My name is Billy and this is my story. It all began in the hills of eastern Tennessee. The year was 1920 and I was ten years old sitting in a one room school house daydreaming about going to my favorite spot after school.
I didn't care about much and school and it certainly was not on my list of fun things to do except for geography. I loved looking at the pictures and dreamed of going to those places. I just couldn't imagine that such places existed, as all I had ever known were these hills and mountains I call home.
I'd daydream while looking at the pictures in the geography book with the golden western desert and the craggy black and grey Rocky Mountains, capped in snow year round. Those mountains made my Blue Ridge Mountains look tiny in comparison. The scenic rich flat-lands of mid-America with the green prairie grass growing all the way to the blue horizon with huge herds of Buffalo. The great Mississippi River with big, colorful paddle-wheel boats and grand bridges beckoned as well. The huge Niagara Falls dwarfed the little falls I knew. The Grand Canyon so deep the book said, “It's always summer at the bottom even if it's snowing on top.” The Great Lakes so big you can't see the other side. The Atlantic and Pacific coastline beaches covered with white sand and waves of the blue green oceans crashing into pale greenish white foam on the shores. I told myself I’d see them all one day.
My family was poor, some people would say but I didn't know the difference. We always had plenty to eat thanks to my mother’s garden. She’d put up cooked vegetables in Ball jars for the winter months. My mother, in addition to tending the garden, took in washing and ironing for the coal company foremen and boss’s families. We had a chicken coop for eggs and some meat and a pig or two. We always had a milk cow around. Daddy and I would hunt deer in season to supplement our food stores. We’d butcher the deer and trade some to the company store to keep the rest in their cold storage. The company store had electricity. We eventually got electricity when the TVA came through. (Tennessee Valley Authority)
My daddy worked the coal mine and had an account at that company store. That's where we shopped for everything we couldn't make for ourselves. I always got a new pair of shoes at Christmas and had clean clothes to wear. Somehow we managed a decent life. No one ever went to bed hungry that’s for sure.
I had me a year round job too. Ever since I could remember I walked the railroad tracks that carried the coal from the local mine. I gathered the coal that fell from the coal cars and the train tender. With daily diligence I could collect enough coal over the spring, summer and fall seasons to fill the lean-to next to the chicken coop before winter came to the hills. The coal, along with the firewood daddy and I split would keep us warm throughout the snowy winters. After supper I’d fetch another bucket of coal for mother’s stove along with more wood for the fireplace. My daddy would sit by the fire place after supper telling stories and whittling whirly-gigs and small caricatures of critters for me. Those were poor boy’s toys, my toys. I learned the value of a sharp knife and how to sharpen one from daddy. He always said, “Whittling’ is hard; when you try to whittle with a dull knife. A dull knife is dangerous Billy.” I never understood that until I was whittling’ my own critters.
Everyday, when school let out I’d go home and grab a crocus sack to collect coal. I'd scramble away to the familiar path that led to the stream before the falls. I always stopped and drank from a little eddy pool just before the water spilled over the edge of the falls. That was the coldest crystal clear water in that spring fed stream. It felt so good on my lips. I had to be careful not to drink too fast or it would give me a headache. I believe if that water wasn't moving it would be frozen.
After I drank my fill I would pick my way down to my special spot by hanging on to exposed roots and saplings. It was slippery with all of the moss clinging to the rocks. No matter how hot the day was my spot was cool from the mist that rose in a plume drifting in the breeze beside the falls. All of the surrounding trees and ferns benefited from all of the moisture. It produced a green lushness that was not evident anywhere else in my mountains, my world. My spot was a shelf of flat rock about fifteen feet wide and ten feet from the edge to the back wall. It was sheltered by an overhang of rock and weeping ferns. There was almost a natural bench set back in the shadow of the overhang just right for sitting. I recon' it was a good place to whittle too. It was good place to just sit, think and daydream.
It was a perfect vantage point to sit and watch for the train. From my spot I could see for miles across the valleys. I could see the very tops of smaller hills and mountains and their shaded valleys. I would sit and watch for the grayish white smoke from the steam engine winding its way through the distant bright green forests and nearly blue green valleys.
My daily job of collecting coal didn't bother me because being near the tracks and watching that train going somewhere enhanced my dreams of travel. From my spot I could see both ends of the tunnel my father helped build. Daddy said a couple of men died in a cave-in when it was dynamite blasted through the solid rock. In my mind it was a monument to my daddy's efforts.
The approach to the tunnel was steep just after the train rounded the bend on the switchback from the hillside across the way. I would watch the fireman stoking shovels full of coal to build steam on the level straight stretch across ravine before the grade. When the train passed below my spot on this section it was the high point of my day because the train went so slow pulling the grade. It afforded me a really good look at it. I’d move to the very edge of the ledge and sit with my legs dangling and watch and listen as the locomotive strained at the grade. Sometimes the wheels would spin losing traction especially in winter. The thrusting chugs of the engine would speed up and then slow again as it caught traction. I could feel the mountain vibrate through my britches from the power of that old steam locomotive.
The train always blew the whistle entering the tunnel and upon exiting. I loved the sound as it echoed through the hills and valleys mixing with the chugs now settling into a steady meter. I would watch the train enter the tunnel and as it rolled on. I'd watch it emerge out the other end drawing with it the smoke that accumulated in the tunnel. I would keep watching until the smoke and the train disappeared into the hills and forest around the last bend.
