Sunday, July 9, 2017



    Back in the early 50’s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little coed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills.  I followed her about like a devoted puppy and although she never encouraged my attentions, she didn’t reject them either.  Sometimes, I would ask her to sing “Cotton Mill Girls” and when she complied, I would quake with mindless joy, and I don’t have the slightest idea why.

      I worked in a cotton mill all my life;
     I ain’t got nothing but a Barlow knife.
    It’s a hard time, cotton mill girls,
    It’s a hard time everywhere. 

     Why did I find this spunky little lady so fascinating?  Well, there were several reasons.  I noticed that she was totally unimpressed by everyone at WCTC (not just me); she was “different” in some fundamental way, too.  In class, she frequently challenged instructors and argued with them while the rest of us sat in astonished silence.  Most of us had never heard a teacher’s statements questioned, and we were impressed when Hedy was kicked out of several classes for being “disruptive.”

  Hedy usually wore Levis and plaid shirts (which I found provocative in an era of cashmere sweaters and saddle oxfords).  But more than the banjo, her rudeness or her Levis was another singular fact that caused me to perspire.  On the rare occasions that she wore a skirt, I discovered t that Hedy didn’t shave her legs.  From mid-thigh to ankle, she displayed provocative silken swirls that seemed designed to drive me crazy.  Why?  I have no idea.  Admittedly, I was a “quare” fellow.

     On rare occasions, her somewhat “notorious” father, Don West, a union organizer, visited Hedy.  He had been involved in several north Georgia mill towns strikes
And had the scars to prove it.  Hedy finally invited me to meet him at the Townhouse, a student hangout in the ‘50’s; Don gave me a stack of books to read, including
Howard Fast’s “The American,” and a ragged copy of his latest volume of poetry, which contained rousing lines like, “Worker’s arise! The day is coming!”  He also told me that a well-dressed gentleman who was drinking coffee at the Townhouse counter was actually an FBI agent who “accompanied” him in his travels.   “I’m supposed to be dangerous,” he said.   Wow.  I was impressed!

   From Gilmer to Bartow is a mighty long way,
From Cartoogechaye to Elijay
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere.

     Well, the years have rushed by and Hedy and Don have vanished over the horizon.  Hedy became relatively famous and strummed her way through engagements in Greenwich Village and a half-dozen eastern universities, including some high-tone folk music preservation jobs.  At one point Don took up with a fellow named Myles Horton and the two of them began the Highlander Center over in
Monteagle, Tennessee – the place where Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and Ralph Abernathy would meet to plan strategies to fight segregation and poverty.

     Eventually Don left the Highlander and established an Appalachian museum up in Pipestem, West Virginia. He continued to support unions, preach and write poetry (No Lonesome Road) until his death 1992.  His old friend, Myles Horton went on to become a mentor for some of America’s most noted leaders.  He died in 1900.  His autobiography is called “The Long Haul.”

     Last winter, during a bout of insomnia that lasted for the better part of a month, I became maudlin and sentimental about the past.  What became of my hirsute temptress, Hedy?  Well, I gritted my teeth and plunged into the internet where I eventually found an email address in somewhere in Pennsylvania.   I got an immediate response.  Hedy wanted to know who the hell I was, whereon I delivered a modest package of saccharine memories:  the banjo, “Cotton Mill Girls,” Don West’s poetry, the FBI agent, plays and recitals in which she participated, etc.  (I decided not to mention the unshaven legs.)

    In effect, Hedy told me that the majority of what I recalled “had never happened.”  She assured me that her memories of WCTC were so unpleasant, she refused to dwell on them, and she wasn’t sure she remembered me at all.  Certainly, there was no FBI agent.  She was thinking of writing a book and she was performing again – mostly in eastern universities.  I believe she holds the copyrights for “Cotton Mill Girls” and “500 Miles.”

     Naturally, I wish I hadn’t called, but at least, I’m glad that I didn’t mention those unshorn limbs.  That way, they are still true and the memory of them is still inviolate.  At this late date, I am beginning to learn how to protect the good memories.

When I die, don’t bury me at all;
Just hang me up on the spinning room wall;
Pickle my bones in alcohol.
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere. 


