The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mountain Boy

By Judith Robinson © 1985

Issue: April, 1985

Thomas P. Deemer's size suited him just fine; anyone around Clarksburg [WV] could tell you that all the Deemers were little fellas. Being small came right with the package that included wiriness and speed, an ability to tinker and fix anything, and above all, a kind of good natured feistiness. He was the foreman's logical choice to fill the job of shot fireman in the mine when making a living was what he had to do. A shot fireman had to be small enough to squeeze into the front of the first car in the new mine, spunky enough to handle the dynamite, and have brain enough to understand the apparatus and the geologicals, so as to place the fearful stuff correctly.

Oh, he had heard the train whistles blow and hankered, for a fleeting time, to leave the hills and Clarksburg, but that was long before Carlie Manning and he pledge to each other. That solemn promise, murmured on Easter morning in front of a church full of Mannings and Deemers, turned Tom inward, underground, into the mountains and into the earth and mines of West Virginia, and he didn't care at all, he didn't even realize it. The mean little house that he and Carlie moved into that spring belonged to the Koppers Coal and Coke Co., but it was the only piece of the world that Tom wanted or even thought about.

Carlie was the magical force that bound him to that hard earth. She was 17 years old, a hillbilly girl with a sweet smile and long blond hair. As small and resolute as Tom was, yet shy as a kitten, she seemed, in a way that neither of them could explain, almost his female self; lying down or standing face to face, they could look directly into each other's eyes and see reflections of themselves. Tenderly, each called the other "Pie."

"Isn't any gal I ever seen like you, Pie," Tom crooned to her as he gently circled her in his arms.

"And I say it's you, Pie," Carlie whispered back, "or maybe us both being together like we are. No, it's you and what's between us that's brought out my best."

Her contentment with being his wife and the simple pleasures of their life together washed over him, imperceptibly changing his dreams without benefit of his consciously knowing it. The world beyond their little place in it barely existed for either one of them during those early months of their marriage.

So it was mostly surprise he felt when the important looking letter came telling him to report for a physical examination for the army; he'd heard about Pearl Harbor, they'd talked about that down in the mine last winter, but he didn't know much about Adolph Hitler.

"A real no good Hun," Carlie's father spat, remembering the Big War, "I'm guessin' yore 'bout to find that fact out."

Tom never questioned that he had to go, or why. It was not his nature to question; stubborn acceptance of unchangeable facts was a trait he inherited from his Appalachian parents and grandparents, and was as much a part of him as his nimble hands or his blue eyes. But leaving Carlie was the hardest thing he ever had to do.

On his last night in Clarksburg she sat huddled next to him in the forlorn old train station. The rest of the family had already said goodbye and gone back home so he could have this final bit of time alone with her.

"It wan't never my plan to be leavin' you, Pie," he told her as they kissed.

Between more clinging, desperate kisses, she cried softly into his shoulder. "It's such a hurt to see you go, Tom, such a hurtin' thing."

"But it's my plan to be comin' back," he told her, "It's that and it's more. It's my plan and my promise."

Old Manning, Carlie's father, had guessed just right. After basic training, Tom knew a good deal more about the Nazis and about Hitler. Because of his work in the mines, the U.S. Army placed him in Europe with the Engineers attached to General Patton's 3rd. Army; his job was to detect and diffuse German booby traps and land mines, and to help lay down corduroy roads for the foot soldiers marching behind him across France. the work was dirty and dangerous.

In the fall of 1943 Tom's unit pushed into Belgium, a place he'd never heard of before the war. It became a place he would never forget.

Late one freezing November afternoon he and his demolition partner, J.D. Laing, from Covington, Kentucky, were slowly making their way through an abandoned potato field. Crouching down, they dug at the wet ground, looking for the German explosive devises they called "bouncing Betties", land mines that when stepped on would blast a man's body at the knee, then blind him with a second charge at eye level. Although the light was beginning to fade, they worked on, since the field was nearly cleared and their unit would be there by morning.

Suddenly a piercing scream, shrill and foreign and terrifying jolted and confused Tom, then rough hands grabbed him from behind and dragged him to his feet.

Then instantly, despairingly, he knew what had happened.

"Lord, I'm caught," he thought, the clods of earth slipping from his hands, "Carlie, I'm caught."

"Mother of God, oh, Mother, Mother," Laing cried as the German stood him on his feet and pushed a luger in his back.

There were three German soldiers, young and nervous, their faces red in the raw air. A second later a panzer tank with more Germans rolled up to them through the rain.

Tom tried hard to focus his thoughts on the next few minutes of his life as Laing sobbed beside him. One of the Germans brutally pushed them ahead at gunpoint and started walking them east, as the others climbed into the tank, out of the fine cold rain.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the panic he could feel coming from Laing and rising in his body took every ounce of will Tom possessed. Soldiers' tales and rumors of capture and torture at the hands of Nazis momentarily flashed through his mind, but he forced a kind of steely, anxious control on himself. He knew he had to think. He had to think of a way out.

Laing was becoming incoherent as they marched.

"They mean to kill us, oh, Mother, Mother, I'm sorry, will they kill us? Oh, Mother..."

"Shh, no Laing, listen, listen to me." Tom hissed, "We got a chance, he's gonna light a smoke.”

Tom saw in a frantic backward glance, that the German had pulled a cigarette from underneath his poncho, and was about to light it.

At that moment his fear lessened. It was a solution. It seemed neither desperate nor reckless. It was what to do.

"He's gonna have to duck under that slicker to get it, lit," he whispered to Laing. "That's our chance. We kin run, Laing. Gonna run."

Laing froze, petrified, but Tom made a break for it, moving faster than he'd ever moved before. He ran until long after the shots stopped coming; he scaled a barbed-wire fence and opened the flesh of his leg from hip to knee, but he kept running.

He could not tell how many miles he covered. The pain in his leg at some point turned to numbness. Exhaustion gnawed at his insides but did not stop him. He fought relentlessly with himself to hold only two thoughts, and no others, in his mind: to keep moving west, and to live to see Carlie; to return to her and to love her again.

When an American radio company near Valenciennes, France, intercepted him early the next morning, he looked at the sergeant and confusingly saw Carlie's face. In spite of his bloody leg and his bewildered tears, these soldiers were wary of him; however, for their own reasons, and blessedly, they let him rest a while. When he awoke they questioned him.

"What's your mother's name?" they demanded.

"What's the capital of West Virginia?" when he told them where he was from.

And finally, "Who won the World Series?"

They attended to his wound, and he told them about the capture and about Laing, who would never be found. Later, they figured out that he had run across a fair sized piece of Belgium - about 30 miles or so.

They shook their heads and slapped his back and told him he had a lot of guts. But his personal judgment then was the same one he'd repeat to Carlie and the kinfolk, and the same one his grandchildren would someday hear: that by his reckoning, he was just one lucky mountain boy.