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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why I Make French Toast

Why I Make French Toast
A Cultural Experience Paper

            My French toast is one of the favorite weekend breakfasts of both my wife and daughter.  For most people, French toast is nothing more than a fast, easy, inexpensive way to prepare breakfast.  Every time I make French toast I retell some version of the same story about where, when, how, and from whom I learned to make French toast.  For my family, the story is much more important than the French toast.  For me, the story is a way to remind myself of many of the most important values and ideas I have learned in my life.  It is also a way to remember and honor one of the finest men I have ever known.
            When I was about twenty-one, I lived in Summers County, West Virginia, on an institution called the Appalachian South Folklife Center.  The Folklife Center was founded by Don West and his wife Connie.  They lived there until shortly before their deaths in the early 1990’s.  Prior to founding the Folklife Center they had lived in Baltimore, Atlanta, and a variety of other cities and towns all over the Southern Appalachian Region.  Don West was a poet, preacher, teacher, union organizer, and social activist.  Connie was an Appalachian artist and social activist.  She spent most of her life raising her two daughters and supporting Don in his work.  Their lives were dedicated to the preservation of Appalachian culture, social activism, and the teaching of art, literature, and ideas related to those subjects.
            All year round in the 1970’s, large groups of people from all over the country and world came to the Folklife Center for workshops, festivals, and other activities.  Don West felt very strongly that the Folklife Center should not accept any government funding due to the bureaucratic and ideological controls which would have been attached to such funding.  As a result, money to operate the Folklife Center was always tight and spending had to be closely monitored. 
            One of the ways that Don West cut spending was by frequently feeding French toast for breakfast to large groups.  Don would frequently perform the cooking chores himself even though he was the founder and Executive Director.  The eggs came from chickens which were kept on the large farm which is the site of the Folklife Center.  The bread was always from the thrift store; or in the vernacular of the poor, was ‘day-old bread’.  Don had grown up on a hillside farm in North Georgia and was the hardest working person I ever knew.  He had paid his way through Lincoln Memorial University by working  in a dozen or more jobs in his four years there. He had done the same while earning a master’s degree from Vanderbilt. He had gone on to work in textile mills and coal mines in conjunction with his union organizing activities.  As the director of activities at the Folklife Center, he ran the farm and often engaged in carpentry, plumbing, or logging in order to lower expenses.  Don would enter the kitchen at 5 or 6am with his large calloused hands and do the work in the kitchen while simultaneously teaching Appalachian culture, literature, or union history to whomever might be helping him that morning.  On many of those mornings, I was lucky enough to be helping Don West.
            Don had graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in 1929 in a class that included James Still and Jesse Stuart who were also famous Appalachian writers.  Don was famous enough at his death that the New York Times carried his obituary.  However, he was not nearly as well known as his two classmates.  But collectively, they are often referred to as the best group of regional writers to graduate in a single class from any college or university.  The fact that Don West was not as well known was largely a matter of choice on his part.  His first major book of poetry, “Clods Of Southern Earth” was a major pre-publication success and received very positive reviews all over the country.  Don West could have pursued his writing career purely for the sake of money and success and would have been likely to be just as well known as Still and Stuart.  Instead, he chose to focus the work of his life on the promotion of Appalachian culture, unionism, and social activism in a consistent and unflinching way for the rest of his life.
            Don West was actively involved in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Don West was run out of Atlanta for working to spread the truth about Angelo Herndon, a black radical who was sentenced to death in Atlanta under the sedition and treason laws of the time during the Great Depression for speaking out against poverty and discrimination in the south.  During his lifetime, Don West had three homes burned by people who were opposed to the teaching of social activism and equality.  Don West was called before the McCarthy Committee during the witch hunts; and his testimony was copied and passed out on street corners by people opposed to his teachings in Hinton, West Virginia, when he first created the Folklife Center. 
            The final fire in Don West’s life was accidental and destroyed the combination dining hall, kitchen, and meeting room at the Folklife Center in the time I lived there.  A small group of us had been to an evening class at the Antioch Appalachia location in Beckley, West Virginia, and received a call that the building was in flames.  We rushed at dangerous speeds across the mountain between Beckley and Hinton, past Bluestone Dam and onto the Folklife Center property to find Don and Connie West, a few volunteer firemen, and a small group of neighbors who had learned over the recent years just how important Don West and the Folklife Center were to Appalachia.  Don West, who had been beaten and left for dead in Harlan County union efforts, sentenced to inhumane country jails for his beliefs, and threatened with death a hundred times stood with his six foot four frame bent and tears in his eyes staring into the still flaming embers.  His arms and face were scorched from multiple trips into the flames to rescue several of Connie’s paintings and a few mementos of their lives.  But the thing that Don West spoke of regretting losing most was a simple chestnut board riddled with bullet holes.  It had been labeled The Death Board where it had hung for years over the food service window.  That board had been in a wall in a small coal miner’s shack where several union miners had been stood against the wall and murdered by company gun thugs.  That board had symbolized the entire American labor effort against inadequate wages, open shops, and company sponsored discrimination.  It had also symbolized both the group of men who had been willing to die for the effort and Don West who had lived his life with the same willingness to die for the effort while fighting daily to see that such men and women were never forgotten. 
            Another of the most telling memories I have of Don concerns the one time he allowed me to read his scrapbook.  As I was leafing through the volume of book reviews, newspaper stories, and letters, I came on a wrinkled and tattered page from a Blue Horse Writing Tablet, the common household writing paper of the south.  There was a hole in one side of the page where it had been wrapped around a brick which had been thrown through Don’s window in the middle of the night.  In a semi-literate scrawl, the page read “You nigger loving son of a bitch get your ass out of Georgia”.  Don had simply replaced the window, put the page in his scrapbook and gone back to work teaching, preaching, and promoting the ideas in which he believed.
            When I make French toast, I am doing much more than just making French toast.  I am honoring Don West and the life he lived.  I am making sure that at least a few other people in my life know that there are many more important things in the world than money.  I am working to pass on the ideas and values I learned from Don West.  I am making an attempt to insure that my daughter will have the foundation of thinking instilled in her which can lead her to be a contributing member of society in more than a simple tax paying kind of way.  I am doing much more than making French toast.


