Sundays with Heroes

Independence Day was celebrated quietly in our house this year. No big barbeques or fireworks. Yesterday and today, my wife and I finally got around to watching the excellent HBO mini-series “The Pacific.” I know, I know, it’s really more appropriate for Memorial Day or Veterans Day. So sue me.

We watched the whole thing in two long sittings, following in rapt fascination and awe the dramatized stories of a half dozen real-life World War II U.S. Marine Corps veterans. Heroes. I have to admit I cried through most of it.

Why the tears? After all, I’ve studied WWII since I was in grade school. I’ve read hundreds of books and watched virtually every halfway decent movie or mini-series ever made on the subject. My favorite movies are almost all WWII themed. But this time it really hit home.

You see, I’m supposed to be spending the next hour or two polishing off my notes for Sunday School tomorrow morning. Last year I was deeply moved—honored—to be asked to teach the senior adult men’s class at our church. Most of these guys have been attending this class since before I was born. What can I possibly teach this group? How can I provide any new insight to men who have been studying the Bible since my parents were in diapers? Men who have so many more decades of experience than I?

I struggle with these questions every week, but now I’m really at a loss. Many of the men in “my” class are war veterans. World War II. Korea. Viet Nam. This was their story. Let me share just a little of it.

Ed was both a bomber pilot and bombardier. Don’t tell him the war isn’t personal from 25,000 feet. He could clearly see his targets through the optics and still sees faces of people on the receiving end of his bombing runs.

Frank survived the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir and the -35F Siberian front that made those 17 days an icy hell.

Walter was in the first few waves to reach the beaches of Normandy, where he was gravely wounded and left for dead for three days amid a pile of corpses half submerged in the English Channel.

Tom chased Germans across France and Belgium in a Sherman tank. His last memory of the war was a heated, fast-moving exchange between his corps and a Nazi armored group. His next memory was forty-two days later when he was out-processed from the Army in New Jersey. To this day he believes it has been God’s way of protecting him from the horror of war.

Sam was with the Marines in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. A small man with a ready smile, it’s hard to picture him as one of the same filthy, worn out but hardened warriors whose tales unfolded before me these last two days.

These are but a few of the stories of the men in this class. Heroes every one, but they don’t see it that way. They just did what was asked of them. What was needed. Then each made his way back home to the tiny town of Gorman, NC—hardly more than a wide spot in the road, really—and got on with the job of living.

They farmed, sold real estate and cars, repaired elevators, managed grocery stores. They married and raised families, teaching them a love of country and—even more importantly—of God. They very quietly and modestly built an America worth living in. An America they were willing to die for.

Now they move slowly, feeling every creak of degenerating joints and spines. Pause for breath as they make their way upstairs to the sanctuary, suits hanging just a bit more loosely on once broad and powerful shoulders. Time has robbed them of the physical strength and energy of youth. But it has given, too: humor, character, wisdom, pride. No, not the self-centered pride of the arrogant young, but the properly deserved satisfaction of accomplishment. Of lives well lived. Of lives worth emulation.

I still have no idea what I’ll say tomorrow morning. I do know this: as happens every Sunday, I’ll learn more from them than they ever will from me. I’ll be far richer for having shared a simple hour with them. And as also happens every Sunday without fail, I’ll love them just a little more.

Small town heroes. My heroes.

Twisdale House

Driving east on NC Highway 561, I almost missed it. Hidden down a dirt road behind about a quarter mile of cedars was what looked like a large, old home. I parked the Xterra on the side of the road and got out to investigate just as a light drizzle began dripping from a swiftly blackening sky. This had better be worth it.

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“Driveway” flanked by cedars leading to the Twisdale House.

The home was hard to see between the trees, with the long driveway increasingly overgrown by grass, weeds, and tree saplings the closer I got. As the drizzle turned to light rain I picked up my pace to more quickly cover the open ground between me and a thicker stand of cedars closer to the house. Taking shelter in a surprisingly dry spot between two tall, particularly closely set trees, I studied the dilapidated mansion before me.

TwisdaleHouse_04Plywood covered what remained of the windows, and the front porch was supported by rough wooden beams. Not a particularly large home, it appeared to be built over a partially excavated brick basement.

Dilapidated and overgrown, the home's glory days were long past.

Dilapidated and overgrown, the home’s glory days were long past.

In its two hundred plus years, what has it seen? It’s not a grand mansion, so debutante balls aren’t likely to have been hosted here. Was it, rather, a more ordinary working farm home? Do the upper bedrooms echo with the cries of mothers giving birth, as so often was the case before modern hospitals? Were there boisterous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the large room in the west wing? (Yes, I peeked.) Quiet evenings before one of the twin fireplaces, reading books or smoking a locally sourced cigar?

