Sad Song in a Small Town

Me and Little Archie and Mexican Joe…
I was eleven years old when Hank Williams died, stoked on muscle relaxer and alcohol in the rear seat of a Cadillac, headed for a New Year show in Ohio.
We lived in a little town in North Carolina’s mid-section,about the size of Murphy. The farm and the sawmill provided most jobs, along with three cotton mills inside the town itself.
Music was everywhere, something you absorbed through the pores. It was 1953, television just getting started but radio everywhere and all the time. Country music was king.
We didn’t have television, got to visit the neighbor’s and watch sometime. Of ten they were watching Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks, a country music act from nearby Charlotte.

PLAYING IN THE BAND
I wanted to play in the school band but a cornet( short version of a trumpet) cost $125 and that was a lot of money back then. A man gave me a baby pig. We raised it up to market size, it brought just over $40.
Parents made up the difference and I got my shiny brass horn and started learning band music. Already had been exposed to piano lessons and was just naturally curious about any kind of music.
Civic pride, especially in a little town, is a powerful thing. They started a fund-raising drive to buy the band some uniforms . Bought maybe 30 brand-new blue-and-gold uniforms, with hats and belts. One hundred percent WOOL.
The darn uniforms arrived in June and the town fathers insisted we have a parade right then, to show off the band and its snappy new uniforms. Did I mention the 100% WOOL?
Sure enough, for the Fourth of July we had a parade, small as it was. The town’s only Police car up front, then the band, then the Fire truck. It was hot.
We played a concert afterward and later played sometimes at big family reunions, always sharing the stage with genuine hillbilly bands in fringed coats trimmed in rhinestones.
LITTLE ARCHIE & MEXICAN JOE
On our residential street, just two houses up above us, was a family with a boy my age. The dad was Big Archie, they called the boy Little Archie. Beer was legal in our little town, you could buy it at a couple of filling stations downtown, where you might find Big Archie if you were looking for him.
Little Archie had an older sister or two and a Mom and one of them bought the sheet music for a song called “The Death of Hank Williams.” They showed it to me — the event was similar to the death of Elvis – and I was impressed by the number of verses which told the awful story.
But I had obtained a second-hand harmonica from my grandparents’ home, the same place I would obtain a second-hand guitar a few years later. They had stuff you needed, it was all family, wasn’t it? There was a brass telescope in a drawer I liked a lot but one of my thieving cousins beat me to it.
Anyway, by trial-and-error I was teaching myself to play the harmonica. By ear. The melody I was learning was a simple one, a country song called MEXICAN JOE. “South of the Border, say I know a lad…He’s got more sweethearts than anybody had…Dancing, romancing, always on the go. The girls they all call him Mexican Joe…”
BIG STAGE DREAMING
Little Archie, it turned out, already had a guitar. And for a 12-year-old he could play chords pretty well. Playing the melody, picking out the lead was something he could learn in the future. But we soon linked up and could play MEXICAN JOE with enthusiasm, both in the same key and rhythm.
Neither one could sing, or even wanted to. But we could play music together on the back porch and we loved it. He insisted that I come and spend the night at his house, we could play and scheme.
He was a sophisticated kid, had been places I hadn’t. Including local square dances where people danced and drank and sometimes fought. But they paid admission.
You and I could be the band, he said. We could charge people a quarter apiece to get in and we could play and they’d all dance. We’d make a lot of money.
It was a tempting offer and I didn’t think it would interfere with my career as a uniformed member in the regular school band. But it finally dawned on us, after we played MEXICAN JOE for the umpteenth time.
Sure, it was a great song for dancing. And sure, we played it quite well. But what was going to be our second song? We didn’t have any inventory. Our dream of being local entertainers died right there.
GOING DOWNTOWN
Not long after that I saw Big Archie and another man coming down the sidewalk carrying a sack. Come here boy, they said, we’ll show you something. Something down in the sack made a strange clacking noise and at first I thought it was a snake. They laughed and I looked and it was an owl they had caught.
That was on a Saturday morning, cold weather. Don’t know what they did with the owl, maybe traded it for beer.
Sunday afternoon a classmate walked across the vacant lot behind one of the filling stations downtown, going to visit another classmate of ours. He found a dead man, passed out and frozen to death. It was Big Archie.
After that Little Archie’s family started taking in a few old women as boarders, sort of an early nursing home. Some of them had dementia and hollered frequently, providing small entertainment for our neighborhood.
We moved away shortly and lost touch with that time and that town. Still remember sometimes, especially when I hear a Hank Williams song…

