By Tootsie Cassell Pilson © 1984
Issue: February, 1984
One cold winter night, not long ago, it was my pleasure to visit with Thomas Pinkney "Cap" Ayers and his wife Eva. I found them all bundled up by a cozy wood heater with their poodle, Cricket.
When I told Cap I wanted to talk about old times, he started rattling off tales from the past so fast I could only get snatches here and there.
Following is a recap of what he told me………
Seventy-three years ago Cap was born in the Hollow of Virginia, now known as Ararat, Virginia. His father, Pete Ayers, married twice and had 10 children, Cap being the youngest. His father farmed the land to make a living, but his life was short lived. He died when Cap was four years old. After this, his mother sold the farm and moved the family to Meadows of Dan, Virginia.
Cap attended school at Stuart School in the edge of Floyd County. His first teacher was Mattie Conner (now deceased). He told me he walked to school, sometimes walking on snow drifts over fences. He carried buckwheat cakes with apple butter between them for his lunch, and sometimes these were frozen stiff by the time he got to school.
With tongue in cheek he said, “I graduated from the 5th grade, then I quit - there was just too much rabbit hunting going on.”
He was only ten years old when he started hiring out at 50 cents a day. He worked setting up buckwheat, shocking hay and cutting corn. Shortly after this he got a job at a sawmill making 75 cents a day. “Quite a raise,” he said.
Cap fell in love with the banjo when he was only a small child. He told me his older brother would hold him on his lap and play him to sleep every night.
When he was yet a child, his uncle, Newton Hylton (now deceased), made a wild cherry banjo for the asking price of $1.50. Cap said, “I just had to have that banjo. I worked three days at 50 cents a day to pay for it.”
When he grew up to be a young man, he met Eva West, the youngest child of Charlie and Cora West (now deceased). They courted for four years. After this they married. To make a living for the four children they had, he helped build the Blue Ridge Parkway. One year they planted a ten-acre corn field. He helped Homer Harris (now deceased) run a threshing machine; and in winter time, he worked for his uncle, Walter Agee (now deceased), grinding grain. He told me his banjo was more or less laid aside at this time. There was not too much partying going on. “We had to work hard to survive.”
In the year 1956, Cap went to work helping to build the Rubber Thread Plant at Stuart, Virginia. When the plant was finished, he worked inside until he suffered a stroke in 1965. His doctor advised him to retire and get in all the good fishing he possibly could.
He was hospitalized when he had his stroke, and he told me he laid there and cried in bed for three solid days. He couldn’t remember anything about a tune and was partially paralyzed. To overcome the paralysis in his right hand, he carried a rubber ball and squeezed it continuously. Somewhere in this conversation, he injected the words - “Don’t look back, look forward.”
Well, forward he went. For the last 15 years, Cap and a group of country gentlemen have given hours of their time, without pay, making music at Mabry Mill. When I asked him if he could flatfoot, he said, “I try to flatfoot, but George Wood, 76 years old, and Luther Boyd, 66, are real good at it. Luther Boyd has won many contests with his flatfooting.”
The pleasure they have given others cannot be measured in dollars and cents. The crowds that come to hear them play and sing bear witness to the fact they are quite an entertaining group.
When I asked Cap what reaction did he get from his audience, he threw this choice tidbit at me. “Everyday people brag on us, but I especially remember a couple from New Jersey. They stepped up to where we were playing and asked us to play and sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ We tuned up and gave the best that was in us. When we were finished they laid $10.00 on the table and walked off. As they walked off, we broke into another tune and they came back. We finished, they laid $20.00 on the table.” Cap said, “Can you beat that. They gave us $10.00 to play and sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and $20.00 to shut up.”
Each year the park service presents him with a plaque with the following inscription, “In appreciation. Volunteer musician, Cap Ayers, for sharing yourself and your music with us and our visitors. Signed Mabry Mill Interpretive Staff.” To this Cap says, “Heck, we just play for the fun of it.”
When I asked Cap the question, “Do you feel life has been good to you?,” his reply was, “Wonderful to me but terrible to my wife, Eva,” and then he laughed.
When I asked, “What is the best thing that anyone has ever done for you?” He said, “There have been so many things, I can’t remember them all.”
With notes in hand, I got up to leave, when Cap and Eva said, “Don’t leave us now. Stay and help us eat a pot of pintos.” Down to earth, sharing and fun loving is just the kind of folks they are.
Cap Ayers is a true example of a true mountaineer. His live and let live approach to life is evident in everything he says and does.
I wonder if we all might benefit from his words to the younger generation. They are, “Enjoy yourself and live the best you can,” with a strong emphasis on the word enjoy!