Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Coming Home

My hometown of Highlands, NC lost its soul for me sometime in the 1980s. Fritzie Sheumaker traveled back to Highlands recently to visit her father's grave at the Highlands Cemetery and wrote this wonderful account. Her writing captures the town the way it was.

When I was growing up, I thought all cemeteries were like this one -- unbelievably sited, landscaped, and secluded. If you ever go to Highlands, the cemetery is a must see, especially in the fall when the leaves are in full crimson and gold. The trees nestle the graves, creating a sacred space and the orientation is sloped towards the west so that the setting sun is visible before it fades below the ridgeline, casting long shadows over the soft rolling grass terraces.

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.


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.


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.


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.

I knew Jimbo and Dead-eye. I spent my youth playing pinball at Bill's, ate God knows how many meals at the Highlander and rode the worn out horses at Crane's. I relished the 50 cent movie matinées at the Galax Theater. A kid on a spyder bike with a banana seat, I could go anywhere as long as I was home by 5:45 for dinner.

One detail left out was the window between the theater lobby and a diner called Prof's, owned by a long-time teacher and principal, Prof Newton. You could get a hot dog, cheeseburger, fries, cherry smashes -- anything -- at the Prof's window and go enjoy the flick. I grew up in paradise.