Selling Newest Novels

I apologize, dear readers, for being so casual about posting new blogs.  And I am not Aat this Web stuff.  But I digress.

LAST BIGFOOT IN DIXIE, my second book, officially came out last November and is available in both e-book and paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.etc.  Also a few selected places in Murphy NC — the newspaper, the museum, Curiosity Bookstore,Wherehouse art gallery.  In Hayesville, Tiger’s Department Store.

It’s a wild rollicking mountain tale based on a number of true incidents here in the Southern Smoky Mountains.  Killer black bear and local narco-thug star, some folk humor and a gentle love story.

Three weeks ago my agent sold my two Civil War-era novels, COOSA FLYER and REBEL BUSHWHACKER.  The bushwhacker book is coming out early April, a bloody action story from  the local guerilla wars fought in the mountains during the War Between the States.

COOSA FLYER is rather loosely based on the story of Micajah Clark Dyer, a backwoods genius at Blairsville GA who invented and then flew an early aircraft well before the Wright Brothers.  Probably be published in May or June.

Hope you enjoy these, thanks for checking on my website.

WALLY AVETT        Martins Creek     MURPHY NC

How to Write Books…Get Paid

How to Write a Book…Get Paid and Get Published

Last week I cudn’t even spel author…and now I are one!
Jokes aside, it has been the toughest thing I ever attempted and perhaps you can learn from my experience and my mistakes. To quote one of my favorite country songs, “ it’s a long hard ride.”
Much of it, like life itself, is random. No rhyme or reason, but it is what it is. Period. No instant replay, no appeal, your only route is to call for a re-deal.
You can’t knock on the right door, you don’t even know where it is and, besides, there’s 25 people guarding the door to keep you out. But you keep on plugging away.
Write a book, edit it, re-write it and offer it to the powers in New York City. I suspect they never even look at it, not even the mostly lowly envelope-opener in the office.
They prefer a short query letter that describes your book. Which can be a problem. Maybe you can write a great book but you can’t write a summary of the entire book in one page, which is what they want. That’s what their decision will be based on.
But no matter whether you send them a query letter in the mail, or the entire 200-page, four-pound manuscript, they absolutely insist that your package contain a Self-Adddressed Stamped Envelope. The SASE, this provides them a way to send you a rejection slip at no expense to them.

STORM OF REJECTIONS

So writers get rejections, dozens and dozens, hundreds even. And they are discouraging. Some of them are printed full-page “canned” letters, with just one paragraph saying your book does not meet our current needs.
Sometimes the canned letter has been signed by a person, most times not. Sometimes it is not even a full sheet of paper, but a slip saying the same thing. The slips are produced on a copier, eight or ten from one sheet and then scissored apart to save paper(and money.)
Some of the New York City publishing houses say your manuscript had been recycled. This means it was turned into confetti, for use in their parades. As evidenced on television, they have lots of parades and the demand for confetti is apparently huge.
At any rate, I could have wallpapered a medium-sized room with rejection slips, all of them wishing me good luck in placing my project elsewhere, very polite. They were just trying to say, in a nice way, your book’s no good. Certainly no good for us.

