I received a collect call from Uncle Ansil from the VA Hospital in Lexington a day before my 75th birthday. He was only two years older than me and we were boyhood, best-friends. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I tried many times, leaving messages, but he never called back.
His voice hadn’t changed much, maybe lower with a bit of scratch, but there was no mistaking it was Ansil.
“How long’s it been?” I asked.
“Way, way too long,” he said between, croup-filled coughs.
“How you feelin? I asked.
“Row, looks like the cancer done whupped me good; Doc says its metastasized all over this sorrowful body. I ain’t had a poop in near a month, the whole plumbin department’s gone on strike and ain’t worth the shit it’d be delivering anyway. They want to put me in Hospice care…some volunteer who’ll come read me bedtime stories and feed me soup through a straw. The VA’s got some sanitized building looks like prison cells in Eddyville. All the comforts of home.”
“Are you in any kind of pain?” I asked.
“Hell no, they got me on some kind of a morphine drip that makes me feel like I’m floating on clouds in a warm bath tub. Problem is…It’s turnin me goofy, the nurse was telling me I was trying to dial my shoe the other day, probably calling you collect, and I keep seeing green iguana’s and snakes everywhere.
I’d sure like to drop a line just once more in the Cumberland and pull out one of them blue-ribbon channel cats…you remember those days?” he asked.
“Like they were yesterday… Ansil, what can I do? I can’t see you in some room that looks like a hospital, even if they do have nurses you can flirt with. I was thinking we might find an apartment in Williamsburg and settle in for a piece, till you whip this thing, maybe drop a line or two in the river. I can be out in a few days and can make all the arrangements…I ain’t taking no for an answer. Is anyone else still down there who we can visit?” I asked.
“Naw Row, they’z all dead except for Gwen and I ain’t spoke to her since she moved to Arizona fifteen years ago. Not a word, or letter or anything. Things just got ugly when Maw and Paw died; the family fell apart.”
My flight from Los Angeles to Lexington took four hours, about the same time it took a steam train to travel from Cincinnati to Williamsburg, Kentucky in 1945.
The trip was bittersweet with a cloud of finality hovering over me. I had a lump in my throat the whole way. I knew it was the last time I’d make the visit. My own health wasn’t good. Peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, sinusitis and a bad hip were all taking their toll.
I experienced the same lump traveling through Paris and London six months earlier. Even though I visited both cities infrequently over the years, the knowledge that I’d someday return, made each visit more delightful. But on the last trip, I felt like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof… saying goodbye to his beloved daughters for the last time. The sentimentalist in me practically ruined both cities. I couldn’t soften the finality with self-reassurance that I’d be back, because, I knew it would be a lie. Flying out of Paris, I pulled the shade down so I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower.
I lived in Cincinnati for most of my youth and visited the kin-folk on their homestead in Kentucky up the hollor near Jellico Creek almost every summer. They’re places I needed to connect with as I grew older.
To this day, the smell of burning leaves, is still one of my most cherished memories; or the smell of being in an old home built of brick and wood, on hardwood floors, over a raised foundation with screen doors, that creak and clap shut, and heavy windows swollen and hard to raise, with walls papered and painted and papered over and painted again, and the smell of the dust and decay in an attic, of old books sitting on older shelves; the scent of an imminent rain and the smell of woods and the dense humus and deadfall and feculent river… all remind me of where I’m from.
My thoughts turned to Ansil. As soon as he graduated from High School he volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Korea six months later. He was involved in the heroic defense of Heartbreak ridge in ‘53 where he lost an arm and leg from a barrage of artillery. He earned a silver star and two purple hearts which he later sold to satisfy a gambling debt.
Walking on a crutch didn’t suit him well and it was only a matter of time before he was hard into drinking and smoking weed which was becoming Kentucky’s largest cash crop… surpassing Tobacco. He developed lung cancer when he turned fifty five and fought it for twenty hard years. I attributed his survival to living so many years in the clean country, eating fresh food and drinking clear spring water.
I picked up a rental car at the airport and drove ten miles to the VA Hospital where Ansil was surely raising hell. I checked in and was directed to the third floor where I found his room down a long, sterile hallway.
The door was open and I could see him in the bed near the window. He was awake and connected to an IV and had Oxygen running to each nostril. He smiled as I approached. Looks like you put on a pound or two little cousin,” he said coughing.
