January 1960 (i)

It snowed twice over Christmas holidays 1959 and then over the next month, all through January, it snowed six more times, each time adding several inches on top of the snow that had not yet melted. In town, a lot of the snow melted after a day or so and the streets were easily cleared until the next wave. Elsewhere in the county snow drifts took longer to melt and ice formed in areas of higher elevation. Many back roads, ones that followed a creek all the way up into a hollow or that hair-pinned their way over a ridge and into a deep near hidden cove remained impassable long after the streets in town, nearby state roads and the one U.S. highway were open.

The county’s only two schools, one for first through eighth grade and the other a high school, were in town, and unless everyone could get to school, there was no school. Over in Shady Valley or up along the ridge at Trade, the roads might be passable for a pick-up, but school buses were not permitted until all was clear. The end result was that the first two school days after New Year’s 1960 were the only two school days in the month of January.

The circle of friends, all high school students who lived in town, generally slept late, meet at the Laurel Drive-in for late lunches and drank soda until the move theatre opened and would then migrate there. On nights that followed one of the fresh snowfalls, they would gather on Big Hill, build a fire and spend hours riding sleds down Hawkins Road or walking back up to do it again. On really bitter nights or those slumps that fell between the snows, they would gather in smaller groups, play cards, listen to music, just be together.

All in all, it was a very short time. It was only a month. But during that time the circle of friends grew to know each other very well and lived mini-lifetimes. In a week’s time a gravitation could become all consuming, and then cool just as quickly. Friendships would harden against any challenge and then bend when actually challenged, proving resilient or brittle. It because a benchmark time for the circle, a time they would remember for a long time.

The following nine poems were written by Martin Howard, a member of that circle of friends during that January,. They were acquired by Dr. Helen Simon, an American Studies professor at Northeast Alabama State University in the summer of 1970 while researching mountain folk stories in the area where Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee share common borders. The poems were given to her by the poet’s father, Zeke Howard, a Baptist preacher, who was being interviewed as part of her research.

According to Dr. Simon, just a year before her interview, the Martin had been killed in Vietnam. The Rev. Howard had found the poems in his son’s senior year high school yearbook and still kept them there. He shared the poems with dr. Simon as an example of a great voice from the valley that would never be heard.

He told her that fewer and fewer of the older people have opportunities to share stories. As their voices die out, so do the stories. He said that was sad, but sadder still was the silencing of a promising voice like his son’s, and then he shared the poems, allowing her to copy the verses in her notebook before she left.

The poems were published once in an early edition of the Journal of Traditional Southern Voices and two were used as lyrics by a northern Mississippi folksinger named Harvey Ax in the late 1970’s. Other than that, this is the first time the world has heard this voice.

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