by Hugh Gilmore
My friend-turned-writer, John O’Brien, and his wife, Becky, were waiting for me with big smiles when I stepped off the Amtrak train at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. We drove up and down hills for about an hour, catching up on just about everything, heading back to their house – just like the song says: “Country roads, take me home …”
Right from the start, our conversations were conducted in the shadow of the cancer John was being treated for. There was no escaping the feeling that we talked on borrowed time since John’s changed appearance – he’d blown up to what looked like 300 pounds and had lost his hair – announced the stress his body was going through.
Nonetheless, his great smile, willingness to be amused, hearty laugh and intense love of life in all its glorious aspects were alive and well. Especially when we got back to his home in Green Bank, and I opened the bag of goodies I’d toted down from Philadelphia: hoagie fixings, “smelly cheese” (John’s request), Tastykakes and a bottle of The Macallan single malt, 12-year old. (Disclosure: I do not work for this distillery. I do not own stock in it. But I sure wish I owned it.)
We parked at the kitchen table around 4 in the afternoon and didn’t stop talking and laughing and telling stories till about 2 in the morning. And we still didn’t get it all in. Fortunately, I was staying for three more days.
Do any of you know what it’s like to come from a small town (or neighborhood, even) where everyone is just folks, and you fit right in, just like everyone fits right in – only, you don’t? A place where the only way you fit right in is by suppressing who you are and what you like and what you really think? Or think you think. Sometimes it hard to be sure if you don’t have someone to talk to.
And then, what if you bump into another person who has similar interests and thoughts? And you get along with that person. You laugh at the same things. Want to discuss the same things. And you suddenly realize that though you may not quite fit in here in this small town, you’re not necessarily an oddball. There may be another world out there where you don’t have to stifle your thoughts or interests. What an explosion that can be when you meet such a friend!
Well, that’s what happened with John and me. And we weren’t even scheduled to be friends. John was three years younger than I. His older brother, Patrick, was my age-mate, and I always thought of John the way one thinks of a friend’s younger sibling – as an alien life species.
But one summer, just as I was finishing college, John and I wound up working for the state highway department on the same sewer cleaning crew. We just slogged along all summer out in rural Delaware county running cleaning pipes through road culverts, enjoying and appreciating one another so much we became friends for life.
And that summer, strangely, was the only extended time we spent together. And only during the workday. We both had girlfriends we saw at night. After that, it was letter writing, and maybe three visits (accompanied by wives and children) over a couple of decades.
They were good visits, but the last one was the best. Children raised, or lost, it was decided that we’d get more of a chance to talk in the shadow of cancer if I went by myself.
John’s book, “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia,” is set mostly in and around the town of Franklin, W.Va. I asked him to show me some of the places he’d written about. I drove and he narrated. Franklin is about “two mountains – an hour’s drive” from Green Bank.
I got a real kick out of our tour because the places and scenes he’d described were vividly etched in my mind, so seeing them was like seeing a movie or watching a dream version of some familiar things. Oh, there was the dam that had not held during Hurricane Juan a few years ago. And there’s the Moose Lodge. And the IGA. And that’s what a “worm fence” looks like.
We drove into the country all the way out along the South Branch river road to Moyers, where a filling station run by a man named Eugene (that’s “U-gene,” John said) offered a lunch menu where you could choose either: “bologna, yellow cheese,” or, “bologna with yellow cheese,” on white bread, of course.
And all along the ride, John returned to one of his themes: Appalachia is a state of mind, largely the conception of outsiders. Franklin and Green Bank were little towns with real people. They were hard working, decent, honest and reliable folks.
The pace of life might be a few beats slower, but that can be good. The sophistication of city life might be missing, but that can be good, too, since there was less artificiality. The majority of people were just good, decent people.
Sure, there were some locals riding around with tinted sunglasses and nasty sneers and a profound disregard for the law, but why would anyone want to write about them?
Why stereotype an entire people? Who’d want to read stuff like that?
Next week, we’ll see that there’s a rising tide of noir literature that’s very well written, but far nastier than anything Robert Mitchum could smirk about in “Thunder Road” and other backcountry classics. A kind of literature John wouldn’t let me talk about, a kind that annoyed him no end.
Ever heard of “bibliomysteries”? Mystery stories with old and rare books at their core? Hugh’s noir bibliomystery, “Malcolm’s Wine,” is now available in Kindle and paperback formats at Amazon.com and through independent bookstores everywhere.