The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Charles B. Martin, Sr. © 1984

Issue: August, 1984

A wise old timer once told me that the only significant difference between a mediocre workman and an expert is the amount of imagination each is blessed with. Faced with identical problems, the less inventive person sees only the difficulty involved - while, on the other hand, the expert can perceive, not only the problem, but the solution as well. Despite the fact that both may possess similar skills and be equally adept at their profession, the one who can figure a way out, when problems arise, is destined to be hailed as a master of his trade. In other words, being alert enough to turn a liability into an asset is the true mark of an expert. The little incident I'm going to recount sort of epitomizes the kind of spontaneous ingenuity I like to credit to truly talented men.

"Dub" and Jim Gillespie, along with their younger brother, Barney, have long enjoyed the reputation of being three of the finest painters to ever work in Southwest Virginia's Blue Ridge. This claim I will certainly vouch for, having worked in houses with them for many years myself. In the tradition of many outstanding painters, they literally "cut their teeth" on a paint brush handle. They grew up doing what they learned to do best and gradually acquired all the expertise one would expect from anybody who mastered a trade the way they did. Not the least factor influencing their development was the watchful eye of their dad, Mr. Levi.

He was one of the nicest persons I have ever known - a kind and soft-spoken gentleman who had that elusive ability to inspire perfection from anybody who worked with him. He also had another personality trait that "rubbed off" on his sons. When it came to workmanship, only the best was good enough. With this kind of motivation and on the job training, it's little wonder the name of Gillespie became almost a household word in this area.

There's an old saying about one's reputation traveling ahead of them and theirs was no exception. Within a few years they were being contacted to do work in all the outlaying neighborhoods and towns. It was the result of this growing fame that put them on the scene of what I thought, was their most colorful escapade.

This particular Monday morning found them preparing to practice their artistry on the living room walls of one of the more elegant mansions in Bristol. The owner of the house - if one dared call it a house - (to the Gillespie boys it looked more like the Taj Mahal) - had imported them for this singular purpose. This job demanded perfection and the elegant lady who was directing their efforts kept reminding them, in a cooing falsetto voice, that they had been chosen for this project because of their reputation for fine work and especially for their neatness. As she wandered around the lavishly decorated room, she kept reminding them of the need for exceptional care. According to her, one drop of white paint on the dark maroon, almost ankle deep, plush carpet, would be a disaster.

Now, this fact was pretty evident to the fellows and they were taking every precaution to see that something like this didn't occur. As they began covering the furniture with drop cloths, they were also trying to reassure the lady that nothing would go wrong. This didn't seem to help her in the least. She was evidently a natural born worrywart who tended to nurture and promote her own worst fears. The more she thought about the unacceptable happening, the more convinced she became that it would. The Gillespie boys, notwithstanding their adeptness at pacifying upset females, were unable to dispel any of her fears. She kept walking about the room and whimpering about what a nervous wreck this was making of her.

Perhaps the poor lady had some feminine premonition of impending disaster, or maybe she was just an habitual worrier, but whichever, she kept up this line of chatter all the time they were almost as if she was trying to convince herself that her choice of workmen was correct. To the fellows, this overactive concern was becoming almost ludicrous and adding to the atmosphere of humor, was the animal that accompanied the distraught lady around. It was (or once had been), a cat. A cross-eyed, stump tailed apparition with long, moth-eaten, black hair. One of its ears was missing and it walked with a decided limp. Whatever it had run afoul of - whether a rotary mower or a trip through a garbage disposal - it had definitely come out second best. And these weren't all of its afflictions either. Adding to its many physical infirmities was the spiritual burden of answering to the unlikely handle of Poo-Bear.

Now, maybe this name is a good one in the proper application; it tends to imply something cute and cuddly. In this case, though, it seemed completely out of place. This reject from the Humane Society was anything but cute and cuddly.

Understanding the emotional workings of the female heart, however, has always defied logic and here was another case in point. The lady obviously loved the critter and kept him draped over her shoulder a big part of the time; or else curled up on her lap when she happened to be sitting down. She talked to the creature too. Even as rattled as she was this morning, she would occasionally interrupt her verbal harangue of the painters to carry on a one-sided conversation with old Poo-Bear. She would stroke his warty old head with soft caresses and whisper such absurdities as, "Mama loves her Poo-Bear," or, "Mama wants you ,to be a nice Poo-Bear and treat the painters good. They're going to make our room look lovely."

Understandably, the Gillespie boys felt mighty relieved when the phone down at the end of the hall started ringing and "Mama" dropped old Poo-Bear on the sofa and marched off to converse with someone different. Maybe things could get on track now. Jim was whistling a soft little tune to himself as he placed a freshly stirred gallon of paint on the step ladder shelf. "Dub" and Barney, in the meantime, had almost finished covering the furniture with drop cloths. All they needed to do now was to make sure the floor was adequately protected and they could get to work. Even old Poo- Bear, sensing that he was no longer the center of anybody's attention, started acting like a normal cat. He jumped up in the window and, after yawning a couple of times, stretched out where he could keep an eye on things. Soon his motor was humming at a contented pace.

