It has been said of me that I am a hard man.
I never gave this type of thing much thought, to be truthful; but I now realize that this description has been based on the observers’ perspective, not necessarily on the facts at hand. In my world there are times for tenderness and there are times when we face the things that we do not want to face. It may come as a surprise to many but I was raised to believe that menfolk do not brag, posture, or pose, and they certainly do not tell everything they know. In this current world of ‘social media’ and instant gratification that may seem like a strange concept, and if political correctness is your ‘thing’, then you may want to read something else; but the people that I know, my kind of people, Appalachian Mountain people, are a product of our experiences and the fact that we have not forgotten our family, and cultural, history. When you mention the term “Mountain Man”, for me it brings certain things, and people, to mind.
My friend Ralph is a good case in point. I have known him since we were babies and our families have known each other since they settled in this county, 232 years ago. Ralph was the kid that would, at age 15, disappear for a week at a time with a gun, a knife, a dog and a pack of matches as his only companions. In those days you might be able to find him on the river when the white suckers were running or in the winter, on a neighbor’s farm on the side of Point Lookout Mountain, checking his traps. Today he lives up the same hollow where he was born, one house above his mother’s place, and he still keeps the woodpile stocked and the springhouse clean and running for them both. The Army showed him the world at a time when being patriotic was not a popular thing, according to the media, but he held to his heart and his obligation to his people to be there anyway. For Ralph there is no gray area between right and wrong, there is only honesty: It has been said of mountain people that they are often standoffish and clannish; it has obviously never occurred to those observers that we mountain folks might just be listening, instead of running our mouths. It just might be that we all could benefit a bit more if we think before we speak.
I am often amused when folks go to great lengths to tell me how educated they are, yet when confronted with someone like Ralph those same people are quick to criticize what they perceive as ignorance. Of course they could not know that Ralph is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to many disciplines, and he is as well-read as any college professor on a great variety of topics. I think this is true of our Appalachian people as a whole, that we are maligned and ridiculed about a lack of ‘school house’ education, when in fact it is that we have learned the important things, because we have the never-ending curiosity of those that came before us, those that had to think, and learn, to survive. It may be the fact that we took this lesson to heart that differentiates us from the city folks.
Quite a few years ago a fellow from New Jersey wrote a book that at the time was hailed as a monumental work on ‘survival’. At that time (my college years) I sent Ralph a copy and asked him to give me a few of his thoughts on the work. It turned out that we had a good laugh over the fact that this fellow was going to make a ton of cash from teaching city people what every 13-year-old farm kid already knew. The parts that writer left out, however, were the most important, and conspicuous in their absence: respect for your neighbor; the willingness to help someone in need; the commitment to be hard when the circumstances call for it; and the love of the wonders, and realities, of life. Survival in the Appalachian Mountains for our ancestors was a product of all of these things; to forget them would be a great tragedy.
If you want to know what makes mountain folk tick, what the reason is for our families staying here for so long, it is because we do things on purpose. Thoreau once wrote that he went to Walden because he wanted to live deliberately; I think that if Appalachian mountain people can be summed up in a word, that word would be deliberate, a personal commitment to the necessary act and the acceptance of the consequences of that action. Ralph says what he means, and means what he says; and if you are smart, you will listen when he talks.
I wish more people could know Ralph; we are lucky to have him, and his kind, among us.