“This time it ain’t White Castles to blame, but In-N-Out burgers and Steak Burritos,” I said.
“You know, I think I weigh the same as I did when I was a senior in high school, course missing a leg and arm don’t hurt,” he said.
“I got it straight from Doc, who by the way is Billy Watson’s grandson, that I got a month tops… to live. The cancers done moved into my lungs and liver and bones and short of a miracle, I’m gonna be catfish bait ‘fore we have time to set the trot lines.”
“I don’t believe that any more than the rest of your nonsense,” I said throwin my jacket over his head.”
“Ain’t a corner in hell hot enough for me if I’m lying,” he said through the nylon material.
“Let’s get out of this sterile hell-hole,” he said ripping the oxygen feeders out of each nostril.
“Don’t you gotta clear things here?” I asked.
“Clear my ass, I got enough pain pills to knock out a Moose Lodge, and we’ll just pick us up a couple of oxygen tanks on the way. I got scripts to last me a hundred years,” he said pulling the IV tube out of the connection in his wrist. The Vitals Monitor starting chirping a loud warning and two minutes later a young Asian nurse came running into the room. Ansil already had his pants on and I was helping him with his shirt.
“Sir where are you going, your doctor has to clear you before you can be released.”
“Tell em I went fishin with my young cousin and I ain’t coming back till I got a full line of trout,” he said reaching for his boots.
“But sir… in your condition, you can’t just leave?”
“I’d say I’m doing just that… and unless you want to deal with the psychopathic killer standing next to me, you’d better leave this room within the next ten seconds. Tell Doctor Billy Watson Jr. that Ansil’s gone fishing and I’m sure he’ll understand,” he said.
She raced out of the room.
“Get me a wheelchair and let’s get the hell out of here, before they call in the infantry. They got soldiers here you know.”
We were wheeling like Richard Petty round corners and down halls. We made the service elevator before anyone caught us and ended up in the downstairs basement.
We found the garage through an emergency exit setting off a piercing siren, but were at the Ford Taurus before they knew what was going on. We figured Billy Jr. weren’t gonna raise a stink considering Ansil’s diagnosis, so I tilted his seat back and he took a couple of Oxycontins and we sped down the highway towards home.
“You know Row, outside of feeling weak and a bit tired I ain’t that bad for a guy who’s got more cancer cells than brains. In fact I’m a bit hungry, how far you figure it is to Williamsburg?”
“Maybe three hours tops,” I said.
“Good, when we get there, let’s go to the old Riverside Café and get us a chicken fried steak and mashed tators. In fact I’m feeling so good I gotta take a dump and I mean quick…..pull over!”
I ran around and helped him out as cars and Semi’s raced by. He barely got his drawers dropped and leaned against the car when he dropped a bomb blast that could a filled a bucket.
“Ahhhh, see what a little relaxation can do for the old plumbing?”
A highway patrol car pulled up behind us before Ansil could pull up his pants.
“Sir, there’s a rest area five miles up the road, you think next time you could hold it just a bit longer. There’s a rule against taking your business to the side of the highway, Good God, that’s some piece business,” he said covering his nose with the sleeve of his right arm.
“Mr…I fought in Korea and done lost an arm and a leg in the process and my plumbing’s about as bad as the cancer spreading through my body so I’d appreciate if you’d cut me some slack here. I come from the VA Hospital in Lexington and ain’t dropped a load like this in a month…in fact I got another coming on….hold tight…thar she blows!” The officer just shook his head and said, “Uh boys…looks like I got another call, y’all take care.” and he sped off faster than a stock-car on a green flag.
Ansil and I were laughing so hard he pert near threw up.
“You pull up your own pants Uncle… I ain’t getting within three feet of you,” I said joking.
“You know Row, next gas station; it might not be a bad idea to stock up on some plastic trash bags. These bowels ain’t seen the light of day in a fortnight and a half.”
At dusk we exited the Interstate at Williamsburg with the bright lights of the Super Wal-Mart to our right. The old town sat down to our left and crossed over the old bridge just as we had in the summers of the 1940’s.
“Brings back memories don’t it little cousin,” Ansil said sitting up straight to see the wide, brown flow of the Cumberland.
