would have taken place before the too-closely-planted and scrubby pine woods grew up that the Firsts cut down. Reaching the unofficial picnic grounds, we found snow lying around the dark rocks that once bordered the summer-solstice fire (photo below). The only flame was on Sid’s hat.firestones

I told an attentive Sid that this very creek had created the valley we stood in. As Fred once explained in his blog, Fragments of Floyd:

 The “pasture” soil is shallow, overtop of eons of eroded mountain–the ancient  Appalachians, purported to be higher than today’s Rockies. So we were in the  rubble field of those ancient mountains, and the steep rushing water off that wall of  crumbling stone has carved our notch between more resistant ridges. They too were once many times higher  than they are today. And the sand–the finest dust of mountains–that makes up our soil will someday find its way  to Atlantic beaches.

I also reported that humans had carved out an abandoned, path-like road that clung to the opposite mountainside, where a segment of rock-buttress was dry-stacked rather than piled. With this ambience geological and historical, I felt like Dorothy in the Land of Was. I imagined a camp of deserters from the Civil War, either or both sides, after hearing that this area made a congenially hostile hideout.

Sid. Photo by Jenny Vasaune, his Bonne Mami.

   Sid. Photo by his paternal grandmother, Jenny Vasaune (“Bonne Mamy”).

Both lads poked the ice of Nameless Creek with sticks while being supervised by Dad. Then Sidney carried thin, free-form handfuls of ice back over the plank. Then he stomped the ice at the edge of that very stream, stomp, stomp, stomp! “Be careful,” warned Fred, “or you’ll fall in.” Suddenly water came up over boot and caused the poor boy to—keep stomping. Ann’s emailed report: Have to say we will never forget hearing Mike’s deep bass voice calling “Sidney” several times to come out of the creek when was time to go. We looked out the window to see their van driving away, and we assumed the child was in the van with them. Then, all of a sudden we saw him with his little legs churning as he ran up out of the creek and began to chase the van. Then, as Mike just kept driving away slowly and Sidney chasing the van for awhile before they stopped to let him in—it was soooo funny (I bet he will remember that Papa can mean business).