By Glenn A. Bruce
I am. I exist and I am connected to my past and the pasts of others. There are ways to confirm this.
I was born in 1952, in Miami, Florida; but according to my favorite uncle’s second wife Gerta, I was conceived in Seaside, Oregon, “In this bed,” as she pointed out to me and my girlfriend of the time, Linda. Linda and I later deciding we didn’t need to know that detail.
Mom and Dad. Sex. You know.
If I was conceived in Oregon and delivered in Miami, somewhere in that gestation, I was bobbing in semiotic fluid somewhere in these Blue Ridge Mountains of northwest North Carolina. My parents came up here for a week or more every year after they returned from California during The War, where they both had civilian jobs working in the defense industry.
Though America would become—and remain—aggressors, it was and still is called the “defense” industry. They never saw that as ironic while fighting the Axis Powers, and enjoyed California to the fullest extent possible in the Forties, given their meager income. Irony had less meaning then, in the hard years between 1941 and 1946—Pearl Harbor to VJ-Day. During those years, my parents lived in a very modest, upstairs garage apartment in the middle of a squash field in Sepulveda and worked in Burbank, commuting in their 1935 Chevrolet. They bought almonds and walnuts, apricots and avocados, for pennies a pound, and gas was rationed. Since they received extra coupons, life was good. They saw a lot and liked what they saw.
My parents would have stayed in California, but in late 1945, with the military industrial complex no longer needing their services, my mother and father were released from their service duties. They returned to Miami where they officially set up house as a young married couple, along with tens of thousands of other servicemen and women who had trained there. Those recruits were referenced as having “sand in their shoes,” from their training days on Miami Beach, and would return to Miami to live, someday. Many did, creating the second housing “boom” in Miami’s history—the last one ending officially with the 1926 Hurricane which flattened most of the county and left 50,000 homeless.
In those days, there was nothing of value in the ground, or above it—no precious stones or minerals, no oil, no natural resources to exploit—so they were the first people ever to live in the area called Pinewood. The Seminoles, Miccosukee, and others tribes hadn’t lived where the white settlers would later, because there was nothing there but pine trees, rocks and snakes. Fat rattlers and colorful but deadly coral snakes. Native Americans lived near clean water, then. Our water was rusty and under twenty feet of limestone. Theirs bubbled out of the ground in places like Sweetwater and Okeechobee.
Sweet spring water and venomous snakes. Paradise in Magic City. Warm, sunny Miami.
My mother’s family was from the Kentucky/Illinois border and she was happy to leave those hollars behind, never to return. She never did. She loved the warmth of South Florida and hated winter anywhere. Passionately. I come by this trait honestly. Winter scared my mother. When she left Kentucky at age 6, in 1928, she left winter behind for good. For great, in her mind. I still hate winter. Every time the white stuff covers everything in winter silence, I think of my mother and I grumble.
My father was born in West Virginia, a cold state, near the Virginia border. His parents moved to and lived in Charleston, West Virginia, in a grand house on the Kanawha River with servants and a private dock for the ferry until he was six as well. Then, also in 1928, his father was murdered for a payroll, a year before The Crash. My dad’s mother was not good with money and spent the rest of theirs in a few years, traveling and living as if it was still coming in. It wasn’t.
By the time my father was eight, he was handed off to his mother’s parents. Grandfather, as he was called properly, was a traveling Methodist preacher—six months here, six months there—in small towns throughout West Virginia and Virginia. When my father got restless as a teen, he was sent to stay with family friends in Charlotte for an extended period. After that, he was sent back to Grandfather to sit in the front pews in Abingdon, Virginia, and Galax. At some point, he was sent back to his mother. They didn’t get along and that was not meant to be.
As soon as he was old enough to run away—15, the first time—Dad ran to California. He came home after a few weeks, but not to stay. He disliked school, and his living conditions. At 17, he ran away again, this time south to the Florida Keys, where he contracted malaria while working as a surveyor’s assistant on the Overseas Highway.
After a brief trip “home”—just long to remember why he disliked it and that it wasn’t really his home anymore—Dad headed south again. By 19, he was an official resident of Miami; he had a job—several, whatever he could find—a car and a license. He and Mom met in 1940. They loved what is now called Old Florida and knew they would never leave without a solid shove. Back then, Miami was called the Magic City, and was as close to paradise as anywhere in America.
