When I was eleven years old, we lived for two months in Kentucky.
It was a beautiful state filled with huge old oak trees that my sister, brother and I enjoyed climbing. There were fresh streams with clear pools full of wriggling fish, too quick to catch. Four year old Kathi had caught a huge trout in her bare hands up in Wyoming a few months before, when we lived with Grandma Iris. Dad was mapping Antarctica that year, so we’d moved into the Thurston home on South Fifth Street in Douglas, Wyoming.
Now we were in Appalachia. Dad had to map all the borders of that region for the USGS. He and his team also mapped the mountains and valleys, filled with rhododendrons and azales. Appalachia stretches from Alabama and Mississippi, up through Georgia, Tennessee, just touching South Carolina, and on upward until it reaches Maine.
In every location we lived near the Appalachian Trail, we’d have family hiking days. Mom would pack a bunch of sandwiches wrapped in waxedpaper. Then she’d fill one thermos with water and one with coffee. Dad would carry along his canteen full of water, to be refreshed at natural springs.
Mom would put the food, drinks and sketch pads (plus a medical kit which included a rubber suction snake bite gizmo) into Dad’s gigantic backpack. Then we’d go on the Elder Family Quest which involved various adventures depending on where we were living.
Starting in Alabama, we’d hike two or three miles up the Appalachian Trail. This was not fun for me because there were always way too many people. It wasn’t like living out in the bayous or wildwoods where my brother, sister and I could run as free as we wished. I never did like too many people around, having started my life as an infant riding in the 1950 DeSota up and down the Rockies, free as a bird. Groups of loud-talking people filled the Trail. But at least it was an adventure that I could make notes about in my diary.
Dad always reminded us about The Rules before we began hiking. You had to stay on the trail, lest you ruin wildflowers (or get into poison ivy or poison sumac). And as always with Dad’s obsessions, we were supposed to learn what animals lived in the area, pluck leaves to stick into our botany notebooks and examine and identify rocks (igneous were my favorites) which we would sketch during rest breaks. Rocks always went back into the dirt. No stealing!
After we hiked a few miles the summerI was fifteen on the Maine part of the Appalachian Trail, Dad proudly announced, “Now! We’ve done the whole thing!”
Mom disagreed, “The whole thing would be over 2,000 miles, Bill. So let’s not get swelled heads.”
Maybe we didn’t have swelled heads but our feet were sure swollen! Dad had hearty work boots but us kids were in standard early 1960s Keds. I had permanent blisters on my heels where limp white socks got eaten into my shoes. Every five steps, I had to stop and pull my socks up, trying to ignore Bob’s nagging “C’mon, fool! Let’s go!” Even Kathi, five years younger than me, could tear along the trail faster than I could.
My father and his USGS survey team mapped all the borders and mountains of Appalachia. So we kids rambled and ran barefoot through all that beautiful land.
When we lived in Kentucky, we often watched folks playing fiddle, washboard, tub and banjo. The musicians sat on warped wooden porches while women in hard-heeled shoes stomped out the beat. People like me, who couldn’t catch a tune in a rain barrel, would clap along with the shoe-tapping beat.
We moved to Bryson City, North Carolina just as sixth grade began for me. I was almost eleven. Mom had sewn the most beautiful dress for my first day of school. It was a dark green lawn shirt-waist with chiffon of lighter green laid over the top like a soft spring cloud. She made my brother Bob a burgundy sports jacket with a gold emblem so he could be like Bond, James Bond. Kathi, who would begin the first grade, a lovely yellow and white checkered dress.
This was the Smoky Mountains now, not Appalachia, Dad explained about the mountain ranges’ differences as we carried boxes up to our new rental house. It looked so much like where we’d come from in Kentucky. The Smokies lay up against Tennessee, where we’d lived for a fantastic summer before moving to Wyoming.
First day of school and I was wide awake long before dawn. I heard my father getting ready for work, talking low so as not to bother us kids. The sound of Mom’s percolating metal coffee pot and the scent of that forbidden hot drink reached my ears and nose. I breathed deeply like Dad had taught me when I was four and never could sleep that whole entire year.
“In……..out…….in……out” I pressed my palms against my lungs to encourage them to breathe correctly. I’d always had problems with getting out of breath.
My sister turned to me from her side of the double bed, “are you awake?”
“Yes, I can’t wait to put on that dress!”
I wasn’t usually a girly girl. But that dress was calling to me from the closet where it hung next to Kathi’s yellow one.
“Let’s wait ‘til Dad’s gone,” I advised, the wise elder sister. “He gets mad if we make too much noise when he’s having breakfast.”
On the left, my green dress barely visible over box with Gretchen von Elder & her puppies in Bryson City, NC. On the right, me giving Gretchen a bath in Silver Lake Florida.
At this time, no one in the family had a color camera. These photos were taken by Bob
on my Kodak Duaflex camera given to me by my father when he got home from Antarctica.