Abner, the Wild Monkey of the Smokies
    I don’t really remember the origin of this story. I have told it several times over the years, but it always changes when I start writing it.....takes an abrupt turn into a side-road and suddenly, I am lost in Little Canada or maybe Cades Cove and I am almost out of gas. Scary, but then up ahead, there are bright lights and it looks like another country...My God, it is the Cherokee Indian Fair.........
I vaguely remember a German story some fifty years about a monkey that unintentionally killed himself with his owner’s straight razor and then he is resurrected, wrapped in a burlap sack and it is a cold October night full of bells, whistles and laughter, strange smells: cotton candy and charred meat. The monkey has diarrhea and shivers in his foul sack in a dark cage and an old man named Carl is prodding him with a stick.
“Still alive,” says the old man.
“Yeah, well, so?” says the man with a bowler hat.
“Give you $10.” The bowler hat snorts, then says, “Okay. But to be honest, I don’t think he is going to live another day. I’m just sayin’.”
The old man lifts the monkey from the sack and stares at the little wizened face. “I am goin’ to call him Abner.”
“You want a clean sack?”
“No, I’ll just drop him in here.” The monkey settles inside the old man’s bib overalls that smell of tobacco and beef jerky. “Suit yourself,” says the bowler hat and snatches the bill from the old man’s fingers with practiced ease.
So Abner came to live with the old man in an old farmhouse in Big Cove on the Cherokee Reservation. Carl fed him cornbread and buttermilk and souse meat and the monkey thrived. Before long, he was swinging in the rafters and peering through the windows at a strange world. chickens and hounds. A cow and a mule.
Although Abner came when he was called, he was “a free agent.” That meant that he did what he wanted. When he ventured outside and explored the barn, he frightened the chickens. Abner got a perverse pleasure out of reducing the chicken house to pandemonium when he swung through the rafters, leaving a storm of feathers and dust. In time, he learned to ride the hound and spent exciting nights riding the poor creature through the moonlit forest. He left in his wake a kind of tidal wave of cackles, screams, hoots, trills, as the creatures of the woods took note of his passage.
Abner still came when he was called. But his absence from Carl’s kitchen became longer. A few days and then an entire week. Carl’s neighbors kept him informed about the disturbances....tales of Abner pursuing foxes on the backs of blue tick hounds. They said he made the dogs run faster by biting their ears, his legs wrapped around them like a Saturday cowboy. People complained when Abner took to plucking chickens, leaving great clouds of feathers wafting through the woods. Dogs owners threatened to shoot him.
A kind of legend developed about Abner, the Mad Monkey of the Smokies. Carl was a popular storyteller and on winter nights, he would entertain the neighbors with stories of Abner’s adventures. On one of his treks into town, Abner had raided a craft shop and come away with a rebel cap that became a permanent item and many tourists came out of the Smokies telling incoherent stories about a monkey with a rebel cap who attacked campgrounds at night, vanishing into the darkness with gaudy clothes, candy and food.
Ah, but when the heavy snows came and the campgrounds closed, Abner came home. Carl said that it was a kind of hibernation, he guessed. Deprived of excitement, Abner became morose and depressed, spending hours staring out of the window at the snow. Then, there came a year when he did not return. For several years, there were still stories of a monkey, riding the wind-buffeted hemlocks, staring down at a startled traveler.
Now, lets change gears and let me say that I have always identified with Abner, the Wild Monkey of the Smokies. Hell, I am Abner. From the time he was plucked from that dark cage until he vanished “into the dark wood,” I felt an empathy with that solitary creature. He lived in a world without companionship (There weren’t any other monkeys out there!) and although he made efforts to befriend and live with other creatures (dogs, humans and chickens), he was (I am) a solitary being. Yeah, I have tried too, but I have so little in common with others, it is a hopeless pursuit. I guess it is the brooding and melancholy that puts them off. The few “friends” that I had have vanished....gone off to pursue more pleasant relationships. I mean, what can you expect if you have nothing to offer them but brooding. Yes, I’m only fit company for Abner and I think I would enjoy that: Abner and I high in a hemlock, both of us with rebel caps riding the wind.
Some have abandoned me so they could devote more time to acquiring fame of some sort; a few have gone in search of God..a search that takes all of their time and energy. Adieu, travelers and pilgrims. Abner and I bid you farewell. You all go on ahead, now. We will catch up.
I have been thinking that I could perhaps teach Abner to read. It would be quite a challenge .... but then, we have nothing but time. Certainly, there are wonderful possibilities. What would Abner think of Cormac McCarthy? I think he would love A. E. Housman. How about the Rubiayat? Hey, then there is Yeats, a poet after a wild monkey’s heart.! For like Abner, I was born into a world where both reading and friendship are becoming a kind of lost art. Perhaps Abner and I could start a secret sect that.....READ stuff. Rediscover poetry.....Write a play. I heard once that Abner loved Elvis. Okay, maybe I can lure him out. Maybe if I go to Deep Creek tonight and sing “Fools Rush In,” I might tease him out. I do a pretty good Elvis when there is no one around to judge.....maybe, if I sing long enough, he will hear. “Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea, to the open arms of the sea.......” Come out, Abner! Comes to Rhodes Cove and sit with me in the fog and listen to the rain crows on Painter Knob. I think their sad coo will sooth your mad heart! We still got a little while before the street lights and the pavement run us off to some dark holler..... to Black Rock or Linville Gorge. “I’ll be coming home, wait for me.”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Memories of the Green Fly


