The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Once A Man, Twice A Child

By Jesse Walter Birdwell © 1990

Issue: April, 1990

Editor's Note: Mr. Birdwell wished to dedicate this story to William Stoneberger who wrote "Painted Birds and Peppermint Dreams," which was printed in the December, 1989 issue of The Mountain Laurel. Although they have never met, Mr. Birdwell admires the way Mr. Stoneberger writes about childhood memories.

Grandmother's Attic, the scene of so many fond childhood memories.Grandmother's Attic, the scene of so many fond childhood memories.It was a steamy hot day in the big city. The asphalt baked my tires and the heat waves rose from the hood and crinkled the horizon. My air vents heaved their stale breath at me as perspiration ran down my cheek. I was looking for the driveway of a plaza that had an old used book store in it.

I'd fallen into a mood. A reminiscing mood that had been visiting me more and more. Now that our children were grown I was finding myself recalling buried if not lost childhood memories. All these years seem to have gone too fast. I longed for a nostalgic reprieve.

The turn into the plaza was always difficult. Inevitably the driver behind me would lack the common courtesy to let me make the sharp turn without blowing their horn. I expected the blast when it came and I smiled over my shoulder at the blond who contemptuously sped around me.

I was temporarily blinded by the reflection of the sun off of chrome and glass of the big sedan facing me. I was going the right way on a one way street, wasn't I? I pardoned the pretentious smile of the driver as the car full of blue haired ladies inched by. I found a parking space. My eyes scanned the store fronts for the old book store.

A jingling cowbell on the door announced my arrival. I'd been to this place several times before and had almost grown accustomed to the shopkeeper's arrogant glare that spilled over his half rimmed glasses. I knew not to greet him anymore because he wouldn't reply. Faithfully he resumed sorting a new batch of used books that had just arrived.

I started up the stairs to the second floor in hope of finding buried treasures among the old books. A few more steps and I would disappear into the silent narrow isles of wall to wall shelves and begin my gleeful search for secret books.

I felt myself magically slipping back. Time was coming to a standstill and then started running backward. The child was awakening in me. My eyes scanned the rows and rows of old books looking for some title or cover that would unlock the memories buried deep inside. Perhaps some poem or fairy tale would be the spark to ignite a moment of joy. Back in time I fell. My memories became like ripe fruit waiting for my earnest hand to pluck them from their branches and be eaten.

I was back in Tennessee in Grandmother's attic. Old creaking floors, dusty muslin drapes, an open sash. Children were laughing down on the porch and the chains on the swing creaked a rhythmic chant. It was about time for the vegetable man to come by. It wouldn't be long before the "clip-clop, clip-clop" of the old mule would be heard and the old gent in his overalls would be seen sitt'n high on his green buckboard. He'd always gently pop those long leather reins to keep up the sleepy pace as he traveled to town. The screen door would slam out back and the glass milk bottles would jangle in the aluminum carrier as the milkman would make his daily rounds. Cream floated at the top of the cold sweating bottles as the aroma of country ham mingled with the steaming green beans. All the family would be home for dinner soon. Surely Daddy would read me a story if I could find the right book. Or maybe I'll just climb up in the big chair and look out the attic window at those beautiful mountains and just listen to the summer crickets serenading the butterflies.

A stranger moved toward me, excusing himself as he brushed by me. Momentarily I was back in the book store and remembered that I had to share this place with others. The shuffling footsteps on the stairs hypnotically lifted me back. I waited for someone to call my name and say come down for lunch, but there was no voice. Just the cowbell on the door down below like the cows used to wear when they were grazing across the stream from my uncle's mill. The giant waterwheel groaned as it turned and the aroma of burlap and corn wafted in the giant beamed ceiling. How could I ever forget dear Uncle George in his khaki work clothes? Or the old timers who sat around the mill on the loading dock. Bib overalls, long sleeved white shirts and gray felt hats like Granddaddy used to wear. No spittoon like down at the railroad station, but surely they were a chew'n.

My eyes came across a picture book of steam locomotives. My cousins and I would go downtown and wait for the train to pass through. We'd put our pennies on the track and wait for the locomotive to fill its water tank from what we always called a giant teapot. Then a loud blast from the steam whistle and the big brass bell would begin to ring again and slowly the big black iron horse would inch our way. In just a minute or so we'd have our treasured flattened pennies and we'd stand back as the train clickity-clacked by us and on through town. Oh to smell that burning coal and feel the blast of steam in my face again. And to wave up to that old engineer with the red bandanna and hear that whistle blow as she went out in the mountains. And I could sing, "She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes, when she comes" and then we'll go home and catch light'n bugs in a mayonnaise jar. I wonder if anybody remembers those days in Johnson City, Tennessee?

The owner of the book store approached me and asked if there was anything he could help me find. Actually what he meant was that I'd spent enough time up here and it was time either to buy a book or leave. My daydream was pretty much through and there'd be another day when I needed some time alone to catch up on the Past. I'll just pick up where I left off dreaming about Grandmother's white window boxes with red flowers in them. Besides, I think it's time to go home and write my mother a letter and tell her how much I miss Daddy and how much I love her.