TwisdaleHouse_08The more legendarily historic Willie Jones Farm lies adjacent to this property’s original boundaries. It’s known for having reputedly hosted, for a number of years, a young man who later became a great naval figure and whose birth name was John Paul—he took the Jones’ name in honor of their extended and rather generous hospitality. Historians aren’t so sure.

American mythology aside, in the early 1800s, the home was owned by Bartholomew F. Moore, a prominent lawyer who was an attorney general of North Carolina, and was later widely known to oppose secession. When he was named attorney general in 1848, he sold the property to John R. Gary, who was notable mostly because his wife, Rebecca (nee Ousby), was registrar of the NC chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The most recent occupants of the home were the Twisdale family, for whom it is now named. James R. Twisdale bought it in 1914. Shortly before his death in 1996, he had the house renovated. His wife and only child having preceded him into eternity, the property went to the county and fell into its current state of disrepair.

According to a source in Halifax County, this home—with its centuries of American history—is currently owned by Raleigh entrepreneur and NC history maven Greg Hatem. He’s done remarkable work on other historic buildings throughout the state. There may be a future for the Twisdale House, yet. One can hope.

And yes, the drenching—and ticks I brought home from the underbrush—were worth it!

Historic Halifax

As winter turned to spring in the year 1776, the residents of Halifax, North Carolina, had no inkling of the historic role their growing town would shortly play. Established only a few decades before, Halifax was booming. Its location on a deep, calm bend in the Roanoke River—and the broad, flat land on either bank—proved ideal for an inland port.

Riverfront area of Halifax

Riverfront area of Halifax

Merchants plied a lucrative trade in tobacco and other agricultural products of the region—as well as in the African slaves upon whose labor the crops relied—in rows of warehouses along the docks.

In common with other economic centers—of its day no less than ours—Halifax grew in political importance as well. In April of that year the Fourth Provincial Congress of the colony of North Carolina convened in town. During normal years the predominant topic was commerce. But this was no normal year.

Jail, built in 1838

Jail, built in 1838

Throughout the colonies a groundswell of grumbling toward Mother England was rising. It reached its first discontented peak in Halifax on April 12 with the adoption of what would later be called the “Halifax Resolves”: the first formal colonial declaration of intent to sever ties with England and establish independence. In less than three months the remaining colonies would follow suit, joining together to form the great country we have inherited.

Eagle Tavern, circa 1790

Eagle Tavern, circa 1790

While Halifax thrived on trade well into the next century, its eminence began to dwindle the day the railroad passed it by, instantly diminishing the importance of the waterway on which its businesses depended. And though the area surrounding Halifax has produced more state governors than any other in North Carolina, the completion in 1840 of a grand capitol building in Raleigh marked the permanent shift of influence and power away from the little town.

Today the historic section of Halifax is open to visitors who can tour the two cemeteries (one for whites, the other for blacks) and nine remaining antebellum buildings, two of which (a tavern and a private residence) hail from the Revolutionary War era.

Burgess Law Office, circa 1808

Burgess Law Office, circa 1808

Wandering across the now nearly empty commons it’s not easy to summon the sense of vitality the town once knew. Another significant American small town…forgotten by time.

Cell in the 1838 JailClerk’s Office, 1832County Clerk’s Office
County Clerk’s OfficeBurgess Law Office

Creedmoor Train Station

The siding hasn’t been painted in years. Decades maybe. The windows are broken or boarded over with plywood. The rails have long been removed, though if you look carefully you can still see where they once lay, running southward toward Durham. It’s hard to believe this was once a booming area. Built in the late 1880s or early 1890s—no one seems to know, exactly—the station once saw hundreds of mules brought into town each year, where they were sold to tobacco farmers at what was considered the largest mule market in the world.

The old Seaboard Air Lines depot on Elm St.

The old Seaboard Air Lines depot on Elm St.

The Durham and Northern Railway was originally constructed to connect the town of Henderson with the growing city to the south. The line and depot were taken over by Seaboard Air Line Railroad in the 1890s and served the area’s tobacco and cotton farms well into the next century.

By the 1970s traffic had dwindled to almost nothing, and the little station was cut off from the railroad’s southern terminus by the completion of Falls Dam in 1981. Today the gathering storm clouds provide a fitting epitaph. Not quite gone. Not quite forgotten.