“OK,” Kathi whispered. We lay there, forehead to forehead, her gold-green eyes staring into my dark brown ones. Kathi’s wispy white hair tangled up into my wild, dark-auburn tresses. We held hands and breathed like yogis, men our father had told us about who lived far, far away. They never wore any clothes except diapers (which made us laugh until Dad told us to never laugh at other people’s customs). Their hair grew and grew until it reached the ground. They wrapped their hair up on top of their heads and twisted cloths around and around until they had a turban. We were yogi girls, breathing in each other’s breaths.
Slam, the front door shut. Dad was on his way to the government Jeep! We both leapt up, rushed into the bathroom and took turns washing up at the sink.
“Are you two up already?” Mom complained. She liked some alone time, which she rarely ever got.
Bob dashed to the breakfast table before we girls could even get our shoes on. Patent leather black shining below folded down white socks with pink ruffles.
“Well, you will have to wait until I get these eggs going.” Mom laid bacon into the heavy, black skillet. Fresh brown eggs from our neighbor’s hens lay in a brown bowl our mother had bought from a lady who threw pots in Kentucky.
I was, as usual, ravenous. “I’m Starving!” I moaned.
“You’re always starving, Dixie,” Bob said, “Then the minute you finish eating, you say ‘Oh no, I’m so full I’m about to die!’” He mimicked my voice exactly. Bob was a great actor, usually getting the leading role in any play I wrote.
“So!” I glared at Bob. He was darkly tanned after July and August in Kentucky. We’d barely even gone inside during those months, running all over heck and back.
I burnt badly and the red skin peeled off so I was white as a ghost. Kathi had cute freckles over her tanned skin.
“Mama, we’re starving!” Kathi joined me. We were baby birds shrieking for worms.
“There, now eat up and shush it up.” Mother set down three plates full of eggs, bacon, toast with butter, cooked tomatoes and potatoes. She took her cup of coffee into the living room where she sat on the brown tweed sofa and flipped through a magazine. We kids brushed our teeth, then ran outside to wait for the school bus.
That year, I had the greatest teachers ever. The school went from first grade to twelfth. Some schools I’d gone to had only first through third. Or first through sixth.
This sixth grade was team-taught. I’d never had that before, just one teacher in each school. My new teachers had gone to first-rate colleges, Dad had told me. So I was excited from Day One.
There was a giant auditorium in the big brick building that housed high school classes and the main office. Grades one through six were in a different brick bulding near by.
On rainy days when we couldn’t go out for recess, teachers led us to the auditorium where students would stand onstage and recite poems or speeches they’d memorized. Sometimes, kids sang songs without instruments. Other rain-days, high school students who were in the symphonic bands would play popular songs like “18 Tons.” I knew it was really “16 Tons” but Dad sang the lyrics as Eighteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” in his perfect baritone.
Every work day, six days a week, Dad carried a heavy telerometer in a big metal box. He hefted over his shoulder the wooden tripod on which the telerometer would be placed. A backpack with his “kit and kaboodle” (other equipment, food, a thermos full of coffee) added to those 18 tons. So I got used to singing “18 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”
On the first day of band class, each student had to audition. Ivan Gibby, another flute player, and I were immediately sent up to the tenth grade band room. We were both terrified that we’d never be able to keep up with the high schoolers. But a few weeks later, our parents signed us up for private lessons with the town dentist. He had been in one of the 1940s Big Bands as a young man. He kept time by snapping his fingers and saying “Yeah, man.” It helped Ivan and me to feel like we were cool (we absolutely weren’t) to have a hep cat as our music teacher.
On special occasions, the school hosted bluegrass bands from all over the Smokies. These were historian-musicians who traveled all over the country, playing traditional ballads and talking of Old Timey Days.
Our English teacher explained that these folks were called ‘troubadors’ (for the men singers) and trobaritz for the women. Their songs were from a long line of music stretching back into Medieval times in Europe. Mostly Scottish and Irish people had settled in this area but there were also ballads from English people.
One day, all the students from first to twelfth grades filed noisily into the auditorium. The principal, behind a round wire microphone, called for order. Then he said loudly,
“Let’s all welcome the Bluegrass Boys.”
Well, they weren’t boys. They were sort of old to my eleven year old self. After tuning up, plucking strings and chuckling with each other, the singer turned toward that microphone and announced:
“Wayfarin’ Stranger.” He began to sing in a real high pitched voice:
“I am a poooor, wayfarin’ straaanger
travelin’ through this world below…
there is no sickness, toil ner danger
in that bright land to which I go…”
That song hit me right through the chest. I’d always been a stranger in each new USGS base, a stranger amongst kids who’d gone to school together since kindergarten. I was a poor, wayfarin’ stranger. The singer’s voice filled my head. I wandered around for days, hearing him sing. My own singing voice, though way off-key, was deeper than even that grown-up man’s. Bob had perfect pitch, so he could imitate any singer from Bobby Darin to this new guy from the Bluegrass Boys.
We drove our poor mother crazy for weeks after the concert, three kids running through and around the house, singing loudly in our best, newly learned North Carolina/Kentucky accents:
I’m jest a poor wayfarin’ stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m goin’ there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home
I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is hard and steep
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep
I’m going there to see my Mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
So, I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home