Most of the rest of that summer was pretty cool, at least to me. My relationship with alcohol progressed a bit, but not much. There was a contractor that I worked for that always paid me $50 at the end of every work day and bought a six-pack of Coors on the way home from work, from which I was allowed two. My parents commented on how tired I always was when I arrived home in the evenings and how I must have just worked so hard all day long to be so exhausted. It’s true, I did, and I was, but the two cans of beer that I chugged in the cab of the old Ford as we rattled along the dirt roads of my country were really what made me so tired.
I felt there was nothing better. Sunburned, with the window down and my right arm hanging out, I felt I truly had life by the tail. I would sip the icy cold suds and wonder what else could possibly taste so good, feeling the ultimate rush of fitting in, of being respected enough by a contractor, no less, to ride around in his truck as dust sifted through the cab and sweat channeled its way through the rills of dirt around my neck. I truly felt that I belonged. School started to feel a long way off.
Although those were my very first encounters with alcohol, I really didn’t seek them out. There was a convenience store about a mile or so from our house where the owner had absolutely no moral qualms about selling beer to underage teenagers. It was a favorite place for all of us to hang out. We worked on our motorcycles, drank a few beers, smoked a little pot and we basically just had a great time being teenagers.
There were a few of the older boys that already showed signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Bigger than the rest of us, they were generally high school dropouts, petty thieves, moonshiners and coal miners when they could find the work. They would show up glassy-eyed and reeking of corn liquor, which was still readily available in that area. Watching them stumble about the shop, leering at the posters of scantily clad women definitely did nothing to promote alcohol abuse in my mind at least.
The rest of that summer, by definition, should have been quiet and busy. It was, throughout most of it, until the first of August. I worked several jobs, mowed yards, saw my girlfriend Lauren, visited my beloved grandmothers and generally had a great time. I was at that time of my life determined above all else to pilot jets in the Armed Forces, preferably those whose names contained the letter F. The F-14, F-16, F-15, F-18 or even, not a long shot to dream of in those days of massive government spending, the much-heralded F-22. My hormone ravaged brain was full of dreams and imaginations of speeding across the sky to save the nation and somehow Lauren at the same time, who in my imagination was likely tied to a tree in a deep jungle with Cannibalistic Zombie Commies Dancing around her in preparation of taking her bikini top off. Maybe I could save everyone by sacrificing myself and my beloved plane to take out a nuclear warhead that had been launched straight at our little corner of the world. The implausibility of such an event was not lost on me, not even then, but it still didn’t keep me from dreaming of it.
Through all of this, food was everywhere. As with nearly every culture, it permeated our lives and dictated our schedules. Our schedule revolved around the plants and animals that we cared for – my list of responsibilities included feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, splitting and stacking an endless supply of firewood for our house and various sheds, including my Dad’s workshop. We all pitched in when it was time to can. Canned corn, beans, okra, tomatoes, peaches, apples, mulberries when I could find them, wild raspberries and blackberries, cucumbers, yellow squash, potatoes – if we could grow it or trade for it, we canned it. We also ate astonishingly well, particularly to be so poor.
We had strawberries by the pound in early spring, along with stewed hens too old to lay, young roosters who would never do anything but crow and fight, salted pork, beef and venison from the winter before. We could not get enough of fresh fruit and greens. On multiple occasions I would gorge myself on the tiny wild blueberries in the forests beside our house and I would eat so many peaches with homemade sourdough bread and butter that my Mom would actually cut me off. My uncle would go fishing for wild salmon in Alaska and bring back what seemed to my teenage mind to be tons of fish, even though it probably wasn’t that much. Annual acid mine drainage and mine waste runoff into the local Levisa River had left the waters mostly barren of fish, at least any that we dared eat. Giant mutated catfish lived in deep holes, their fins showing in the shallows during the dreaded dog days of summer. We would catch them for sport, lugging about the riverbank, only to throw them back with some revulsion. They were not pretty creatures.
