Appalachian Thursday – John Henry’s Big Bend Tunnel

dave

The Big Bend Tunnel is that way just the other side of Hinton . . .

I love researching my stories. Especially when I turn up something fun that I just flat out didn’t know. Like that John Henry, the mythical “steel driving man” of folk ballads, took on a steam drill in southern West Virginia.

My next novel, When Silence Sings, is set primarily in Thurmond, WV, which was a booming rail town in 1930. My editors suggested that my characters were having to travel too far by train to get to other towns and wondered if I could tighten up the geography. Ah, the challenges of writing about REAL places!

Well, I needed a train tunnel. And quickly discovered that the Big Bend Tunnel is conveniently located for my story. Yay! So I read up on the tunnel to make sure it fit the timeline. Absolutely! It’s over a mile long and was completed in 1872. It shortens rail trips by about seven miles by boring straight under Big Bend Mountain.

AND . . . it’s where John Henry beat a steam drill during construction! When blasting rock to build a tunnel men drive steel bits into the rock then insert explosives in the holes. John Henry was the striker who swung the hammer to hit the bit. His shaker would have turned the bit between strikes (now that’s a brave man!).

The story is that the contractor for the tunnel planned to bring in a faster steam drill to replace men. Well, John Henry couldn’t let that pass so he took on the machine and according to the song won but exerted himself to the point that it killed him. Today, there’s a statue of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel. I still haven’t figured out how to work a John Henry mention into the story so I thought I’d share the details with you.

There are lots of versions of the lyrics but Pete Seeger’s may be the best known.

John Henry was about three days old
Sittin’ on his papa’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
Said, ‘Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.’

The captain said to John Henry
‘Gonna bring that steam drill ’round
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down, Down
Whop that steel on down.’

John Henry told his captain
‘A man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me Down
I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.’

John Henry said to his shaker
‘Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on Down
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord
Listen to that cold steel ring.’

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord
The steam drill only made nine

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor Heart
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died.

 

Appalachian Thursday – Pocketknives

pocketknivesI had no idea something as common and everyday as a pocketknife could stir such passion. Last week I posted a link to an essay in Appalachian Magazine titled “The Kind of Men Who Carry Pocketknives.” Man–the clicks that link got!

Since I don’t see men whipping out their knives so much these days, I guessed maybe carrying them had fallen by the wayside. Not so if the comments on that post can be trusted.

When I was a kid, most men I knew had a pocketknife on them. Dad carried a Case knife if I remember correctly. My brothers carried them. I even had a small Swiss knife I kept in my purse. (Those tiny scissors were next to useless.)

Knives had a bazillion uses. The one that came to mind when I posted the link was the way Dad would pull out his knife to open Christmas presents. He’d carefully slice the tape so as not to damage the paper. A holdover from days when they saved the paper from year to year. It was sheer torture for us kids, wanting to rip open our own packages while being expected to politely wait for Dad to surgically open his.

Now I miss it. Durn gift bags.

Here’s a handful of things I saw my dad do with his pocketknife over and over again:

  • Slice an apple.
  • Cut baling twine.
  • Kill tics (yuck, I know).
  • Cut a switch for a naughty child.
  • Skin squirrels or rabbits (deer required a larger, skinning knife).
  • Clean fingernails.
  • Sharpen sticks for roasting wieners or marshmallows over a fire.
  • Sharpen the knife itself on a whetstone. I can still hear that gritty whisking sound if I close my eyes . . .

Of course, the knife was cleaned after the ickier uses, but it does bring to mind a story Dad loves to tell about the local fur trader in our neighborhood. Dad stopped by Colman’s house one day when he was skinning a groundhog (a pungent job, trust me). As they chatted, Colman wiped his knife on his pant leg, reached into a box of windfall apples, sliced one, and offered dad a bite.

I know you aren’t supposed to carry a knife in your pocket a lot of places these days. Then again, there are still places where it’s expected. So, I fished one of the several pocketknives floating around in our kitchen drawer out and dropped it in my purse. I know it’s going to come in handy.

 

Appalachian Thursday – Character Names

Yes, I know it’s Friday.

At least now I do.

I’ll blame it on the holidays throwing me off. All day yesterday I thought it was still Wednesday and so I neglected to get this post ready and up. But here it is, a day late and hopefully NOT a dollar short.

Readers have commented on how unusual the name of the heroine in my most recent story is (A Shot at Love in The Christmas Heirloom still $2.99 for the digital version). So where did I get the name Fleeta?

Meet Fleta Hickman.Fleta and Rex A real West Virginian.

No, my character isn’t based on this lovely lady posing next to my grandfather, Rex Loudin, but she is the inspiration for the name. Although I added an extra “e” so readers would know how to pronounce it.

I don’t know much about the real Fleta or how she got HER name. And my Fleeta didn’t know where her name came from, either. But then, she’s less sentimental than I am.

Here’s a snippet from the story so you get the feel for MY Fleeta’s personality. She may fall for Hank eventually, but the first thing she falls in love with is his . . . rifle.

