By Roger Barbee
When Mary Ann and I were just valley "weekenders," each Saturday morning I would ride my upright bike on Old Bethel Road. Our little road is hilly, so it offered me good exercise and a way to keep my weekly mileage up. It was on one of those rides, some 10 years ago, that I met him.
As I was riding up and down our road, I noticed an older fellow standing next to a mailbox. He watched me on each lap as I came by, and on my last lap I stopped and he asked, "How long you gonna' do that?"
He wore work boots and his clean, pressed work shirt had meticulously stitched repairs, and his khaki work pants had a few finely applied patches. While well worn, his belt and boots spoke of good care. His eyes gleamed as he looked at me, and his hands told of years of manual labor. I introduced myself and told him about my wife Mary Ann, and he nodded to the small house off the road where his wife and he lived. We parted as I had some chores to do, but I was excited to tell Mary Ann about the country gentleman I had met.
Before too many weekends after that initial one, he and I were spending Saturday afternoons together as he helped me around our place. The first afternoon he worked with me, he spent a few hours using a weed eater on the bank out front. After he finished, I gave him a twenty dollar bill. Before too long, he returned with $4 and said, "You paid me too much. Here's your change." I lost that first "discussion," but before long I had convinced him that his help was worth $10 an hour.
All around Red Hill I see much that his hand has touched: he helped me plant two redbuds in the front side yard, irises on the front bank, and four apple trees behind the corn crib. When he saw me making bluebird houses, he showed up with an old corner post in which some bird had opened a nest-hole and he helped me dig a hole in the back field to place it. He said, "Some bird mighten' like that."
As he aged, he was capable of doing less manual labor for me. But, as much as his hand is evident at Red Hill, what I cherish most are his stories of growing up in the valley. One afternoon he asked me did I know Buck Hill. When I told him that I had heard of it, he said, "Let's go. I'll show it to you." When he pointed out the house where he had lived and other intimate sites, I understood for what I was driving. We toured Buck Hill, and he told me how he would save a dime so that on Saturday he could go to a movie in Mount Jackson. As we headed home, he directed me to toward Hamburg School to show me the hill he climbed on his bike as he pedaled to Bowman's Crossing to see his girlfriend. He admitted that often he had to walk his bike up that short, nasty hill. After all, his bike had one gear, fat tires, and he had worked in the fields all day.
He spent many hours either in our house or in my shop , and he had an astonishing memory. Once he looked across our back field toward the river and asked, "Anybody ever tell you about the coon club back yonder?" Soon, another piece of local history was passed.
He shared stories of the jobs he held in Edinburg or Mount Jackson in now-closed mills. On his right hand were missing finger joints caused by an accident in one of the mills. His only comment was, "It was hard work back then, Roger."
If I asked a question about some person or event, he would say, "Gimme' a minute. I'll think of it." And he would. He did not gossip, but he was an oral historian of a small area of the valley.
Like all of us he aged, and before any of us fully realized, he had gotten quite bad. His only child was called, and she came from Alabama to see about him. Two months ago she closed his little, brown house and put him in her car to go to her house for what time remained.
Yesterday she called and shared that he had a large tumor in one lung and that hospice was coming in to help his end. As I sit in this front bay window looking down our street toward his empty house, I see his hands as they were when we first met -- the hands of a workman. Strong, brown, calloused, and cracked, but hands that I depended on, as did he. Now, as with all of us, not even they can slow the tide he faces.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.