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 4 of 8

By William J. Sowder © 1992

Issue: March, 1992

Editor's Note: This is part of a serialized story of Mr. Sowder's family memories in the Roanoke Valley of the Virginia Blue Ridge.

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

Aunt Kitty was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen - a brunette with sparkling blue eyes, a full expressive mouth with a wonderful smile and best of all, she was as good as she was beautiful. There was a certain rightness about her and everything she did; the long stride of her walk, the way she talked and what she did, her laughter. During this time, in the middle twenties, she was in training at Lewis-Gale Hospital in Roanoke and would often stop by our house on Orange Avenue on her way home to Peters Creek on the streetcar. (Both Orange Avenue and Peters Creek have received a measure of fame. Both are main exits for Interstate 81. Orange Avenue on the east, Peters Creek on the west of Roanoke.) I can see her now, etched in my memory forever, stepping off the car; the uniform of pure white and the navy blue cape. She looked like an angel of mercy. (A few years later, in the middle of the Great Depression, she was exactly that, as we shall see.)

She would talk a while with Mama, and then she would begin to read to Bobby and me and some of our friends. Aunt Kitty had an attractive husky voice that she could modulate to fit almost any range. Opening Tom Sawyer, she was Tom's Aunt Polly crying out, "Tom, you Tom !" and from then on all of us were helping Tom pull the white-wash scam and with Tom courting Becky Thacher. We were with Huck Finn escaping his drunk father and floating with Huck down the Mississippi River. Aunt Kitty liked especially the Miss Minerva novels of Emma Speed Sampson. The setting of these gentle stories was a small antiquated town in Georgia, and the main characters were Miss Minerva, a sweet old maid, William Green Hall, her mischievous orphaned nephew, and her beau, a confirmed bachelor who had been a major in what was referred to as the Late Unpleasantness. These gentle folk appealed to Aunt Kitty's Deep South mindset, the pure joy of using her enchanting Southern accent to breathe the breath of life into her friends.

Whether she was greeting Tom Sawyer or Tom Swift and his inventions or carrying us along as we swung through the tree tops with Tarzan of the Apes or walking the streets of New York with Horatio Alger, Jr., the time passed by too fast - the cookies and candy gone in a flash and we were waiting with her on the corner for the streetcar to come and take her home; Aunt Kitty was October - sunny, sparkling, spirited. She had tapped the well-spring of love, compassion and duty and brought it up without spilling a drop. Out of these sessions with her came for me a love of reading, a never-ending resource that helped sustain me in my boyhood and, now in my old age, burns as brightly as ever.

Aunt Kitty had a profound sense of family - what sociologists call the "extended family," what Aunt Kitty and Appalachia would call strong blood ties, "All for one and one for all." She demonstrated this many times, but one was truly outstanding. It began with her marriage.

In 1923, she became the wife of John W. Waynick, whose family was the long-time distributor of Cadillac's in Roanoke. Aunt Kitty had met him when she was nursing his mother. As he said later, both of them had fallen in love with her. They were indeed a well-matched couple. Several years after the marriage, my father decided to open a filling station and garage. At first he did well, and then, as the depression developed, he did not do well at all. He died in 1930 of a heart attack brought on by worry and overwork, but still not enough. We lost the station, the house, and nearly everything in it. Then Nannie took us to her bosom, giving us a good home, and Aunt Kitty gave us a good education, sending us to V.P.I., just as she had sent Uncle George to V.M.I. She clothed us and took us on nice trips - became a second mother, just as Uncle John became a second father.

When Bobby and I did not go to the farm over the weekend (seldom), we often went to the Rialto Theater. On the way there we always went by Waynick Cadillac. Uncle John was usually on the floor, but his father was there to greet us. We could see him through the glass office door. He would be sitting at a huge desk with his back to us in a swivel chair. When we finally got up our nerve enough to knock, a deep resonant voice would invite us in. Then he swiveled around; it was breathtaking. He was dressed from head to toe in white: a wide-brim imported Panama hat, a three-piece linen suit, and shoes made in St. Louis. A large man, six feet four or five, he had a wonderfully pleasant face and manner. The soul of kindness, he was the most; to a ten year old boy the perfect embodiment of the Almighty Himself. Come to think of it, he still is. "Well, boys," he would say, "What's playing at the Rialto?" And then he would reach in his vest pocket and pull out two fifty-cent pieces as large as a cart wheel, and off we would go. First stop was Kress Five and Dime for large bags of Spanish peanuts and kisses - molasses taffy with peanut butter centers.