During my first year at Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University) in 1953, I managed to offend my grandfather so severely, he banished me. (The reason is complicated and I will save that for another story.) “Out of my sight!” he said, and sent me off to Brevard to spend the summer with Uncle Albert. At the time Albert was the bookkeeper for the Silverstein Tannery and got me a job there.“Good,” said my grandfather. “Maybe he will develop a sense of what it means to earn a livelihood.”

I worked in the “buffing room” which was next to the “green hide room,” a place where decaying (green) flesh was stripped from hides; the hides were then hung up to “season.” The resulting stink hung like an evil fog over the whole place, including the Green Fly Cafe (also owned by the Silverstein Tannery) where we all ate each day. (Every worker had a tab which was deducted from his pay check at the end of the week.) Eventually, I became inured to the smell that permeated everything in or near the tannery; I even reached the point where I could eat the Green Fly’s daily diet of collard greens, pintos and cornbread with a reasonable amount of gusto.

The buffing room was in the loft of a large, barn-like structure and its purpose was to convert inferior hides into acceptable shoe leather. This was done by placing hides (which were spotted with holes and possessed areas that were so thin they were semi-transparent) on a great table and coating them with a nauseous, yellow gunk. Four workers stood at each table with huge brushes strapped to their forearms and alternately dipped the brushes in the yellow gunk and then spread it, like lemon cake icing over the hide.This process was repeated several times so that the gunk built up a thick layer. After the hides had dried out, they were placed on the “buffing machine” where huge metal rollers beat the gunk into the hide until it was absorbed.This was repeated several times until the hides acquired an acceptable thickness.

A bucket of water set by each table and when the brushes became clogged, we would clean them in the bucket.The water lever in the bucket was always a little over half-full, because the buffing machines actually caused the floor to shift beneath our feet, like the deck of a ship.The water sloshed back and forth in the bucket in rhythm with the buffing machines. The deafening noise created by the buffers rendered all conversation impossible, and we all learned to communicate with a kind of “buffing room mime.” Basically, it was mind-numbing work and we quickly fell into a repetitive routine that lasted for two hours. We received a fifteen-minute break - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - between each shift (which was deducted from our pay). During the break, the workers would go to the toilet, go out on the loading dock to smoke and/or sit on the floor next to their work station. I remember one colorful fellow who climbed on the idle buffing machine and preached to his fellow workers during the break, exhorting them to “find Jesus.”

In addition to me, my work station consisted of Lil, a gigantic blond woman who resembled Boris Karloff; a small man named Westley who hummed country-and-western songs, and a fellow named Manard who talked constantly about hunting, fights and epic drunks. During the the breaks, Lil laid on the floor and slept while Westley, Manard and I fled to the loading dock. While Westley yodeled and did a passing imitation of Eddie Arnold’s standards (“Cattle Call,” and “ A Big Bouquet of Roses”) Manard talked about his Saturday nights which he spent driving around Brevard with a bottle of John Paul Jones whiskey and a paper sack full of cherry bombs. His greatest joy in life consisted of lighting cherry bombs and pitching them out the window when he passed a crowd in front of a church or theater. He especially liked to frighten the residents of Carver Street, which ran through a black community.

