"From Up the Crick"
Although Toad McNeil feared the gypsies who for several summers camped out in the area, Ike met them head on. When they would come into his place of business, they would come in groups in order to distract Ike so they could steal. They would pay him for some items, but Ike calmly ordered them to put down their Abrahams and said, “I want for that stuff you’ve got down in your bosoms.” He once asked one of the area’s leading and informed citizens if this area were a direct air route between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. The man said that he really didn’t know, but there were a great many airplanes that crossed daily. He asked Ike why he was concerned. Ike replied, “Well, I’m worried about those Rooshins, but hell, when they see what the strip-miners have done, they’ll figure that somebody beat them to it.”
In response to the question about whether there were any nuts in the area, Ike remarked, “When you cross that bridge down the road, they’re all nuts.” Ike was simply a delicious specimen of humorous characterization. Somebody once asked Ike if he ever went to the church directly across from his saloon. His irreverent reply was, “No, and if half of them over there came over here and paid me, they wouldn’t be going either.” He made fun of life and yet he thoroughly enjoyed it. He made fun of Mag and yet he loved her. Nobody else dare say a word about her. He was a good father to his two adopted sons. His was a good-natured kind of fooling.
Ike’s stories have been repeated over and over on the crick. He joked without effort and he was one to whom life seemed good. For many, he was a welcomed companion for an idle hour and made exaggeration seem more lifelike than accuracy. Many of the things that he said were the natural things to say, too natural for anybody but him to say. A customer once asked Ike for a straw. Ike looked him straight in the eye and said, “There’s a broom full of them over in the corner.” Ike saw things with wonderful clearness, and his effect lingers in the mix not as sayings but as pictures and situations.
We crick people liked to laugh and we richly rewarded those who could make us do so. Our lives were refreshing for their nonchalance and lack of sophistication. Although we were provincial by circumstance, we were simple by choice. Looking back, the years seem to have had the touch of a fairy’s wand, a calm, a deliberate quality of enchantment, a perfect faith that everything was going to be fine. I grew up with people who wherever they looked could see a manifest absurdity and clearly perceive life’s perversities. They were possessed of exceptional good sense, insight and integrity, and their nonsense was often the most effective weapon of their sense. My years with them were years of wonder and delight without limit and years of stability that kept my young mind and heart at peace. They were the years between the wars, I knew about Black Jack Pershing, the Marne, Chateau Thierry, Ferdinand Foch, St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest, and if I happened to forget, my daddy’s mustard-gas cough reminded me, but the horrors of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Bataan, Corregidor, and Hiroshima existed only in the mind of God. The real growing up was yet to come, but I remember the “crick.’
Looking back, what I remember most are the people. The people up the crick were alive at all points, men and women of their world and withal optimists. They lifted exaggeration into a science, and although they were always unexpected and incalculable, they were not buffoons. They had retentive memories and a queer original humor. They were happy, good-natured, intelligent, fair-minded, good Americans, many whose old land was still their true land and the one for which they yearned. There were those, particularly the Irish, who could never completely cut the ties with the homeland. Although they had never seen Ireland, they insisted that they were Irish. Michael Reilly was born in Wales, and his daughter Theresa maintained that if this were so, then he was Welsh. He angrily argued, “Goddamit, if the cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them biscuits?” And Simon Kenny always claimed that he had committed only one mortal sin in his life: he had lived in England for a year.
Many of the crick people were quaintly put together and had a certain distinctiveness of character. The mountains, after the fashion of high things, have always been individual, and they have nurtured individuals.
In the modern jargon, they were survivors; they coped. Oh my God, how they coped. Often the first thing they had to cope with was their names. People who grew up being called Peter Weaver Hancock Kelly or Brigid Petronilla McGoye had to cope. At one time in Midland, there were five first cousins: Simon Kenny, Simon Creegan, Simon Reilly, Simon Carroll, and Simon Burns. These five boys had an uncle, Patrick Kenny, who was studying in Baltimore, Maryland, for the Catholic priesthood. Patrick’s roommate was coming to visit during the summer, and after having been given all the directions to get to Midland, he asked, “But when I get there, how do I find your house?” Patrick answered, “Just find the first snotty-nosed kid and say, “Hi, where’s your uncle Pats home?”
