Monday, October 23, 2006

James Dickey Wasn't Writing Metaphor: Gilmer County & Ellijay, Snookie Fodder

Dickey Wasn't Speaking In Metaphor
James Robert Smith

In what now seems to me to be a very long time ago in a place very, very far away, I lived with monsters.

My father, fleeing an arrest warrant in Macon, Georgia where he'd been convicted of selling Playboy Magazine and then breaking conditions of his subsequent release by selling another such magazine, took himself and what remained of his family to the mountains of northern Georgia. He had bought a one hundred and twenty acre tract of barely accessible land in a backwater county named Gilmer. There are one hundred and sixty-nine counties in the great state of Georgia. Gilmer may very well be one of the strangest.

My father's acreage was bounded on all but one side by land owned by the gigantic Rome-Kraft Paper Company. I recall that they had accidentally planted part of a grove of pines on our side of the property line. This amused me until I realized that at some time they must have "accidentally" crossed the line to cut the hardwoods that had formerly been there; you could see some mighty oak stumps that had once formed the basis for some impressive trees. Oh, well.
Our human neighbors were few and far between. Perhaps the term "mountaineer" would best describe these folk. Human seems not to be the correct word. Denizens, perhaps, seems much more appropriate. At any rate, we basically had no neighbors. Most of the inhabitants of those mountains had fled for the lowlands-- where there were jobs--during the decades leading up to the Great Depression, so there were less people living there in the 1970s than there had been at the turn of the century. Our nearest neighbor was more than two miles from our front door. Our driveway was a shade over a mile long.

It took many bulldozers many repeat visits and dump trucks many trips to level and gravel our driveway. I have no idea how much my father spent on that road, but it must have been a pile.
The first five or six loads of gravel were sucked up by the thick, clinging red clay as if they had been illusions. It was only in the second year we were there that the gravel stopped being devoured by the road. One would have supposed that the Earth there had enough rock in it.

Our property was studded with former home sites and the low walls of rock picked out of former fields by ignorant dirt farmers long ago. The houses were all gone, save for vague foundations amid the pines and red oaks. The walls that marked the boundaries of former fields were quite evident and indicative of the struggle between the poor bastards who had lived there and the damned land that didn't want to give up a decent living. Well, they were almost all gone, by then. The denizens, that is.

When my parents fled Macon on the wrong end of that arrest warrant issued by that motherfucker Mayor Ronnie Thompson, they had about $60,000 in the bank. Enough to scrape out that road into the wilderness and build us a three bedroom house way, way down in the farthest reaches of our land: a place my father called Bear Scare Valley (another story for another time).

I recall that my father thought that he would enjoy this land and the people who lived there. He had read much of the friendliness and the generosity of the mountain people. Many stories.

They were all lies.

Now, all these years later, I am convinced of something. After I left Gilmer County and the land and the people there became bad memories and tenacious nightmares, I read a book called DELIVERANCE, written by a man named James Dickey. It's funny, for while I was living in Gilmer County a movie was released based on Mr. Dickey's book. I'm convinced that the fictional town in his novel was Ellijay, in our very own Gilmer County. I'm convinced that his "Cahullowassee River" was actually the Coosawattee River, which was being dammed to create the Carters Reservoir. The seven hundred foot deep gorge we used to stand and look down upon is now a vast lake. A pity.

When I finally read that book and later viewed that movie, I was chilled with the familiarity of it all. He nailed that place and those folk, for I lived among them and can vouch as sordid fact the things he spelled out in those works. Thinking of it, I shudder. I recall the barely human things who lived in those isolated hills, their dialect a remnant of people long dead elsewhere in this country, their flesh warped and twisted like their minds by vicious inbreeding to the point of the closest of incestuous relationships, their minds little more than urges to survive, their brains merely lust generators.

My earliest exposure to these folk were rides on the school bus, which picked me up roughly at 6 am and deposited me many miles away at the high school some two and one half hours later. I repeated that ride each afternoon. I was only fifteen years old, a kid. I didn't know any better than to sit and take it. There were books to read, and I often conversed with the kids who rode with me. It only took me a week or so to decipher their dialect. "The Fire" was the Fair. When those kids kept asking me if I was going to "the fire", images of vast bonfires surrounded by pale, jabbering faces kept appearing in my mind. Oh, I finally surmised. The Fair. I didn't go.

