Venerable T Houston

i wrestled with posting this or not since early afternoon when i completed this draft. The first section, in italics and green like this, explains how it got started. It does not explain that after the first draft, i had some more ideas pop into my head and decided in some future form, it would be part of a group of stories i keep working on since around 1964. It eventually, maybe in thirty or forty years when i am 106 or 116, i will finish it and turn it into loosely connected chapters in a novel. No, i don’t think it will match Faulkner’s Go Down Moses. But it’s from my heart and all of those things popping up in my head in the middle of the night. i decided to go ahead and post it after the Padres clinched their playoff berth this afternoon. i point out again, this is a draft.

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Now this is a tall tale, or for mariners a Tennessee sea story, popping into my mind after laying back down after a pee break in the middle of the night, a habit i’ve acquired with age. i could not go back to sleep when i hit the rack again when a name popped into my mind.

The title character’s name is what popped into my head. In the middle of night. Wouldn’t leave. Don’t know why. Possibly because I had one date with a high school senior when i was a freshman at Vanderbilt in the spring of 1963. A friend set me up with Ann (if i remember correctly). She was a high school senior in McMinnville. Believe it or not (also the name of an old television show most of you won’t remember), her parents put Ann on a Trailways bus in the afternoon for the two-hour ride to Union Station in Nashville. i picked her up, and we went to the Kappa Sigma “pajama” party. She was beautiful in her red striped nightshirt in the photo of us on a bed. It was all in fun. Around 10:30 after she got back into her real clothes, i put her back on the bus to McMinnville. I never saw her again. Pity. Her father’s first name was Venerable.

That stuck in my head and found some recess for fifty-seven years from whence it popped out last night. Worse, my little brain kept adding things to it. Perhaps it came from reconnecting to Hamper McBee yesterday morning. Hamper McBee and Tubby’s which took me into bluegrass and mountain legends and songs like “Brown Mountain Light” and “Long Black Veil.” I think Mr. Warren, you know, Robert Penn, like in “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” and of course, Mr. Faulkner; some Jack London, no doubt; maybe even a touch of D.H. Lawrence had something to do with these thoughts. And from there, more stuff kept popping up, like my cousins over in North Carolina because their dads of the Lumbee tribe weren’t allowed to go to college at UNC and went to Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee where they met my two cousins, married them and took them away to the Carolinas. And i thought of injustice and Andrew Jackson, a hero of mine with a dark, dark side, and Sam Houston who lived with the Cherokee for three years as a youth, becoming a champion for Native Americans in later years (and he happened to have a law practice early on in Lebanon, Tennessee with the support of Jackson and my great, great, great, great uncle, John Knibb Wynne).

And then while i was lying there in the dark wee hours, these things popping around in my head started to form some substance, make some sense – at least as much sense as i can muster at three in the morning.

I think it fits with New Palestine, a place i’ve been writing about for years.

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Venerable T Houston came out of the mountains, or rather out of the glen a hill or two over, and up the mountain to the hamlet on the crest.The townsfolk of Aerieton didn’t know what to think of Venerable.

They wondered about his name.

Even though Venerable was his first name, he wasn’t very venerable. He claimed to have some blood of the Cherokee and had a distant relative named Sam, but they suspected he was of the Lumbee tribe, a prominent bunch much overlooked but still relegated to less than citizen status by other tribes and the beneficent (not) government of these here states united, of which Aerieton had been located in three without ever moving as the white folk claimed the narrow expanse of land some 150 miles north to south from the coast to the Mississippi River and named Carolina in honor of the king after which the province split into north and south states, and then east of the Smokies ridge it became part of the rebellious Free Republic of Franklin before becoming part of the State of Tennessee.

All of his name was strange. No, not the “Venerable” part but the “T.” It didn’t have no period and no one really knew what it meant or where it came from, not even Venerable.