After the train was out of sight and sound, I’d heave a big sigh and make my way all the way down to the tracks and walk around the sharp bend to the far side along the straights there would be a bounty of coal spilled along the rail bed. I'd fill my sack with as much as I could carry and climb the hill toting that heavy sack and head home.
I never could decide which season I liked best as they each had their own appeal. I liked the fall because of all the colors. It was like the whole area had been painted with reds, gold’s and browns with clumps of evergreens.
The winter was cold and the path was slippery but it afforded a look at the train sooner. On those cold days I would build a fire to make my spot cozy. I could see all of the train at once. The big, black locomotive and tender followed by many black coal cars and then the multi-colored box cars, blue, green, orange, and white tagged with the bright red caboose. The snow made it quiet, eerie quiet. It was so quiet I could hear the train coming way before I saw it.
The spring was cool and comfortable and I could watch my mountains filling in with new growth. The blue green evergreens were the first to appear as the snow melted and fell from their branches. As the days went by the hardwoods and bushes would fill in the gaps until the forest was once again all lush and green. Mountain laurels and rhododendrons would be in full bloom.
Summer provided plenty of sweet blue berries, strawberries and raspberries they were like candy to me. Also there was the added bonus of no school during those months. The summer would be unbearably hot were it not for the natural coolness of my special spot.
The seasons came and went along with the years as I sat there on my spot waiting for the train that always sparked my imagination. I wondered when it had been and where it was going. I dreamed of boarding that train and going to see all of those places in my geography book.
Sometimes I would sneak a peek in the magazines at the company store that were filled with even more pictures of other places until the owner would shout, "Hey are you gonna’ buy that magazine or just get it dirty." He'd run me off and threaten to tell my father. If he ever did tell daddy nothing was ever said too me about it.
The War came along and I was of age and got a draft notice. My orders came and finally I was going to board that train. My dreams were coming true. I was so excited that day and as the train pulled into the whistle stop, a full day’s walk to and from. My mother and father both hugged me and said be careful. Holding each other they waved goodbye as I watched them growing smaller and smaller still waving as the train chugged on. I fixed that picture in my mind and I carried it... and it carried me, all through the War. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see my daddy alive. In the thirty odd years in the Army I only returned twice, first to bury my father then within a year my mother passed away. Some local people said she died of grief. All I know is that those were some sad times for me.
The thought of my mountains after those trips home only bore those most recent painful memories. I always felt too busy and worldly to come home, after all there was no one there waiting for me. Through out my career in the Army I got to see all of the places I only dreamed of by transferring to different duty stations all over the country and spending my leave time traveling. Thoughts of my special spot in my mountains kept on popping into mind no matter how fast and far I traveled.
I never found the right woman for me and I guess that’s another story in itself. The Army said it was time to retire. That’s when I decided that the mountains were where I really belonged. After seeing and living all over these United States I came to the realization that the best place for me to end my days would be my mountains, my home. I returned on that train for the last time. The place had not changed much since I left. The company store is a Quick-Mart now. The old one room school house as well as the old wooden church I attended both have been declared a State of Tennessee Treasured Landmark. I tried to find my old school mates but they’d moved away to the big cities. The mine had closed down; it's rumored that it might re-open one day if coal prices continue to increase.
I had to stay about five miles away in the whistle stop town in a motel while I sold off the family land and house. The house wasn’t fit to live in because of neglect anyway. I took the proceeds and purchased the land near the top of the falls above my spot. I built my two room cabin there. I can hear the falls at night with the windows open and see it from the front porch. I still walk those familiar tracks just for fun. There’s not much coal there now because the trains are all diesel. The modern coal cars don't spill any coal these days. The trains that come by are still fun to watch because they’re so long. I've counted over a hundred cars. The train sometimes has two locomotives one pulling and the other pushing as it stretches from the straights across the way, around the bend up the grade and all the way through the tunnel before you see the end. When there are two engines the red caboose is next to last. That looks odd to me but I guess some things change.
Now-a-days I run a roadside peanut stand beside the highway for the tourists. I sell boiled and roasted peanuts also the little critters and whirly-gigs I’ve whittled. I've still got the one’s my daddy made for me I use them for eyeing when I whittle. I keep them on the fireplace mantle. I get them down and wipe the dust off and think about what I was doing when he whittled one or the other.
The stand is always closed between 3:00 PM and 4:00PM. , except on Saturdays. If you ever decide to come and visit me and my Jack Russell terrier dog, Gunny and the stand is closed up and you want to visit me you just follow the path beside the stream behind the stand. If you're facing the stand go to the right, that's south and go another two hundred yards to the head of the falls. You'll hear the falls before you see them. Stop at the cabin and knock on the door. If I’m not there then take the trail on the left of my cabin I’ll be at my spot. Be careful, watch your footing’ it's slippery. Start looking about half way down on any day except Saturday and Sunday at exactly 3:15 PM me and Gunny will be at my spot waiting and watching for the train. You can set a spell with us and eat some fresh warm boiled peanuts and I'll tell you about the world I've seen and we can watch the train go by.