Saturday, August 03, 2013

Out In The Appalachia Home Night- For Prescott Breslin, Senior-Take Three
A YouTube film clip of June Carter Cash performing Storms Are On The Ocean one of Prescott Breslin’s favorite boyhood tunes.
From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin

Scene: Brought to mind by the song Storms Are On The Ocean performed by June Carter Cash on her Wildwood Flower album. An Appalachian scene all brokered with a traditional cabin, fixed up, although not all of them were, or could be if company, coal company-owned, or the times were too tough to do more than tar-paper this, stuff an odd piece of wood in that, put something in a broken to keep the mountain mist winds at bay. It was, is, those winds rushing down into the valleys though not the obvious signs of poverty and ill-health that capture the mind’s eye, that make one long for the simple beauty of the place and which kept many a pioneer anchored when, after the land gave out, the time for moving on animated the more adventurous ones.

And the others, Prescott Breslin’s people? They stood on the land, stood there and did not prosper, did not prosper a damn, when the coal companies came a-calling for human fodder to work the mines. Except Saturday night, Saturday night barn dance time, when the fiddles, guitars, mandolins and assorted home-made instruments came out and for just that short period the mountains, the mountain winds, and the music blowing down into the valleys were one.
Prescott Breslin was beside himself on that snowy December day just before the Christmas of 1953. He had just heard, no more than heard, he had been told directly by Mr. John MacAdams, the owner’s son, that the James MacAdams & Son Textile Mill was closing its Maine operations in Olde Saco and moving to Lansing, North Carolina right across the border from his old boyhood hometown down in Harlan, Harlan, Kentucky, bloody Harlan of labor legend, song, and story right after the first of the new year. And the reason that the usually steady Prescott was beside himself at hearing that news was that he knew that Lansing back country, knew that the matter of a state border meant little down there as far as backwater ways went, knew it deep in his bones, and knew that come hell or high-water that he could not go back, not to that kind of defeat.

Prescott (not Pres, Scottie, or any such nickname, by the way, just dignified Prescott, one of his few vanities), left the mill at the closing of his shift, went across the street to Millie’s Diner, sat at the stooled-counter for singles, ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of Millie’s homemade pumpkin pie, and put a nickel in the counter jukebox, selecting the Carter Family’s Storms Are On The Ocean that Millie had ordered the jukebox man to insert just for Prescott and the other country boys, and occasionally girls but mainly boys, or rather men who worked the mills in town and sometimes needed a reminder of home down south or up north, or something like that with their coffee and pie.

Hearing the sounds of southern home brought a semi-tear to Prescott's eye until he realized that he was in public, was at hang-out Millie’s where he had friends, and realized that Millie, thirty-something, but motherly-kind Millie was looking directly at him and he held it back with might and main. In a flash he thought, tear turning to grim smirk, how he had told his second son, Kendrick, just the previous year when he asked about the Marine Corps uniform hanging in a back closet in the two by four apartment that they still rented from the Olde Saco Housing Authority and naively asked him why he went to war. He had answered that he preferred, much preferred, taking his chances in some forsaken battlefield than finish his young life out in the hard-bitten coal mines of eastern Kentucky. Then, as the last words of Storms echoed in the half-empty diner, he thought, thought hard against the day that he could not turn back, never.

Then, as the last words of Storms echoed in the half-empty diner, he thought, thought hard against the day that he could not turn back, never, although his head was swimming with all kind of thoughts. Thoughts about how they would probably never get out from under that grim two by four apartment that was supposed to be a mere stepping stone leg up for returning veterans like himself until they got back on their feet after the war. Thought about all the other veterans who had moved on, moved on to that little white picket fence house they all dreamed of (and that he had virtually promised to his wife, Delores, just as soon as they got on their feet). Thought about having to fend off neighbor arguments, neighbor midnight fights, and departing neighbor mockery in a place where there was too little room to breathe, breathe some private moment air. And thought about the impoverished dignity of his growing up tar-paper shack of home where at least one had land and space to call one’s own and maybe he, they, should have tried to eke out an existence there. Thought about the boyhood coming of age things, that first taste of white lightnin’ at twelve and discovering girls not long after, going to the Saturday dance, all sweaty with desire and nervousness in that order, listening to the band, a pick-up band of fiddlers, guitar and bass players and always a few home-made instruments to add to the sound as they played into the mountain air night.  

And so just then too came creeping in that one second of self-doubt, that flash of why the hell had he fallen for, and married, a Northern mill- town girl (the sweet, reliable Delores, nee LeBlanc, met at the Starlight Ballroom over in Old Orchard Beach when he had been short-time stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Base down in New Hampshire), stayed up North after the war when he knew the mills were only a shade bit better that the mines. He had faced every kind of insult for being southern from the insular Mainiacs (they actually call themselves that with pride, the hicks), and it wasn’t really because he was from the south although that made him an easy target but because he was not born in Maine like Delores and could never be a Mainiac even if he lived there one hundred years. More to the point he had had three growing, incredibly fast growing boys, with Delores. He reached, suddenly, into his pocket, found another stray nickel, put it in the counter jukebox, and played the flip side of Storms, Anchored In Love.

As the song played any sentiment about the old homestead evaporated as he also recalled those black coal bins when he was a coal checker as a boy before he moved inside to the mines, remembered the abandoned coal heaps that fouled up the countryside and mocked the mountain air coming down the valleys, remembered the bleak no-account existence walking home after the excitement of Saturday night dance to that foolish excuse for a bed that his father, Jacob, had rigged up for him. Remembered as well the long days of just sitting, sitting waiting for something to happen, anything.     

Yes, times would be tough since the MacAdams Mill was one of the few mills that had stayed around as they all headed south after the war for cheaper labor, and didn’t he know all about that from the mine struggles, Jesus, but Delores, the three boys, and he would eke it out somehow. As he tightened up his jaw to face the new reality he thought there was no going back, no way.



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