There is an old Appalachian saying that I am sure everyone has heard. ‘If these old mountains could talk’ is the phrase. I’ve heard it thousands of times during my lifetime. Heck, I’ve probably uttered it just as many times.
The untold part of that phrase is that if the mountains could indeed talk, the stories would be as deep & dark as the hollars themselves at midnight. Those stories are hard to tell without hurting feelings or exploiting someone else’s pain. There has been enough of that in Appalachia from opportunists who do not yet understand the culture.
My friend Michael’s story is one of those dark tales.
Most folks around here just call him “Michael” or “Little Michael”, although some are beyond cruel, calling him “Crazy Michael” (among other names) as he keeps to himself only going to the community store on occasion and walking around in his immediate community.
However, Michael is friendly and open when engaged. He’s very knowledgeable about the dense terrain around him as well as his community’s history.
I first met Michael in 1976 when I was playing Little League baseball for the Laurel Tigers in the Shelton Laurel Community of Madison County, North Carolina. Michael was friends with our coach, Billy Joe Chandley, so he acted as a manager, looking after equipment and doing the best he could at keeping all of our youthful rambunctiousness in check.
Through the years, I’ve always spoken to Michael, giving him a ride to the store on occasion. He even rode all the way to Hot Springs with me one time, some twenty miles away from his home.
One day in May of 2014 I saw Michael at my brother-in-law’s trucking garage. Having just started my journey with photography, I asked Michael if I could snap some shots of him with my little point & shoot camera. I thought his face possessed am lot of character. He graciously said “Yes”, helping me along on my new journey. The photographs I’ve taken over the years remain among the best I’ve ever taken or ever will take, for that matter.
I was snapping a few photos as he sat there, a wooden pallet the only thing between him and the floor.
Michael looked at me and said “Son? Don’t ever let a young’un on a tractor with you. No, Sir. If they want to go, you pop that little behind and send them back to the house”!
I’d heard vague stories about Michael’s past. Recognizing that he was wanting to talk, I simply asked “What do you mean, Michael”? Then I simply kept my mouth shut and let him go.
“July Fourth, Nineteen-Sixty-Eight. That’s a day I will never forget. I was sixteen years old. I was going to take Daddy’s tractor to the top of the mountain and get some green apples. My four year old brother wanted to go with me. I said ‘No’ but Daddy insisted that I let him go with me. We went up on the mountain and I started picking apples while my little brother was playing”.
Michael’s voice got very soft and his eyes went to a faraway place like they always do.
“That old tractor didn’t have much brakes to speak of in the first place”.
“The boy was playing around the tractor. He kicked the brake off and the tractor started rolling”.
He pauses again.
“The tire rolled over him and broke his neck. No, Sir. Don’t ever let a young’un on a tractor”.
My brother-in-law then fired up an old Freightliner truck in the shop right next to Michael and me.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, we walked outside, just talking about life and me picking Michael’s brain about local landmarks and history.
Michael then takes out his wallet and starts showing me photographs of his family members.
I was completely and utterly unprepared for what was about to happen.
Michael then smiles at a photograph he pulls out of his wallet and says “There you are”!
Michael reaches it to me and says “Here’s a picture of my brother”, matter-of-factly.
I kept my cool but was absolutely devastated when I looked at a totally white, wallet sized piece of photograph paper void of any depiction. It had been worn that way with time and sweat, never leaving Michael’s person.
I simply nodded and handed it back to him in stunned silence.
In the end, I think that this isn’t really about the event that happened to Michael in Nineteen-Sixty-Eight. It’s dealing with the aftermath from these tragedies that counts and I apologize that I couldn’t tell the story any better than this.
Michael has been haunted for almost fifty years now; the victim of failed modern machinery and fate or even God’s Will itself.
We never know what someone has been through or dealing with. This makes a kind word or just a simple smile go a long, long way in helping someone cope.
A group of local community and church members went in together and bought Michael a small home, replacing the small cabin Michael had lived in before. He seems to be very proud of his new home.
There is hope for living when we help those who are just surviving.
Situation + Reaction = Outcome
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Michael’s next trip to Hot Springs with me.
Y’all have a great week!