Tuesday, March 25, 2008
I remember a warm afternoon in August, 1949 when the county agent came to our house with an electric corn sheller. It was a demonstration model and had been a big hit at several large farms in the county. When the agent plugged it in, it hummed like a bee hive and smelled of hot oil and scorched corn cobs. The agent made a big thing out of shucking an ear of corn and holding it over the big slot in the top of the sheller. My grandfather stared at the contraption the same way he observed most “marvels of the future” – with distrust and fascination – the same way he looked at snakes and rabid groundhogs.
“Are you ready, Arthur?’ My grandfather grunted and the agent dropped the big ear of yellow corn into the slot.
“Zzzzit!” said the sheller and deposited a double handful of corn in the tin bucket beneath the sheller. The cob shot out of the side and ricocheted off the wall of the corn crib, thereby confirming my grandfather’s opinion that the sheller was probably dangerous. However, I was impressed The agent shucked a dozen ears and dropped them in the slot. “Zzzit, zzzit, zzzit, zzzit!” said the sheller until the bucket brimmed with yellow corn. I picked up the hot cobs like they were the hulls of shotgun shells.
“Now, you can shell in one afternoon what it would take you a week to shell with.... that!” He pointed contemptuously at our hand-cranked sheller in the corner. “How many Corn Zappers do you want?”
] My grand-daddy pulled the plug out of the wall, and the big hummer hushed. “I don’t want one,” he said.
The agent gawked. “Why not ?”
“Cause that was the way my daddy done it,” he said, pointing at the old sheller, “and that’s the way I’ll do it. Either that, or by hand.”
I was not pleased by my grandfather’s decision since I had spent untold afternoons and was now doomed to spend many more with that hand-cranked sheller, my arms aching and my fingertips numb and bloody from shucking. The agent shook his head as he carefully loaded the sheller in his car like it was a prize stud bulldog.
“You are fighting the future, Arthur,” he said. “It just makes good common sense to take advantage of things like this.”
“Maybe so, but there is something unnatural about all these ‘lectric gadgets,” he said, peering at the Zapper with distaste. “I don’t like it.”
As we watched the county agent’s car vanish in a cloud of dust down the Rhodes Cove road, Arthur Carden shook his head and delivered his judgment on time past and time to come: “Things have been bad, and they are gonna get worse.” That is what he would say when our dusty trail became a paved road and his own children insisted on getting a telephone. (He once tore the telephone off the wall and threw it into the cornfield because it rang constantly while we were eating supper.) He reluctantly accepted indoor plumbing but refused to drink city water. (“It ain’t healthy to drink water that has been standing in iron pipes.”) The most marked exception to his rejection was the big Silvertone radio. As soon as it produced Bill Monroe singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” it was given a corner of the living room where it squatted like a household god, delivering music (The Grand Ole Opry) and prophecies (Grady Cole’s Farm News).
Oddly enough, I seem to have inherited my grandfather contradictory
attitude about technology. While I nurture a cautious appreciation for television, stereos and computers, I am extremely suspicious of anything that alters my environment or makes radical changes in my accepted mode of living. I especially resent being compelled to change. Living in my grandparents’ old house, I sometimes feel that I am under siege by aspects of progress that are either unwanted or deceptive. Several years ago my grandfather’s spring had to be abandoned when tests indicted that it was contaminated. Now, I have city water that probably stands in plastic pipes, and a telephone that rings incessantly due a host of “marketing specialists” in distant cities who call at inopportune times. My doctor tells me that my persistent cough is largely due to air pollution. (Right here in Rhodes Cove, folks!), and when I look from my porch at the Balsam Mountains, I am distracted by the grid locked traffic on the Cullowhee road. A decade ago, I learned that I now live in the city limits, (if I think of an advantage to this new status, I’ll let you know!) and street lights have spread like malignant fireflies to the top of the ridge. At night, despite my deafness, I hear a constant medley of boom boxes, rap music and stripped gears. Rhodes Cove was once quiet (except for mournful hounds), peaceful and very dark. Now, the new, all-night convenience store over on the highway hovers in the dark like the mother ship in “Encounters of the Third Kind” and ambulances and
highway patrol cars speed up and down the Cullowhee road with flashing lights and wailing sirens. Progress.
When “progress” would get to my grandfather, he used to talk about moving to “the Cove.” He owned an isolated piece of land in Macon county which, he assured me, was so far back, he would never hear another car horn, stripped gear or telephone. “Nothing but wind, night critters and running water,” he used to say. He took me to see it once, and we flushed quail and pheasant, fished and listened to whippoorwills. He didn’t get to go there when he retired, of course, (he didn’t retire) and I’m told that it now has a paved road and a dozen retirement homes, street lights and a security patrol. Progress.
All of this makes me think of a passage in the play, “Inherit the Wind.” Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) makes a comment on technology in which he envisions a little man in an office someplace who is in charge of “Progress.” You tell him the marvelous advantage that you want (flight, international communications, entertainment) and he tells you what you will have to sacrifice in order to have it. “You may have world travel in futuristic air ships,” he says, “but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” He notes that you may have communication devices that will allow you to talk to foreign countries or distant planets, but “you must sacrifice forever the wonderful world of privacy.”
What is the answer, then, for people like me who grudgingly accept the benefits of technology and bitterly resent aspects of progress that are thrust on me without my consent? I have heard a few learned experts who advised the bewildered public to “readily accept innovation that is beneficial and reject that which is harmful.” Such profound conclusions are meaningless. How do you tell the difference? Sugar substitutes end up poisoning us, computers purvey pornography and some “genetically enhanced” grain are harmful to both cattle and humans. Small wonder that my grandfather was skeptical of electric corn shellers!
A few years ago, a prosperous fellow invited me to dinner in his home – one of those $250,000 “log cabins.” The house was full of furniture and objects form the Appalachian past: pie safes, a cider press, hand-carved furniture, shoe lasts and coffee mills. At one point, he invited me into another room to see “something that his grandfather gave him.” He pointed reverently to it on the wall, mounted like a trophy deer. A corn sheller. “My grandfather actually used it,” he said. I told him that I used one, too. He looked at me skeptically. “You can’t be that old,” he said.
Maybe I am an artifact, too. Maybe I should be preserved in formaldehyde and kept in a room lit by beeswax candles with a tasteful plaque under my embalmed husk that says something like “Extinct life form that once inhabited an undeveloped portion of Rhodes Cove.” Perhaps tasteful music could whisper from hidden speakers – Perhaps, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Perhaps I could have my own recorded message that could be activated by pressing a button – a message that says in a pronounced mountain twang, “Things have been bad, and they are going to get worse.”