Another year made its way across the Blue Ridge Plateau storm by warm, bees by freeze, rake by plunging or whirling flake.I learned more about the surrounding counties. Driving on Rt. 8 toward Christiansburg, for example, Marjory and I would pass Sinkland Farms. I always speculated on the cause of the scalloped, eroded hills that dropped ever lower as they stretched farther toward the horizon. Did they resemble the Sinks of Gandy in West Virginia, where I had once waded through a dark cave? Never mind, for the land turned out to be owned by the Sink family. So although I wondered about the Bright Farm in Floyd County, I let the subject drop.
Once Marge and I were winding down Bent Mountain on Rt. 221 toward Roanoke. I had just clumsily re-learned to use a stick shift when ferrying our daughter’s car from our place to hers in the Check-Copper Hill area. Now when I tried to downshift on the steep incline, my left foot pedaled air. “There’s no clutch!” Trying to avoid panic I told my passenger that it must have dropped through the floorboard of “this junk.” She replied, “There is no clutch.” My retort: “I should know!” as I pondered a way to brake to a stop while in gear. “No, this is the Subaru,” she insisted, “and it doesn’t have a clutch.”
Roanoke is a former railroad city that decades ago stood on the platform and waved goodbye to the train. But its Museum of Transportation preserves a Class J steam locomotive, the 611, which alone was worth a trip, not to mention the abundance of other sidetracked memorabilia. Once we attended a classical music concert that was as resplendent as the venue was grandly cement-stark. In fact we had the privilege of hearing the premiere of Blue Ridge Rhapsody by Steve Brown–its three movements expressing the region’s energy, religious character, and mountain-music tradition. (Rumor has it that Mr. Brown plans to transform Floydiana to an oratorio.) Walking back to Motel Hardscrabble, I hid Marge’s purse under my overcoat like a fat man. Driving back the next day on Rt. 221, my car was never fast enough for those who thought the numbers on road signs meant Minimum Speed, who disdained to slow down for curves, who despised the thought of maintaining an extra vehicle-length or two behind my bumper. From these observations on top of many earlier ones, I judged that exceeding the speed limit was like old-time bootlegging: illegal but socially acceptable.
In November Dennis (another Came Here) asked if I’d like to drive to the meat processing business with him and his deer. So into the former professor’s truck I climbed for lessons and a field trip. “I shot and cleaned it,” he reported from under his cap. Although the manly custom seems to be to shoot bucks (Dennis said), he shoots female deer only to keep down the population. He retailed information about licenses, points (antler-tips), the hunting season with its increment of weapons, and the ethics of shooting. I remembered the anonymous bullet that has zipped past Fred First in the woods. Dennis continued. “You don’t want to wound the animal. I don’t shoot from less than fifty yards. I spent three hours walking and tracking, then went home and took a nap, and later I crawled on the grass till I got a safe angle, looking below.”
As he was instructing me on how to dress the animal, we arrived at the Willis Village Mart. A sign behind the grocery read LOAD MEAT HERE. (According to its ad in the phone book, this chop-shop takes not only deer but cows and pigs.) I noticed bloody puddles. “This place can’t take deer with hides, or the distal legs” explained my docent; “Don’t want the hooves.” Specimens of the latter poked out of big cans along with rib cages and bones.
Dennis opened the truck-bed to reveal a naked, headless deer, #280 or so since the place opened in October. In a ghastly parody of a carnival ride, it then hung by the neck and glided to the cooler on a track. Mr. James Bohnke, a butcher with twenty-five years’ experience, gave me permission to write about “the handsome fellow who hooked the deer.” The aroma of fresh meat now complemented the other sensory messages. I couldn’t be squeamish, though. As a Cub Scout I had toured the Armour & Company’s slaughterhouse in Chicago; and as a meat-eater I had turned my nose up only at sheep’s heads, half-raw beef, and testicles (though not kidneys if they shared a pie with steak and I toured England). Dennis noted that the business puts a stamp on all the meat and can’t legally sell it, and that extra poundage goes to Hunters for the Hungry. On the way home he gave me a bonus lesson on gun safety.