Cataloochee Valley

We’d been driving through a constant drizzle for about an hour, following Cove Creek Road as it winds northward along the edge of the Smoky Mountains out of Maggie Valley, NC. The nearest blacktop was miles behind, and as the road transitioned to Old Cataloochee Turnpike at the edge of the national park, its surface also changed: from gravel to dirt or, as was the case today, slick mud. The road crested here and, after a couple more miles of soggy switchbacks, ended in an intersection with…pavement. I guess the dirt road thing is meant to weed out the unserious.

CataloocheeValleyOverlookJust ahead through a break in the trees we got our first glimpse of Cataloochee Valley. One of the most remote areas of the park, its roads are mostly paved but it is only reachable by two unpaved mountain roads. One, the access from the North Carolina side, we had just traversed. The other, which heads north into Tennessee, would take us out later in the afternoon.

 

WildTurkeyThe valley was once home to the Smokies’ largest settlement. In addition to the region’s ubiquitous agrarian economy, before the park’s formation Cataloochee boasted a growing tourism industry due to its abundant hunting and fishing. Now it is inhabited by a couple park rangers and a variety of wildlife. Wild trout still fill its streams, prey for the occasionally seen black bear—and rumored mountain lions—which roam the area. Look carefully through the fields and you can also spy the bobbing heads of wild turkeys strutting about here and there. If you’re lucky—we were—you may come across the valley’s elk. Reintroduced to the valley in 2001, the herd has grown from 25 to about 150.

CataloocheeElkAs the sun came out we drove to the end of the main road, which turns back to gravel as it
CataloocheeValley_PalmerCreekcrosses Palmer Creek a bit upstream of its junction with Rough Fork. These later merge with Caldwell Fork to form Cataloochee Creek, which meanders through the valley on its way to Waterville Lake. Originally stocked by the valley’s residents luring fishermen to fill their lodges, these streams now teem with trout “gone native”—a prize for the campers we saw wading around the bend from the bridge.

 

CataloocheeValley_BeechGroveSchoolJust on the far side of the creek sits the Beech Grove School, nestled in a grove of what I assume are beeches. In its heyday the valley filled three schools. This is the only one left standing…empty and quiet. As I peered inside, my boots tramped out a poignant echo of the bustling energy of yesteryear’s children. But the memories surrounding the school aren’t merely nostalgic. Its legendary origin is rather humorous.

By 1900, the population of Cataloochee had grown to 764. The Cataloochee School was too small to handle the growing population, and in 1906 the township sent a delegation consisting of Hiram and George Caldwell and Steve Woody to Waynesville to demand a newer, larger school. Officials in Waynesville rejected them, however, claiming they didn’t pay enough taxes. On the way home, the three drank a bottle of whiskey, and decided to burn down the schoolhouse. After removing the furniture, they set the building ablaze, and moved classes to the old Caldwell cabin. They then re-petitioned the government in Waynesville, claiming their school had burned down, and asked for a new one. Due to North Carolina’s mandatory attendance laws, the government had no choice but to comply. [Hattie Caldwell Davis, Cataloochee Valley: Vanished Settlements of the Great Smoky Mountains (Alexander, N.C.: Worldcomm, 1997)]

CataloocheeValley_CaldwellHouseFarther upstream along Rough Fork sits the Caldwell House. The largest remaining home in the valley, it has a shingled roof and a porch which wraps around three sides. It was one of the first modern framed homes in the valley, with exterior weatherboards and wood-paneled interior walls. Just across the stream sits Hiram Caldwell’s barn with a commanding view of the Big Cataloochee valley—looking back downstream toward the schoolhouse.

CataloocheeValley_CaldwellBarnWith rain returning, we retraced our route back through the valley. We wanted to make it to CataloocheeValley_BridgeCarver’s Apple House Restaurant in Cosby, TN, for dinner. I’m not normally one to order fried chicken, but Carver’s has the best I’ve ever tasted. I also, however, wanted to see the road leading north out of the valley. We crossed over Cataloochee Creek on a one-lane, steel-beamed bridge. Paved on the valley side and dirt/mud on the other, the bridge itself is surfaced in wood. Well-maintained, I might add.

 

CataloocheeValley_Creek

Half-way across I had to pause to snap a shot of the creek. Swollen from the week’s deluge, it was running its banks in a number of places visible from the road. Beautiful, yes, but mountain water is still a tad chilly for this desert rat. Time to move on.