There’s Anger In The Land

By Don West

              In the summer of 1950 I picked up a Negro hitchhiker in south Georgia and brought him across the Chatahoochee at Eufala, Alabama.  As we crossed the river, he began telling me the story of how his brother was lynched and his body cut down from the limb and flung across the doorway of his mother’s shack—broken, bloody, and lifeless.

              Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
              And there’s weeping in the weeds
              There is sorrow in the shanty
              Where a broken body bleeds…


For there’s been another lynching
              And another grain of sand
              Swells the mountain of resentment—
              Oh, there’s anger in the land!


And a woman broods in silence
              Close beside an open door
              Flung across the flimsy doorstep
              Lies a corpse upon the floor!

              You’ll not ask me why I’m silent;
              Thus the woman spoke to me
              Her two eyes blazed forth anger
              And her throat throbbed agony.

              Let the wind go crying yonder
              In the treetops by the spring,
              Let it’s voice be soft and feeling
              Like it was a living thing.

              Once my heart could cry in sorrow
              Now it lies there on the floor
              In the ashes by the hearth-stone—
              They can’t hurt it anymore!

              Did you ever see a lynching,
              Ever see a frenzied mob
              Mill around a swaying body
              When it’s done it’s hellish job?

              Yes, the night was full of terror
              And the deeds were full of wrong
              Where they hung him to a beech wood
              After beating with a thong.

              Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
              And there’s sobbing on the sand,
              There is sorrow in the shanties—
              And there is anger in the land!

            When I make French toast, I am doing much more than making French toast.

