Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bringing Down the House

[caption id="attachment_165" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="I would sit on the swing while Tom would chew tobacco and tell me moonshine tales from his rocker or the top of the steps."][/caption]

When I was 11 or 12, we moved from Snap Creek to Pigeon Roost when Mom and Dad bought nearly 40 acres of land in the head of the hollow (pronounced holler if you're from where I'm from). I had half a mountain to explore: hand-dug coal mines, animal trails, springs, seeps, rocks to throw, rocks to climb, rocks to look under. In a trailer across the road lived Victoria Ferrell and her coal-truck-driving son, Johnny "Moondog" Ferrell. Next door to them lived Tom Ratliff, Vic's brother.

Tom had lived in Pigeon Roost all of his considerable life (he claimed to be 94 every year until he died when I was 22 or so), and had known my grandfather's brother Everett in the '30s and '40s. Everett had been a hell-raiser and had been accused in the '40s of murdering a woman while in a drunken rage. Supposedly Tom Ratliff had helped hide him after the murders. And supposedly Tom Ratliff had sold him the moonshine he was drinking that night. As far as I know, no one in my family is sure of the details. My grandfather had distanced himself from Everett at the time and many of the court documents were lost in a courthouse fire a few years later, but I digress.

On summer evenings Tom would sit in his rocking chair or on the porch steps and cut a chew from the plug of tobacco he kept hidden in one of his pockets. Many evenings I would join him and he'd tell stories about his moonshining business. I had a still here and he'd point to the mountain behind my house. And one there after the rev'nuers came and busted that one up and he'd point still higher behind my house. I learned how to load a car or truck with moonshine with false bottoms in the trunk or bed. How to chock the springs so it wouldn't sag under the weight of 100 gallons or more. That you fire your still with ash because it burns hot and with very little smoke. That you don't take the same path to your still twice.

Eventually Tom died, then Johnny, leaving Victoria alone. She'd wanted to sell her property to my dad for a while and, before she died, she sold it to him. Tom's house, Johnny's garage, her trailer and the mineral rights. They repaired her trailer and rent it out to the guy that works for my dad, but Tom's house was beyond repair. This past fall they started demolishing it. On our last trip to West Virginia I sat on his porch steps for a while then went inside and looked around for Tom's ghost. He wasn't there, but the remains of his stills are there and there, on the hill behind my parents' house, rotting beneath a drift of hand dug coal and leaves.

[caption id="attachment_166" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Tom's table, stove, refrigerator, sink and cabinets are long gone."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_164" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="This wallpaper was the last of several layers."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_159" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The heat from the coal-fired stove cracked the plaster and peeled the paint in the living room."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_155" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="These solid wood doors are original to the house and, although a little damaged, still beautiful."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_154" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Behind Door Number One: buckled ceiling, bare bulb, dirty walls."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_156" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="View from the kitchen. Tom\'s summer bedroom was through the door to the left (the cinderblock walls made it cooler he said), storage to the right."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_163" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="It was too big of a job for this one little broom."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_160" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Dirty white walls and the only picture left hanging."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_162" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The stars would be beautiful from the porch."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_158" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Maybe he\'s in here, waiting to be let out."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_157" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Tom buit the door from salvaged lumber and nails."][/caption]


  1. You have to love West Virginia stories that involve people named "Moondog" and moonshine false bottoms. That sounds like something that would happen in my family :)

    Places like these hold so many awesome memories for all of us, and it always kills us when they go away. It's the case with houses, cars, you name it. Right before I left Huntington for Florida, I drove to every place I had called home during my time there. I'm surprised no one called the cops on the strange girl sitting in her car outside their bedroom windows at 3 a.m. All I needed was a trench coat.

    I just sat and thought of this and that, that happened in each place -- the good, bad, ugly and stuff beyond human comprehension. But every time I left a particular place, I knew I could never go back. Even if I did return to Huntington someday, I could never have times like those again.

    I've since moved back to West Virginia, but nothing in any city where I've lived or frequented is the same. I'm not just talking about the physical aspects, though. Even if my totally awesome friends are still around, life has become much more complex. I can't just throw on ratty jeans any day of the week and go about my business anymore. I'd be fired on the spot if I showed up for work in something like I'd wear to class daily, back then. I guess that's just a natural part of aging. I often find myself longing for the days I could get by with wearing that stuff or when the fan box I used for a nightstand was just fine.

    Maybe my friends from college and I should all reunite in Huntington, rent a rat-trap hotel room, decorate it in cardboard furniture and just forget we're 30 -- even for just a little while :)

  2. Great read Jason! Brings back a lot of memories... :-)