Sometimes when the buffing room was going full blast, the owner paid us a visit. He wore riding pants, carried one of those little jockey whips and was usually accompanied by two white poodles. Sometimes, he would stop and watch us spread gunk. He would say something like “Faster, faster,” and the dogs would bark at us.Then he would pop his whip against his pants’ leg and walk away.

I lasted two months at the Silverstein Tannery. When I received word that my grandfather would let me return home (with conditions), I collected my last check ($12.00) and boarded a Trailways bus to Sylva. During my last week, Manard broke the buffing room monotony by taking two days of “sick leave” and then showing up with the lower part of his face incased in adhesive tape. (He had a little slit cut over his mouth so he could insert a Lucky Strike.) For the first time I was curious about Manard. When we got our break, I followed him to the loading dock and watched while he carefully poked a cigarette in the slit and lit up. “So what happened to you?” I said. It was a little hard to understand Manard because he had lost most of his teeth, but this is the gist of what he said:

“Well, last Saturday after drawin’ my pay, I drove down to the South Caroliny line whar I bought a fifth of JPJ and a sack of cherry bums. I come on back to Brevard, cause I knowed that there was a big church revival down on Carver Street. I set outside that church til almost midnight, sipping JPJ and listenin’ to WNOX in Knoxville. Drunk that whole fifth and it was close to midnight afore them folks come pouring out of that church. Then, I rolled a winder down, and using my cigarette, I lit one of them cherry bums, and I throwed my cigarette out the winder and put that cherry bum in my mouth.”

Recently, I read in a regional newspaper that a historical society in Brevard was planning to publish an oral history of the region’s tanneries, and they were soliciting personal reminisces from former employees. Suddenly, it all came back: The Green Fly, the buffing machines, the white poodles and Lil asleep by her work station. I’m not sure if “nostalgia” is the appropriate word for my memories and I have serious doubts as to if the historical society really wants to know how I feel about the old Silverstein Tannery, green hides and the buffing room. However, I will admit that every time I think of Manard with a cherry bomb in his mouth, I laugh.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Daniel in the Lion's Den

Daniel in the Lion's Den 
I have always loved the stories in the Old Testament and when I began painting, I did several, including "Absolum" and "Jonah."  I did a series that used this little bearded, naked man which I always identified as my alter ego.  Even though he is protected by God, he is a bit anxious and he has one eye open, watching that fellow on his left who has been purring like a truck with a gutted muffler.
This print is the same as the one that Lee bought and is available for $200 at Livingston's Studio.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Fall of Sky Woman

                                                                   The Fall of Sky Woman

   The first time that I heard the legend of the Fall of Sky Woman, I was in upstate New York at a Native American Conference on the Seneca Reservation some fifty years ago.  In later years, I heard fragments of the same story in Cherokee and Choctaw folklore, and came to believe that this story was once a part of the legends of all Southeastern tribes.  The legend tells how an ancient god of the heavens grew lonely and sought the companionship of a young woman who became pregnant when he blew in her ear.  He brought her home to live with him, but in time, he grew tired of his young wife's constant chatter.  She was very curious and ask the old god many questions.  One day, he returned home to find that his young wife had dug up the Tree of Light in order to lean where its blue glow originated.  As a result, there was a huge hole in the floor of Heaven and the young wife was down peering through the hole.  There was nothing below but a great swamp and flocks of Heavenly Birds that flew back and forth.  Seeing an opportunity to be rid of his young wife, the old god kicked her through the hole.  As she fell, she dragged many heavenly plants through the hole with her.  There were potatoes, beans, corn and strawberries.  When the Heavenly Birds saw the falling woman, they wove their wings together into a great blanket and caught her.  Then, the birds flew down to the swamp and asked an old turtle to put his back above the water so they could deposit the young woman.  The turtle agreed and his back became the first Earth on which the woman lived with her heavenly vegetables.  That is not the whole story, of course.  Falling Woman gave birth to twins and then another story begins....a tale that is much like Cain and Able.

I believe I have painted The Fall of Sky Woman three times and each painting was sold for $800.  Each was purchased by a members of my elderhostel class at Junaluska.  Prints are available for $200 and can be purchased at Livingston's Studio in Sylva.

                                                                    The Fall of Sky Woman #1
This is actually my first attempt to do a painting of The Fall of Sky Woman.  I sold it to a woman in Ohio and I don't know her name.