I continued to wonder about this weapon’s significance to the area’s culture. Dennis and I regarded it as a tool, like a rake or chain saw. In fact I will lift a pellet gun to the next cat that lands at our house. Don’t most citizens regard this weapon as utilitarian? Ann First, for example, carries a Ruger .44 Magnum Carbine short-barreled rifle on her hikes in case she duels with a bear. I myself never had an unpleasant encounter with anything or anyone connected to guns, open or concealed, in Floyd County. One of the carpenters who worked on our house collected those weapons he admired for their workmanship, and he even crafted stocks of his own. Fairly distant neighbors occasionally held peace-splitting but otherwise harmless target practice. One clerk, a female, did wear a T-shirt with the advice to “Keep calm and carry guns.” I was able to joke about the subject, as when I bought a canister of dog-spray and explained to the clerk, “This is the liberal’s gun.” “Better get two,” he laughed. Once I did open-carry a 5-incher in my shirt pocket: yellow, inscribed “Tomy Community School District,” bought at Farmers’ Supply, and given to my grandson.
Guns valued not so much to gain security as to express hostility? Radical individuality? Don’t tread on me with your e pluribus unum! Was it strange that the county was so Christian and so totin’? According to an essay in Sojourners, most gun owners are responsible people, but as for gun zealots: “The religious community must…take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse.” (James E. Atwood, “9mm Golden Calves,” January 2013, pp. 10-11, issue courtesy of Fred and Ann First.)
So for many people the gun was not only a practical instrument—e.g., for dispatching critters and defending themselves–but also a symbol. Firearms as lares and penates—household gods. They offered a sense of control over threats, but wasn’t this assurance illusory? A naïve toughness? For the barrel and bullet had little power to ward off dangers other than the face-to-face type, intruders human or animal, and aggressors, especially other gunslingers firing away or threatening to do so. Most of our perils are more abstract, chronic, external, political, social, even internal. You can’t shoot your failings, a reckless driver, an unwelcome law–or a pipeline carrying natural gas under high pressure. A shotgun can’t blast away ticks that carry Lyme disease, nor can a rifle pick off a superbug bacterium. What about the hazards of weather–the North American derecho, for instance, that ambushed Floyd in June 2012. Long-term changes in the world’s climate may be threatening their own High Noon.
In Floyd County, the Second Amendment was the First Amendment. But personal gun-ownership no longer supplies the militias of the Constitution, so how useful is it for conducting or preventing wars? As for health and safety, a handgun might be more useful in blowing cigarette packs or soda pop off shelves. As for the Devil–Whatcha gonna do when he comes for you?
Yet despite all this dormant violence, any IRA apostle seemed less dangerous to me than the fellow who drove toward The Stoplight while holding up a flipped-open cell phone.As always, deer were too many and too much. “I’m into my fourth week now” complained a friend who had been trying to get her Bambi-smashed car repaired. This animal nipped many a hasta leaf and bud, destroying our transplanted rain tree. On the hill across Rt. 221, a new animal joined the horses, cows, and maybe sheep. This coyote-kicker donkey would bellow several times like the air-horn on a fire engine, then make intermittent high-pitched gasps for air, a sound of graceless magnitude hardly suggested by the bland “hee-haw.” It reminded me of the sawmill in Conway, South Carolina, which would clack and clunk and then steamily shriek.
The Stoplight-constellation continued its 24-hour duty. This industrial light had its own magic, for its supporting boom somehow extended diagonally over the whole corner—even though it’s twice as long as its post is high. Another complication: this signal is a “timed-demand light,” explains Sam Moore, who retired from VDOT.
At times of heavy traffic with no breaks, the light cycles at approximately one minute. When there is no traffic in one direction, a camera sends this to a controller and changes the light to the direction where cars are waiting. This prevents undue waits when cars are not approaching the light. In the middle of the night or at such time when cars are not approaching from any direction, the default direction is green on Main Street.
Sam considers this type of signal better for Downtown Floyd than a roundabout, “which requires significant real estate.”
Sometimes a driver can wait till his annoyance-alarm goes off. Once I sat long enough next to a tractor-trailer that was unloading at Farmers’ Supply that I was able to count every rivet. At other times a driver can look ahead to see the light turn green, pull through the intersection at last, and see the yellow light flash in the rearview mirror.
Green by green, day by night, the gallimaufry of trucks continued. Facing uphill on 221, a driver waiting behind a truck might see the stoplights lights framed by the two exhaust-periscopes that stuck up from a cab. Or might see one of the red lights the top of an oncoming cab but not the lower-placed green one until the truck moved forward. Puffs of brown smoke would occasionally scoot off in the direction-of-the-day. A long flatbed that groaned up the hill gear by gear to cross Locust St. gave a double meaning to “lumber” because it hauled stacks of it. Now and then a dump truck passed with the front set of three rear-wheel axles raised. A rotund “Outhouse” company vehicle, shaped like a cement truck, drove to or from a septic tank. An occasional motorist made a country turn-signal by synchronizing it with the rotation of the steering wheel or saving it for a better time. Once a turning car almost hit Marge, and the driver apologized.