On Saturdays the Rialto would open at eleven, and we would stay to see the shows twice. All of the features were westerns staring such cowboys as Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Yakima Knute, Bill Boyd, Bull Montana, William S. Hart, and above all, Tom Mix and his wonder horse, Tony. There would be a comedy - Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Buster Keaten, Charlie Chase, Keystone Cops - and then came a serial, and finally Pathe News with that huge rooster crowing his heart out.

The Rialto didn't have air conditioning in those hardy days, or even fans. Toward the end of the feature, the stifling air became a rich mingling of unwashed bodies, popcorn, peanuts, heavily onioned hot dogs, and cheap powder and perfume, courtesy of the ladies of the evening. There was much turbulence. Nobody seemed to have the seat he wanted and so there was continuous movement up and down the aisles and between the seats. Added to the confusion was the fact that the movies were silent. Not so the audience.

On Saturdays the Roanoke City Square, which was only fifty or so yards from the Rialto, turned into the finest market in the state - an endless supply of food; a cornucopia. This was also a fine time to catch up on the news of the past week. And probably best of all, to have a ready-made baby sitter, the Rialto. In those days of innocence, they didn't have a second thought - and rightly so - to any harm coming to their children. The children, in turn, were in heaven, except for one thing: they didn't know what was going on, on the screen, but they were sure going to find out. Every caption brought groans and shrill cries: What is she saying? What did she say? What is he saying? What did he say? What are they saying? What did they say? Often the reel would break and with it pure bedlam. As one, the disgusted rose to its collective feet and to the cries of disappointment, were added a new dimension - foot stomping. The heavy workday shoes were perfect for bringing down the house, literally. They were well on the way when of a sudden the screen would light up, the accompanist could be heard again, and we sat back in our seats again until the next time. The End

Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations. On that one night of the three hundred sixty-five, when the world turns upside down. You are not forbidden to make mischief, you are encouraged to. It was one of Aunt Kitty's favorites, too. One night sticks out in my memory, for it throws a light on a part of Bobby I had not seen before. As usual Aunt Kitty had bought us Halloween costumes; as usual, too, they were except for size, exactly the same. Whatever she did for one, she did for the other. In her mind we were twins, and he and I thrived on it. Every thing for us in two's. when he got a whipping, which was seldom, I cried with him; when I got a whipping - often - he cried too. He was a quiet child at peace with himself and the world. He didn't know how to get mad. He was generous and forgiving, never knowing how to hold a grudge. He never kept score. His greatest virtue was his capacity for tolerance. He was always the perfect brother and nearly always the perfect son. Then on one Halloween he showed he could be pushed too far.

Bobby and our friends Lester Oliver, Curt Turner, Tupper Wingfield, Sandford Neister, and Bru Campbell had ended the first round of ringing doorbells, soaping windows, and chalking messages on the walk of Monroe Elementary School to our teachers - Miss Matty McConkey, Miss Alma Carver, Mrs Wyatt, Miss Penn, and the principal, Miss Emily Welch. We had regrouped under the corner street light watching the bats catch insects and discussing plans for more mischief, when down the street came Something dressed from head to foot in black.

As it entered the ring of light, all of us froze. It made no noise, just moved toward Bobby and me. Suddenly all kinship with him was in serious danger of dying out when the Thing stuck out Its hand toward him. He didn't run, he didn't budge. What he did is make a fist and square off, then in a cool, level voice said, "Don't you touch me, you... and then air turned blue - all kinds of insulting, references to the thing's birth and ancestry, what he would knock out of It, where It could go. The Thing didn't go anywhere: recovering from acute shock, It snatched off Its mask, and there stood Mama yelling out at the top of her voice, "Bobby, where on earth did you learn such language?"

That ended Halloween, but it did not end Bobby's courage. Indeed, it was the same sort he showed in World War II, at the time he was in the Pacific, a lieutenant commander on the destroyer Rodman. A kamikaze set the ship on fire and in saving it, Bobby and his men threw live ammunition overboard. For his gallantry in action, he was awarded the Silver Star, the second highest Navy award and at the end of his tenure a promotion to commander.