 Copyright 2003 & 2015 by Roger D. Hicks

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Widespot Women's Club

Appalachian Fiction by Roger D. Hicks*

They had never chosen the name for themselves.  They never would have.  The name had been given to them by the community.  Or more accurately, the name had been given to them by the men of the community.  They were known quietly and derisively, often even by their husbands, as the Widespot Women's Club.  They were spoken of this way on days when decisions were being made about the little church to which they all belonged.  On these days the church board would meet and all the members of the Widespot Women's Club would be there in their official capacity.  Today the Widespot Women's Club was meeting.  There was a decision to be made.

Today, like all days when the Women's Club met, the men were in the Widespot Grocery next door, talking, telling jokes, trading knives, and waiting to hear what decision had been made by the Women's Club.  No man had ever been a member of the Widespot Church Board.  None of them ever expected to be.  It was a situation they had come to accept; some of them quietly, some with grumbling, and some with the faint hope that someday something would change.  All these men were members of the church.  All attended church each Sunday.  All came to the Widespot Grocery to vent their frustrations, eat a bologna sandwich, or buy a few groceries. 

Widespot had been named several years ago when the post office had been about to arrive in a little white building across the road from the grocery.  The post office was going into a new little building beside the house of Wilhelmina "Willie" Wilson who in addition to being the postmaster was the chairperson of the Widespot Church Board.  Willie was known in the all male enclave at the grocery as "The President", a name her husband Bobby had coined once when a decision of the Women's Club had left him feeling powerless and emasculated.  The post office had required a name and the community was so small that it had never even had a name until the Postmaster General had decreed that it must.  The decree had also delegated total authority to Willie, in her capacity as postmaster, to choose that name.  After long thought and little discussion with anyone, Willie had chosen the name Widespot for a place that had been known in past years as Down The Road, Over There, and Them Wilson's Place.  Willie had chosen the name; the place would forever be Widespot and that was that.  This was Willie's customary way of making decisions.  This was how the decision today would be made in the Widespot Church. 

Willie called the meeting to order in her customary way--"Well, let's get started."  The other women in the club nodded, smiled, and mumbled, "Okay", "All Right", and "Uh Huh", just as they always did at the start of every meeting.  In the store, Bobby sat on his stool behind the u-shaped wooden counter littered with a hand operated cash register, an old set of Globe-Stimpson scales, wrapping paper for bologna sandwiches, and a University of Kentucky basketball schedule.  He called the meeting of the Widespot men to order in his usual way--"Well boys, what do you think they're going to do over there?"  Bobby's brother Billie, Uncle Bert Small, and the others all responded in their usual way.  There were muttered grunts, "I don't have no idea", and a statement from Jim Bob Johnson, the only single man in the group, "Whatever they want to do, just like always." They all knew that today a decision would be made. 

The Women's Club would hire a permanent minister for the church today.  There were only two candidates for the job.  There were two opinions in the community about who should be hired and why.  There was only one opinion in the Women's Club and that was Willie's opinion.  She already knew who would be hired; in their own way, the men knew who would be hired also. 

One of the candidates was a retired minister who had once helped build a large and effective church on the other side of the state.  He held a doctoral degree from the best seminary in the state and had been a minister for over fifty years.  He was looking for one last community and church in which to preach, minister, and matter.  He was known as Tom Price, or in the area where he had preached before, as Independent Price.  Independent Price had been given that name by a banker who had once served as the chairman of a church board where Tom Price had served.  The banker had wanted very much at that time to build a church football field that would bear his name because he loved both football and himself.  Tom Price had wanted to build a new addition to the church that would house several new Sunday School rooms and a baptistery because he loved to minister and felt the church needed the new addition.  Tom Price had won the discussion with that church board and the new addition had been built.  However, the banker had won the overall discussion with the community and Tom Price found himself out of a job a year later and known as Independent Price.  He had not sought the appellation, but he did not deny or abhor it.  He cherished his independence and believed he had earned it with fifty years of service to the Lord.

