The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Fire On The Mountain

By Rodger Goodson © 1985

Issue: January, 1985

In the 1950's in Galax I was my Granddaddy Troy Goodson's driver, before Goodson's Cafe burnt down in 1961, when I was already working in Cleveland.

There were several reasons why Troy Goodson needed a driver for the Dodge automobiles he bought over the years from Cochran's garage. He had learned to drive fairly late in life and always looked down to see where his brake pedal was before he stomped his foot on it. This wasn't the safest maneuver I ever saw. Also, he invariably pulled out to the middle of the road before making a right turn. The only explanation for this operation I could ever come up with was that Troy drove like he was still up on the mountain with his team and wagon, and was just making sure he got his load of hay around that right hand corner. There were, inevitably, minor mishaps, most notably when the car rammed backwards into a ditch, because Granddaddy forgot to put on the handbrake while visiting relatives. I suppose he just assumed the team wouldn't let the car run backwards.

Whenever I drove him up to the site of the old Goodson Settlement at the foot of Fishers Peak, I was, invariably, both astonished and pleased. "We used to plant rye in that field every year," he would say, pointing out a stand of pines at least thirty years old. Or, "Right thar in that meader is whur his big ole house was. You can still find the foundation of it."

He meant the house of his granddaddy, Leander Goodson, founder of The Goodson Settlement. I would walk those old stones which had supported rooms, porches and spring house almost a hundred years before, with all the wonder of a traveler discovering a lost civilization in a distant land (the place is about 15 miles from Galax; the Blue Ridge Parkway runs over the site of the one-room schoolhouse where my Granddaddy got every bit of four years of education: "In the wintertime, when I wasn't needed about the place.")

Most joyous of all were visits to friends and family members still living up on the mountain, who would at once ring up other friends and relations, while bringing out the banjos, fiddles, mandolins, guitars, harmonicas and autoharps. None of the "musicianers" who made my foot stomp back in those days like a mad Irish dervish entirely out of my control, were under fifty years of age. Not for them the "newtimey" bluegrass music, as it is now called (after Bill Monroe and his radio band), though some of the old-timers knew Scruggs two-finger banjo pickin' ("I wish I could do it, and then not do it!")

Most of their banjos were clawhammer like my Granddaddy's, which had the top ten frets shaved off and a neat plate of copper tacked down in their place. Fiddle and banjo with unfretted boards led the old-timey "chunes" originating by and large from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, if vastly transformed after generations of Blue Ridge solitude -  and the fretted continental mandolin and the more recently imported guitar followed along, more or less as best they could. Neither old-timey banjo or fiddle played the intervals between white and black keys exactly; the old chunes, as everybody knows, or ought to, had to be handed down from father to son; they couldn't be correctly transcribed in conventional musical notation. This fact is still not properly understood at the Julliard School of Music in New York. I seriously doubt if it ever will be.

The old timers also and invariably put out upon the table a mason jar of some of the finest white liquid ever tasted by mortal man. But that's another story.

"She planted that tree!"

We were standing at the top of the Goodson Graveyard, some ten yards beyond the rotting gate. The graveyard slopes off slowly down the hill, tucked neatly out of sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway. What would have happened to all of us, I sometimes wonder, if the family cemetery had lain flat in the way of Harry Byrd's and FDR's highway, where folks retired to Florida now grind continually up and down pulling their condominium house trailers?

"Why, yeah, she planted that tree on the day he died," my great uncle said, echoing Granddaddy, his brother.

It was a summery afternoon, fairly hot for the mountains. The three Goodson men (myself included) were damp with perspiration after the short climb from the meadow. The three eagle-beaked hook-noses - the family heirloom, some said - breathed in the sweet odor of sap rising, wildflowers, new hay and mountain air - one young and two old foxhounds flairing at the scent. After the traditional eternity of mountaineer silence, my great uncle was seized by an Irish fit of gab, a hillbilly passion of eloquence. "I'll never forgit it as long as I live. We was all down in the meader thar, a-gittin' in the hay."

My great uncle spoke abstractly, in a kind of daze, as if my Granddaddy weren't even there to help him tell it. He knowed, and he knowed I knowed, that my Granddaddy Troy, youngest of five incredibly sturdy sons, would have been down at their parents' cabin, "a-holpin' Mamma git dinner for the rest of them."

She, by the way, is their graddaddy's youngest daughter and youngest child. He, of course, is old man Leander Goodson, mysterious founder of The Goodson Settlement.

"Hit come up the awfulest storm ever was seen. We was all a-tryin' to git the hay in before the rain come, and it cummenced to thunderin' and lightenin' till I was might nigh scared to death. Eye God sir, that lightenin' was a-comin' right down on us, and then hit struck the rye shocks in the field above us, and set the rye shocks on far. Next thing we knowed, the smoke come a-rollin' down into the meader and somebody hollered out the whole mountain was on far!”

"We grabbed up ever horse blanket and straw broom and shovel we could lay hands on, and went up in that rye field to beat the far out and trench it before hit got to the trees. That took might nigh all day long, and we lost ever bit of the rye crop and most of the hay. Hit come up the awfullest thunderin', like they was a-blowin' up the world, and that lightenin' kept on a-flashin' and a-cracklin' like that, till I thought for sure hit was tryin' to kill me, kill ever one of us!”

"But the rain finally come and hit was jist like the Flood startin' all over again. We thought hit was the end of the world!”

"We got the far put out in the rye shocks, finally, and kept hit from takin' holt among the trees. Then the rain come down and put the rest of hit out, and when we got back down to the meader he was dead! He died while all that storm was a-goin' on, when the mountain cought far. We had to wait about three days to bury him till the rain finally let up. Then we put him in the ground and she planted that tree at the foot of his grave. Now hits growed right through him, and her, and hit's growed right through ever one of them. Why, hit'll grow through me and Troy, grow right through all of us!"

My Granddaddy was strangely silent, staring intently at that huge, gnarled, huge-headed fragrant cedar tree which had completely taken over the graveyard. Beneath such trees the Druids had once worshiped - if the Cherokees and Catawbas had Druids, as indeed, in their noble fashion, they most surely did. At that moment, silently and nearly huge, a larger than his brother, Troy might have been a Druid himself, entranced by the bagpipe wail of the story's telling, gazing fixedly at the sacred tree.

Troy also knowed, and I knowed, that there were runaway African slaves buried up there - he'd played stickball in the meadow with their descendants as a child - and runaway Union soldiers. In 1860-65 The Goodson Settlement was fifty miles from the West Virginia border. And all of this under the piercing gaze of old man Leander Goodson, who had talked to his wife in Latin, Gaelic, Druid or whatever....

Who was Leander Goodson?

All I can say here is, he must have been a man if it took a fire on the mountain to put him under.