FAMILY BUSINESS

My father had a pair of first cousins I heard about as a youngster, the Ross brothers, newspapermen and also novelists. So I thought that’s what I’ll do. Other newspapermen I worked with, especially in Asheville, wrote books.
John Parris of Sylva, who dealt mostly in history in his daily columns for the CITIZEN, was a writer. Bob Terrell, also from Sylva, dealt mostly in humor. Their selected columns often ended up in books, something I’ve considered for this column.
Lewis Green was a reporter in Asheville who wrote several novels and short-story collections, we ate dinner each night together and talked at length about writing.
One of the Ross cousins cranked out a Southern novel in the early 50’s as good as anything Erskine Caldwell was producing, even sold the movie rights to it. It was a wild tale about a Carolina cockfighter whose secret weapon was a pair of brass knuckles. As a boy, I loved it. But now they’re all dead and gone.

GRINDING OUT PAGES

In the early 90’s I began writing in earnest. Bought writers magazines to try to learn how, even went to a conference or two just for writers. And read fiction, trying to see how they did it. Compared their styles, their action and characters, even the length of a good book.
TWENTY long years passed. I would write a book, send out query letters and manuscripts, get discouraged and quit. Start over, quit again. It was crushing to the spirit but finally I forgot the first book and wrote a second. More of the same.
Then, after much thought and study, I made a personal decision: for me it has to be a rousing good story and it has to be told in first person, the “I” narrator offering eye-witness testimony. Anything else simply cannot hold my interest, either to write or to read.
So I hammered out two more novels, set in modern times. Lots of dialogue(which I learned from Elmore Leonard) and what I thought were entertaining story lines.
Gave up on New York City and tried the South. Got acquainted with the computer and summed up my query and the synopsis of the book in an e-mail, which could be sent quickly. They still rejected it, quickly, but not for long.

SWEET SUCCESS

I sold the first novel online myself, quickly acquired a literary agent, she then sold the second. Publishers are still afraid of the two Civil War books, both based on solid local history.
I was offered an advance and told my two novels would be published 18 months later. Sitting in a realty office where negotiation is common, I made a brazen counter-offer. Keep your money, I said, and print both books next week. No deal, they said, please do it our way.
MURDER IN CANEY FORK is available at the SCOUT, at Parker Drugs and the Museum,in paperback. As a digital download for your reader device, try Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
The second book, LAST BIGFOOT IN DIXIE, is a mountain story of killer bears and local narco-thugs, due out later this year. Local characters abound.

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PHOTO CAPTION:

Writing is simple — you daily just sweat blood while filling a blank sheet ( or screen) with words, hopefully the right words.

Mountain Museum

WALLY AVETT writes a regular column for the CHEROKEE SCOUT weekly newspaper at Murphy NC, in the state’s extreme southwestern corner.  Local topics, local readers. But you might enjoy a mountain story.  Here is the current column:

Museum Holds Local History,

Huge Variety of Relics, Stories

Wanda Stalcup is the lively director of the Cherokee County Historical Museum, our county’s bursting-at-the-seams version of the  Smithsonian.

In any given day, she may be conducting a tour/lecture for visiting school kids, explaining the “Leech Place” to tourists, painting a display case or writing her own book about local history.

“I’m fascinated by our history here,” she says.  “Never get tired of learning about it and passing it on.”

Housed in the old Carnegie Library building in downtown Murphy, right beside the Courthouse, the Museum is an amazing place often overlooked by many residents. And its “inventory” is constantly changing as new items are added.

INDIANS AND PIONEERS

The Native American material is shown in handsome display cases in the shape of arrowheads, Wanda explained, which were hand-me-downs from the Eastern Band of the Cherokees’ big museum on the Qualla Boundary.

“We had them painted in a lighter color at an auto body shop,” she said.  Now the real arrowheads and spear points and celts and beads are displayed plainly behind glass, centuries-old relics of the original residents of Cherokee country.

“You’ve seen in the movies or on TV where at a Greek wedding they drink a toast and then smash their glasses,” Wanda told me.  “Look here — the Cherokee had a similar wedding ceremony.  A couple getting married said their vows to each other and then both ate from one of these wedding bowls, which was basically two cups joined in the middle, all made of clay.”

