There are ancient stories which are as pertinent today as they were when they were first spoken; stories that inspire, stories that grow faith, that inform us, caution and amuse us. These stories survive the passage of time because they speak truth about human nature, and that nature doesn’t change, no matter how society or technology does.
Other stories are just as relevant but better understood within the context of their times. In my family we have several stories like that. A lifelong resident of our area or anyone who grew up in a rural community would need no further explanation, but for our younger friends and our friends from the city, let me take you back in time.
If you moved here from the urban cliff dwellings or from any place where traffic and congestion are commonplace, you might, even today, feel isolated and far from the beaten path when you look at the mountains around us. You might find it hard to understand when those of us with a living memory of unbroken ridgelines and clear running steams look at the same mountains with more than a little sadness.
There are some few still among us, however, with a living memory that stretches even further, back to a time before electricity came to this area, a time when there were more dirt roads than paved ones. Among that precious few are people who had a parent or a grandparent with a living memory of a time when some of our mountain valleys were little changed from the days of the first non- native settlers to our area. This is a story from that time.
It’s hard for us to conceive of the hardships that were commonplace to the early residents of the Southern Appalachians. Entire communities lived days away from hospitals or medical help, even if they could have afforded such. Many farms were almost entirely self reliant for food, clothing and shelter. Cash was always in short supply, and carefully reserved for things that could not be produced at home, like nails, salt, sugar and the occasional visit from the itinerant doctor. The biggest need for cash every year was likely to be for taxes. Indeed, some things never change.
I think my grandfather had something in common with Daniel Boone, who once said that when he could see the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney, it was time to move. When my grandparents were newlyweds, he chose a beautiful and isolated cove to build their first home. The cove was at the end of a box canyon, protected from the wind on all sides by ridge-lines, but with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight. The house was built on a small knoll with a gentle slope. The knoll was bordered on three sides by creeks and a bold spring where he built a springhouse for water and natural refrigeration.
There was not a neighbor within sight or sound, and a single lane tunneling through a quarter mile of mountain laurel led to a one lane dirt road and then about 12 more miles of dirt road into Hiawassee. To this day, that cove is still hidden by mountain laurel and as quiet as a whisper of wind.
Being isolated didn’t mean that our ancestors were not social. They depended on their neighbors and friends and their community churches and they achieved a level of interdependence and trust rarely seen in our society today.
Being isolated also did not spare them from the ravages of poorly understood diseases which occasionally plagued our mountain communities. My grandmother in her 96 years had seen influenza or “the grip,” as they called it, typhoid, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria and dysentery. The graveyards of our older mountain cemeteries are dotted with the infant graves of many who succumbed to those diseases.
Soon after my grandparents had settled into their new cabin, and before they had their first child, typhoid fever came to Upper Hightower. This would have been about 1914/1915. Several of the neighbors came down with the fever, and even the doctor was sick.
My grandparents got the fever in the fall, and over time they became progressively weaker. With sick neighbors and the doctor out of commission, the system of interdependence the community depended on was severely threatened.
Normally at that time of year my grandparents would have been busy putting away stores for the winter, cutting firewood, butchering a hog and hunting game. They would have had some canned goods they could have eaten while they were sick and too weak to do anything else, but as my grandfather told the story, after several days growing weaker without any protein, he was beginning to wonder whether they would survive.
Typhoid fever puts you flat on your back with migraine-level headaches and severe cramps. Grandpa said they slept as much as they could, and as they grew progressively weaker, they would pass out in bed until they woke up again and tried to get a little water to drink. After sleeping for most of one day, he said he woke up and prayed that if the Good Lord willed it, he was ready to go home, but if not, they sure could use a little help.
Just then he said he heard the sound of squirrels barking in a big black walnut tree across the clearing from the cabin. He forced himself up out of bed and staggered over to get his shotgun down off the rack. His head swam with the effort and he fell down, but when he came to, he could still hear those squirrels barking.
Grandpa said it felt like it took an hour to stagger across that clearing, using his shotgun as a support. When he got to the base of the walnut tree, he collapsed with his back against the tree and passed out again. The sun was starting to go down behind the mountain, and with his head swimming he was having a hard time seeing the squirrels in the tree.
When he realized that he had with him only the two shells in chamber of the double barreled shotgun, Grandpa said he prayed again and said, “Lord, I can’t do this by myself.” He raised the gun, his head swam and he closed his eyes and pulled both triggers.
Two squirrels fell dead out of the tree.
Hope is a tonic, and Grandpa said the trip back to the cabin was a lot shorter. He was able to skin the squirrels and help Grandma cook them up, and he said it was the best meal they ever ate. It gave them the needed strength to keep going, and helped grow the faith that sustained both of them into their late nineties.