Friday, June 24, 2011

Tales of the Kind of Shady Side

Every  city these days, regardless of size, that's worth its salt, has a ghost tour.  I've been to tours in Williamsburg, Virginia, Savannah and St. Simons Island, Georgia.  I went on a tour of the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon with an employee who told spirited tales about the hotel.  That counts as a ghost tour.  It comes as no surprise to me that my daughter is now giving ghost tours in Asheville, North Carolina. 

When Katie learned to talk, she began asking everyone she met if they had ever seen a ghost.  Larry's Uncle Bob Estep even asked me why she did that.  I didn't have an answer.  If Katie has ever seen a ghost herself, she hasn't shared that with us, but her interest in spirits, for some reason, began at a very early age.

Pleasan Hill Methodist Church
in Runa, WV.

I don't remember my mother telling ghost stories to Katie, but she and other family members certainly scared the water out of me with tales that were the equivalent of a good horror movie.  Let me be clear about one thing:  these were not the contrived mechanisms shown on television now with equipment that measures an increase in electrical emissions or cold spots.  Those shows are hooey compared to our family ghost stories.  After all, my family actually saw things that can't be logically explained.

The Amick side of the family lived in Runa, West Virginia, and attended the "Amick" church, so called because Jacob Amick sold a team of horses to build the church.  It is mostly known as Pleasant Hill Methodist Church.  Now the church sits at the top of a hill, and the road travels down the heavily wooded, dark hill to Anglin Creek where the Amick homestead sits.  I personally think that the road going down that long hill is one of the creepiest places I have ever been.  I don't even want to think about walking up that hill in the dark.

The Amick homeplace, as it looks today,
sitting along Anglin Creek
 in Nicholas Co, WV.

Many years ago it was common to visit, and the main entertainment was tale-telling.  On one such evening, a visitor stayed too long at the Amick house, so he decided to go on home even though it was dark outside.  He arrived on horseback and that was the way he would go home.  He started up that darkly forrested steep hill.  About halfway up the hill, the visitor felt someone get on the horse behind him.  I imagine that he spurred the horse on a little faster; I know I would have.  At the top of the hill the hitchhiker jumped off the horse.  When my mother told this story, she knew the name of the visitor, but the name is now lost, and the tale becomes just another good ghost story.  The hitchhiker is supposed to have been an Indian who was murdered on the  hill. 

Being an equal opportunity story teller, now I'll switch to the other side of the family:  the Humphries.  Will and Lucinda Ott Humphries lived on toward Mt. Nebo in Nicholas County near Mt. Gilead Baptist Church.  Will Humphries was a carpenter, and one of his means of support was building caskets.  Often when someone came to tell Will that a casket was needed, he had already started to work on it.  One day when Lucinda had dinner ready (the lunchtime meal), she told one of the children to go out to the workshop to tell Will that it was time to eat.  She had heard him working all morning, but when the child went to get Will, he was walking up the lane from the road.  He hadn't been home all morning.  Knocking and pounding noises were common in that workshop.

Will and Lucinda Ott Humphries.
Will and Lucinda's granddaughter, Lori Dorsey Miller (my mother's first cousin), told about an experience she had when she was a little girl.  The family was leaving Mt. Gilead Baptist Church with the children on the back of the wagon with their feet hanging over the edge.  They were looking toward the church as the wagon pulled away.  Lori saw a woman standing on the steps of the church dressed in old-fashioned clothes, a long, black skirt and a long-sleeved white shirtwaist.  As Lori looked on, the woman slowly disappeared. 

My mother said that her family told so many ghost stories, that when she was told to go upstairs to get something, she almost killed herself running up the stairs and back down because she was always scared.  She got it from both sides, too. 

There must be more stories than the few I've told, but they are lost, I suppose, unless another cousin remembers them.  I could always make some don't, the Amicks and Humphries would never make up stories just to scare children.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Have Your Prayin' Done Up

June 25 is the 100th anniversary of my father's birth.  His life was a short one, and many would say that it was a commonplace, prosaic life. Some may say that he was a poor man, full of struggles. But this is not just the story of his life; it's the story of how he once almost died and why he survived.