But Dad always loved the Blue Ridge, and missed it. He brought my mother here on their first vacation. In the early to mid-Fifties, when I was a small child, they continued coming to this area and when I was seven, they found forty acres—without a mule—an old apple farm, which they bought. It was the second and last time they would ever owe money to anyone, and they paid it off quickly. They had long since paid off the house in Miami, where I grew up during the school year. But what we all waited for, marked on our calendars, was “summer in the mountains”. Every year, we stayed in a rental cabin on Winkler’s Creek which served as a home base while my Dad took us exploring on every back road in three counties. And more.
The summer woods have a particular smell, hard to define. Wet, rotten yet sweet.
Late in the summer of 1959, I got my first glimpse of our “second home,” which came to be known as The Farm. Even then, I knew The Farm would be more than that; it would become our “homeplace,” officially or unofficially. We would never leave this place permanently. We might travel, even live in other places; but we would never it go, and we would all die and be buried here.
According to my mother, she and I almost didn’t make it through 1959. We flew up from Miami in December to finalize the paperwork to purchase the property. Our rental car had summer tires on it. I can still remember us trying to get up the short but steep driveway of the motel in Blowing Rock—and my mother’s panic as we slid back down it time and time again. I still think of that dusk struggle every time I drive past—even though that was 55 years ago and the motel has long been razed.
That winter saw the worst blizzard anyone could remember. The family who lived in the uninsulated, four-room house built in the late 1800s stayed through the winter because they had nowhere else to go, yet. They regretted that convenience when over seven feet of snow fell in February and March. It was snowed-in so badly and for so long that food and coal had to be helicoptered in. In 1960, this was a big deal. They could have died here and almost did. Freezing and hungry. When spring came, they were happy to leave this new hollar of ours for an old house in town where the roads were scraped and neighbors were close. Ironically enough: their family name was Hollars—a common name here, but new to us, and typically ironic to our Carolina tales.
The next year was my first full summer here, 1960. By early summer, the Hollars had moved into Blowing Rock and we moved into The Big House as it would be dubbed. As it is still called today. I roamed the overgrown fields and musky woods, venturing a little farther each time I wandered. My mother didn’t bother keeping me close. She knew I would learn by exploring, and I did. I also broke my arm twice.
The first time, we were in town and I tripped over a root, fell over a wall, landed on my arm and it popped. My father had gone back to The Farm, as we called it then and still do, and on his way out of the heavily rutted driveway, broke both front axles of their 1955 white and dark green Buick—which he had painted himself with a backwards-blowing vacuum cleaner shaped like a missile—and there he sat. Four miles from town, no cellphone—not even a landline yet—and no idea I had just created a minor medical emergency. Even though Shulls Mill Road was well “out in the country,” in those days—it had only recently gone from gravel to asphalt—an occasional car passed. Dad hitched a ride with the first passing farmer into town to find my mom with me, and my just-broken right arm.
Knowing no one with a car yet, Dad ran across Main Street—there were no traffic lights in town at that point, almost no cars—to the dingy garage with the single hanging bare bulb and grease-black walls. He asked the lone mechanic about retrieving our Buick and fixing it—with a side story about my arm in the park—and asked to borrow a phone to hail a cab. The garage owner wouldn’t have it. He would take us to the hospital himself. He drove us all to the tiny hospital above town where the elder Dr. Davant set my arm in plaster, bent ninety-degrees at the elbow.
It itched like crazy after two weeks and I learned to use a coat hanger with great care and accuracy. I healed. But just one day after getting my arm out of a cast, the kid next door shoved me while playing. I tripped over a shovel handle, and heard my arm pop again. This time, worse. The bone was separated and poking against the skin of my forearm. We had to walk the steep front hill to the road because the repaired Buick could no longer make it up and down the treacherous driveway. Dr. Davant popped the bones back into place, set my arm, and I had a fresh, new, clean, white cast. Again. If it was a lousy summer for me, it had to have been much worse for my parents. As an adult, I can see that now.
I’ve had those years myself now. A few times. Short story: they suck. I had one in 2014. It sucked. Every time I thought I’m past the bumps in my road, new bumps appeared, jarring my compression-cracked spine, cinching up the “guardian muscles” around it, rattling my resolve to get better. One thing after another.
It’s what we, as adults, come to call “life.” And we shudder when we say it because we know. I now see that for my parents, 1959-1960 was one of those years. I was too young to know. To me, a cast for the entire summer was a distraction, an aggravation, but little more. I still explored, still discovered. I just did it with and increasingly dirty cast on my arm. Trees were harder to climb.
Impeded by life, we continue to climb as best we can.