Now, in case some of you aren't familiar with the anatomy of a cat, they're like no other animal on earth. Instead of a heart, they have a two-cycle gasoline engine concealed somewhere inside their body. This engine handles all the functions usually taken care of by the conventional blood pump or heart. If you doubt the truth of this statement, just listen to a cat sometime - you can easily hear its motor running. In fact, a veterinarian I know often utilizes this little known bit of knowledge to diagnose the physical condition of his feline patients. He just puts an ear to their chest and listens for the symptoms of a busted piston or a warped drive shaft.

Anyway, old Poo-Bear had throttled his engine down to a slow idle and was just getting comfortable when things went haywire. Jim, who was trying to fan the wrinkles out of a drop cloth, let his hand slip and landed a mighty blow just under the ladder shelf on which he had placed the full gallon of paint. The ladder lurched wildly for a moment and then flopped over in the floor like a sick horse. The bucket of paint, quite naturally, landed upside down in the very center of the only portion of floor not covered with drop cloths. "Dub" made a desperation grab but by the time he got the bucket upright, only about a quart of the original contents remained inside. The rest was spreading in an ever growing circle of white on the expensive maroon carpet.

A deadly silence followed this calamity.

For several seconds everybody stopped breathing as they stared in awe at that enormous puddle of paint. This couldn't be happening was the thought that raced through each of their minds. It seemed like an eternity before they dared look in each other's eyes and when they did, it was with the blank, lifeless stare of zombies. This was a disaster of unparalleled dimensions and like "Dub" told me later - he didn't know whether to go to the toilet, go blind or wind his watch.

In the meantime, and unnoticed by the shocked painters, old Poo-Bear was taking a sudden new interest in the happenings. The baited silence that followed the fall of the ladder had charged the area with an air of expectancy and prompted him to rev up his motor in anticipation. Of what, he wasn't sure, but he sensed that something out of the ordinary was going on and figured he should get in on the action. When his eye fell on that huge white glob, he knew that his instinct had guided him right.

In all his life he had never seen a bigger serving of (what he thought was) milk. He was almost smiling as he hopped down from the bay window and joined the ranks around that enormous patch of white. One taste though was all it took to set him snorting and sneezing. This stuff might look like milk but it sure didn't taste like milk.

Suddenly every eye in the room focused on Poo-Bear - paused there a moment and then lifted to stare at each other. A gleam of inspiration passed like a flash of lightening between them. It was almost as if the same idea had been born simultaneously in each of their minds. Without uttering a word, and yet in unanimous agreement, every hand reached for Poo-Bear at the same moment.

This was probably the first and only time in the history of mankind that a cat had been chosen to play the role of Messiah for a handful of desperate house painters. As quickly as possible they began rolling him over and over in the paint. Next they dragged him by the legs backward and forward, till he was saturated - then, as a final touch, Jim dumped what paint was left in the bucket over his head.

Surprisingly enough, old Poo-Bear had endured this drenching and dunking in total silence. He hadn't had time to figure out if this was some kind of new game or what. All he knew was that he didn't smell too good and that he could not see too well either. The next few minutes, though, would destroy his faith in much of mankind and painters in particular. Never again would he trust anybody who owned a step-ladder or a paint brush and the worst was yet to come.

With old Poo-Bear in perfect condition to play his role, the Gillespie boys started their act - and though it may have been totally unrehearsed, it was a performance worthy of an Oscar. Hearing "Mama" hang up the phone was their cue for action.

Barney gave old Poo-Bear's stubby tail a sharp twist, causing him to squeal in sudden terror. Then he threw him down and began chasing him around the room. Jim started kicking the ladder and paint bucket, making all the racket he could, and "Dub" set to yelling at the top of his lungs, "somebody kill that blankety-blank cat."

This outburst brought the lady of the house back down the hallway like a tornado. Though she hadn't the faintest idea of what was going on, the frantic squalling of Poo-Bear and the angry yelling of the men convinced her that her precious animal was in imminent danger of annihilation. Old Poo-Bear figured the same thing too. He was sailing from wall to wall and chair to chair in a desperate bid for survival. Then, just as his mistress entered the room, one of his desperate leaps landed him with a splash on the top of her head. He clung there in all his dripping glory for a moment or two then sort of oozed down into her arms.

This brought on another long moment of total silence.

The poor lady stood in the doorway with her mouth wide open in amazement. Her eyes slowly took on a glassy, hypnotized stare as she surveyed her once spotless living room. This simply had to be a bad dream, she kept telling herself. Surely she would awaken in a moment and find it was just a figment of her imagination. The sudden, loud outburst from the painters destroyed even this faint hope. They marched toward her and the trembling Poo-Bear, feigning righteous outrage and indignation.

"Just you look at what your cat has gone and done," Jim stormed, "He jumped up on my ladder and turned that paint over on your floor. He's ruined your rug and if you'll just hand him to us, we'll take him outside and fix him so he won't do nothing like this again. The varmint deserves to die."

Now, there's an old axiom about a good offense being the best defense and the Gillespie boys now swear by this statement. As they had hoped, their supposed threat to her precious cat put the dear lady on the defensive. Mustering all the poise she could salvage, she clutched the still moaning Poo-Bear to her dripping chest and took command of the situation.

In her most apologetic tone she begged the fellows to overlook all the trouble and inconvenience her cat had caused them. Why, she was even going to pay them for any time they might lose while she had a team of professionals come in and clean up the mess. She didn't want them to worry about the rug for a minute either - If it wouldn't come clean, she could always buy a new one. The only thing she asked was that they forgive her and please, not hold anything against old Poo-Bear.