Austin David Ballengee was born in 1911 on what he called Sourwood Mountain near Hix in Summers County, West Virginia.  His father had been married to Bertha Cales and had a daughter, Grace Ballengee.  When Bertha died, Grace and Lonnie Ballengee lived with Lonnie's in-laws.  In 1910 Lonnie married Mary Catherine Burdette, and soon after, my father was born.  Catherine died in 1912 from dropsy, which is congestive heart failure in modern terms.  The baby boy's future was uncertain; he had diptheria after his mother died and almost died himself.  The Cales family went to get him, and from then on he lived with them and his sister, Grace. 

He shared many stories of his boyhood, how when the family went to Hinton on Saturday in a horse-pulled wagon, everyone got a banana.  The others ate their bananas right away, but he saved his banana until he got home. During the summer he was put to washing canning jars, because his hands were small, and they fit into the jars.  He hated watermelon because he once got sick from eating too much of it.  One Christmas his foster-dad told him that he'd seen reindeer tracks in the snow down by the gate, and my dad spent long hours in the snow looking for the tracks.  He had a card with a strand of his mother's hair sewn to spell her name, but the card was burned up in a house fire.

Grace died in childbirth after marrying Elmer Cales; Red was about 10 years old.  Perhaps it was this lonely little boy who developed the skill of talking to people because he never met a stranger.

Grace Ballengee Cales died in 1921, and in 1922, Lonnie married for the third time to Cordie Treadway Light.  For a time Red lived with Lonnie and his new wife, but he said that things didn't work out very well, blended families being complicated things, so at some point, Red moved on.  I don't know where he lived between that time and 1930. 
William and Hattie Lively lived near the Cales family in Summers County.  The Livelys had a large family, and Red was friends with their boys.  By 1930 the Livelys had moved to the Meadow Bluff area of Greenbrier County, and listed in their home on the 1930 census was Austin Ballengee, an 18-year-old lodger. He worked as a cook for a lumber camp, and he drove a truck for a while.  He told about running over some chickens while driving the truck; the chickens belonged to Thelma Egnor who was mad as a, well, as a wet hen about it.  He also played music at dances.  He could play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, all by ear; he couldn't read a note of music but played a pretty fair "Wildwood Flower". 

He started working on the Nicholas, Fayette, & Greenbrier division of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1944 when he was 33 years old.  He lived in a boarding house on Second Street in Rainelle.  About this time on his days off he took a short walk after breakfast up to the Men's Quality Store on Main Street in East Rainelle to help the store clerk work the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.  In 1949 Red married that clerk, Irma Amick Tuck, in Richmond, Virginia.  They and Irma's three children from a previous marriage made their home in an apartment on Main Street in Rainelle.  In 1950 a fourth child was added to the family; that child was me. 

Red bought a parcel of land in the Osborne Addition and built a small house there.  The family moved into the house before it was finished because Red didn't like to borrow money, and he worked on the house as his cash supply allowed.

Both Red and Irma made a profession of faith in Christ at Sewell Valley Baptist Church, which was an important part of their lives; Red sang in the choir and taught Sunday School.  He made runs on the railroad and worked at Haynes Refrigeration during slow periods at the railroad.  After a lifetime of moving from pillar to post, Red's life was settled and family-oriented. 

In the mid-1960s Red had been called to work the evening shift in the railroad yard in Rainelle.  Long before his shift should have been over, he drove into the driveway followed by Hubert Buster in his car.  As Mr. Buster explained, Red had gotten sick at work; he'd even thrown up the lunch he'd eaten.  "When a man throws up," Mr. Buster explained, "you know he's sick."

My dad was in pain.  There were several family members at the house that evening, but for the life of me, I can't remember who was there.  As he lay on the couch struggling to breathe, my mom looked at me and said, "Anyone who knows how to pray, should pray."  She was afraid.  She called Dr. Todd from Quinwood, who said he would come.  When he arrived, he examined my dad and said he was having a gall bladder attack.  He gave him some medicine and went home. 