The other candidate was a nervous and acquiescent young man of twenty, who was in his first year at a second rate seminary whose students were farmed out to little churches at low wages while they completed their educations.  His name was Marion Shirley, although the men in the Widespot Grocery had begun to call him Shirley Marion.  Shirley had no degree; he had no experience; he had no opinions and no desire to form any.  He was exactly the kind of minister Willie Wilson wanted.  She had realized this one morning as she had begun making biscuits.  The dough in her hands had been soft, white, and formless.  It changed shape often and readily in her hands.  It met her every desire and was completely powerless to resist.    And, after ten minutes in her overheated oven, the biscuit dough would become small, tasteless, worthless lumps that bore no resemblance to anything desirable.  Naturally, as she kneaded the dough, Willie thought of Marion Shirley and what he could become in her hands. 

Marion Shirley was about to become the next minister of the Widespot Community Church and he had no idea. That was his customary state. He had come to the church on a Sunday in July just before his first semester in the seminary to preach on an emergency basis without having ever known where Widespot was, who lived there, or their leanings in religion.  The little church often had ministers sent to them by the seminary president because they often had ministers sent elsewhere by the Widespot Women's Club due to Willie's aversion to "preaching that got too far over everybody's heads".  Bobby and Jim Bob Johnson had jointly come to the conclusion that her real aversion was to preaching that got too deep in the Bible.  Bobby was not a supporter of his wife's positions.  However, his wife was the primary support of their family since her father had once made a living buying, selling, and converting anything his hands found available into money.  Willie owned the Wilson home.  She owned the building in which the Widespot post office resided, and her father had donated the land on which the church sat.  Bobby knew better than to argue with Willie.  Tom Price had come to Wide Spot under the same circumstances as Marion Shirley since the seminary president also sometimes referred him to churches on a temporary basis.  Tom had come to Widespot with knowledge of the church structure statewide and a general knowledge that no minister had stayed in Widespot long who ever amounted to much later in life.  Tom had come to the church just as he had gone to many churches armed with his Bible, an extensive knowledge of its contents, and a lifetime of experience in both ministry and the world.  

Tom preached a sermon that first morning based on a short story from Tolstoy and a Biblical text.  He also had an extensive knowledge of literature.  The sermon had called for Christian action, love for the down trodden, and awareness of one's own shortcomings.  Willie had stated after she gave Tom the little check from the church, "Can you believe that man preached a sermon about a story some Russian wrote?"  On his way to his car, Tom Price smiled to himself and thought, "That was not the favorite sermon some of those people ever heard.  But thank the Lord, they heard the truth."  

On his first Sunday in Widespot, Marion Shirley had preached, or more accurately, mumbled and stuttered his way through a brief attempt to explain why he thought he should become a minister.  He had no Biblical text, organization, or conclusion.  It pleased Willie Wilson greatly.  As she handed the quaking young man the check, she gushed praise for him, saying, "That was so nice Marion.  You are going to make a fine minister.  The church needs more dedicated young men like you to preach the gospel."  Marion had limped to his car thinking, "Why on God's green earth did I ever think I could be a preacher?"  For the first time in his life, he had come to an accurate assessment of himself.  Willie Wilson had not.  

The minister who  had been serving the Widespot Community Church at the time of the first visits by Shirley Marion and Tom Price had returned from his vacation in Myrtle Beach to inform the church that another opportunity had been offered to him during his trip and he must resign.  The opportunity had been in the form of the bikini clad daughter of a Georgia peanut farmer but the minister did not inform Willie Wilson or the church of that in his resignation.  Instead, he simply stated, "I must leave within sixty days to pursue a career in agriculture in Georgia.  I may also minister to a small flock there as well."  He made no mention of  the ministration he had in mind or the fact that they would be on the peanut farmer's daughter.  She had assured the fellow "Daddy will take care of us and you can take care of me."  Like many of Willie Wilson's former ministers he had found his natural calling.   