And then there were others. Creepy Kroll lived in my town along with Scotty Orr, Bootsy Carr, Clem Stakem, Hen Spiker, Tarkey Eagan, Sap Truly, Gumleg Truly, Red Oak McGowan, Dukes Robertson, Bub Robertson, Crusoe Robertson, Nooks Ravenscroft, Frinky Thompson, Smoke Jeffries, and Mike Monahan. Mike was quiet, somewhat out of keeping with the average and conventional point of view and manner of behavior. As a result, most of what he said, and it was very little, was irresistibly comical. Mike had never been out of the crick area to amount to much, but he was drafted during World War II, and as things often happen, he was sent to Casablanca. Another Midlander, Jack Eagan, happened to be with the Army in Casablanca at the same time. Jack was walking down a Casablanca street when he saw Mike approaching. Imagine the scene: two men from George’s Creek meeting on a street in Morocco. Mike approached, hands clasped behind his back, and passed, and in his nonplussed way said, “Hi, Bud,” and continued on his way. Everybody was “Bud” to Mike whether in Midland or in Casablanca.
Across the street from my home was the barbershop. Blackie Cavanaugh was the barber. On Main Street was the butcher shop and Buzz Dilfer was the butcher. When I was sent to the store, I was told to “tell Buzz Dilfer to give you six lean pork chops and don’t try to slip in a fat one” During the hot days of summer we followed after Webb Waddell’s ice truck begging for a piece of ice. We marveled as he dug his heavy metal tongs into the sides of the square of ice, just big enough to fit in the icebox; and swung it into the house. Then there was Mose Shearer, one of the town’s most happy-go-lucky fellows. When he would get a drink or two too many and be three sheets in the wind, he would slowly meander down Back Street, circle his cowboy hat above his head, and loudly roar, “Forty years a cowboy and never once stepped in cow sh—-.’
The local opera house was owned by Harry Ward. Harry and his wife Lisarah were anything but poor, but perhaps a bit frugal. Instead of taking the bus, Harry would thumb a ride, hiding Lisarah behind a bush until a car stopped. Always the gentleman, Harry would open the door for his wife as she appeared from the bush. His opera house had a long flight of wide stairs leading to the theater. A group of youngsters wanted to go to the show one night but couldn’t come up with the price of admission, twenty-five cents. One suggested, “Walk up backwards, and the dumb SOB will think you’re coming out.” Harry’s tremendous size, gruffness, and frugality made him easy prey for the young.
Verl Ash was the grocer and the mayor. As a matter of fact, he was the only mayor that I remember. My father was always city clerk and tax collector. He received $.05 on every dollar of property tax, but then there wasn’t that much property in Midland. Town meetings were held the first Monday of the month and the Mayor and City Council took their elected jobs very seriously. Daddy neatly typed the minutes for the town ledger and also sent out neatly typed letters and tax bills on the official town stationery. I was not allowed to go near the heavy, black Underwood typewriter that rested on the desk in the sittin room, but I did. The town’s officials, like the town’s people, performed all their duties earnestly and energetically.
Life in the crick valley was life indeed, life as real, as simple, as constant, as familiar as the current of the crick. The unpretentious things of life were the most important. How very much we had: love and understanding and wholeness within the family, the church, the community. Down these sixteen miles of the George’s Creek Valley, I looked for the far-off childhood of the age to which I belonged, found in shining fragments those things that I could not shake from my memory. Down these sixteen miles I heard the words, “Here, I am,” not “Here, I was,” but “Here, I am.” I discovered that one of my extra special gifts from God was to be from up the crick. I still delight in the stories and the humor, for humor was the native, the natural ineradicable quality of the crick people, the natural armor of their strength. Very little scared them out of their humor. My crick people knew, and know, that there is a God, that men should help one another, that good is its own reward, and that evil will bring its own penalties. They did not yearn after the unattainable, and they estimated themselves at their true value. They were possessed of a noble simplicity with which any form of vanity or pretense was incompatible.
They loved their life up the crick. So did I.