My dad's condition did not improve, and up in the late night, early morning, my mom called the ambulance to take him to the hospital.  At that time, when you called the ambulance, you called the funeral home.  They sent the vehicle which was also used to transport dead bodies.  No one had ever heard of an EMT, but the attendants loaded my dad into the ambulance and began the drive to the C&O Hospital in Clifton Forge, about 64 miles away today with the interstate, but at that time there was no interstate highway, so they were looking at a drive that would take at least one and a half hours, probably a little faster in an ambulance.  At that point, I estimate that it had been about 12 hours since my dad had first taken sick and driven himself home, with what one would obviously see was a heart attack.

According to my dad, the ambulance attendants wrapped him in warm blankets, but he said it felt like they had wrapped him in rubber sheets because he was so cold.  Then he began a journey that he could take only by himself.  He could see that he was at a river.  On the other side of the river were many people; they were happy, and they were waiting for him to cross that river.  At that point Jesus was with him.  Jesus began to prepare him to cross the river, putting him in what my dad described as a kind of bubble meant to protect my dad as he crossed the river.  It was then that Jesus noticed something large over to the side of them; this thing kept growing.  It was the prayers being offered up for my dad.  Jesus took my dad from the "bubble", and my dad survived because of the Christians who were praying for him. 

He lived for several years afterwards, but his health was poor.  He didn't say if or how the experience changed him, but I don't know how he could have been afraid of death after that.   When he testified about his "near death" experience, he told people that they should "have their prayin' done up," meaning that life is flimsy at best and in the blink of a gnat's eye your soul can depart your body before you ever have a chance to pray for forgiveness and help. 

Red Ballengee was not a perfect man.  I know some of the mistakes he made, and he, himself, said he sometimes took a drink when he was playing for dances.  He wasn't perfect, but he was a good father who kept his praying done up.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What a Pretty Picture

In his novel, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway ended the story with a conversation between Jake, a war veteran, and a woman, Brett.  They obviously cared for each other, but circumstances made a relationship between them impossible. 

"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic.  He raised his baton.  The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
"Yes," I said.  "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

The end.

We all carry pretty pictures in our minds.  Without them there would be little incentive to move forward and to try different things.  Imagine the red, juicy tomatoes when you set out a spindling little plant.  Think of how fulfilling it would be to stay by the bedside of a hospital patient and kindly help him to recover.  Thoughts drift to that beautiful wedding that, I'm told, every young girl dreams of:  the flowers, the dress, the music, and, oh yes, the groom, the perfect man, a drop-dead handsome, rich gentleman who worships you and whom your mother adores.  The mind-pictures keep us going.

In the next few days, I will reach the dodgy mile-post of having been retired for six months.  Even though I didn't have "plans" for my retirement, I had a picture of what it would be like.  Each day would start with a healthy breakfast with extra coffee and time to read the entire paper.  After a brisk walk to the background music of "The Happy Wanderer", I return to my wonderfully organized and clean house where I occupy my time with cooking amazingly tasty lunches and dinners, painting masterful landscapes, and strolling through a yard full of show-quality roses and irises.

"Isn't it pretty to think so?"

If you read some of my earliest blogs, you'll know that retirement was off to a rocky start with an ice storm and power outage.  Our heat pump has been broken since February, making the unusual June heat wave a sweaty one at our house.  There is usually a repairman of some sort either coming or going around here, and I've been working way too hard, still trying to get that organized, cleaned up feeling in the house.  When I hit the shower after a day in this hot weather, I usually smell like Spic & Span and sweat.

While the flowers have been beautiful this year, more bounteous this year than I remember them being for many years, the yard has taken on an overgrown look.  I need a machete to take that stroll through the flowers, and it's just too dang hot to clear out the flower beds for that English garden look. 

Happy thoughts are wonderful, encouraging, nourishing things, but life, you see, is not perfect.  The tomtatoes get the blight; that nursing career turns out to be stressful, and the patients cantankerous; the musicians don't show up for the wedding, and the groom is just a normal guy. 

Six months of retirement hasn't been perfect; sometimes it's exciting, and sometimes it's discouraging.  Turns out retirement is just life with extra benefits.  It's no longer a pretty picture I think about; it's the real thing, and it's good.