And who knew who he was or where he came from other than from that one-room cabin with the clay floor with lots of hogs running around and an old fice dog (the educated folks spell it feist, but it just means it’s a hunting dog) in the glen over a hill or two? The Lumbee aren’t particularly loved by the Cherokee who found it convenient to have slaves when possible, but the Lumbee accepted whoever it was who joined them and the mix was white and black and red but those kind of words can get you into trouble depending who is sensitive to what.

And what is a word anyway? Good? Bad? What a disservice to language played out with determining the connotation of a word by someone actually getting upset about that word. Yet it exists and words keep disappearing because someone feels abused. By a word?

 But up in the mountains of East Tennessee, there ain’t much attention paid to color of skin. Everybody is pretty much accepted ‘cept the government men who came to shut down the stills or eventually roust folks out of their land to make way for a dam and electric power. Got too much work to do to bother with that kind of stuff. They didn’t worry about whether Venerable was Lumbee or Cherokee or any number of other things he could have been.

And it didn’t matter when ole Venerable T Houston set out to work hard. He worked in the railroad yard for the line that climbed over and down the mountain from Carolina to Tennessee and back, and he slopped hogs, and he slaughtered them and made sausage, and he got enough to buy a patch of land, and he planted taters and ‘maters and onions and made stew, and of course, cooked it all with sausage, and sold it out front where he had built a little stand, and under the counter of the stand, he had mason jars filled with the splendid liquid. You know, that stuff they  make in those woods in the glen, far, far back, a trek to take the fixings of a still and set it up, and light the fires and pour the mash into the crackling steaming vats and pipes and coils to come out with white lightning as they call it that can fetch a fair price for the toil and strife of cooking the batches in the hills deep in the woods to keep it out of the reach of the government men.

Venerable T Houston made enough to buy him a mule, and it was white. So he had something to help him plow his plot and carry the heavy loads of still making deep into the woods and carry him to the tavern and the bank where he was going more and more often.

There ain’t many white mules around those parts anymore. No need to mate a jack and a mare with automobiles, pickups, jeeps, all-terrain vehicles, tractors, and such around nowadays. And not as many cows either but more horses ‘cause the folks gone uppity and want to ride ‘em for fun, and the big grocers started getting their meat from the stockyards in the Midwest and out in the west, which pretty much ruint cow counting games on road trips and the fun of seeing a white mule that would add ten to your cow count while sitting in the back seat with the windows rolled down before they made air conditioning for cars, but that’s okay ‘cause them new-fangled interstates ain’t up close to the fences of the pastures passing by, and you can hardly see the cemeteries, which would wipe out the cow count of your sibling sitting on the other side of the back seat and the bumps in the road are gone, smooth, which ended the “thank you, ma’am” shouts, and the switchbacks are gone too, and the world has changed since Venerable T Houston ran around those hills.

Then, Venerable T Houston met the banker’s daughter, and she knew he was a strange fellow, dark and crazy sometimes, and like some women, she was drawn to a man with a dark side, and even though Venerable T Houston thought she was pretty in her gingham dress, he didn’t even consider she might be interested in him until she began to chase him, a long and intricate mating dance of a sort, and her father was against it all ‘cause he had seen Venerable T Houston operate and suspected that money Venerable T Houston kept putting in his bank wasn’t all, if any, on the up and up, and it made no difference ‘cause Beatrice had her mind made up, and once a woman of her sort had her mind made up (just like her mother), there weren’t going to be no changing it, and sure ‘nuff, the mating dance came to a final resolution, and Beatrice left the fine things of the banker’s manor and moved into Venerable T Houston’s shack, which she immediately began to spruce up, which was fine with Venerable as he didn’t have to cook all the time, and Venerable T took Beatrice Houston down to New Palestine on the train. Palestine was a real town down in the valley. There Venerable bought her the wood for the floor he would put in, a stove, an icebox, and a nice dress.

The stores were on the square of New Palestine. While Beatrice was trying on a dress in the women’s clothing store, Venerable T Houston walked over to the water fountain from the spring underneath the square about twenty yards in front of the courthouse. The Giddings family had just moved to New Palestine from Clarence Junction, a small town to the west past the foothills. The Giddings brothers, Ezekiel and Zebediah were horsing around with some new friends outside the courthouse. One of the new friends, Merritt Brown recognized Venerable T Houston from a trip he had made over the mountains about a year before. Merritt had stopped at Venerable’s stand and bought some stew and some of the magic elixir.