Crawfish, or “Crawdads” as we called them, were abundant in the softened soils and mud around natural springs in the mountains. My Grandmother Audrey, my Dad’s mother, would pay us five cents for every one that we caught and she would boil them in a giant cast iron kettle that she kept on her wood burning cook stove. In the fall and winter she also paid me 25 cents for every squirrel that I brought to her, fifty for the big fox squirrels, especially if they weren’t shot through the head. She would happily scramble their brains with eggs and serve them alongside thick slabs of bacon and lard cathead biscuits with some of the strongest coffee that I have ever tasted. She never changed the grounds through the week, which was saved for “Sunday Coffee.” Instead she simply poured more grounds on the old ones, added egg shells, and brewed it over and over again. By Saturday mornings I have no doubt that he coffee contained more caffeine than the most aggressive energy drink ever made, if you could stomach it.
We clicked more or less happily along as a family that summer, blissfully unaware of the looming future and the immediate changes that it would make on our isolated little world. Peaches were now ripe, which is one of the fondest memories of my summers as a child. I would stand under the peach trees in the early mornings just as the sun was coming up, watching the dew turn to gemstones as the first light of the summer sun breached the Plateau and penetrated deep into the incised valleys in which we lived. The peaches were so ripe, so juicy and so overwhelmingly sweet and sour that you would have to eat them at arm’s length to avoid the inevitable explosion of peach juice, which would still run down your arm and drive honeybees wild the rest of the day. On these mornings, in the cool mountain air, the little bees were sluggish and slow, mostly filling up on the sugar from the overripe fruit that lay about on the ground. There was always signs of other animals – the small, strangely human toed-in tracks of the raccoon, lazy steps of the groundhog, sometimes a small tuft of red fur left behind from the opportunistic red fox, who could decide on what he wanted to dine on – delectable peaches or peach marinated fat groundpig. He almost always chose the former.
It was into this relatively peaceful life that tragedy struck. The combination of events was most difficult for my mother, with its effect on me arriving in a distant second. We had known hardships, of course, our family with seven children in the poverty stricken region of deep Appalachia. There was hardly a family that we knew that had not suffered loss, either through coal mining accidents, logging or any of the other life threatening pursuit of natural resources that provided most of the honest sources of income that people existed on. But we had been largely immune.
The first such close personal loss was soon after a summer celebration party hosted by one of my best and only friends during her parents absence. My young girlfriend Lauren was there with me, along with most of the teenagers in the area. The party became rather raucous as the night progressed. I was not one to be generally swayed by peer pressure, but I did like being the center of attention if and when I so chose. At this particular party, under the influence of a little weed, a little moonshine and a lot of testosterone, I pulled off the most insane stunt of my short life.
I stood on top of the house with my usual swagger. I was fifteen, and I was thoroughly convinced of my own invincibility. About fifty of my peers, slightly to mostly drunk on pilfered moonshine, homemade wine and stolen beer, shouted at me to just DO IT. No fear. After all, I was the one who broke my cousin’s record for the longest jump on a motorcycle in our area. I was the one who jumped a car in the mall parking lot and ran from the cops, only to get caught. I was the first one of my peers to spend a night in jail, namely due to the fear of what my father would do to me if he found out I had been arrested. I was a rogue, although a reluctant one. It was a survival mechanism, honed out of years of being labeled as a nerd and a bookworm. My ability to make homemade chicken stock while reciting The Dawn’s Early Light did not do anything but wreck my popularity in high school, but stunts such as these, well, they did everything to restore it.