“It surely does, I wonder how many fish we killed the time we lit off that bundle of firecrackers,” I laughed.
“Had to be a thousand, ‘cause fishing just weren’t the same off the bridge for pert near a year,” he said smiling.
“The parking lot at the Riverside Café was half-full as we pulled in and Ansil leaned on me as we entered.
“If it ain’t Ansil McKiddy, certified War Hero, come limping through these doors,” Chester Clay shouted to anyone who could hear. Folks this here’s a country boy done earned several metals in Korea and we’re proud to call him one of our own. The old folks and young alike stood and clapped as we took our seats near a window with a nice view of the Cumberland below.
“It’s been a long time Ansil, we heard you were dead, Dinner’s on us tonight, what’ll it be boys?”
“Chess, we both gonna have some Chicken fried steak with tators and gravy and if you still got some of that sweet cornbread, throw that on there too.”
“Coming right up, did you hear the Bryant’s store burnt down a few years ago? I know your family was close.”
“Yes I did and I was sad to hear the news. They was always good folks to us,” Ansil said.
“How long ago did your Folks sell the property up the holler?” Chester asked.
“Geeze Chess, must a been the early seventies… maybe ‘72. With Ed gone and Leonard doing a quarter in Eddyville and Carrie passing away… they just couldn’t manage. Paw was getting sick and Maw never really recovered from Ed’s disappearance on Okinawa and there ain’t too much use for a one-armed, one-legged war hero who’s only real skill was shooting a rifle,” he said holding up the stump of his missing arm.
“Gwen got married and left for Arizona and I don’t think had one word to say to anyone, cept when she showed up at Carries Funeral and she was gone ‘for I even had a chance to lay on any proper insults.”
The next morning I rented a two bedroom apartment near downtown with two bathrooms a fireplace and a wireless internet connection.
“What say we head up to Jellico Creek and visit Maw and Paws grave at the old church?” I asked Ansil who was sipping coffee laced with bourbon.
“Sounds good, but Row, just to be safe, I think we need to pack a few boxes of them adult diapers. I been flowing like a hot lava field since leaving the hospital, I never knew I was so full of shit, but if we don’t… that Ford Taurus is gonna reek from here to Pine Knot if we’re not careful.”
In truth, I was looking forward to walking the same ground I did a young boy. In the 40’s and 50’s, Williamsburg was a busy crossroads city linking the north and south. People that traveled by train from Chicago to Atlanta would have passed through Williamsburg. An old university sits there as does the county seat. The Cumberland River still flows through the south end of town, under the same concrete, arched bridge our old Draft Horse trotted over. The interstate was built on a grade that sits high above the town just west and most travelers have little reason to stop and visit.
The old shops on 2nd and 3rd Street are dead or dying, replaced by the palatial, Super-Wal-Mart, near the off-ramp above the town and provides everything that fifteen small shops would have provided in 1945.
It’s like a big hammer driving nails on an invisible coffin that surrounds the quaint, brick city, resting down the hill, over the bridge.
My Grandparents farm in 1945 was a self-sustaining operation, not commercial. They sold little if anything to make ends meet. The crops they grew were eaten in the house or stored in the root cellar. The livestock they raised were used and consumed on the farm. On occasion, if there was excess, was brought to a farmers market in town, but that was more the exception than the rule. Their lifestyle was microcosm of existence for people who lived off the land as far back as two hundred years earlier. The tools got a little better and more modern, but there was still no electricity, or running water, or plumbing or telephone. Their great ancestors that settled the homestead and lived the same way the kin lived when I spent the summers with them in 1940’s. That lifestyle virtually disappeared by the late 20th century. Technology moved in as permanent neighbor.
We took highway 92 which heads south-west out of Williamsburg round the mountain towards Jellico Creek. It’s now a two-lane paved road and getting to the turn up the hollor, took about ten minutes. As we made the gentle climb, we were surrounded by the same ancient hardwoods and pines that we would have seen in the wagon with Paw. The green valley below to our left was still full of tobacco fields and farms.
The dirt road leading north to the homestead was still visible but partially covered in Kudzu vines. It didn’t look too bad, if not a bit more weathered, so I put the car in first gear and we slowly spun our way up the gradual incline leading to the house.
