The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Missing Fingers

By Sandra Redding © 1985

Issue: February, 1985

Although my father Elmer Raby, now in his 70's, lives in Randleman, North Carolina, he spent most of his boyhood in Franklin. He often speaks fondly of those early years, recalling the quiet beauty of the region - incredibly clean air; mountains filled with rhododendron. But he also lets us know that, often, existence could be harsh and brutal.

Last year at Christmas, as we opened lavish gifts, he described once again, as he does every year, the meagerness of his own childhood presents. "I received the same three things each Christmas," he told us, "a new pair of overalls and always, in the stocking I hung by the fireplace, I'd find a single firecracker and an orange." On Christmas day, my father, wearing his stiff new overalls, would set off the firecracker and eat the pulp of the orange. The skin he'd save, savoring it several days later when it became dry and hard. But he adds, "Back then, those gifts seemed treasures."

The most difficult year for him was the year his mother died. That was also the year he lost his two fingers. It happened in the fall, after the leaves had turned crimson and gold and the smell of burning hickory filled the air. That day, while my grandfather and great-uncle split wood, my father, only six at the time and his brother Clyde, who was eight, stacked the pieces in neat piles. After working steadily for several hours, the men stopped long enough to get a drink of water.

While they were gone, my uncle Clyde, always a curious boy, picked up the axe. When my grandfather, coming back from the house, saw him holding it high in the air, he shouted out. Clyde, frightened, accidently dropped the axe on my father's hand. As my father watched in disbelief, two fingers from his right hand, the little one and the one next to it, went flying through the air. His middle finger, severely damaged, had been severed through the bone with only a thin piece of skin on one side keeping it intact. My grandfather, taking off his shirt to cover the badly bleeding hand, picked up my father, carrying him inside the house.

Back then, getting a doctor for any type of emergency procedure, because of the distance involved, was an impossibility, so the family relied instead on the expertise of my great-grandfather, a man grown wise from years of experience in such matters. As soon as he saw the blood-soaked shirt, he gathered soot from the fireplace to stop the bleeding. For over an hour, he remained ambivalent about my father's middle finger. If he could possibly save the finger, he thought, it would prove invaluable in aiding my father to write and hold objects, but there was, also, a much greater risk of infection. Finally, he decided that if the finger were his own, he'd want every effort to be made to save it. So, long before medical doctors envisioned such a procedure, he painstakingly stitched my father's finger back to the hand. Then, after carefully sterilizing and bandaging the wound, he lifted my father onto his lap, comforting him for several hours. "Don't fret, son," he told him. "Your fingers will grow back."

A few days later, as my father searched about the woodpile for his missing fingers, one of his mischievous cousins came up, teasing him. "Aw, Elmer," he said, "you ain't never going to find them fingers. We throwed 'em to the pigs."

My father's middle finger did heal and grow to a normal size but, except for the joint which connects it to the hand, he can not move it. Nevertheless, just as my great-grandfather rationalized, the finger is a great asset, enabling my father to write with that hand. In fact, my father uses his right hand with such facility that we often forget about his missing fingers. Before retirement, he was a knitting machine fixer, an occupation requiring dexterity. He is also an excellent marksman, a trophy winning golfer, and so expert at billiards that his pool-hall cronies dread to see him walk in the door.