The Old Cataloochee Turnpike twists and turns northward back up into the mountains. Unlike the southern entrance to the valley, this road is not well-graded, though it starts out

CataloocheeValley_Turnpikesmooth enough. Before long we were running over rough, pitted road. This, in turn, gave way to tight corners with deep grooves cut by steady rivulets flowing across the way down the hills on either side. Not a road for cars. We slipped the Xterra into 4-wheel mode, and even then traction was dicey as we were bumped and jarred all the way up the pass. Slowed to a crawl, it took a couple hours to cover the 27 miles to Cosby.

 
Worth it? Oh, yes. Oh, my, my, yes. That fried chicken was the perfect cap to a great day exploring the lesser-seen side of the Smokies!

Smoky Mountains

RidgeToBalsamMtnIt seemed the rain would never end. All the way up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Cherokee to Balsam Mountain, clouds and mist crowded right down to the ridges. Pretty? Sure, what we could see of it. Which wasn’t much. This stretch of the parkway holds some of the best views into the Smoky Mountains, but you wouldn’t know it through the drizzle and fog.

Approaching Big Witch Tunnel, the rain tapered off, though visibility was still pretty much BigWitchGapnil. From the overlook we could just make out the Cherokee village nestled in Big Witch Gap—named for a nineteenth century medicine man, Tskil-e-gwa. (Geek note: the creators of the computer game World of Warcraft paid tribute by naming a hunter character after him.) We headed through the tunnel, now hopeful that the skies would clear.

Just past Black Camp Gap we turned north on Heintooga Ridge Road, which swiftly turns from pavement to gravel—then dirt—as it heads deeper into the Smokies. Very wellHeintoogaRidgeRd graded, but slick from the rain. Not far from the turnoff we were surprised by a turkey wandering along the roadside. He didn’t appear to be in much of a hurry, but disappeared into the jungle-like canopy too quickly for us to get a portrait. I guess the part of the National Park Service budget that trains wildlife to pose must have been cut by sequestration.

HeintoogaRidgeRd2Heintooga Ridge is known for its wildflowers. While we may have been a bit disappointed by the sun’s failure to burn off the gray stuff, we were treated to a wondrous diversity of flowers. This region of the Smokies has nearly a dozen distinct woodland zones due to the extreme variations in altitude within very short distances. To me it’s just hardwoods versus conifers. Apparently botanists make finer distinctions between specific types of hardwoods that grow in specific climates, and specific mixes of nuts and cones. After living in Arizona for a couple decades, this climate is all of a piece: humid.

Call it what you will, the Smokies are one primo example of God’s handiwork at its finest. I’ve been truly blessed to have skied the Alps and the Rockies, fished for Northern pike and walleye in Minnesota, backpacked the Black Canyon in Apache territory, and traversed the country on a motorcycle or two, but make no mistake—this here is God’s country. Come visit. I’ll take you on a trip you won’t soon forget.

 

Berry Thompson Cabin

The elderly gentleman sat on the cabin’s porch, alone with his thoughts in the warming, sticky Georgia morning air. I slid up next to him. Quietly. Waiting for him to break the silence. We could hear his cousin Gene—my father-in-law—out behind the house showing my wife and kids where the well had been, explaining how they had to draw water for everything: cooking, cleaning, bathing, drinking. Regaling them with stories the veracity of which no one can verify…nor care to.

Larson on the porch

Larson on the porch

After a few minutes, Larson spoke. “It was a hard life. I don’t miss it. I like my electricity and air conditioning. My grandparents lived in this cabin. Of course, it wasn’t here back then. It was over in North Thompson down from the church.”

[“Here” being the campus of Brewton-Parker College, where the cabin was relocated a couple decades ago.]

We joined the others inside. One room. A table and a few chairs. One bed with another in the loft above.

Interior ground floor

Interior ground floor

Corn husk “mop”

Corn husk “mop”

Stairs to loft

Stairs to loft

Bed in loft

Bed in loft

Nightstand in loft

Nightstand in loft

Only a few of the furnishings are original, but these are period pieces. Spartan. Functional.

While I explored with my camera, Gene sat on a windowsill and Larson settled into  a chair. The cousins filled us in with details they remembered from their childhood visits with their grandparents. Hunting in the woods. Washing clothes—and bodies—in metal tubs with homemade lye soap. Sleeping out on the porch on hot, muggy summer nights.

Gene in the window

Gene in the window

BerryThompsonCabin_07When the stories finally petered out we loaded back into our cars—a bit of a jarring juxtaposition of centuries—and caravanned to North Thompson.

This little community just outside Vidalia, Georgia (yes, of sweet onion fame) was named for Berry C. Thompson. He built the cabin around 1842 and later donated land for a Baptist church and cemetery just down the road.

Berry and his first wife—who died young—are buried in the oldest part of the cemetery. His mother rests at his feet.