Eventually, I made acquaintances with some of these kids. I can't call them friends, for I shared no true common interests with them, nor secrets. But people do what people can to exist in a normal way. One day, on the bus, I agreed with my younger brother and two of the local boys to go camping at a certain place along a small river called Talking Rock Creek, a tributary feeding into the Coosawattee River. We were going to descend the steep gorge down to the edge of the creek and sleep at the foot of a precipice called Cedar Cliffs by the locals.

Cedar Cliffs was an impressive formation. It loomed a good two hundred feet above the torrent of Talking Rock Creek. Pale and gray, it was a jagged, cave-pocked wall that stood horribly high, overlooking the whitewater that thrashed at its feet. Below it, just above the level of the creek, was a great overhang that afforded shelter from the rain; it was an ideal camping spot. We went.
My father took us in his pickup truck to gather the other two boys. My younger brother and I rode up front with him. When the two acquaintances from the bus tumbled into the back of the truck, my father emerged to help them load their quilts and pillows and other supplies. One stayed in back with their stuff, the other followed on a dirt bike. From a dark porch hanging onto a shack of a house, someone who may have been a parent watched us ride off with their son. As we bounced along the rutted logging road that led to the lip of the gorge behind Cedar Cliffs, my father looked back at our rider and then at me and he said, "You're going to learn about cleanliness on this trip." I saw that he was eyeing their quilts. Later, helping move stuff down the slopes beside the cliffs, I touched one of those quilts. I scrubbed my hands in the churning waters of Talking Rock Creek.

By mid-afternoon we four boys had our camp set up to our satisfaction. My father was long gone and there was only us: Myself, brother, D-- W-- K-- and R-- C--.

D-- W-- was a picture of inbreeding. His head was misshapen in a way that was hard to describe. One could only say that there was something not quite right about his skull. His skin was pale almost to the point that there didn't seem to be any pigment there. His hair, what there was of it in a thin thatch over that skull, was a dirty blond going to dark brown at the crown. His teeth, what there were of them, bucked out from his thick lips. Mostly they were yellow, but some of them were green. A lot of his teeth were gone, and a few of those that remained seemed to be hanging on out of spite of my eyes.

R-- C-- was short and solidly built. He was only about six inches over five feet tall, if that. His hair was thick, so thick that it formed a kind of cap on his ugly head. I could imagine rain shedding off of that brown stuff effectively. I'd heard that his parents dearly loved him, and unlike K--, his teeth were all in his head and his hair was regularly washed so that it did not mat on his scalp as D-- W--'s did. But his quilts were equally as filthy.

We spent the day exploring the cliff. We climbed up to the top and looked down at the caves which could be reached by way of a thin ledge but which I was afraid to venture upon. I'd heard that feral goats lived there, and sure enough I could see mounds of goat droppings outside of one of the caves. I also recall chasing lizards--green anoles fading to brown and back as we ran them down and into cover. They all got away. The fish were not so lucky, and we cooked them over a fire we built in our campsite beneath the overhang under Cedar Cliffs.

Darkness came.

We made pallets under the cliff. We talked well into the night, although I have absolutely no recollection of what was said. No recollection at all. We built up our fire and gathered wood and looked out into the darkness. The creek roared and splashed and we could hear nothing else but the creek. Talking Rock Creek spoke and blathered and never stopped. At last, though, we faltered and I fell into a deep and tired sleep. My younger brother to my back, I dreamed.

I awoke.

It was very dark. I was looking up at the roof of the overhang, uncounted tons of solid stone somehow supported as if my some Frank Lloyd Wrightian magic. The fire was almost out. Not quite, but almost. There was only the pitch-blackness of a moonless, overcast, starless night amidst the dark and piney woods. But for that faint, barely revealing luster of the fire's fading afterglow. It was almost as if the fire was loaning my immediate surroundings some kind of infrared gift of sight.

Had I heard a sound? No. No sound but the rushing water. Had I seen something? There was nothing but us. Nothing had moved. No one had risen. No one was mov..
In the dim orangey glow of the fire I could see something move. I peered across at the quilt-covered form of R-- C-- and DW K--. They were a clothed lump in the blackness; a mass, one might say. A single mass in the night. In the dark. Far and far and away down in the gorge at the foot of Cedar Cliffs beside the babbling scream of Talking Rock Creek.

It took a long time for me to comprehend. I was an innocent and naive fifteen-year-old.

