Coming Home

"Bul-l-l-y!" Buzz Beaty would call loudly across the street whenever my father would drive by the corner filling station. Any number of fishing buddies, hunting cronies, and drinking companions habitually lounged outside the two-pump Sinclair Gas and Oil. Propped back in a motley collection of second-hand chairs, the men acted as sentries whose main purpose was keeping up with the comings and goings of townsfolk and visitors in tiny Highlands, North Carolina. Affectionately called Billy by most, my father would raise his arm in salute to the group, and, more often than not, drop by for an exchange of comfortable old fish stories, inside jokes, and outrageous lies. Long before Gomer and Goober, the gas station group included native sons with names like Buzz, Dead-Eye, Jimbo, and Pee-Wee.

The voices of the men echoed in my mind as we drove into Highlands. It was a remarkably warm July day for this town proudly hailed as "the highest point east of the Rockies." Here, nature usually provided the air conditioning, but today we kept the car windows shut and welcomed the artificial cool. The heat wave of the lower elevations had followed us as we prepared to complete my father's funeral with his burial in the Highlands Cemetery. Looking through the window toward the familiar corner, I saw a row of shops instead of the gas pumps and racks of tires. Bright signs advertised mountain crafts, airbrush T-shirts, designer fashions, and frozen yogurt.

A yuppie paradise, I thought, as I scanned both sides of the street. I saw another frozen yogurt stand, several jewelry stores, and two expensive looking antique shops. A Starbucks coffee shop clone was obviously popular as many of the strolling shoppers sipped iced coffee concoctions from clear plastic cups. Leisurely window shopping, most wore Birkenstocks or Doc Martens with their fashionable Abercrombie and Fitch shorts. Over the sidewalk to our right, the old theater marquee announced, Scenic Lots—Inquire Within. Collages of real estate photos adorned the frames that once held the movie posters. "My gosh, the theater is a real estate office," I blurted out to my sons in the back seat. "Did I ever tell you that when I was a little girl our school principal owned and managed the theater? His name was Mr. Sommer, he always wore bow ties, and he only opened the theater on weekends during the school year. We thought it was so special in the summer to go to the show in the middle of the week. In the back he even had a sound-proof 'cry room' with a window so mothers with fussy babies could watch the movie," I prattled on as they politely avoided telling me they had heard this bit of Highlands history a hundred times before. "I just cannot believe they closed the theater."

"I cannot believe this traffic," my husband complained. Already stunned by the addition of two new traffic lights since our last Highlands visit, he was appalled to be waiting through one light's second change from green to red as we tried to make a left turn. A steady stream of "Beemers," Mercedes, and Porsches impeded our progress, and an occasional Lexus, Jeep Cherokee, or Ford Explorer broke the monotony of German engineering. Highlands' main street has its two-way lanes separated by parking spaces in what would have been a median. With Fourth of July vacationers added to the usual summer crowd, every available space was filled. Drivers crept along hoping to snare any space that opened up. Although I noticed several functional Suburbans parked here and there, I did not see a single legitimate pick-up truck. This time I spared the boys my thoughts and simply let my mind's eye see this street as it was almost forty years ago.

* * *

Highlands always grew in the summer months. During the winter, its population was little more than 500, and most of those folk were related to five or six big families. June brought what we called "the summer people," mostly wealthy Georgians and Floridians escaping to the cool mountain air. Their summer "cottages" were usually large homes with spacious lawns and breathtaking views, and many year-round Highlands residents made their living building, painting, repairing, or cleaning these houses. Summer was a bustling time, and even the boys at the Sinclair station had to cut back on their lounging time. Still, the only traffic jam in the 1950's was two cars stopping at the town's one traffic light at the Bill's Soda Shop corner.

Bill's was a great place for ice cream or cherry Cokes. The little shop boasted a Formica counter and vinyl covered stools as well as several tables for two with curved-back ice cream parlor chairs. Two huge pinball machines dominated one wall. They had impressive light and sound effects, and the rousing TILT alarms could be heard on the sidewalk outside. A big attraction was the magazine rack where browsing was welcome and expected. One end of the rack held comic books, and I bought my childhood copies of Superman, Archie, and Little Lulu at Bill's.

Across the street was the Highlander Restaurant with substantial country fare offered inside and a row of newspaper vending machines outside. In summer one could buy the Miami Herald and Saint Petersburg Times (only a day or two old), but in winter only the Asheville Citizen box held papers. The Highlander smelled of coffee and fried everything, and its shiny red counter stools were usually full. My father would bring me here for hot chocolate after we had dropped my sister and cousins off at school. Sipping the hot liquid, I would listen to Daddy talk politics with the regulars.

Next door was Potts' Market. Owned by my mother's uncle, the grocery was a compact affair of shelves and produce bins up front and the meat case in the rear. Cousin Steve, in his blood-stained apron, managed the artful cutting of roasts and steaks to display in the glass case. We did our shopping here, of course, but often our groceries were delivered to the back door at home. The Potts family dominated the adjacent US Post Office as well, with my mother, cousin Bud, and my Uncle Nick all working to sort and post the Highlands mail. "My daddy doesn't have a job, but my mama works at the post office," my sister had once announced to neighbors. Since Daddy traveled and had no office to visit, Becky concluded he surely was unemployed.

Parking for the market or the post office could get a little more difficult when the Cadillacs with Florida tags invaded, but the Highlands men usually had no trouble finding a spot for their pick-ups or Jeeps. Most of the trucks were a bit worse for wear, and backing up was complicated with a ladder or two sticking out of the back. The well-worn Jeeps were practical transportation, especially since many mountain roads were impassable without four-wheel drive.

