The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Magic Letters

By Evelyn K. Lee © 1992

Issue: April, 1992

As the Christmas season was approaching I drove my four year old granddaughter, Casey, to Santa Monica's Edgemar center to see Santa Claus. Her mother suggested it would be a nice outing for us.

Casey didn't want to talk to Santa but she spotted Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor. There are special rules about sweets at Casey's house, but when she asked me, "Please, please, Grandmama, can I have an ice cream cone?" I thought of the joy of having orange-ice popsicles with my own grandfather.

I took her by the hand and headed to the counter. "What flavor would you like?" I asked, thinking we could forget the rules for a little while. What a joy it had once been for me to go with my grandfather and forget my father's rules.

Dad was a thrifty banker who always talked me out of getting ice cream or popsicles. "You should save your nickel," he would say. "If you have a popsicle today, tomorrow you won't have your nickel, and the popsicle will be gone, too."

So, thinking how special Granddaddy's nickel popsicles once were to me, I handed over $1.65 for Casey's ice cream cone.

We sat down and I looked out the window at the fashion imports and remembered sitting with Granddaddy in the drug store across from the County Courthouse and looking out the window at the big white statue of a soldier in a funny uniform that Granddaddy said was to honor the brave men who had given their lives in the War Between the States.

Granddaddy was editor and publisher of the New Castle Record, the weekly newspaper in Craig County, Virginia in the mountains along the West Virginia border. When my parents took a vacation and drove me to New Castle to stay with him, he took me to work and let me stay with him, something I couldn't do at my father's bank.

When we left the house in the morning, we would stop in the chicken yard and I could feed the chickens. Then we would walk across the field where one cow was always standing, chewing her cud.

"Times have changed," he told me. "When your Daddy came here to town to court your Momma, the cows weren't fenced in. Lots of times they would just go to sleep on the sidewalk. Your Daddy tripped over one in the dark one night and it scared him so, it's a wonder he didn't run away."

Granddaddy chuckled at his vision of my stern father as we headed for the little cement-block building filled with clanking, dirty machines. His helper was typing on the keyboard of the linotype, the letters of brass magically moving across the top and mixing with melted lead to form backward letters that I knew he would put in a frame and Granddaddy might let me use the inky, dirty roller on those metal words and then roll a piece of paper across it so there would be news to read.

I knew that by the end of the week there would be enough of all these different frames to put on another machine and there was more magic motion and then there would be a newspaper with one fold in it. Another machine made more folds and that was the machine that I could help with, where I could actually be someone important, not just a kid watching, but one who was producing something.

Other times there were special printing jobs and so every day I could hardly wait to follow Grandfather to the Record Office. Each time as we went through the field, his special geese, Sammy and Sally, would follow us to the gate, honking at being left behind.

New Castle once had great hopes of being a very important place. During a boom of the 1890's resort hotels were built and there were others at healing springs spotted around the area. People came to them from as far away as Florida, so folks in New Castle thought they were an important part of the outside world. However, by the 1930's most of the hotels had closed, outdated by the advent of cars to take the place of the trains that had deposited guests for long periods of time.

But still, Grandfather made me feel great things would happen someday there in Craig County. He told me how he wrote in some of his editorials about planning for the future and his work on getting a highway built that was called, "The Blue Grass Trail." There was iron in those mountains, he said. One of these days New Castle might be as important as Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, when work for the day was done, we could wander down to the drug store. It didn't matter if I had my treat before supper. I would peel the paper off the popsicle and look at my hands that were black from the ink of the papers and know that Granddaddy wasn't going to tell me to wash them. His hands were dirty, too. He had a stubble and I would think about how he swore at one of the machines.

"Goddamn cussed inanimate object." He said it so often I memorized the bad word and the big words. In his world you might not always do what you were supposed to do, but it was exciting and he was letting me be a part of it.

And so, 25 years later, I once again had inky hands as I worked in the newspaper business in Connecticut and now, another 30 years later, I sit with my granddaughter eating ice cream, looking at her chocolate covered face as she asks me, "Grandmama, can you let me tell you another story on your computer when we get home?"

"Of course," I say.

The heavy brass letters I watched moving on the linotype have changed to the ones that fleet across my laptop computer.

Yesterday when I asked her if she would like to write a story, she said, "I know those letters on your computer, but I can't write the words yet."

"You can say the story and I can put it on the computer while you're talking." I told her and so she started out.

"There was this little girl..."

Granddaddy's New Castle never turned into Pittsburgh. But Sammy and Sally's field has been asphalted over for a gas station and the chicken yard became a parking lot for the funeral home they turned his house into, that being one business still in town.

But the magic of the brass letters on the linotype has survived in my computer.