Over the next few years, my parents began to reclaim The Farm’s brier-ridden fields a little bit at a time. I was recruited to mow, using our first farm machines, one of which we called the Anteater because it was long, with a low pointy “nose,” which carried a three-foot sickle bar at ground level. It did the job well, climbing every steep hillside we put to it. And the hills were steep. Cutting across a field, along the contour, meant aiming the thing 45-degrees uphill, so that the dual wheels on either side didn’t slip so far downhill that we weren’t cutting any new weeds, but were re-cutting the last swath. We mowed and we learned. My parents paid me a dollar an hour. Back in Miami, I opened my first bank account.
Summers were like this. Lots of hard work—with rewards. We saw the place take shape, and I made some money. But I lived for a special treat every summer when I was allowed one friend as company for an entire two weeks. I guess that’s all my mom figured she could stand of us. We put her to the test for sure, every year, whoever it was, and she let us know it. But she always welcomed a new kid the next summer. As it turned out, some were better friends than others. The latter group never being asked back.
We put each friend to work, too, unless they were just too lazy, which some of them were, being “city” kids. But those visits provided the most exploration ever. We found car parts in the woods—once, an entire car—and car parts in the creeks. Every time we dug a hole we hit pay dirt in the form of something metal and rusty.
We discovered horseshoes and wagon parts, farm tools and pieces of things we had no idea what they were. We found arrow heads and quartz crystals, usually in the creeks by salamanders and baby trout. We found steel “tires” from wooden wagon wheels and a hub or two, plow tips and tractor steps, wood and coal stove parts, bridles and horseshoes. We found hinges and knobs, shovels with no handles and similarly lone hammer heads, pans, and blue porcelain pots with more holes than pot. We found scores of old mason jars with crinkled and dented lead rings, and white glass lids like new. We found barbed wire, hog wire, chicken wire, phone wire, electrical wire, bailing wire and other wire that went unclassified. And we kept it all. It had value because it was here before us—and we found it.
Give us your tired, your rusting masses, your wretched refuse. We will save it.
Over the years, we have retrieved literally tons of the stuff—and this without a metal detector. (We bought one but could never figure out how to use it to find anything other than nails.) One year, I took almost a thousand pounds of found junk—not save-worthy, no value—to the dump: old rotted tires (some from the 1930s or before), the hood of a Desoto, corrugated steel sheets, and other objects that were rusted so badly as to be unidentifiable. But anything small and recognizable as something—even if we didn’t know for sure what it was—I kept. Though, what I did with it all is a mystery.
Some of it is on the mantel, some is in boxes in the attic, some is in the dirt basement; but some has gone missing. It’s okay. We still find more. To this day, almost every time I dig a hole, I find some rusty treasure and leave it out in the rain to clean. When it gets as clean as it’s going to get, I put it…somewhere. Just the other day, I found the remains of an old wooden wagon hub, with just enough stubs left to be identified as spokes. I valued it as much as I did the first piece of detritus I found as a little kid in a cast.
This year marks 55 years for us on this land. Who knows how much junk is out there to be found and cherished. Just last year I remembered a fender from a 1920’s car out in the woods, one that I had first discovered when I was seven. I went looking for it and it was still there, still mostly in one piece. My dad said it was from a Model A. That was his best guess. It still had the mounting bracket and bolts—rusted tight and un-removable for sure. But there. It now sits in my azaleas as a testament to the past, a reminder of the lives lived here before we came.
It is my job to shepherd the land and gather the good things that good people left behind. Their trash is our treasure. It has meaning, it creates connection, so we keep it close. Someday it may be all we have to remember. Now it is but a small part of the whole; but without it, there would be none, no connection, no history, no me. I look at these things on my mantel every day, and every day I am confirmed; my existence over six decades is real. We find great comfort in objects, even those once belonging to others and discarded as worthless. Today, a hundred years later, or more, they have worth, again. We have rescued them, saved them from anonymity; in turn, they save us.
I do exist. There is proof on the mantel, in the attic, and in the dirt basement.
Glenn A. Bruce, MFA, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review. He has published eight novels and two collections of short stories. He wrote Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch, and was a sketch-writer for Cinemax’s Assaulted Nuts. His stories, poems, and essays have been published internationally. He won About That’s “Down and Dirty” short story contest and was a two-time finalist in the Defenstrationism annual short story contest. He has been a guest speaker and panel participant at many writing and film events over the years. He has judged shorts film contests, art shows, and was the final judge for Brilliant Flash Fiction’s 2015 annual short-fiction contest. Glenn has been teaching Screenwriting and Acting for the Camera at Appalachian State University for the past 11 years.