* * *

"Is that a Hummer?" Evan asked from the back seat, interrupting my reverie.

"I have no idea, honey. It looks like a tank to me," I answered with my usual ignorance of automobiles and added with righteous indignation, "Oh, Lord, Larry, another real estate office where the soda shop should be. Daddy would hate this. And can you believe Highlands has a French restaurant? Who would come all the way up here to have French food?"

"All these people who are buying the condos we saw, honey. A mountain vacation for them probably means more than a fried chicken picnic and a visit to the waterfall," he said calmly. "Face it, sweetheart, a lot of people have discovered Highlands, and it's just keeping up with the demand."

"I hate it," I said vehemently. My grief and the uncommon heat made me churlish. Larry and the boys sensed my mood and did not argue. I longed for the comfort of the long ago life when my sister and I walked to town and paused to greet amiable old characters sitting on Main Street's "loafer's bench."

* * *

The leisurely pace of daily life then for Highlands visitors and natives alike made worries about vehicles, parking, and real estate deals non-existent. More pressing in the summer was devising the right costume for Hillbilly Day. Each year Highlands satisfied the outsider's need for the stereotyped hill folk or country cousin, and Main Street was roped off for an all day celebration of mountain life. Everyone dressed in their best interpretation of pioneer folk, so the streets were full of Snuffy Smith and Loweezy look-alikes enjoying banjo music and picnics. One year, a summer visitor organized a parade of Davy Crockett wannabes. Mesmerized by all things on the new television we owned, I proudly marched with the other children, resplendent in coonskin cap, Indian moccasins, and fake buckskin fringed pants and shirt. My adventuresome sister defied mother's orders that year and tried to climb the greased pole to snatch the ten dollar bill at its top. Sliding down dramatically after getting within inches of the prize, she fared better in the bubble gum bubble-blowing contest.

* * *

"Finally!" my husband said as we made the left in front of the Episcopal Church. "I don't guess we're running behind," he added. "No way did anyone else avoid the traffic."

Brought back again to the business at hand, I nodded and glanced at the stately white church surrounded by a low stone wall. Oaks, rhododendron, and white pine shaded the neatly trimmed lawn. We had debated having Daddy's services here, but decided it was better to have the funeral in Marietta so more friends could attend. Now, I felt comforted by the sight of the beautiful old church and resisted the urge to ask Larry to stop. Leaning my head on the window, I smiled at the memory of voices in the church.

* * *

"When am I going to get to pass the damn collection plate?" I had asked one Sunday at Sunday school assembly. Irritated that my cousins Joey and Nicky were always given the coveted job, I had boldly confronted my aunt about the injustice. We were a small congregation, so I suppose everyone knew of my naughty outburst. I must have been forgiven, though, since I remember passing the plate. We all delighted in hunting Easter eggs on the front lawn, and, dressed in our Easter finery, we joined in singing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today." My father's Aunt Rebecca, stately with her white hair and gloved hands, often joined us for services. She set our standard for reverent attention as she followed the rite of Holy Communion with devotion to every syllable in the prayer book.

* * *

A sign beside the parish hall proclaimed Addiction Seminar: Thursdays at 7:00 and brought me rudely back to the present.

Leaving downtown, we passed the new post office. A few old homes on this street looked the same, but rows of condominiums had replaced many familiar landmarks. At the stop sign, I noticed the lot once occupied by Crane's Riding stable was now home to a row of silver Airstream trailer homes. They were neatly positioned and surrounded with bright flowers. The same stream where we had watered the horses bubbled through, and I had to admit even a trailer park was an improvement over the stable. Neatness was never a strong suit for the Cranes, and the area around the stable was always squishy from a trickling water hose, mud, and horse manure. The building itself was a tumble-down row of stalls with ill-fitting doors and lopsided walls. Bridles and halters hung haphazardly on nails, and the Cranes themselves had learned a lot about lounging from the boys at the Sinclair station. Nevertheless, my sister and I had enjoyed many rides with Oscar and Chester Crane as we imagined ourselves as characters in National Velvet or My Friend Flicka.

We drove on past the new tennis courts, another yogurt shop, and two new convenience stores. I've lost my Daddy, I thought. I knew I had also lost the simple mountain town of my childhood.

The highway began to twist and turn as we drove toward the cemetery. The left onto the cemetery road is on a blind curve, and Larry made the same kamikaze turn that I always remembered being needed there. We proceeded down the narrow, tree-lined dirt road barely wide enough for two cars. The road was so narrow that the tree limbs from either side formed a thick canopy that blocked most of the sunlight even on this bright, hot day. The effect of the quiet, cool shade was immediate, and I felt calmer. Rounding the final curve, we burst into a kaleidoscope of breathtaking mountain scenery. "This is beautiful, Mom," Wes whispered. For a moment, the grandeur of the setting made me forget my heartache, and we left the car to walk slowly toward the group of solemn mourners.

Positioned on three tiers of sloping hillside, the cemetery was surrounded by dense forest. Well beyond the tops of the most distant trees, a line of the stately Appalachian mountains rose and fell against the blue sky. The mountains extended to the horizon and the farthest peaks were themselves a dark blue. The air was clear and as quiet as a majestic cathedral. Here and there among the headstones were outcroppings of granite, making the man-made markers look almost natural. It was a beautiful scene with the right to be termed a bit of heaven on earth. As I welcomed the compassionate embrace of family and friends gathered at Daddy's graveside, I thought, Daddy, it is exactly as I remembered. Welcome home.

Fritzie Sheumaker