Wrecks out on highways that had been wagon-trails continued with some regularity. A photo in the Press (April 10, 2014) showed a set of upside-down wheels on Will Ridge Rd. and quoted a resident: “Second time here.”
As my wife and I were unloaded recyclables, a woman walked along the edge of Franklin Pike. Concerned, I looked carefully, saw that she was in distress, and hastened to meet her. “Are you going to town? We can give you a ride.” As an answer, she stopped, tipped her head into her hands, and wept with abandon, her tears falling on the incongruously colorful print of her blouse. Soon she took refuge in the back seat with a box of tissues while we began to unload PETES, glass, and cardboard. After thanking us, she decided to continue her hike, explaining that a relative was supposed to meet her in town. “Be careful–it’s a bit dangerous.” “I’ll be OK.” Later, as we passed the determined pedestrian, I could only offer her a little honk instead of a meal, a bedroom, and cash.
As always, Floyd County derived part of its identity from what might be called “mixed usage.” While trucks competed with other vehicles, sheet-metal house trailers compose the façade of downtown Locust St. along with spiffed-up, balconied stores. The town did erect a latticed screen between the trailers and a new walkway that arced between S. Locust and E. Main. Although this former suburbanite was grateful, another Came Here expressed indignation at what she seemed to regard as a condescending attempt to hide the penurious.Little adventures here and there added up. Randall continued to pluck litter from the business areas of Floyd-town. Once he went for a plastic half-cup in Main St. in front of the Post Office, but by the time he checked traffic it had disappeared, blown away, so he persevered and trapped it in a field. On another sortie he found an empty pack of Pall Mall Blue: Smokes longer and cooler. Another time, Winston.
Again he stood behind the Indigo Farms seafood truck and felt something tickle his scalp, a fish-shaped pennant. One night two couples stood in a driveway between Oddfellas Restaurant and the adjacent building to get out of the cold. Randall ostentatiously warned his group, “Get going so we don’t get mugged”; As the bystanders chuckled, one called out, “Wanna buy a gold watch?”
The new pharmacy in a chain grocery never took. When Floyd Pharmacy put up a banner reading “Welcome Food Lion Customers,” I suggested that that the last word could drop the -s. I learned even more about how vague “local” can be. At this same business one clerk had moved from Michigan and the relatively new owner had roots in India. When a snarky customer asked, “Where’s he from?!” another clerk retorted, “Minnesota” (where his family had immigrated to decades earlier). Mr. Raju seemed comfortable in Floyd, so I drew him aside and confessed that I had been a drug-seeker: crawling under the table, ignoring one crumb after another, I finally spotted the green tablet dropped while loading my weekly pillbox.
Down E. Main St. from The Stoplight, Hardee’s never lacked for customers, none of whom held a burger in one hand and Fast Food Nation in the other. A non-local bank was purchased by an even non-ner. At the ultra-local West End Market, whom should I see buying more lottery cards but the person who habitually and carefully also chose them from a different gas station. Once a fellow with a different kind of habit held a cigarette decorously away from his truck as, on the other side, the pump automatically filled his tank. As for another customer, the expression on his face, the words on his cap, and the decals on his vehicle made a one-man-band that played the Military-Theological-Political march.
Once at West End, I chatted with the man who was emptying gasoline from his long, silver silo to the underground. I recalled for him the tanker that had chased and passed me one night. Does he drive Rt. 8 up from Stuart? “No…that road’s not big enough for a car! I tried it once. Those blind curves—you could tip over.” One day at the West End counter I chatted with the Chief Deputy of the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Floyd Town Council. “Mr. Turner,” I asked, “is that the same toothpick you had a week ago?” “No,” he chuckled. “These help me pass the time, keep me from getting bored.” “Better than a cigarette,” I declared.” “Unless you swallow it,” he added.
For an ex-academic like me, retirement years now passed as seasons without semesters. The revolving year both gave and took.One winter evening I sat in Skyline Nursing and Rehabilitation Center near the room of our friend Margie Keith. No visitors, please, but she understood that I was there thanks to a note delivered by a staff member. On the television, a bunch of kittens played a game of soccer, with color commentary provided by two appreciative voices. Margie would never see her own cats again, never turn a page, never turn on station WVTF for classical music, never come to the door for a meal-in-Tupperware and for an exchange of warm syllables. I was going out of the country, she out of the world. As I type, I press back tears.