The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Place On Peters Creek and Beyond, Part 3 of 8

By William J. Sowder © 1992

Issue: February, 1992

"Through The eyes Of A Young Boy and The Heart Of An Old Man"

My Aunt Virginia, nicknamed "Jenks," was a sweet, shy, pretty child who was a little small for her age. She wasn't much older than Bobby and me, and often played games with us. On those occasions she lost completely the sweetness and shyness. She played to win - whether it be basketball, marbles, foot racing, hide-and-seek, or what have you. As the best athlete in the family, the perfect tomboy, she took no prisoners. She played for keeps. She won three letters playing basketball at her high school and as a freshman made the varsity at State Teachers College, now Longwood.

I never saw her play basketball, but I saw her playing marbles plenty of times. First she would draw an almost perfect circle for a ring and in the center place her marbles, often the ones she had won off me. I would then place mine and the slaughter would begin. She would take her favorite taw, a steelie, and resting her fist on her knee, she shot, seemingly without taking aim - all in one smooth motion. She made her ground shots the same aimless way. Often after the carnage I would go to Nannie for sympathy but it was my father who came to the rescue. He was at the time a machinist at the Norfolk & Western East End Shops and was in easy reach of medium-sized ball bearings that made perfect taws. With one steel taw going for four marbles, I was relatively rich — until I played Jenks again. Actually, she had rather beat me than anyone else.

It all began when I was four or five years old. Santa Claus had brought her the most wonderful of all teddy bears, the Steiff - the crooked cocked head, the frown on his face, the shoe-button eyes, the sawdust stuffing. The inspiration of this teddy came from a grizzly bear President Roosevelt had shot while hunting in New Mexico. (In 1903 his grandson gave the Smithsonian Institute the original; the gift shop of the Institution has on sale a perfect reproduction of the original.) Accompanying the bear was a small carriage. For some reason that only a five-year old could understand, I took a violent dislike to both presents. I couldn't wait to wreck the carriage and make mincemeat out of the occupant. To Jenk's dying day she never let me forget it. I don't blame her.

I loved to hear her whistle. In the late twenties and early thirties, whistling became something of a cult form. Concerts were given, contests were held, recordings were made. And everyone was urged to whistle while he worked, especially Jenks. Her repertoire began with placing her forefingers in her mouth and blowing - ear splitting. Her finest effort came, though, when she turned her breath over to her lips, tongue, and roof of her mouth - a wonderfully flexible instrument on which she played popular tunes of the day, hymns, jazz, arias, country, even canary.

One Easter Grandpa gave Jenks a canary she named Cherry. They were meant for each other. She would close the windows and outside doors and let Cherry fly around in the house. They played together as if they were children: Cherry dipping and fluttering and floating, making passes at Jenks, lighting on her shoulders and held out hands, all the while both of them filling the air with music - filling the old Place on Peters Creek with joy.

Jenks the basketball player, the marble shooter, the whistler - but the one I liked best was the runner. Those track events took place on Sunday afternoons. My father was the instigator, the timer, and the starter. The track was a path circling the house. Since Bobby was the youngest and smallest, he was given a twenty-foot advantage, I was given a ten, and Jenks and my uncle none. Bobby's and my time were slow, my uncle's better, and Jenks' best, invariably. One Sunday, however, my uncle accused Dad of fudging the time in Jenks's favor. He then demanded that he and Jenks race to a large cherry tree and back. It was pitiful. My uncle, who was more than a little bowlegged, looked like an egg-beater in full flight, while Jenks with her smooth, ground-eating stride was a picture of grace. She had won so easily that even my uncle was impressed: he walked over and shook her hand.

Somehow this race signaled a radical change in my uncle. From then on he not only quit racing but pretty much gave up his effort to make something out of Bobby and me. About this time, too, he seemed to discover that all girls weren't as impossible as his sisters. He began using large quantities of Listerine and bay rum. He even shined his shoes two or three times a week and started coming home all hours of the night. One time Bobby and I were walking by Guy's Soda Fountain, the hangout in Roanoke of the first line of cake-eaters and flappers, we saw him inside with a group of his friends. We hardly recognized him. He was wearing a sharp striped suit with greatly exaggerated shoulders, bell-bottom pants and a flat top straw hat - a boater - the latest foam off the top most wave of fashions; style of the Roaring Twenties. As we approached him he quickly left his friends and taking us by the arm hastily led us out the door. He then gave us a quarter and told us to split it and then hurried back in to complete any unfilled businesses that needed completing.