Only weeks before I had been caught riding my back tire up the wrong side of Rt. 460 by my grandmother’s place. I did it largely to provide amusement to my grandparents, my grandfather relegated to a wheelchair at that point in his life. Anything that I did that was derelict was, in his unspoken but loudly chanted opinion, awesome. He lived through us, his grandchildren, and as the oldest of the group most often around him, I was more than often happy to oblige. My grandmother Audrey would reward me with an extra lard biscuit and a little more red-eye gravy, which she was the ultimate master of. That was well worth the occasional moderate to severe whippings that I suffered at the hands of my father, which, in retrospect, were well deserved.
On this particular night, I was supposed to be at a Bible camp. I learned early that I could go nearly anywhere, at any time, provided that I gave a perfectly believable religious reason to do so. (My dearest parents: Should you wish, I would advise that you stop reading. But know this: I love you with all my heart and I am sorry for a teenager’s deceit. It is something that I will no doubt experience firsthand.) Instead, I found myself in the backyard of a supposed friend’s house on top of their house, more than a little buzzed on a few shots of moonshine. In my defense, I rarely drank as it interfered significantly with my ability to jump over cars on my bored out KX 250, of which I was interminably proud. So, it was with a mostly sober mentality that I perused the situation.
I had agreed to jump from the top of the house onto a trampoline located strategically adjacent to an above ground swimming pool approximately four feet in depth. Parents, should you find yourself so strapped for space that you choose to place a pool adjacent to a trampoline, go see a therapist. Especially if you intend on raising teenagers. The problem was, I was afraid of heights and couldn’t swim. These are two maladies that I have mostly remedied, basically by learning to swim and staying off high things. But at that point in my life, I had neither the wisdom nor the reason for such decisions. So, I weighed my options.
Nearly fifteen years later, I was aboard yet another tricked out motorcycle on the outskirts of Reno, NV, where I had been attempting to ride with younger versions of myself in the dunes. I grew up riding motorcycles in an era where every attempt was made to stay on the motorcycle. I am and always have had nothing but mad respect for these maniacs who get off their bikes in midair, do back flips, forward flips, and do everything but make a sandwich in midair. It never crossed my mind that I would attempt something as insane as an adult, especially when pushing hard towards my thirtieth birthday. I did wonder occasionally, if maybe, when I were younger, if I would have been able to do those stunts.
So, there I was, with a bunch of yelling teenagers roaring me to just DO IT. I once again in my life, for the umpteenth time, I perused the situation and weighed my options. I was getting ready to attempt a stunt called the “Flying Superman Seat Grab.” It’s about what it sounds like, in that you really shouldn’t attempt it unless you’re superman. Or slightly insane and being cheered by a group of fearless teenagers who are equally insane. I remember briefly wishing I had chosen to just stay home and make an apple pie, grill some peaches or maybe take up knitting.
But, there is the point of no return that people such as me have that will not allow us to back off when committed. Is it hereditary, that iron ruthlessness that enables us to do things that we know, without a shadow of a doubt, will hurt? Is it a product of our environment? I really don’t know, but I tightened my goggles and gunned the throttle, hurtling down the dune to launch off the next one. Just as so many years earlier I had blindly leaped off the house. I didn’t break anything in that leap, but I nearly drowned. It turns out that I had badly misjudged the acceleration of a falling mass due to gravity and the braking effect of a new trampoline and all the possible angles of departure from the said trampoline. I also had no idea that landing prone in about three feet of water after falling that far generally renders you unconscious. At least briefly.
I also badly misjudged how quickly the motorcycle would get away from me as I released the handlebars and launched myself perpendicular to the ground away from the bike. There was this brief blinding moment of exhilaration, as I thought, “I’ve done it!” The whole point of the trick though is to catch the seat as the bike passes under you. I missed. I’m so glad that this was before camera phones as I would no doubt have been all over YouTube under the moniker “Old Dude Tries to Ride” or something of the sort. Thankfully, the dune I landed on was sand, and slightly sloped, so my landing was somewhat softened. All I broke was my sternum and a few fingers. All I suffered in my bad landing in the pool was a lingering concussion – both small prices to pay for such enormous stupidity.