The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Gentle Giant

By Mel Tharp © 1990

Issue: February, 1990

Roscoe Raye was the classic epitome of the gentle giant. When I knew Roscoe, as a boy growing up in western Kentucky, he was in his mid-thirties. He was a massive man of incredible strength. For some freakish glandular reason, his mind stopped developing around the age of ten. Roscoe, weighing well over 300 pounds, could perform feats of strength beyond normal human capacities.

Roscoe could always be expected to be present at wheat threshings, hay bailings, church picnics or any other event where there was an abundance of food. Roscoe had a prodigious appetite. It was amusing to watch him clean up a platter of fried chicken at a church social while the preacher was saying grace. Yet, Roscoe was not greedy. He would readily share a stick of candy or a box of Cracker Jacks with any child who happened to be present.

It was not that Roscoe's entire life was centered around playing and eating. He actually enjoyed working. He worked around his mother's farm doing simple chores. When there was no work to be accomplished at his home, Roscoe liked to visit around the neighborhood to lend a helping hand in the hayfields or maybe to chop weeds, or maybe some simple task such as carrying water to field hands.

Roscoe had problems with the more complex jobs. He had difficulty in correlating logic with obedience. Central to this problem was the post hole digging incident. Lynn Dame hired Roscoe to help dig some post holes for a new stock fence. Things went well so long as Lynn stayed by Roscoe's side to instruct him as to depth and width. Lynn, unfortunately, was called to the house to make some minor repairs to a cream separator.

"You go ahead and dig, Roscoe," he instructed. "I'll be back shortly." The repair job took longer than was expected, and it was almost an hour before Lynn returned. When he returned he found Roscoe working on the same hole where he had left him. His faithful helper was down on his stomach, reaching far down into the hole striving futilely to make the hole deeper.

Lynn jokingly remarked that if he had been 15 minutes longer, Roscoe would have been in China.

There was another occasion when Roscoe's simple logic was difficult to refute. This was illustrated in the incident with the Reverend Ezell. Ezell was an itinerant preacher who decided that our district was wracked with sin and the only thing that would save us from fire and brimstone was one of his revivals. Since Reverend Billy Jaggers was a highly respected minister in the area, Ezell thought it might be helpful to seek his endorsement.

Ezell was driving along a backcountry road, when he came upon Roscoe picking berries along a ditch line. The directions Ezell had been given for finding the Jaggers' home were vague, so he thought it might be wise to solicit some help from this hulking local. Also, it might give him an opportunity to learn something about the people of this sinful Gommorrah.

"May I give you a ride?" Ezell offered.

Roscoe accepted eagerly. He enjoyed riding whether it was an automobile or an ox cart. Roscoe, however, had no sooner settled back to enjoy his ride, when Ezell lit into him about "goldbricking and idling in God's sunlight." Roscoe pulled his hat down over his eyes, scooted down in the seat, and listened patiently to Ezell's bombastic tirade although most of its meaning was lost on him.

"The daylight is a time for labor," Ezell continued his declamatory outpouring, "the harvest is heavy and the laborers are few." Once he finished scorching Roscoe for loafing, he got around to asking directions to the Jaggers' house.

"Do you know the way to Brother Jaggers' house?"

"I shore do," Roscoe drawled, and proceeded to tell Ezell how to find the Jaggers' residence.

As they rode along, Roscoe was quiet for a while as if in deep thought. "You say you be a preacher?" he asked finally. Ezell confirmed that he was indeed a messenger of the Lord. "I reckon you show people how to get to God?" Again Ezell answered in the affirmative. "Stop and let me out," Roscoe said abruptly.

"What's wrong?" Ezell demanded. "Aren't you grateful? Here I picked you up from the dusty road and gave you a ride in my new car. Why do you want out?"

"Because," Roscoe replied, "you say you gonna lead people to God. If you don't know how to find Brother Jaggers' house, how you gonna find where God lives way up there in the sky?"

Perhaps Ezell didn't get an endorsement from Brother Jaggers, or maybe he just decided our community wasn't worthy of his services. At any rate, he decided to hold his revival elsewhere.

Another incident which explained Roscoe's compassion and concern for human life was the root cellar episode. Ellis Taylor hired Roscoe to help him clear some ground for a tobacco plant bed. Getting to the plant bed site meant having to walk across Walter Kirkland's farm. On their way, Walter was seen digging a hole in a hillside for a root cellar.

Walter's activity quickly caught Roscoe's attention. "What's Mr. Kirkland doing?" was the inevitable question.

