Two Stories by the late Charles Woodson Bennet
~ Recorded by David Norris ~
FOREWORD from David Norris:
That last summer before he died, I’d visit Old Charley in his little tar-paper shack on the side of the mountain just off Indian Draft Road up in Callaghan, Virginia. I’d pull my car over to the side of the road and walk about 50 yards up through the woods. He was always glad to see me, and he always invited me into his home. He never felt shame, never hesitated to welcome me into his single room where he sat on the bed while we talked.
His one room shanty had a little coal or wood stove, depending on what he could find to burn in it, that was about waist high. His bed served as his couch, and I sat on a wooden chair across from him as he told his stories. He cooked on top of that stove with his frying pan and a sauce pot. He had no electricity, no running water, no windows, and no rugs to cover the plywood floor that his neighbor, Helmut Does, had put in there for him.
I could see him fading, his strength waning, and he knew his time was coming. He had developed what the folks back home called “yellow jaundice.” At the end of the summer, I packed up my car and headed for California. By the time I arrived in San Francisco, he had already left us.
Charley lived a hard life. As a young boy, he was bringing down a load of wood from the top of the mountain in a wagon pulled by two mules. The brakes broke loose, and the wagon ran over top of the mules and turned over on him. He pointed to his left foot and told me, “My toes is where my heel is supposed to be.” I looked at the braces on the side of his boot and the bare steel on its tip where the leather had worn off. He had worn those shoes a long time.
He had to fend for himself, crippled like that, for the rest of his life after that wagon turned over. He came from a poor and uneducated family, and they had all died off by the time I met him. He told me stories of living through the Great Depression, of sleeping in the woods and making pets out of wild animals like deer and owls, of sleeping in the bus station during the winter months when it was too cold to stay out in the woods. On those last visits, I even saw that “old toad frawg” that lived with him inside his shanty in the wintertime.
Here are two of Charley’s stories. I hope you will enjoy them.
Along in the Wintertime
One winter, I was about, oh, I reckon, 30 years old, and I didn’t have no house to live in. So this old boy was telling me that he was in the army and how tough it was to live and everthing. Said he’d slept outside, kept that blanket over him.
I seen Taft Fudge. Taft told me I could cut some firewood up on his place. I couldn’t get no wood to cut to make a living except for firewood. So I cut me up a load of firewood, got it sold, and put the money in my billfold.
It was getting along in the wintertime. It was getting up in the winter.
So I went over to town and got this boy to come help me, what was in the army. He was windy, you know. So well, we cut a load of wood by evening that day, and commenced hauling afore it got night.
While we was loading the wood, Bunny and Roy Hosey said, “Charley, you boys are going to freeze to death tonight over here.”
I said, “No.”
Boy, it was cold! There was what they called an old slate pit up in back of there, so well, we go on up there. I get us a sack of some groceries and stuff, and we make coffee in a tin can. We go up there, and we took these boards and set ‘em up so that both ends is open, you see, and we got under the boards and made our coffee, eat our supper.
So well, along about 10 o’clock in the night, we had a fire built under there. He decided to lay down and go on to sleep. But I didn’t! He went to sleep, he did, but he didn’t sleep but for about 15 or 20 minutes.
He woke up! And he just rolled and tumbled and hollered about it being so cold. He told me he was “freezing to death!”
I said, “I thought you told me that you stayed in the army and slept under a wool blanket.”
He said, “I did, but,” he said, “it wasn’t as cold as it is up here!”
So well, we toughed it out to the next morning. The freight train was to running, and he hit ‘em outta there for the train station to hop him a freight somewhere’s warmer.
Well, I got that shanty by that evening about half up. I went in to town and got me a cook stove to put in there. And got me some more groceries, some meat and eggs and stuff.
Sleet! It was sleeting right on me!
I got up and went outside and got some old tin and put it over top of me and the stove. Stepped back under the tin. Didn’t have no more firewood. Eggs, they froze that night and busted.
I stayed ‘til daylight, and daylight come, that sleet was just about a half-inch deep. I hit ‘em outta there to a neighbor woman over the town’s house, Miss Mable Rennie Thompikins.
So she said, “Charley, just stay down in the basement and sleep.”
She put me a nice cot down there, and I stayed down there. She gave me my supper, give me my breakfast. I worked for her shoveling sleet and stuff. I thinks, “I won’t get nothing but what I eat now.”
I stayed ‘til the sleet went off. The sleet went off, why, I got me some more nails and hit ‘em back over there. I got my shanty on up. Got a tin roof on it. And that night insulation in it good. It heated good with that cook stove. I didn’t have to get out when it sleeted or snowed. I could stay in that shanty. Finally, I got me some heavy pasteboard and pasteboarded it on the inside good. Then put tin around the outside of it.
I had a nice shanty by the end of the day.
An old fox will come along and find a yella jackets’ nest, and he’ll take his tail and stir them yella jackets up. He’ll sit there, and they’ll get in his tail, in that hair in his tail.
Then, he’ll bring that tail around and eat ever one of them yella jackets.
He’ll eat ‘em!
Then he’ll dig the nest out and go on off.
WRITER’S BIO: David Norris has lived in Asia since 1985. He resides in Korea but is currently on short term assignment to Japan. He lectures in writing and literature for the University of Maryland University College Asia. His work has appeared in The Chariton Review, Taproot Literary Review, Poetry San Francisco, and The Dan River Anthology. David was born in the small town of Covington, Virginia, way up in the Alleghany Mountains. He left when he was 20 and has been traveling ever since.
Want to read more of David’s writing at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Sometimes We Just Have To Let Them Go
55 Minutes Past the Hour
Harlan Martin’s 7 Turkeys
Cherry Blossoms and Our Lives
An Antiquated Sense of Social Protocol
A Double Jack With A Sidecar
How I Learned To Read
David has more great stories listed in our USADS Articles pages.
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