The resignation had left a job to be filled and for two months the seminary president had sent a different seminary student or retired minister to Widespot each to preach while the church board reached  a decision about which they wished to hire.  The only two who applied for the job were Marion Shirley and Tom Price.  Each was called back to preach one additional sermon prior to the meeting of the church board.  Marion Shirley had blundered his way through an essay he had snitched from Reader's Digest about finding satisfaction.  Tom Price had preached eloquently and well on a text from the New Testament with the title "Do You Know A Prostitute?  Jesus Did!"   Tom Price's sermon caught the hearts of Bobby Wilson and Jim Bob Johnson.  Uncle Bert Small said he found the sermon interesting, "but I just ain't that interested in it at my age."  Marion Shirley's blundering ineptitude and apparent malleability caught Willie's heart.  She made the final decision of the church board with her hands deep in her biscuit dough.  

Immediately after bringing the meeting of the church board to order, Willie Wilson stated to the group, "As you all know, we are here today to decide which minister we are going to hire for the church.  We had two applicants, that wonderful young man of the cloth, Marion Shirley, and the old man from over in the flat land who preached about that communist writer when he was here.  None of the women, including Willie, remembered, or wished to, that the sermon had been about nothing remotely related to communism.  But Willie knew that since the story on which it was based had been by Tolstoy she could easily hang Independent Price from the yardarm which Tolstoy's words had created.  The restless squirmings and unhappy mutterings of her minions told Willie instantly that she had chosen the correct method of getting her way.  

After assessing the mood of her club members, Willie went on.  "We have all seen the applications, (She did not know the word resume.) and it is obvious to me from the fine work Marion Shirley did in high school that he is going to do fine work at the Bible college and he will be a fine young minister.  Would anybody like to make a motion that we hire one of the applicants?"  There could only be one name placed in nomination.  Willie waited patiently to see which of her underlings would nominate Marion Shirley.  She knew that each of the women wanted to make the nomination but that they also would hesitate for some time in order to avoid the possibility of appearing to seek to take charge.  Finally, Bert Small's half sister, Sally "Sweet" Small, a bitter, venomous old maid who might one day assume Willie's seat at the head of the table were it not for her lack of intelligence and overabundance of bad judgement, leaned forward and said, "I think we should assist the good Lord in doing his work and give that fine young man a chance to preach where we can help him along in a good way."  

Willie smiled and accepted the nomination after it was seconded by Bobby's obese and timid Aunt Birdie Miles.  Then Willie asked, "And would anybody like to make any other nominations?"  Mercifully, she hesitated only briefly before closing the nominations lest one of her club members err by nominating Tom Price.  Then she proceeded by saying, "Well, since we only have one nomination, we don't have to put it to a vote.  We have just made the God directed choice of hiring that eloquent young man Marion Shirley to be our next minister."  Then Willie brought the official meeting to a close by asking, "Birdie, did you bring any of that wonderful German Chocolate Cake today?"  

The meeting broke up quickly and the women served the cake and coffee which had been perking in the kitchen and the conversation turned to grandchildren, spring greens, and ways to keep onions from going to seed.  Then Sally Small asked, "Don't you think we should get that fine young man a welcoming gift before next Sunday? And who is going to tell him he has been hired?"  

Willie gave a Sally a look that left no doubt who would deliver the message and then smiled benignly at the other members of the Widespot Women's Club, "You all can find him some kind of gift with the church money.  But it should be small and we can give it to him after church on Sunday,  I'll call him, as the chairperson, to tell him we have hired him.  I might get him some kind of welcome gift of my own.  But if I do, I'll give it to him when we meet in town to discuss his money and other stuff."  Then she smiled sweetly, contentedly, and thought quietly to herself of that upcoming private conversation with the naive young man.  Then as she helped clean the table of the cake crumbs, she said to no one in particular, "I think I'll bake biscuits in the morning.  I swear I'm craving biscuits."

Author's Note: This story was originally published in "Orpheus Volume VI No. 1 Spring 2004".  Orpheus held first publication rights only.  
Copyrighted by Roger D. Hicks, 2003 & 2015.