Fleeta noticed a second man catching up to Judd. He was shorter and thicker—though not heavy by any means. His hair was sandy—almost blond, but not quite. More the color of honeycomb. Fleeta thought he looked pleasant enough and started to smile. Then she froze as she got a good look at the rifle slung over his shoulder. It was a Woodmaster—a Remington seven-forty, thirty-ought-six, and if she wasn’t mistaken it was brand new. Her breath caught in her throat and she forgot to blink. It was the finest rifle she’d ever seen. And a semi-automatic at that. She wanted to reach out and touch it so bad she could almost feel the silk of the wood and the ice of the steel.

Someone elbowed Fleeta in the ribs. “I said, this here’s Fleeta Brady. Fleeta, you know Judd dontcha?”

Fleeta choked on the spit she’d forgotten to swallow. “I do, but it’s been years since I last saw him.”

Judd looked at her with serious eyes that let her know he wished her to be at her ease. She gentled under his look and shifted her focus back to the second man. Apparently, she’d already been introduced, but she had no idea what his name was.

“It’s short for Henry,” he said with an easy smile. “Folks started calling me Hank before I could talk, so I didn’t get to have any say in the matter. Fleeta, though, that’s unusual. Is it a family name?”

Fleeta blinked. “I have no idea. My parents died when I was a baby. Is that a Remington seven-forty?”

Hank blinked back. Twice. “It sure is. Just acquired it over the summer and thought I’d bring it to West Virginia and see how good it is at getting me a deer.”

“The gun won’t have any trouble. Only thing that could get in its way is the one firing it.”

Judd made a sound that might have been laughter, but Fleeta ignored him, her eyes riveted to the most beautiful rifle she’d ever seen.

Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas treeWhile I suppose we were relatively modern when it came to my childhood Christmases, the old-timey traditions are still hanging on in the mountains. And there are some I very much think we should revive for broader use. Here are a few of my favorite Appalachian Christmas traditions:

VISITING – My 85-year-old cousin and I were lamenting the fact that no one visits anymore. It was customary throughout the year, but especially on Christmas day. The idea was to simply get out and see your neighbors. In my experience, the older folks stayed at home awaiting company while the younger ones did the traveling. You didn’t stay long, but there were refreshments–fruitcake, cider, cookies–and it was bad luck not to partake lest you spoil the Christmas Spirit.

CHRISTMAS GIFT – If you go a bit further back, there was a tradition of carrying small gift items like candies in your pockets as you went visiting. If you met another visitor the first one to say, “Christmas Gift,” would win a gift from the other.

DECORATIONS – There was plenty of greenery to be had–pine, holly, or even bittersweet–and it was simple enough to cut a tree. Decorating the tree was another matter. Common decorations included popcorn strings, paper chains, seed pods wrapped in the foil from chewing gum wrappers, gingerbread cookies, and scraps of bright fabric.

SERENADIN’ – No, not caroling. The idea was to gather as many noise-making items as you could lay your hands on–cowbells, shotguns, pots and pans, etc. A group of serenaders would then sneak up on a neighbor’s house after bedtime and commence to making as much racket as possible. The neighbor would light a candle or two and invite the seranaders in for refreshments. If the neighbor heard the group before they got started, he’d fire off a shotgun to let them know they’d been “caught.” And then he’d invite them in for cider anyway!

A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW – This had a couple of meanings. First, it was a welcome for visitors or even strangers–light for the path and warmth for the feet. Second, it indicated that the Holy Family would be welcome and wouldn’t have to sleep in the stable.

TALKING ANIMALS – Okay, so this is just superstition. I think. The idea is that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals can talk. I actually worked this one into The Sound of Rain with Judd remembering a time he and his brother Joe snuck out to the barn in hopes of chatting with the family’s livestock.

So if you see me next Tuesday, watch out. When I holler “Christmas gift,” I’ll be expecting a little something. And in turn, I’ll be sure to tell you what Thistle had to say at midnight the night before.

Appalachian Thursday – Christmas Countdown

Christmas 1974Guess what? It’s 12 days ’til Christmas! Yup, Christmas is less than two weeks away. Are you ready? Are you counting down with joy and anticipation? Or is there a little how-will-I-get-everything-done dread mixed in there?

When I was little, we had a count-down to Christmas wall hanging my mom made. It was in the shape of a Christmas tree and had 24 little beads from which we would suspend 24 little, felt ornaments. There was an angel that went at the top as well as a Santa, little wrapped packages, a candy cane with sequins–it was wonderful. And I always got to hang the first ornament since my birthday was December 1.

