The shorter route through Sparta or the longer one that goes through Crossville?

From my perch in the rear of old Betsy, I yelled out, “The mountains—let’s go through the mountains!” Mom would turn to my Dad and raise her eyebrows. She hated going the narrow mountain roads. She said going ’round and ’round made her dizzy and the altitude made her ears pop. However, she deferred this and practically every other decision in life to my Dad.

If Betsy was running smooth, if her tires and the weather were both good, Dad would side with me, and we’d take the highway that led to the mountains. Mom would frown, shake her downcast head and say, “Robert, you be careful, hear?” Then, instead of letting me continue to squat with my knees on the hump, leaning forward against the middle of the front seat between them, she’d tell me to sit back on my seat and “hang on.”

Forget seat belts, old Betsy lacked even a backseat. A dark blue, 1938 Chevy business coupe with red pinstripes down the side, instead of a backseat, she had two tiny opera seats…little square cushions that when they were not being used, folded out of the way. The windows in the back were smaller than the ones in the front—much smaller. Still, from atop my little perch, whenever we were high on a mountain road, I would look out what window I had and ogle at the tiny barns and farm houses in the valley below.

I’d ask my dad, “Is this like flying?” (I’d never been in an airplane.) He’d say, “Son, it’s sorta like flying. But flying is a lot smoother.” In an hour or so, we’d round the last mountain and begin the final leg into Cookeville.

Mom would wiggle and complain about her ears and being stiff. She’d dig her compact out of her purse, comb her hair and refresh her powder and make-up, so she could look as pretty as one of my dad’s four sisters.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

Every fall, we’d travel north to east-central Tennessee to see my grandparents. They lived at 570 Freeze Street, at the corner of Denton Avenue, in Cookeville. My grandfather was Superintendent of Building and Grounds for Tennessee Tech. My grandmother kept house, tended the chickens and the garden, and did her best to raise my dad’s youngest brother, James. Dad came from a family of seven brothers and sisters. Every October, they’d all gather at the home place for a visit, usually during the week of the Putnam County fair.

At my grandparent’s house, each day began with a big country breakfast. It was quite an event. Served at 6:30 am, it usually consisted of scrambled eggs, pork chops, fried chicken, fried apples, sliced tomatoes, grits or cottage fries and biscuits.

Although my grandmother had a modern electric range that had been given to her one Christmas by the kids, she still preferred to cook on her old wood-burning stove that she’d refused to have removed from her kitchen.

The temperature inside the old stove was impossible to control. Sometimes the biscuits had a raw streak. Sometimes they were a little too brown—perhaps even burnt on the bottom.

My grandfather would look at his biscuit, turn it over and then look at my grandmother whose given name was “Prudence.” When the biscuits came out light, he‘d say “Prudy, don’t ya think these biscuits should have stayed in the oven a while longer?”

Wiping flour from her hands onto her apron, my grandmother would answer, “RL,”—she always called both him and my dad by their initials—“I thought they were too brown yesterday. So, today this is just the way I wanted them.” My grandfather would grunt, nod and resume a full-cycle of chewing—sans dentures (I never understood why he took them out to eat).

Regardless, seeing his entire face wrinkle and stretch as he chewed made me and the other grandchildren seated at the table grin and snicker—parental elbow notwithstanding.

After breakfast, my mom and my aunts would kibitz back and forth while they cleared the table, washed, dried and put away the dishes. My grandmother would join in, too, at least for a while. Then she’d head down to the garden to check the vegetables. She’d carefully inspect them and pick those she liked best—placing each one gently in the folds of her apron.

By the middle of the morning, most of the men would head to the barbershop, the pawnshop, the hardware store, or fishing.

Me? I would sit down on the little round stool at the old pump organ in the front hallway. I’d pump away at the bellows and try to play a tune. Despite orders from my mom to leave it alone, I didn’t.

Soon it was time for lunch and a nap.

In the coolness of a late fall afternoon in east Tennessee, everyone would settle in a chair out in the yard or on one of two porches, and sit a spell. The menfolk took delight telling their fishing stories and in frightening the kids and their city-slicker wives with tall tales about life in the Tennessee hills—spotting Big Foot and buying illegal whisky from the moonshiners. The stories didn’t have to be true; as a matter of fact, only a few were—especially the fishing stories.

I recall the night my grandfather told of catching a huge catfish in Center Hill Lake near Smithville. He said he fought that rascal for an hour before finally getting him into the boat.

My dad chimed in and said, “That’s nothing, Papa...a couple of years ago Oval (Dad’s older brother) and I went fishing in Cane Creek. I hooked one that broke my line, went right through Oval’s net, and busted a big hole in the bottom of the old wooden boat. I thought for sure we’d have to swim for shore.”

