The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Devil In Our Town

By Mel Tharp © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

At 4:45 on the morning of September 1, 1939, without a declaration of war, Germany invaded Poland. This was the opening chapter of World War Two. This would end a way of life for all of us in the Green River Community of Kentucky, although the transformation did not happen overnight. After the Nazi blitzkrieg against Poland came a period known as the "phony war." Many people in America thought the war would last a few weeks and then grind to a halt as both sides realized the folly of it all.

Then, on May 10, 1940, the Germans unleashed the invasion of France and the low countries. Suddenly, there was a realization that the dove of peace had truly flown. Still, life in our area continued to go on as it had for decades. However, if one were superstitious, he might have read omens into the strange events that happened about that time.

As a 11–year old boy I was considered by many of my peer groups as "having it made." My family ran one of the three restaurants in our small town and to a lot of kids in our area in those times, any boy who could have a hamburger when he wanted was setting on top of the world.

For this reason, I suppose it was difficult to convince farm boys that I too had my share of taxing chores to perform. One of these chores was polishing the marble top soda fountain every Saturday morning. I came to realize that the soda fountain was an integral and profitable adjunct of the restaurant although I never came to relish the unglamorous chore of polishing the marble counter and stainless steel topping pots.

So engrossed in scouring away a spilled glob of encrusted caramel, I never noticed the man enter. I never even heard the door open, but I looked up to see a tall man with a bark–hued complexion standing at the counter. When the man smiled his teeth gleamed smooth and white like alabaster. But what made the man stand out on that humid July morning was the fact that he was wearing a long black overcoat. I had seen children come to school barefoot in winter, and I had always been taught that if a person dressed oddly, it might be because he couldn't do better. I pretended not to notice. "I'll call a waitress for you, Sir," I said courteously.

"That won't be necessary," He beamed his pearly smile. "I'm not interested in food at this time. I'm looking for living accommodations, a place to sleep. Do you know where I might find such a place?"

The only vacancy that came to mind was an old tin building that had once served as Jim Hardin's blacksmith shop. Jim had long since retired, but he had indicated a desire to rent the building. I mentioned the building to the stranger and was immediately sorry for having done so. The tin walls and roof would be extremely uncomfortable in the July sun. The stranger, however, smiled his approval and said the building sounded like just the thing he had been seeking.

Before the day was over the stranger had caused quite a stir in town; the fact that anyone would want to rent a tin structure, without windows, in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record was in itself grounds for controversy. But this man had also built a roaring fire in the forge. As the day wore on, there were a number of visitors to the shop, and without exception, they reported that the man seemed quite comfortable setting by the fire in his overcoat, puffing a long, slender stogie. When asked about the heat, he replied that he was quite comfortable and that he was used too much higher temperatures where he hailed from.

The next thing to raise eyebrows was the incident with the old pump out behind the blacksmith shop. At one time, the pump had been used to fill the horse trough when shoeing horses had been a profitable business. The well was assumed to be dry, and the pump was in bad repair and rigid with rust. When the stranger rented the building, Jim Hardin explained that he would have to make his own arrangements for water since the well was dry.

"I'll have a look," the stranger said. Taking hold of the rusty handle, he gave it a few tentative jerks and the water started trickling from the mouth of the pump. The trickle was followed by a gush of yellowish, muddy water. After a few gallons were pumped off, the water cleared to a crystal like pureness.

Then there was the episode with Uncle Dap Humphrey's old gray mare. Old Bess had been pulling Uncle Dap's buggy for more years than many people could remember. Bess had been unshakable in the face of anything that moved on legs or wheels. On his frequent trips to town, Uncle Dap never bothered to hold the reins. Bess knew the way and she would stand unhitched while her master shopped, without even grazing.

That was, until she met the Devil. Uncle Dap was driving his rig by the blacksmith shop when the dark haired stranger stepped out in front of Bess. She immediately bolted and raced down the road dragging the bouncing buggy and a screaming Uncle Dap behind her. She never stopped until she reached the door of her stall. Uncle Dap was unharmed but it took him a few days to get over the shock.

This was not to say that there was a great deal of animosity shown towards the stranger. For one thing, he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of money. Towns seem to have that one thing in common in that fresh money has a way of bringing out the tolerance in people. The stranger took his meals at either one of the grocery stores in town or at our restaurant. I came to like him and he would frequently take time to expound some of his philosophy to me.

