The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Those Summers In The Mountains

By Jesse Walter Birdwell © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

Being born in Knoxville and having family ties in east Tennessee has always been a blessing to me. I was brought to Fort Lauderdale, Florida as an infant in the early 1940's. My parents returned to Johnson City, Tennessee where they were born, for many summer visits. Summers of my youth were in the mountains.

I become melancholic when I reflect on those childhood memories. Memories of those summers in the mountains.

It magically seems like just a while ago that I was sitting on my grandmother's wooden porch swing and listening to the songs of crickets and the rhythmic rubbing of the chains on the hooks in the ceiling.

Milk was delivered daily in glass bottles with cream floating inside the top. I remember the jangling noise they made in the aluminum carrier. There was always a cordial exchange between Grandmother and the milkman.

Certain mornings would bring the unusual "clip-clop, clip-clop" of a mule pulling a large wooden buckboard filled with fresh vegetables. An old black gent in bib overalls gently popped long leather reins to keep up the sleepy pace.

Whenever I had a chance to go to town, I would go to the railroad tracks that ran through downtown and hope a steam locomotive would pass through. We would always put pennies on the tracks so the train would flatten them. Flattened pennies were supposed to be lucky.

I always went to the same barber shop. I would always wait for Mr. Primus Dees, the owner. He gave the best flattops in town. I'd climb up on a padded board that he would put on the arms of the huge chrome barber chair. He'd put smelly pink "butch wax" on my hair and cut it perfectly flat. The only part I didn't like was when he'd strop his straight razor and outline my ears and neck. Then a wipe down with a hot towel, a splash of Bay Rum, a pat on the shoulder and my daddy would help me down. I was clean-cut, but I'm sure I smelled like I'd been to the veterinarian.

Saturdays were always festive in Johnson City. Hundreds of rural people would come into town to shop. All the kids would go to the movies. Cartoons, News Reports, serials and feature movies like "Friendly Persuasion" and "The Robe" would play.

I'll never forget the blind man on the sidewalk who played a ragged guitar and a harmonica held by a metal brace around his neck. His tin cup jingled as passers by would toss change to him for his tunes. He'd smile and thank everyone. I wish I knew if that was really Doc Watson I gave change to.

This past summer I did something different. My childhood sweetheart and wife of 23 years took a vacation to the mountains. We haven't had a vacation in all these years; and even though it cost me my job. I wanted to share the majesty of the mountains I knew as a child. We stood alone at a bald on Roan Mountain where they say the Cloudland Hotel used to stand and thanked God for letting us be there. It brought back my memories of those summers in the mountains.