The quilt rose. It fell.

It rose. Fell.

There was no sound. No sound, I tell you. No one spoke. No one grunted or squealed or even seemed to breathe.

There, far away from my home, from my mother and father, I was watching R-- C-- fuck DW K-- in the ass. As I realized this I felt the lump of fish in my stomach freeze like a tray of solid ice. And I recall that I slowly reached back to make certain that my little brother was still with me, still at my back.

Seconds passed. I realized that I was staring and so squinted my eyes so that no one could see anything reflected in them should they turn my way. A long time seemed to flow slowly by, unlike the water in Talking Rock Creek, which bubbled and roared on and on and on. The quilt rose. And it fell. I waited for it to stop, but it didn't. I thought of R-- C-- there, locked over DW's boney frame, and I wondered if he had a knife, if he were aware that I was awake, if he were human. I waited for that slow, almost bellows-like movement to end. I stopped watching.
Somehow, I made myself become drowsy. I felt that, somehow, if I let them know I was awake, that I was seeing what was happening, then something bad would happen. I wasn't physically afraid of the two: I felt I could fight them easily. I was taller and heavier and stronger than both of them. But they could even have brought a gun, I thought. And so, strangely, I not only became drowsy, I slept.

Morning came. I got up. DW and R-- were still asleep. My father was picking us up early there at the top of the gorge, and I was happy for that. Oh, man, was I happy for that. Quickly, my little brother and I gathered our stuff and began to take it up the steep trail to the top of the cliffs. "Ain't you'ns a-goin' to fish no more," DW called to us.
When my father came, my brother and I jumped a bit too eagerly into the truck. My father asked us if we had fun and we made small talk. "We caught some fish," I told him. "We cooked them over the fire."

The next day I was out at the edge of the woods that pressed in all around our little house down there in Bear Scare Valley at the end of that mile-long driveway with the nearest neighbor two miles away and the nearest paved road three miles away and the nearest phone five miles distant. My brother saw me out there and joined me as I sat in the brown and brittle forest floor.

"Did you see anything last night," he asked.

"What," I said.

"Did you see or hear anything last night?"

"No," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"Fuck yes, you did, too. You know damned well what I'm talking about."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I told him and retreated to the house.

In time, we all retreated completely from our mountain home. We abandoned it and sold it when my parents died. The locals savaged the place after we left. We had no way to secure it from the mindless creatures who inhabit those hills, and there was nothing to do but sell it away. By the time we left, my father held no more illusions concerning the “people” who exist in those green and stunted mountains in the north of Georgia. Dickey knows them. There are some who say that there is something of value in them. I hear that Don West, the working class poet that was spawned by this same Gilmer County professes some worthiness to these mountain folk. But, not I.

When I think of them, I think of their black and distrustful eyes shining dark and flinty out at you. I think of their filth and their rotted teeth and the dark, tilted hovels in which they spawned their offspring: children of their own, out of their own children. And I think of Talking Rock Creek blathering like a party of madmen. And I think of that quilt rising, like a great beast drawing breath; and falling, like a monster huffing. Rising and falling. Like that. Not stopping.
And I think of my own prudent silence. I made myself sleep. I kept my mouth shut, that night on Talking Rock Creek.

And, by God, Dickey wasn’t speaking in metaphor.


Vic Webb said...

I too moved from Macon (Warner Robins)to this area. I now live in Chatsworth just over Fort Mountain from Elijay. I know these people you speak of and reading this makes me chuckle as I try to get the taste of bile out of my mouth.

I often take my boat out to Carters lake and am amazed at how the depth drops off. I have searched far and wide on the internet for photos of this gorge before it was flooded. My imagination gets the best of my curiosity while the fisherman in me wants to know exactly what lies below.

You wouldn't happen to have any photos of the area before it was flooded would you. This Blog entry is the best description I have found on what is now Carters lake. I have an insatiable hunger to find out more.

HemlockMan said...

I've been trying for years to find photographic records of the gorge before the dam was put in place and the lake flooded it. I got to see the falls on the Coosawattee before they were inundated---they were an amazing sight and a national treasure. If they tried to kill that gorge today, it would have faced stiff opposition from environmental groups. It was a vast roadless area--just to give you an idea, they didn't have to move a single household to create that lake. Think of that many acres without a single home!

web_Supergurl said...

oh fffffffffffffffk

HemlockMan said...