After eating from the wedding bowl, it was smashed to pieces to celebrate the event,she said.  The one in the museum looks like it has been glued back together, she noted, and may have come out of a burial site.

Some of the items on display come from her own private collection, others from the original Palmer Museum at Marble, forerunner of the county museum.  And local families gave, and  continue to give, items of historical interest.

Such as pioneer tools on display — the tools necessary to keep a farm economy working.  There are blacksmith tools, the specialty devices necessary for manufacturing a wagon wheel or a wooden barrel.

Shoe-making artifacts for people, also the iron shoes required for both horses and oxen.  The broad-axe and the cross-cut saws and the hand-powered augers.   The froe that split the wood to make shingles for roofing.

“The old-timers believed that wooden shingles had to be split from a short chunk of wood during the right time of the moon,” she says.  “And then nailed on to form the cabin roof at the right time of the moon or the shingles might curl up like a duck’s tail and cause the new roof to leak.”

HOME AND FARM

There are all sorts of souvenirs of early homes here, both Indian and pioneers.  Dishes, kitchen utensils and Cherokee baskets.  Guns of all sorts, replicas of a steam locomotive and Fort Butler itself and a full-size mockup of an old school classroom.

Photos of every description and maps, dolls, military uniforms, an old phone booth, the  hand-carved dough bowl(big as a bathtub) that served a hungry CCC camp during the Depression.  And for comparison, right beside it, a real family’s metal bathtub.

“That’s where the saying — don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater — came from,”  Wanda said laughing.  “The whole family would use the same water — the father went first, then the mom, then each of the kids, right down to the baby…”

One of the items on display doesn’t get a lot of attention but it chilled me when I saw it.  It is a doctor’s tool, used over 150 years ago, to bleed a patient(which was thought to be beneficial?!)  At first glance it is about the size of a pocket-watch and maybe something similar.

But the little circular chunk of metal is far more lethal.  It has two knobs protruding on one face, several razor-sharp blades recessed on the other face.  When the two knobs are pressed toward each other, the blades come out, like the retractable claws on a house cat.  The good doctor held it against the inside of your wrist and sliced your blood vessels all at the same time, causing massive bleeding.

“We know you did all you could to save him” the grieving family probably told the doctor.  “You must have drawn a dishpan full of bad blood out of him and it still didn’t save him.”

TRAIL OF TEARS

On the ground floor, where there is an elevator if the newly-tiled front steps intimidate you, there is a fine display of the Removal, the so-called Trail of Tears of 1838.  Money given by the N. C. Cultural Resources and also the Eastern Band of the Cherokee funded the project.

Text and photos on several panels show the horror of America’s “ethnic cleansing” and how it was carried out, Murphy serving as the administrative center for  Indians being driven out of North Carolina.

And there is an authentic Cherokee log cabin, full-size replica, built by Wanda and volunteers, with a rope bed, period furnishings and a stone fireplace.  The chimney,however, was made of logs and not  stone.

“The wooden chimney rested on a ‘trick stone,’” she said.  “That was so if the chimney caught fire, it could be quickly pried away and would fall, still burning, away from the house itself.  The ‘trick stone’ was laid at an angle to cause this.”

Visit your museum — ask questions — get educated.

 

 

 

 

Snake Handlers Don’t Get It, God Says Stomp Serpents

I write a regular column for the century-old CHEROKEE SCOUT weekly newspaper at Murphy, NC, in the extreme southwestern end of the state.  Human interest, sometimes timely local issues, often local history.  Here is a recent example.

Due North from Knoxville,  where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee converge, there are churches where  lethal serpents are  part of the services.

The pastor, a man who routinely kept poisonous snakes at his home, was featured last year on the National Geographic channel’s “SNAKE SALVATION,” a series of programs on the snake handlers of the South.

He  was bitten by a 30-inch timber rattler on Feb. 15 at his church and  died.  His family refused any medical treatment for him, saying it was his wish.  By eyewitness accounts he had collapsed  into a coma and actually had no final say-so in the matter.