I LOVED counting down to Christmas when I was a child growing up on the farm in WV. Each year I looked forward to all the things we got to do as we counted down. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Singing carols in the car. Snapping our fingers for reindeer hoofs up on the housetop. Dad substituting our names as he sang, “First comes the stocking of little Sally (his nickname for me).” Rudolph and Frosty and oh, what fun!
  • Decorating sugar cookies. I now know this makes my mom a saint. Arming three kids with frosting and sprinkles is a bold move.
  • Decorating the Christmas tree we cut on a neighbor’s farm. Dad did the lights and hung his one ornament remaining from childhood–a tattered cardboard Santa. We Santagot to do the rest. And no clumping icicles, if you please.
  • Hanging our stockings and posing for a picture looking up the chimney. As if we thought Santa would be up there before we went to bed.
  • And if we were lucky, sledding and playing in the snow!

My husband and I have our own traditions to mark the days until Christmas–a gathering with friends, Christmas Eve services, fudge (the marshmallow fluff kind), and stealth decorating (he’s not as big a fan of glitter and greens as I am).

But all too often our grown-up traditions get bogged down in hurry and self-imposed pressure to make this Christmas the best ever. This December I’m encouraging you to remember what it was like to be a child counting down the days–not wondering how you would fit it all in and get it all done–but wondering how much longer must I wait?

Because we are children, after all. God’s children. And what we’re waiting for is a chance to celebrate the best present ever.

Merry Christmas.

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Saints

devotionalAppalachia is about people as much as it is about place.

We have a lovely Christmas tradition at my church. Our pastor gathers scripture for each day of Advent (December 2-24 this year) and assigns them to volunteers who then write a short entry for a devotional that’s handed out to the congregation.

I think this is our third year and I LOVE reading the thoughts and ponderings of my church family each morning. Of course, I also LOVE sharing my own thoughts. This year I was given two scriptures–the first being Psalm 90, a Psalm of Moses. Not your typical Christmas reading. I’d just been to visit one of the saints of the church (in her 90s) when I sat down to write my entry for December 4. I was struck by how much she and Moses had in common. And so I wrote this about one of the amazing people in MY Appalachia:

EVERLASTING
Psalm 90

Establish the work of our hands . . .

Her mother made the dress, stitching love and hope into every seam. A 1950s confection of white lace over taffeta, sleeveless with opera length gloves, tea length.

Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children . . .

There was one child, a girl, a pearl without price. Now the child watches over the mother, offers what comfort this world holds.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us . . .

Her brother survived the war. After peace was declared, his plane crashed in the ocean. Afflicted with just twenty-one years.

The years of life are but toil and trouble . . .

Oh, but the joy of a good man. A good marriage. Sixty-seven years. She can close her eyes and see him on the day she wore white lace over taffeta.

You sweep the years away like a dream, like grass renewed in the morning . . .

She knows the joy of thrusting her hands into soil, of making flowers grow, of inviting life to spring from the earth. The pot on the windowsill reminds her.

A thousand years in God’s sight are nothing more than yesterday . . .

Without saying the words, she loves these mountains that are as old as the world. Older than she is or ever will be. Made from the same dust.

The Lord is her dwelling place.
From everlasting to everlasting . . . God.

Favorite Books of 2018

reading 2018I often say the biggest downside to writing books is the way it cuts into my time to READ books. Still, I manage to squeeze stories in! I aim to read a combination of Christian fiction, Appalachian stories, books that are getting lots of hype, and nonfiction. Keeps me entertained as well as informed about the current market!

And while I’ll still read a few more books in December (Where the Crawdads Sing is next), I thought I’d share some of the stories I’ve particularly enjoyed this past year (with a runner-up in each category).

Christian Fiction – The Lacemaker by Laura Frantz. Sigh. Laura writes romance SO well. I’m actually reading less traditional romance these days, but I know Laura will always come through with all the sighs. And she did! There’s a reason this book won a Christy Award. (I also enjoyed Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin–but then, I enjoy MOST of what he writes!)

Hyped Book – A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachman. I adored this story although I probably would have given up on it if I hadn’t been listening to the audio version. Ove is what you call an unlikeable character and the other characters weren’t thrilling me all that much, either. But as Ove’s history and heart was slowly revealed I fell in love. Like much of the rest of the reading world. (I also came late to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which, while a tad adorable, captured me utterly!)

Appalachian Fiction – Bearskin by James McLaughlin. NOT my typical story, but oddly captivating. It’s set in the mountains of Virginia and includes some seriously bad men running drugs across the border from Mexico. Several wildly violent scenes. But it also has lyrical writing that celebrates the mountains I love so much. And a wonderfully optimistic ending. A book I was surprised to enjoy so much! (And while it’s non-fiction, Dreama Berkheimer’s Running on Red Dog Road reads like good fiction–her growing up years in Beckley, WV.)

Non-fiction – Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. Okay, I’m a bit obsessed with how awful our industrial food system is. Joel is a Christian-conservative-environmentalist-farmer who cares passionately about quality food and takes God’s command to steward the earth seriously. This book is fantastic and just might change the way you look at food and farming forever. (And I thoroughly enjoyed Praying with Jane by Rachel Dodge–a 31-day walk through several prayers written by Jane Austen. What a delight!)