Ellis was a man with a sense of humor and he saw this as an opportunity to have a little fun at Roscoe's expense. "Well, it's sad, Roscoe," he said, shaking his head. "Mighty sad. But I might as well tell you. Walter's wife done got mad at him, and she's a-fixin' to kill him. She's making him dig his own grave. She's gonna kill him as soon as the grave is finished. She's a mighty mean woman, Roscoe."

This somber news seemed to affect Roscoe deeply, but after a while he appeared to forget the matter. Ellis also forgot to put Roscoe's mind at ease by telling him the whole thing was a joke.

The hillside was hard clay soil, and even after a day of digging, Walter had made little progress. As if this wasn't enough to tax his soul, he came out the next morning to find all his work for naught. The hole had been refilled and neatly packed down.

Walter was somewhat disgruntled, but he took the whole thing in stride, assuming it to be the work of neighborhood pranksters. He set to work, but again, progress was slow. By the end of the day he had accomplished little more than to take out the loose dirt that had been thrown back in the night before.

Morning came, and behold, the hole was again neatly filled in and packed down as if an army had spent a night of close order drill in the area.

Enough was enough. Now, Walter was really mad. That night he loaded his shotgun and prepared to deal with the nonsense. After supper he went out to stand guard and wait for the practical joker to appear. He didn't have long to wait. About 9 o'clock Roscoe appeared on the scene.

Fortunately, Walter recognized the simple man-child. He laid down his gun but demanded an explanation.

Roscoe hung his head and shuffled his feet. "I don't want you to die, Mr. Kirkland," he said tearfully. It didn't take long for Walter to get to the rest of the matter. Roscoe felt he could deter Walter's execution by making sure his grave was never finished.

Only once can I remember Roscoe losing his temper, and this was certainly justified. Ike Johnson, a grocer-man who ran a store at Jewel City, gave Roscoe an opportunity to earn a little money on Saturdays by loading groceries and other merchandise in the customers' wagons and cars. The understanding was that Roscoe would not be paid a regular salary. His pay would be predicated upon what few nickels and dimes the customers would voluntarily contribute for his services.

Bill Billings would have been an excellent prototype for the Hollywood bad guy. He had a sadistic streak which was reflected in the way he heaped verbal and physical abuse on his wife and family. For some imponderable reason, he took great delight in baiting the innocuous Roscoe.

It was Saturday afternoon, and Ike was doing an unusually brisk business. It seemed as if every farmer in the area was stocking up on feed, hardware and farm tools. Roscoe was kept busy rushing back and forth between the store and parking lot. Billings was there in a farm wagon. He had hitched his team of horses to a tree some distance from the store. He purchased several 100 pound bags of feed and a keg of nails.

"Say, Roscoe," Billings called, flipping a half-dollar size coin in his hand. "You load my wagon and I'll give you this cartwheel." A fifty-cent piece was commonly referred to as a "cartwheel."

Roscoe was used to nickels and dimes, but a 50 cent tip was a real anomaly in this depression-ridden area. He loaded the wagon and turned to Billings for his tip.

Billings handed Roscoe a disk which turned out to be a campaign memento of a candidate from some past election. "You promised me money," Roscoe protested, his disappointment showing on his face.

An audience had gathered and Billings decided to milk the opportunity to the maximum. "Now, Roscoe," he said in a chiding manner, "I didn't say a thing about money. This here is genuine pewter. You can take this and a quarter and go see a show. You can even tie it around your neck for a play pretty." Billings looked around to get the admiration of the bystanders. There were plenty of onlookers. A bully can always find some fools to admire him. "Now I'll tell you what I'll do, Roscoe," he continued. "I've got a rich uncle in the poor house, and just as soon as he gets out, I'll pay you."

"You promised to pay me," Roscoe insisted.

"Let me put it this way, Roscoe," Billings said with feigned patience, like a teacher trying to explain a difficult problem to a backward student. Going over to the store porch, he picked up a turnip from a basket. "Now Roscoe, do you see this turnip?" Roscoe nodded his head. Taking out his knife, Billings cut the turnip in half. "Now you see here Roscoe, there ain't one drop of blood. That just goes to prove you can't get blood from a turnip."

Roscoe was no longer pleading, but he showed no signs of backing down. He was now very angry and very dangerous. He picked up the dichotomized turnip and hurled it with great force at the trunk of an oak tree. The turnip spattered like an over-ripe tomato. Turning, he walked slowly, directly, at Billings. "That's how I get blood out of turnips," he said through tightly-drawn lips.

Billings realized that he had gone too far. He was no longer dealing with a child. Reaching in his pocket, he brought out a half-dollar and flipped it to Roscoe. Billings had lost the day. He got in his wagon and lit a trail for home. From then on, he treated Roscoe with great respect.

It is also noteworthy that the size of Roscoe's tips increased for the remainder of that afternoon.