Part 1 –Wisconsin
Down that hillbilly highway, that hillbilly highway
Hillbilly highway goes on and on.
- Hillbilly Highway, Steve Earle
In 1959, there were not freeways, just narrow two-lane roads winding through the mountains of Kentucky and East Tennessee. The towns of Corbin, Jellico, and Cumberland Gap stood like aged soldiers standing sentinel between stretches of wilderness. Each one featured weathered old men in front of dusty-looking storefronts with tin signs and legions of dogs that ran loose or sat quietly on porches.
There were hillbilly gift shops featuring so-called Indian trinkets made of plastic, stamped “Made in Japan.” There were Texaco stations and 24-hour diners with gravel parking lots and tired-looking customers. Ramshackle dwellings perched at the side of the road, their yards cluttered by yesterday’s treasures, unused appliances and assorted, rusted auto parts.
This was the route we took almost yearly from where I was born in Southern Wisconsin to where my father was born in East Tennessee.
We sometimes made the trip in 12 hours, driving straight through. In the dark, I was hypnotized for miles by the faint glow of red taillights from the cars ahead of us.When we drove all night, I felt it my duty to keep up a constant chatter in Daddy’s ear so he wouldn’t fall asleep. In those days, I could stand in the backseat and rest my head on his shoulder as he drove, or stand in the front seat beside him, unfettered by seat belts, our world illuminated by the dull, greenish glow of the dashboard lights.
My mother and little brother slept and sometimes I grew sleepy and quiet as well. Occasionally Daddy would turn the radio on, breaking the silence. As he turned the dials in search of a far-off country music station, we listened until there was more static than music.
Sometimes we stopped for snacks or a soda – or to go to the rest room. On the road again, during daylight hours, there were places where this five-year-old girl could look out the car window straight down into huge, deep gorges, riding on the edge of a cliff, it seemed. With little or no shoulder on the side of the road, I hoped and prayed fervently that the car wouldn’t slide off into the abyss. In spite of a nervous but implicit trust in Daddy’s driving ability, sometimes I was so terrified I slid down onto the floor in the backseat so I couldn’t see the bluffs, deep valleys, and purple rise of the Appalachian scenery.
Also from Chapter 1
One of the landmarks in Albion was the church. This was a Seventh- Day Baptist church that my mother’s extended family attended. Each year, children took part in a Christmas program where everyone read a Bible verse or poem in front of a giant Christmas tree. Being honestly materialistic, as far as I was concerned, the real fun began afterward when presents were distributed from under the tree for every child. I waited impatiently each year for my bounty.
The church basement was often the site of festivities, luncheons and celebrations, and the church was the social and civic heart of the community. However, the first wedding I remember attending was when my second cousin Carole Ann got married at a Catholic church in nearby Edgerton.
She looked like my angelic bride doll and was beautiful walking down the aisle in her white gown. I was in awe. But people kept standing up, then sitting down, then standing, then kneeling on a little padded bench. Up...down… kneel…down…up… The preacher wore a long dress and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Whether it was in Latin or I just couldn’t hear, it didn’t matter. I was confused from the standing, sitting and kneeling.
Later, we occasionally attended a Baptist Church where a charismatic pastor became loud, angry and red in the face as he shouted hellfire and damnation. I was always afraid his head was going to explode, and my mother always cried near the end of the service. I was never sure if her tears were because she feared the preacher, or because I had done something or for some other reason. I liked the music, though, and grew to cherish some of the old Southern gospel I learned there, even if I didn’t hear some of the words correctly.
“Blessed insurance (assurance), Jesus is mine. Oh what a forest (foretaste) of glory be mine (divine)…” I sang at the top of my asthmatic lungs.
I wasn’t sure if Jesus was mine. In fact I wasn’t even sure who or what Jesus was, in spite of several years of Vacation Bible School at various houses of worship. I was there for the craft projects, Kool-Aid and vanilla wafers.
My occasional prayers at that age were rote and meaningless, and true spirituality eluded me. But Dad was very proud when I sang the words to Softly and Tenderly perfectly. It was one of his favorites, and I was thrilled when he harmonized with me, right there in the kitchen, strumming his acoustic guitar. The reason I knew that particular song so well was because Mom had a recording of a guy called Tennessee Ernie Ford singing it. The song became the first hymn in my piano repertoire, and the old gospel I learned as a child became an avenue to spirituality as an adult.
from Chapter 6
A man’s arm quickly reached across in front of my face, hanging up the phone.
The tall, dark, wild-eyed stranger had a rather large gun stuck in my ribs. He
had a hunted look about him and whispered through clenched teeth that he was
going to kill me.
At first, gripped with fear, I couldn’t talk. He half pushed me toward the side-
walk, still holding me tightly. I stumbled. Finding my footing and voice, I looked directly at him and forced a calmness I didn’t feel. I asked him point blank what he wanted, which only seemed to confuse and infuriate him.
