The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Remembrance Of Patrick County

By Jack W. Gilbert © 1986

Issue: March, 1986

I'm sitting here on this fairly eventful day, the day of the space shuttle Challenger's violent explosion, and I'm thinking about that, and, though the two have nothing whatsoever in common, I'm also thinking of Patrick Springs, Virginia and of a plane that crashed on a mountain near there sometime in the mid-1940's.

Are there any of you down there who remember it? The mountain was quite close, no more than an hour's hike away, I believe, and at its base was a large apple orchard (Bowman's Orchard's it might have been).

It's hard to recall many particulars (the memory suffers in forty years), whether the craft was military or commercial, or how many people were killed, but it was a fair-sized plane. And it hit right at the top of the mountain, narrowly missing a fire lookout tower, and the wreckage was in burned and twisted pieces and scattered far down the side of the mountain.

The plane came down one night, and my grandmother (Emma Ree Gilbert) saw it. It was in warm weather, and she'd gone outside for something (maybe to the well, that was situated right at the end of the porch), and she described it as "a ball of fire" descending, the plane having caught fire in the air, it seems and then a bigger explosion of fire when it hit. And being devoutly religious, and a bit superstitious (that was more than common back then), she took it at first as a strong portent, as some message from the heavens. But, of course, next day, I'm sure, the whole community knew the terrible tragedy that had happened.

Then, two or three days later (it seems like several days went by), a bunch of us boys set off for the mountains to examine things.

The troupe included me, of course, my older brother Jim, the brothers Jimmy and Billy East, Jimmy Taylor and, if I'm remembering correctly, another boy named Homer Biggs.

We packed food to take (no doubt our mothers' packed it for us), biscuit dough and home-canned pork tenderloin for cooking over a fire (funny how the memory can be so sharp on certain details, so cloudy on others; but dough and meat we had and we did cook it, the tenderloin on forked sticks and the dough entwined on other sticks). And we made a complete day of it.

We searched and examined that big wreckage up and down, looking for evidence of dead bodies, I'm sure (but the bodies, or what might have been left of them, had all been removed), collecting small pieces of charred metal and bits of half-melted glass as souvenirs, and talking with the ranger at the lookout tower. He let us climb up into the little cubicle at the top, let us look through his field glasses, and we could see Patrick Springs and pick out the houses we lived in and other houses and buildings and different landmarks, the old grade school, the couple of churches, the two general stores, my granddad's blacksmith shop, the Martin Brother's Garage sitting on Route 58, the old ball diamond off beside the garage, the awesome expanse of apple orchards stretching across that country, and, oh, so many things, and so far; we could even see the little town of Critz, where the older kids attended the higher elementary grades and high school.

Coming back, we descended a different side of the mountain (cooking and eating our lunch halfway down), and at its bottom, in a hollow with a little stream wandering through, we discovered a "busted-up" moonshine still.

My brother Jim, Jimmy East and Homer Biggs, who were about twelve then - four years older than the rest of us - knew right away what it was and what had happened. We took their word for it (as we did anything, for in those days, much more than now, age carried wisdom and rank, and very much respect). But I remember all the bent-up, axe-cut tubs and buckets scattered about and copper tubing hacked to pieces. It had been a tolerable-sized liquor still. I know that know.

And I also know now that this particular day, and that particular time, and these particular long-ago friends, constitutes an adventure and a memory that nothing could pay enough to buy. It was a peaceful and happy time and, now that I measure it and all else, it was probably the most peaceful and happiest time of my life.

And I must include too the Windbush boys, nicknamed "Duck" and "Babe" (their father Paris and his wife ran the general store that sat beside my dad's and my granddad's combination upholstery and blacksmith shop); and a dark-haired, dark eyed girl named Inez; Travis Witt and his brother; and was there a freckle faced girl named Francis and her brother Charles? I know there are more people whose names have gotten by me, but their faces are present, all of them.

For reasons that possibly couldn't have been helped, we left Patrick Springs (moving to Clifton Forge, VA) sometime around 1947, and I came back again in the spring of 1977. I didn't have long, a few hours, and the trip was mainly to visit the gravesite of my grandparents, buried there behind the church we used to attend, that stood just down the road from the old two or three-room, clapboard elementary school (that's gone, then replaced by a larger one of brick).

It was a late afternoon on Sunday, sort of a blustery, chilly April day, and few people were out. One man I did see and asked some questions of, thought he knew of the East family, and he did know a Jimmy Taylor (though didn't know where he lived), and maybe someone named Windbush. The Gilberts he thought he'd heard of too, maybe my father Dunford and his brother Frank. But the man was young enough that he wouldn't have been around in the 1940's, and, anyway, it seems he told me he was originally from over around Woolwine.

The little hamlet had changed though (and why not after thirty years?); certain structures no longer standing, all kinds of landmarks vanished or reshaped. Hardly any of it remained as it had in my memory, and, all and all, maybe I felt like a stranger coming from very far away.

Perhaps I thought: Suppose the East brothers suddenly would pop up? Jimmy Taylor? Duck and Babe Windbush? Any of the others? Would we recognize one another? Thirty long years. What would we talk about? What had each of us done or come to in three decades? All at once it became a little scary, the thought of confronting one of them. I had gone from there to a railroad city, by comparison, a very much larger and different kind of place. From there I'd lived and worked all through the deep South, the East; had gone out of the Midwest and the West, then back again to the awesomeness of Baltimore to pursue a thing called "writing." Didn't Thomas Wolfe say it and mean it: "You can't go home again?" And hadn't I already, after years away, tried returning to my other hometown, Clifton Forge, and seen how miserably that had failed?

I guess all these thoughts were in my mind as I pulled out of there, the twilight settling, and headed back toward Martinsville, to go from there up Route 220 and back North.

But I vowed someday I'd come back, when I could spend more time and, hopefully, feel braver about looking up and facing these old friends and acquaintances. And I intend to do that.

Meanwhile, however, if the folks at The Mountain Laurel are kind enough to run this, if it's worthy, and some of y'all around Patrick Springs and Stuart happen to read it and remember, I'd be mighty happy to hear from you.

Jack W. Gilbert
1930 Greengage Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21207