My grandfather gave a serious glance at Dad and then at Oval. He was all ears. “Yeah...yeah...yeah...really RL? How big was he?” (My dad was named for his dad, and back home, they called both of them “RL.”)

My dad grinned a sly grin. “Papa, how big was yours?”

My dad also delighted in telling stories of how Oval was always playing tricks on him. One that I remember best involved an icy cold morning and a frosty school flagpole. Oval asked Dad if he wanted to have some real fun. Dad said, “Sure.” Oval told him to touch his tongue to the icy metal flagpole. Dad did as he suggested, and of course, his tongue immediately stuck to the cold metal pole. There was no way it was coming loose without pulling the hide off. Oval laughed and went on into the schoolhouse! Dad was left there screaming, until a teacher came with a pan of water.

The most fun I ever had in Cookeville was swimming in the river with my cousins, and going to the Putnam county fair. Every fall, the fair occupied a number of acres just down Denton Avenue. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the lights up and down the midway spun a kind of magic. My younger cousins and I liked the rides best—especially the Ferris wheel, where getting stuck at the top was the big thrill. My older boy cousins liked the girls—especially that hot number from Monterey.

My grandmother, my mom and all my aunts would walk the midway. They’d stop to see the various displays of local talent, maybe at the potter’s wheel or at some other craft in process. They’d taste and perhaps buy a home baked cake or pie, a jar of sourwood honey or homemade jelly and jam.

For my dad, my uncles and my grandfather, the fair was a time for horse trading…watches, watch bobs, hunting knives, pocket knives, coins, arrowheads, rings, native-American jewelry—what have you. Out in the parking lot, some even swapped guns. They traded all evening long, and once back home, they’d spread out their loot and argue over who made the best deal.

Once I walked up on my grandmother in the backyard just as she wrung the neck off a chicken to fry for dinner. I’d never seen anything like that. That poor headless bird flipped and flopped around on the ground, bled and died.

My grandmother said, “Son, I know it seems brutal, but this is what we have to do. It’s nature’s way.” I never forgot it… especially when my dad threatened to wring my neck for something I had done.

One year we were late making the trip. We missed the fair and the family gathering. Dad just had a feeling that he needed to get home to see his folks, if only for a long weekend.

We arrived a little after lunch on Friday. The next day, a bright and crisp Saturday afternoon in mid-November, we went to the stadium at Tennessee Tech to watch a football game. The Golden Eagles from T-Tech won handily.

That night we popped corn and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the big Silvertone push-button radio (only three buttons worked) that sat in the living room.  It was a house rule that no one spoke or said a word during the Grand Ole Opry.

Since Dad had to be back at work on Monday, plans were for us to drive back home on Sunday. Boy, we were in for a surprise! We awoke to see the ground covered in white—the first snowfall of the season. The radio said east central Tennessee had already gotten eight inches and there was more to come.

The snow line extended south, almost to Chattanooga. They warned of hazardous driving conditions, especially in the mountains where many of the narrow, slick roads had already been closed.

My dad said, “Too bad, so sad.” He had to get back to work. My mom flatly refused to risk it. She said she bet that cars were falling off those mountains like flies. Caught between a rock and a hard place, my dad showed his temper. Mom didn’t budge.

Dad grabbed his suitcase and flew out the door. For the next three hours, Mom said little as she stared out the window at the snow that continued to fall.

My grandmother said not to worry; we could stay as long as we needed to. Mom now had a migraine headache and wanted to get home. We learned trains were still running from Cookeville to Knoxville, and if we hurried, we could make one that left around 1:45 PM…another one bound for Atlanta left Knoxville a little after four.

Mom opened her purse and counted her money. She didn’t have enough, so she borrowed a few bucks from my grandmother to help pay for the tickets and we headed out the door. Although Mom’s fretting had me worried about my dad, I loved that train ride. It and the snow added another dimension to the trip.

When we got home, Dad was already there. Mom asked him about his drive and he said there was nothing to it. As I recall, around our house the conversation was about as cool as the weather we’d left behind for the next several days. My mom had a way of holding on to things that she placed in the largest gunny sack ever created.

There were many more trips to Cookeville after the “snow experience,” in many different cars. But the only one I recall was when my grandfather died in 1959. Laying there in a casket covered in red roses, the thought crossed my mind that they must not be planning for him to eat in Heaven…they had his teeth in.

My grandmother passed eleven years later, but as I was then recovering from giving birth to an eight pound nine ounce gallbladder full of rocks, I wasn’t able to make the trip to attend her funeral.

Yep, visits to Cookeville with my grandparents and all the rest of my Dad’s family brought me great joy. I was an only child, so family time in Tennessee made me feel a part of a bigger, close-knit group—if only for a few days. Kinda reminds me of what the late John Denver had to say about West Virginia. “Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.”

Ron Burch retired from a career in advertising and marketing and has since authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel.

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