We heard the sound of a gurgling creek that fed into the main branch of Jellico Creek; the same creek Grandma and Gwen used for washing and Leonard used to cool his still. Further up where the house used to stand, the spot was empty…no foundation or cellar. A little further back, the sagging barn was still there; the field to the left was clear with a few corn stalks sprouting along the edges. Further up the hill, I found the old Indian trail and it was in the same condition as when we left to visit an ancient burial ground adventure 65 years earlier. On a whim, I walked to weathered stump a hundred yards into the woods and felt inside a moist, baseball glove size hole where I lifted out an old, number-ten, Mason jar filled with moldy, gray dust and the remains of an egg turned black with a small pin hole in the top…One of Ansil’s old stink bombs.
I brought it over to Ansil who was turning chalk-white and looking sicklier by the hour, but he still managed a smile at the remembrance.
“Must a-been back-up ordinance,” he said weakly.
I thought a lot about Ansil and felt a deep sadness. The family disappeared as quickly as a summer storm in August. Aunt Carrie died giving birth to her first child. Uncle Leonard in all of his guilt and angst about not being able to go to war, turned to robbing banks and one day got caught in a gunfight where a policeman was severely injured. They threw the book at him and he died in Eddyville, Kentucky’s Maximum security prison at the age of sixty-two. I don’t think he ever really recovered from Ed’s disappearance and always fought the stigma of being left behind while is his brother, only two years older was away in the horrible war. Mom and I stayed in Cincinnati and as I got older and more involved in jobs and sports I couldn’t make the trip south anymore and had to be satisfied for a long weekend every other year.
Ansil went to Korea and came back physically broken and mentally damaged. His life changed for the worse. He couldn’t hold a job; had run-ins with the law and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t sneak out some nights to the ancient Indian Mounds and seek treasure there. The 21st Century brought a new kind of moonshiner, this one raised a smaller, leafy cash-crop that grew like a weed and brought a hundred times the value of tobacco per cultivated acre. After Grandpa and Grandma were forced to move into the city to be closer to services, Ansil grew high-grade pot on the homestead staying away from open fields using small clearings all the way back to confederate cave. The DEA came screaming up the holler one day in the early eighties and busted him and he served a seven-year stretch in the state pen at Louisville.
Gwen (the youngest sister) accused Ansil of stealing from her house including all her inherited heirlooms but there wasn’t a bit of evidence and Ansil denied it and had a blowout fight with her…the same sister he slept beside for nearly twelve years. She never spoke to him again after the fight. I couldn’t see it in him, but time has a way of smoothing rough edges like broken glass that tumbles in the surf. I wondered if Ansil was broken glass.
To me though, Ansil was always the tough, street smart, country boy, who loved fun and always kept me at his side. The days with Ansil were the best days of my life. He simply became a victim of a time warp where the modern world flooded in and drowned those like him who lived with their shoes off, and ran trot lines and who could fight blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs.
Life in the country didn’t change much in two hundred years and then suddenly it got kicked to the curb in the blink of a telecommunication, nanosecond. Once a country boy needed to be able to set and read a trot-line and then somewhere…in the turn of a blue moon, things changed and he needed to be able to read a detailed spreadsheet.
As it were, with Ansil dying, it seemed appropriate that the day was turnin dark; out of nowhere, a rebel storm from the south was threatening its intention with each fan of the treetops. The wind… maybe the spirits… were howlin, not a bad howl, but a get your attention howl.
We sat together at the spot where the front porch would have stood and stared down at the swirling field. Ansil was shivering but didn’t want to return to the car so I wrapped my jacket around his frail body and put my arm around him. His breathing became labored and he leaned in against me and went still.
The patch of blue-grass we sat on was soft like a cotton blanket. I closed my eyes and listened…Pretty soon a young Ansil walked up to me and started-in about the size of catfish in the river, Grandpa came by with a banjo strapped round his neck playing Ole Joe Clark.
Uncle Ed and Uncle Leonard were carrying rifles and wearing buckskin coats and slouch hats and laughing and pitching brags about who was the best shot and Mom, Grandma and Aunt Carrie were holding hands singing Blue Moon over Kentucky. In the distance at the edge of the woods, I saw Gwen in a pretty white skirt picking flowers. She stood up and waved and then disappeared. Old Baron trotted by and cast a mighty shadow braying his welcome… and the wind whispered its secrets to anyone who would listen.