The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 12, 2013

Mountain folk have left a lasting impression on me

Point blank

By John Blankenship
Columnist

— Nearly 30 ago, I called a National Geographic photographer who resided near Charlottesville, Va., and asked him to come to the Mountain State and record the images of those I once referred to as “the last of the mountain people.”

The famous photojournalist promised to “hook up” with me after he finished a couple of photo jobs he was working on, one in Australia and the other in Mexico.

He never followed up on my invitation, even though I offered him the hospitality of my home and the friendship of my family.

Meantime, I continued to travel the back roads and thoroughfares of southern West Virginia, writing features and photographing some of the most interesting people on earth. Eventually, I changed my day job and became a professional educator.

Within a few years, most of those precious folk that I knew had passed on from this life to the next.

Unfortunately, their faces never appeared in a national magazine of the scope of Geographic, but they were recognized in our newspaper.

Maybe in the future some graduate student from a major university with grant money to burn might show up and research the archives. Perhaps the historical time traveler will run across the pictures and stories of those who made a lasting impression on me.

Here are just a few of those seemingly indescribable persons I encountered in the mid-1980s:

— A 49-year-old Beckley man sat on a stump every day in an effort to deal with his back miseries. “I’ll admit that most people are stumped when they try to figure out why I’m sitting on the butt of a tree,” the amiable rehab patient explained of the oak stump near a rehabilitation center on Harper Road that was officially dedicated to the man who took his seat there practically every day. Witnesses claimed the man seemed to “meditate on the stump like he was a monk.”

— A pet ‘possum named Sammie found a home in the kitchen cabinet of a Hinton family. The animal with a furry body and a rather rat-like face set up housekeeping with a family residing on New River Road. “She’s far from ugly,” a good-natured Hinton woman noted of her unusual house guest. “She’s a darn good pet and hardly any trouble at all.” The small primitive American animal, meanwhile, reportedly dined on scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, bacon, ham, chicken, shrimp, broccoli, apples, pears, grapes and a variety of dog food. “She sleeps all day and prowls all night,” the owner said. “She even climbs in bed with us and sniffs our ears. We play with her for a while and then go back to sleep.”

The woman continued, “We found her when she was just a tiny, bee-sized creature. We fed her with an eye dropper and my husband carried her around in his shirt pocket.”

— Wanted: museum for matchstick model home. A Bellwood woman created a problem of “unmatched” proportions for herself: she built a model home in her bedroom and could not find a way to get the structure through a window or door. She wanted to donate the piece to a museum if she could find a willing recipient. “The only thing I’m asking is that somebody finds a way to get it out.” The Bellwood native built a 4-by-5 foot structure out of matchsticks — 164,376 to be exact. But her doors and windows were not wide enough to allow the model house to pass through. “People who come in here to see it are flabbergasted,” she said of the structure.

— An Oak Hill woman said she heard her unborn son crying. After a story made international news about a 27-year-old Shanghai doctor who claimed that in her seventh month of pregnancy she heard the cries of the unborn child, a 62-year-old Oak Hill grandmother said it was nothing new. She heard the crying of her unborn son back in 1951. The woman claimed she was in a taxi on her way to the hospital when she heard the crying of her third child, who was still in her womb. “I heard a sound like a kitten would make,” the woman recalled of the incident. “I never knew that a baby could cry before it was born.”

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net