Grave site of Berry Thompson

Grave site of Berry Thompson

Generations of the family are interred here, including the grandparents of Gene and Larson who last occupied the cabin, a number of Confederate soldiers—their headstones still decorated with fresh flags—and, on a somber note, Gene’s father’s first wife and infant child. This and the cemetery at South Thompson (on the other side of Vidalia) contain numerous plots with parents laid alongside children who died in infancy. A stark reminder of just how hard life was.

Infant graves

Infant graves

Looking up at the little church, I was struck by the fact that generations of my kids’ ancestors lay underfoot, their stories all but forgotten. Life and death. Love and heartbreak. Joy and pain. And through it all woven threads of fierce independence, hard work, and unshaken faith. I hope someday they’ll be able to look back and see just how special this day was…to appreciate the legacy they’ve received as Americans and Christians. And to pass it on.

 

Granville (TN) B&B

On a recent trip through central Tennessee, my wife and I happened upon the quaint little town of Granville. As is true of so many small towns, Granville has two things we enjoy: an interesting history and a bed-and-breakfast.

Unbeknownst to us when we decided to stay overnight, Granville was founded in the early 1800s by settlers who migrated westward from our new home county—Granville, NC. At one time an important riverboat town on the Cumberland River, it was bypassed in the early 1900s with the advent of the automobile and highways.

The centerpiece of the town is the Sutton General Store.

GranvilleBandB_07Operating into the 1970s, the store is now a curio shop and hosts a dinner and live radio broadcast of bluegrass music on Saturday nights.

Adjacent to the store are the Granville Museum and Methodist Church. With an average attendance of 40, the church is still active and has been serving the community for well over 100 years.

GranvilleBandB_08Closer to the river you’ll find a well-preserved home dating back to the Civil War.

GranvilleBandB_03Nestled right up against the river but separated from the main street by a large lawn, its large porches and green metal roof evoke a relaxed lifestyle. I imagined sitting on a swing in the cool river breeze on a hot summer day, sipping an ice cold mint julep fortified with a drop or two of TN’s finest.

GranvilleBandB_04After wandering around the town for an hour or so, we’d worked up an appetite. Around the corner we found the only game in town—a deli located in the town’s sole gas station, which served us a rather good lunch of juicy burgers and fresh homemade soup.

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Our hunger sated, we headed back down the street to the B&B, housed in the old bank building across from the general store.

GranvilleBandB_05

GranvilleBandB_02

Built in 1931, the upper floor and rear of the building have been converted into what we would more properly classify as a fishing/hunting base than a conventional B&B. A spacious common room—full kitchen, laundry/mud room, dining area, and fireplace—branches off to large, well-appointed bedrooms with comfy beds and private baths.

GranvilleBandB_17

GranvilleBandB_22

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GranvilleBandB_18

The proprietors had set the fireplace, and we were the only guests at the time, so we lit a fire and cozied up in front of the TV for a quiet evening.

GranvilleBandB_20

If, like us, you enjoy discovering places off the beaten path, Granville is worth a visit. Next time we’ll make sure to allow more time to explore the store and museum, do a little hiking and fishing, and pack in groceries to take advantage of the kitchen.

Hurricane Gap

One of the great pleasures of living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina is our proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Coming home from a trip to Tennessee, we decided to take the “short” route straight across the mountains rather than staying with I-40. Just east of Newport (TN) on U.S. 70, we ran into Road Closed signs. After a few miles on the approved detour, I switched my GPS to “shortest distance”—why leave the route planning up to state goons?

The road ahead grew narrower. And rougher. As we crossed a one-lane bridge over a swift little stream, we faced a three-way fork. Pavement to the left and right, but the GPS said straight. And the sign said State Maintenance Ends. Ah…adventure!

I threw the Xterra into 4-wheel drive and we headed up Hurricane Gap Road.

 It didn’t take long for the relatively smooth gravel surface to give way to ruts and rocks as the forest closed in on both sides. Not exactly Moab, but the off road suspension and 4-wheel drive certainly earned their keep.

Mile after mile of beautiful fall foliage—and eyeball-jolting washboard road.

If you take a look at the map you’ll notice a substantial gap in the road. The road itself doesn’t quite disappear, but the mile or so that isn’t shown is very rough. Right at the Tennessee-North Carolina border it crosses the Appalachian Trail. Somewhere along that stretch we came bumper-to-bridle with a family on horseback—a beautiful afternoon ride.

I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did. Now that we’ve had the Xterra out on some real back roads I know we’ll be looking for more!