His son was quoted as saying he would carry on his father’s ministry of snake handling.  His chances of living to a ripe old age and dying peacefully in bed are not good.

CHATTANOOGA KEY LOCATION

 

No historic roadside markers have been put up yet,  but the man who popularized the deadly practice lived at Chattanooga for years.  Look him up on the Web and you’ll see an old photo of him preaching outside the Hamilton County Courthouse where another snaker was on trial.

And the professor who has spent a lifetime studying snake handling and writes books about it, Dr. Ralph Hood, can be found at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

George Hensley was the supposed founder of snake handling and lived for years in the Ooltewah area just outside Chattanooga.  I contacted Dr. Hood last week and he confirmed that,yes, Hensley supposedly started handling snakes on White Oak Mountain near Ooltewah and,yes, Hensley was a licensed minister for years of the Church of God, which accepted his bizarre antics and allowed snake handling in his services.

Illiterate,  hot-tempered and sometimes drunk, Hensley was eventually married four times.  But he was charismatic and always attracted followers.  Conducting his strange services at an abandoned blacksmith shop in rural Florida in 1955, he was bitten by a snake and died.  A local judge ruled his death a suicide, a finding most people would agree with.

Although Hensley was recognized as the “father of snake handling,” most reseachers think it appeared in Appalachia from several unconnected, undocumented sources.  Hensley supposedly witnessed an elderly woman handling a snake in a service when he was a child, at a coal-mining camp in the mountains of Virginia.

SNAKERS AND THE MEDIA

Dr. Hood said he was initially attracted to study  snake handlers when he read of two  dying from bites near Knoxville in the early 1970’s.  The practice had been outlawed by most Southern states in the 1920’s and disappeared and then come back over the years.

Laws generally forbid  public serpent handling and varied  in degree of enforcement.  Most local law officers left it alone as some sort of religion.  The chief of police  where the snaker died  February said he respected the man’s sincerity but not his so-called religion.

Western North Carolina media had a carnival to cover in the mid 1980’s when snake handling appeared at a bait shop over in Canton.  The Sheriff of Haywood County broke up the meeting, confiscated several boxes of snakes and was bitten on the thumb.

Not too long after he got out of the hospital, the officer resigned.  The snaker running the services had been arrested and charged with violating North Carolina laws.  But in a matter of weeks he was fatally bitten and soon buried in nearby Tennessee.

Dr. Hood befriended snakers  and got them to accept him before he started filming.  He said he attended snake handling services in those early days in Madison County, near Asheville.  Also in the Sand Mountain area of northern Alabama and in the Del Rio section of Cocke County,TN, where  large cock-fighting derbies were being held in those years.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

The King James version of the Bible, Mark 16:18 — “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

This is the one single verse, plucked out of Scripture,  used to justify snake handling.  Dr. Hood says he has documented about 100 deaths from snake handling, most of them active handlers, only a few innocent spectators. (In the early days, a young girl was bitten accidentally and died, causing the Georgia legislature to pass a law decreeing snake handling a death penalty case if it caused a fatality.)

Dr. Hood said he listed about seven deaths over the years from drinking poison, usually strychnine.  Apparently the ones who tried it full strength died horrible deaths; today they dilute poison or battery acid with lots of water in order to survive.

I believe the Good Lord  in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis when he cursed the serpent and banned it from the Garden.  In Chapter 3, Verse 15 when He says to the snake  that mankind “shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel.” We stomp snakes and they bite us when they can.

The verse in Mark was meant to be taken figuratively, not literally.  It meant that followers of Jesus were to “take up” all sorts of religious issues but would not be harmed.  The snakers don’t take seriously the part about healing the sick; they don’t attempt to heal their own when bitten, nor did they heal the Sheriff.

If you believed their flawed reasoning, taking everything in the Bible literally, then you would believe  “thy word a lamp unto my feet, and a lamp unto my pathway” and you could go out in the blackest night with no flashlight, holding your Bible in front of you for it to illuminate the darkness.

Call your next case.