The two exchanged greetings. Then, Merritt asked Venerable if he had brought along any of his hooch. Venerable T Houston was always prepared and told Merritt he had about ten half-pints in his satchel. Merritt bought a half pint for a dollar. Zeke and Zeb watched this and decided they should get some of this stuff too. They introduced themselves to Venerable and each of them bought a half pint, a dollar each.

After Venerable and Beatrice had taken the train back up the mountain, the Giddings boys were talking while sipping their whiskey at the back yard of the mule barn. They realized there was a bunch of folks in New Palestine who would like to have some good whiskey without having to go to Nashville and pay a pretty penny. The boys figured they could sell Venerable’s stuff for a buck twenty-five and make some good side money while working their dad’s farm out on the pike.

The next day, Zeb took the train up to Aerieville and found Venerable. They worked out a deal where Zeb and Zeke would get a runner to bring Venerable’s whiskey down from the mountain on the train in half pints, fifth’s, and jugs. They would buy it from him for seventy-five cents a pint, a dollar and fifty cents for a fifth, and two-fifty for a jug of the stuff.

Pretty soon, they made enough money to buy a 1930 Buick 64C roadster for the runner. The business thrived until the early 50’s when the local police began to hit the bootleggers and the lesser stills around New Palestine and sell the confiscated hooch (evidence) out the back of the police station to those in the know.

The Giddings’ “side money” was their main source of income while they worked odd jobs around the city and worked the farm. They socked away enough for Zeke to buy a dairy business and rename it Heavenly Dairy Products and Zeb to buy a Chrysler dealership and a tire franchise, naming both with the family name. After the senior Giddings passed away, the boys sold the farm and moved to big houses across from each other on the main drag, Paradise Pike, in New Palestine. They got married and both had two daughters.

Zeb became a quiet member of the First Presbyterian Church and sat in a pew near the back of the sanctuary every Sunday. He believed in Calvin’s idea of original sin and paid a significant amount for his penance but requested that his pastor never reveal the money came from him.

Zeke’s wife was Baptist. So Zeke became a Baptist and gloried in it while tithing more than any other member of the Calvary First Baptist Church of New Palestine. He became a deacon and finally an elder of the church.

Venerable made a lot of money too, but other than fixing up the shack for Beatrice, adding on until folks quit calling it a shack and called it a nice house. Venerable turned the stand into a small diner and ended up with four diners and taverns on the mountain. He spent a lot of time in the taverns, telling tales and singing old mountain songs. You could tell he was at one of the establishments when his white mule was tied up outside. He eschewed automobiles but would take a ride if offered. But most of his travel around Aerieton was on the mule.

And all of the world of Aerieton and the hills and the mountain was good.

Now would be the time for interjecting some problems into this tall tale, but to be truthful, i ain’t up to it. And it took ‘em a long time to get television up in the mountains. Even radio didn’t have reception all that good, and the townsfolk only read the New Palestine Gazette. So they didn’t get all that information about how the world was going to hell and how sports team had heroes (?) and how countries and businessmen and politicians were vying for power and people were fleecing other people.

And except for every once in a while someone breaking into a house, stealing somebody’s whiskey , an occasional killing, or a big fight, things went along pretty much as usual up in the mountains, and Venerable T Houston and his wife Beatrice lived pretty long and pretty well and had four kids, a white mule, a fice dog, chickens, and a couple of hogs.

1 thought on “Venerable T Houston

  1. Jim – I totally love your tall tale – hope I live long enough to read the novel – and you too. If my sight grows too dim to read it, and my hearing finishes its current rapid descent to peace and quiet, maybe they’ll have invented a way to “stream” it directly into whatever is left of my once quite capable brain. And thanks for the shout out – did not need it but it warmed my heart to hear you publicly declare that you consider me a good friend – as I do you.

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