Saturday, November 6, 2010
My Grandfather and Jesse James
Back in the ’40’s when popular movies used to return each year, my grandparents waited each summer for their favorites. “How Green Is My Valley,” and “Sergeant York” was my grandmother’s choice, and she was also addicted to “Trail of the Lonesome PIne” (the color version with Fred MacMurray, Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda). However, the big family favorite was Tyrone Power’s “Jesse James.”
I remember we dressed like we were going to church and walked from Rhodes Cove to the Ritz Theater. By the time I was twelve, I knew most of the lines and all of the characters in this lurid saga, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment. (I usually had my cap pistol concealed in my Sunday school coat ... just in case.) Due to the popularity of “Jesse James,” there were several sequels, including “The Return of Frank James” with Henry Fonda. However, although my grandfather admired the vengeful brother, his heart belonged to Jesse.
My grandfather was an excitable man and would sometimes talk back to the characters on the screen. He hated Bob Ford, the man who killed Jesse and often yelled insults at him. In the famous scene in which Jesse
climbs onto a chair in order to straighten a picture on the wall, thereby giving Bob Ford the opportunity to shoots him in the back, my grandfather would jump to his feet and say, “Look out, Jesse! Look out!” I wonder now if he hoped to save Jesse ...hoped that Jesse would turn and see that “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard,” and blow him to Kingdom Come.
(“Mr. Howard” was the name that Jesse was living under at the time of his death.)
On the way home my grandfather would expound on the significance of Jesse’s tragedy, invariably noting that he was the victim of the callous and
immoral “sonsabitches that run this country.” He would caution me to be on the lookout since he warned, “Sooner or later, you are going to meet them.” He was talking about the government which worked in cahoots with the major industries in this country such as the railroads, TVA and the folks that “run our people out of the Smokies.” Later, in the darkness of our front porch as we sat listening to the night sounds in Rhodes Cove, he would continue and usually end up singing a few verses from a ballad about Pretty Boy Floyd:
Now as through this world I ramble
I see lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a Six gun
And some with a fountain pen.
But as through your life you travel
As through your life you roam
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
- Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd
But my grandfather’s empathy with outlaws and his grievances with the government (and our legal system) went much deeper than movies and ballads. He had lost a son, a gifted musician (my father), to a drunk with a rusty pistol who entered the little gas station called “Happy’s Place” and shot Happy Carden. Although brought to trial and sentenced, the drunkard’s family launched a vigorous campaign to get a pardon. My grandfather countered with a campaign to keep him in prison. In the end364, my grandfather lost, even though he had sold most of his land to pay the lawyers.
When I was eight years old, I remember an afternoon when the local sheriff came to tell my grandfather that the convicted killer had been released from a prison in Raleigh that morning. “Don’t do nothing foolish, Arthur,” he said. “Let it go.” Then, he added, “He won’t be living in this county anyway.” As we watched Sheriff Middleton walk back down the trail, my grandfather wept. After a while, he straightened in his chair, and said,
“Well, what do we have here? What kind of justice is this?” Pointing at me, he said, “What I see is an orphan young’en, two poverty-stricken farmers (meaning himself and the family of the killer) and two rich lawyers.” Then, he gave a bitter laugh and said, “I guess the only justice that we get in this life is what we get for ourselves.”
So it was that in time, my grandfather came to admire outlaws. I think that he saw them as his advocates - courageous individuals who refused to suffer passively; men who attempted to rectify the wrongs suffered by the poor and defenseless. My grandfather spent the majority of his life in hard manual labor, weeding, hoeing, milking, chopping. These were chores that continued after darkness had fallen and began each morning before daylight. However, sitting in the dark of the Ritz Theater, I saw him transformed as he experienced the thrill of robbing the Glendale train.
Eventually, I discovered that my grandfather was not alone. While working in Haywood, Swain and Macon counties, I had frequent opportunities to hear others speak bitterly of injustices: the destruction of Hazel Creek by Ritter Lumber Company; the building of Fontana Dam and the eviction of mountain families that lived there - a governmentally-sanctioned eviction that would also occur in Cataloochee, as well as the coves and valleys of what would become known as The Great Smoky Mountain Park.
I know that these people also shared my grandfather’s admiration for outlaws, and Hollywood knew it too, for young criminals seemed to be everywhere. If not Jesse, Pretty Boy Floyd and Billy, the Kid, then Henry Fonda in “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” and finally Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road” - a film that played to packed houses for two decades.
Now, sixty years later, I remember my grandfather’s warning about the powerful, greedy entities: “Sooner or later, you are going to meet them.”
I have, but instead of Pinkertons, railroads and robber barons, I have encountered Duke Energy, IRS and VISA and I feel as powerless as my grandfather did. I am also hoping that there is someone out there who will be my advocate; someone who can strike fear into the heart of the arrogant and powerful. Are you out there, Jesse?
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