Walking me to a nearby car at gunpoint, he momentarily couldn’t seem to decide which of us should drive the vehicle. The gun was trained on me the entire time, and my captor became more agitated by the second.
He finally decided to drive. As I was sitting in the passenger seat he ordered me to duck down as he hit me repeatedly with the butt of the gun. Twice, he held the gun to my head and cocked it but continued to drive.
Now bleeding profusely, I dimly thought of jumping from the moving car and began to feel around for a door handle only to find nothing but wires. Terrified, I began to suspect that I might not live to raise my son. I was thinking how mad my parents would be to hear of my murder.
from Chapter 9
Booked near Duchesne, Utah one Fourth of July weekend, Brian and I were out hiking behind the Native American resort where the band was performing. It looked for all the world like a scene from a John Wayne movie with a ghost town in the distance and the desert sun beating down. The bleached earth with its slow rises and rugged brush summoned visions of desperadoes, stagecoaches and the old West, with which I was enamored. I half expected to see the silhouette of a befeathered native on horseback atop the ridge in the distance.
We hadn’t been walking very long when I thought I heard the sound of distant drums. Could…? Could…was it possible…could there be tom-toms in the air or had my romantic dreams of the frontier driven me mad? No…there it was again! War cries! Was that chanting? I was hearing things! Or was I? I sent Brian back to the swimming pool, where he wanted to be anyway.
Yes, there it was again…. the unmistakable sound of war drums! I had seen enough westerns to be sure of that! Perhaps I was having auditory hallucinations – WAS there such a thing? I looked around incredulously and scanned the sky for smoke signals, finally racing back to the resort to find Sky and the rest of the band. In their room, I panted that I didn’t think I could perform that night, that I may have heat stroke and quite possibly the western sun had driven me crazy. When pressed, I confessed that I thought I heard Indian drums out in back. Sky began laughing hysterically, to my surprise.
(From the beginning of the book)
During my recovery from a head injury, I was asked to speak to several groups. Audience members told me I should write a book, that I’d had experiences and have an outlook that could be of benefit to others.
My feeling is that everyone has a book inside them – we all have interesting and unique stories and lives, and I wasn’t in any hurry to share mine. As time went on, however, I became too busy to accept speaking engagements so I thought perhaps a book could speak for me.
Eventually I began the outlining process and making notes. But I found that I couldn’t write about a life-changing event without writing about the life itself. I also realized that there had been many life-changing events - not just one. Some were big and some were small but I learned something from each of them.
And, I knew that if a book were to help anyone, it would have to be honest.
I found that being honest with oneself may be one of the hardest things for any human being to do. Facing reality and dealing with it in a positive sense are points of personal progress that are never achieved by many. We often prefer to keep unpleasantness and even confusion cloaked behind a veil of secrecy, but until we generate dialog within our own frame of reference as well as the larger culture, the unpleasantness will continue. We will just keep repeating our mistakes over and over again.
We cannot address social ills like domestic abuse, addictions, war and crime, as well as personal issues that cause turbulence and anxiety without bringing them out into the open.
Pretending that everything is perfect in an imperfect world won’t make anything better. Frank, open discussion is a first step toward awareness and remedy.
The writing of the book was a cathartic experience, in that sense.
As I wrote about my husband’s battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, my heart was with those who are returning from the Middle East with similar battle scars. I want to believe that my husband’s problems helped pave the way for them to get the assistance they might need.
In writing about my brother’s illness and later during my own battle with Traumatic Brain Injury, I hoped that as a society, we can realize that not all handicaps are visible and learn not to be judgmental of those who may be different.
In writing about my life, I realized that I had fallen into a trap, making the same
wrong-headed, codependent choices in some areas. I also realized that in many
ways, I had not taken personal responsibility for who I was - and what I was. (As
adults, we have a say in this.)
But I can choose to break those patterns or continue, with the knowledge that
if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. I can
recognize and accept my own reality.
I have offered facts, not a fairy tale. Some names have been changed to
respect privacy. Old clippings, records, contracts, letters, bills and other
artifacts can verify dates, locations and truth. The manuscript was read by
many of the individuals involved, or those who could bear witness and was checked for accuracy, where my own facts or memory may have been inadequate or distorted.
With regard to Traumatic Brain Injury, my message remains one of prevention. Readers can draw their own conclusions about how I was before the head injury and how I was after. It is important to note that my symptoms, reactions and path to recovery might not be the same as for others. My life philosophy may be different as well. Readers can embrace my interpretation of events or develop their own.
I have left out a great deal because it would be impossible to include everything. We are left with a general sense of how things were and a broad brushstroke instead of a definite direction. But it is my hope that by sharing my memories and my life so far, I will have helped someone - which was the original plan.
C.J. Morgan, 2008