One day he came in at a particularly busy time and had to wait for service. Later, when he finished his meal, I apologized for the inconvenience. "I don't mind," he replied. "When I get in a crowd I just wait until the rush subsides. I don't, however, stand in lines. There is an immutable law about lines. The other line always moves faster. This applies to the bank, the grocery, a movie. If you change lines, then the other line, the one you were in originally, will move faster." Having delivered himself of this bit of wisdom, he paid me with a crisp ten dollar bill.

I suppose what really happened to strengthen people's belief that the stranger was from the nethermost regions was the confrontation between him and the Preacher Lee. Lee was a fundamentalist preacher who considered himself something of a modern day Jeremiah. At the time he was holding a brush arbor meeting down near Eastwood Landing. The service had been poorly attended and Lee decided that it might be to his advantage to draw this stranger with the unconventional views into a kind of extemporaneous debate.

Lee found the stranger having his lunch on a bench in front of Osborn's General Store. Lee didn't waste time on preliminaries. "Who are you and where did you come from?" Lee demanded.

The stranger's eyes were heavily wrinkled at the corners so that he always appeared to be grinning at you. He swallowed a mouthful of bread and cheese before answering. "Do you always ask questions in clusters?" he replied amiably. "In answer to your first question, I am many different things to many different people. As to your second query, I am from everywhere and have been everywhere. I was under the apple tree with Eve. I have been in the front lines of every war, and I was on the deck of the ship that brought the first slaves to this continent."

Lee was totally unprepared to counter this sort of response. "Do–do y–you want to go to Heaven?" he stammered weakly.

"Let me see." the stranger said thoughtfully. "Do I want to go to Heaven? My understanding is that they sing hymns and play harps all day. I don't sing well and I don't like harp music. But in the final condemnation of the place, I understand that it is populated with pompous asses like you. No, Sir, I must decline the invitation."

"Blasphemy!" Lee shouted, and stalked away. But he did what he came for. That night, he delivered a searing blast at the stranger and called him the Devil dressed in the flesh and blood of man.

"The Devil has come among us!" he thundered from the pulpit. "I saw the mark upon him. If you look between his brows, you can see the crease in the shape of an A. That A is for Asmodeus. Satan comes in many forms and with many names for the purpose of deceit. I beg you to repent and flee from the wrath to come." That night, the mourners' bench did a land office business.

In the interest of giving equal time, it should be pointed out that Lee's dire forecasts of doomsday produced some positive effects; Joe Twyman, who had pilled up bills in town just a few dollars short of the national debt, and showed no inclination to resolve the obligations, showed up in town and paid in full. It took Joe the better part of the day to clear the debts as many of them had been discarded or written off and relegated to the dead file. "From now on I pay cash," Joe swore. "This world ain't gonna stand much longer, and I ain't going before my maker in the red."

Sy and Myrtle Jobe had made a career out of fighting. For the tenure of their marriage, they had a Saturday night ritual of getting drunk and having a donnybrook in some public place. If they couldn't find a bar to fight in, they fought in the streets or behind the gas station. After the Devil came to town, they could be seen walking down the streets arm in arm. It was a blessed sight, although the citizenry did miss the entertainment.

There were those who read a correlation between local events and the fall of France in 1940. Was Armageddon near? Preacher Lee was having a hay day. Signs and omens were reported from around the area. There was one report of seeing a ring of blood around a full moon. Whack Jewel reported a horse drawn hearse circling his bed at midnight. Whack's word was taken at face value. After all, it was the first time he had been sober in twenty years. Preacher Lee said that a blast from Gabriel's horn could be expected at any moment.

Then, as quickly as it began, it all ended. Jim Hardin went out to his shop one morning and found it deserted. The Devil had left town. A jerk on the pump handle brought nothing but a spurt of dust. Too rapidly, things returned to normal. Joe Twyman came to town and opened an account at every business in town. The Jobes had a battle royal in front of Pick's Garage. Myrtle scored a knockout with a hard right to Sy's head with a tire tool. Uncle Dap's old mare returned to her former placid self. With no demons left to fight, Preacher Lee folded his brush arbor and moved on.

A few weeks later, a man fitting the description of our Devil was arrested in Indiana for passing counterfeit money. This was a possible explanation for his infinite supply of crisp bills. I don't know how many of his funny money bills he left in town when he departed. If anyone was left holding one, he chose to keep it quiet.