Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Monsters

flatwoodsNorth America has Bigfoot. Nepal has the Abominable Snowman. Ireland their Banshees. Everywhere you go, there are monster stories.

Well, West Virginia is not one to be left out. My home state has several mythical monsters of its own. Our uniquely Appalachian monsters include . . .

The Mothman – This is the legend that inspired a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere which may be why it’s our best known monster. The mothman is a ten-foot tall figure with massive wings and red glowing eyes. He allegedly appears before tragedies like the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse at Point Pleasant, WV, that resulted in 47 deaths. Some folks say it’s just a blue heron.

The Flatwoods Monster – This is the one closest to where I grew up. When I drive to the farm I pass through Flatwoods where a colorful cutout of the monster stands near the road. This was a one-time siting in 1952 when a group of kids saw a UFO crash and went to investigate. They say they saw a green figure that appeared to be floating and emitting a sulfurous smell. When others went to the same spot in the light of day, there were “skid marks” that might have been the tracks of vehicles investigating the kids’ claims.

The Grafton Monster – This one lurks near where my mom lives. It may be kin to bigfoot–a tall, ape-like figure with a smooth skin like a seal. It’s rumored to whistle as it stalks it’s prey. Hmmmm. Sounds like something teenage boys out to scare their girlfriends might come up with.

The Philippi Mummies – This pair of do-it-yourself mummies are less elusive monsters. The Barbour County Historical Museum keeps the mummies in glass-topped coffins in the bathroom. The weird twist is that a farmer acquired the bodies from the WV Hospital for the Insane in 1888 and tried out his own embalming solution on them. It worked and the pair toured with P.T. Barnum before being returned home. I hear you can still see them for just $1.

Finding Inspiration – Smith, Rash & Cash

App writersThe Appalachian Studies Association held their annual conference in Asheville this past weekend. Can you believe it? An entire association dedicated to the study of Appalachia.

While I didn’t have a chance to go to the full conference, I was able to attend the keynote event. It featured Appalachian author Wiley Cash interviewing fellow authors Lee Smith and Ron Rash. I mean, how could I NOT attend? If you aren’t familiar with these storytellers, check out Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Rash’s Serena, and Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. Or anything else any of them have written.

The event was a delight and there was much worth repeating, but here’s my top takeaway–if you want to write well, hang out with the old folks.

A common theme among these wonderful authors talking about how they became writers and where they find their inspiration was spending time with their elders. I think this is common among those of us who have grown (are growing) up in Appalachia.

When I was a kid there wasn’t a youth group. There weren’t any community activities or programs for the youth. Oh, sure, when we had community events (the bean supper at Lucille’s, swimming at Aunt Bess’, or Toad’s wiener roast) the kids would run off and get into trouble together, but we always ended up back in the company of adults.

One of my most precious memories is curling up in Dad’s lap where he sat cross-legged in a room full of men talking, smoking, and playing music. The sweat would dry on my skin as the rumble of voices and laughter lulled me to sleep. I don’t remember what they talked about (oh, how I wish I did), but I think I absorbed those stories, those tall tales through my very pores.

On Sundays we went visiting. We’d sit in family members’ living rooms wearied by the drone of adults talking about weather and people and politics and even religion. And while there was many a Sunday when I would have given the last slice of chocolate cake to be set free, now I recognize how precious that time was.

When I write these days, it’s almost as if my fingers on the keyboard are tracing out voices imprinted deep in my memory. I don’t write stories so much as I find them again. As if I were sitting, once more, among the old folks.

Only this time I’m listening . . . and writing it all down.

Appalachian Thursday – Weeeeeelllll

Grandmas and me

Grandmothers are masters of taking a single word and imbuing it with a world of meaning.

A friend and I were talking recently about our families–mostly the senior ladies in our Appalachian families–and how they can take a single word and communicate a wide range of meanings. The perfect example is the word, “well.”

Depending on the accompanying tone and expression, “well” can express a variety of messages. Here are a few:

  • Well. (Short, clipped, with lips pinched.) An expression of disdain suggesting that you can think that if you like but you’re completely wrong.
  • Weeellll. (Smiling, drawn out, sly sideways look.) I know what you’re getting at you devil, you!
  • Well. (Blank expression, flat tone.) I never would have thought it of you, but there you have it.
  • Well-ell-ell. (Laughing with a jolly expression.) Aren’t you the cutest thing I’ve ever seen?
  • Well. (Downcast eyes, soft voice, a little breathy.) I guess that’s all there is to say about that.

I don’t suppose this is exclusive to natives of our mountain region, but it’s surely been perfected here. And it’s one of my frustrations in writing. It’s so hard to share the full range of meanings on the printed page. I often end up editing out a slew of “wells” that really don’t convey what I’m after without the finer nuances of body language.

Which is frustrating.

But oh well.

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.