View From the Bottom Rung (by Vander H. Atwell)

Vander H. Atwell is my father. He is soon to be 84, and pretty spry for his age and downright puts me to shame. Longevity runs in the family, the oldest member of his family is 90 years old, my Aunt Pluma, then there is Aunt Oleta, and Uncle Billy. Daddy, is the third born. He is a widower, and now a newlywed by about a year at the writing of this. He is an amazing man, not perfect, and there are a few things we don’t agree on, but he is and will always be my ‘hero’. He’s a writer, philosopher, professional quality mandolin player, retired logger and mountain man, and more. I love him with all of my heart, and if you can’t tell I’m bursting with pride.

He writes an opinion piece called ‘View From the Bottom Rung’, at least twice a month for a local paper in Arkansas, The Press Argus. Though it can sometimes be political in nature, he most often writes about life, and especially how it was days past. He was born in Arkansas around 1933, the third born out of four siblings, two older sisters and one younger brother. His father, Roland Atwell, a Baptist Preacher, and his mother Minnie ‘LaRue’ Atwell, were also farmers and lived in Crawford County, in the vicinity of Mountainburg, Arkansas. In those days they would have been called ‘Hillbilly’s, which was not considered a compliment by many. Today, it’s often associated with Bluegrass music and good ole, down to earth country folk, pot lucks and so forth. In fact, I am quite proud of my ‘hillbilly’ roots and the wonderful people I call ‘the salt of the earth’ kind of folk.

My father, upon finishing the 8th grade, did not return to school, though I know not why,  I would assume it was to help out at home and the family farm. I think it always bothered him that he had not continued on in his education at the time, but it actually spurred him on later to take educational courses through the mail. He is a natural born story teller. When he writes, he often paints a vivid picture of how it was as a young ‘lad’ back in the early days of his childhood. His lively hood until he retired several years ago was that of logger, timber faller. He grew to love the mountains of California, and much like a professional sailor longs for the sea, my daddy still , at times, longs for the mountains. My siblings and I were able to visit the camp sites at times growing up and I still love the smell of the pine trees in the mountains. One day I hope to compile many of my fathers writings and stories and put them in book form. He’s a brilliant man. I will share more about my mother and father in the days ahead. It will be random as there is so much. I will highlight my fathers various articles, and other writings on my blog as well as feature video’s of his musical past time.

The following was written by my dad and posted in the Press Argus Newspaper, on April 29, 2017. As I read this,  images came to my mind as if I was watching the movie ‘Old Yeller’ as I envisioned a much younger boy growing up in a very different time and era, running through the backwoods of Arkansas. You can find the article if you google it…but I was unable to get the link to work…(still a newbie on here unfortunately).

By Vander H. Atwell  

Arkansas in springtime is a beautiful place to be. Yes, it amazes that even through the stifling heat of its sweltering summers, the timbered hills and spreading flatlands retain their prideful green luster. in all my 55 years in Northern California surrounded by the state’s vast evergreen forests, nothing like the constant and consistent sea of green that is Arkansas in season.

Even though the Lady’s beauty endures through the scorching summers of the hot humid U.S. South, there is an extra special richness of color in the state’s springtime awakening; a soft, lush chlorophyll driven glory that reflect the miracle of birth and the promise that comes with renewal of life.

How I loved those idyllic times when the budding of my own life blended with an Ozark spring; lazing in a sea of cool green grass gazing up at pillowed clouds wandering like sheep against a backdrop of deep blue sky. Small islands of “pushups” (miniature flowers of white, pink and blue) thrusting themselves up through a soft green blanket spread out over hill and dale, various insects crawling or flying about, most of them new to the world as me, scurrying about in their industry much too preoccupied with their own society, their own exclusive little universe to pay attention to mine.

It was not the spreading blanket of green or patterns of miniature flowers growing thereon that caught the fancy of my faithful sidekick “buster” the family dog who always seemed at my heels on those idle moments I wandered about soaking up the wonders of the earth ‘neath my feet and the heavens skyward of my searching eyes: It was an ant or some other creepy crawler scurrying just beyond the forward thrust of his resting paws that caught his attention and ‘bugged’ him no end.

The dog lay quietly at first, adverse to confrontation but as the insect charged his position, shifted ever so slightly and was soon intently focused on the critters determined industry shifting his head side to side, wrinkling his brow in puzzlement as the cerebral processes became increasingly stressed. Most times creepy crawlers were allowed to pass without incident, but other times, depending on the dog’s patience, or lack of it, came a snap and a bite in which case the unfortunate interloper was caught up and spit back out in a somewhat wet and disheveled condition.

Buster was a brown mixed breed male that showed a pit bull lineage. His first years were prone to terrifying seizures, or “fits” as we called them back then, but eventually outgrew them and by the time I was 6 to 8 years old considered the tenacious beast invincible and trusted him explicitly. A nervous sort exploring the countryside alone might find himself a bit intimidated but not with the pit trotting alongside exploring every brush pile rabbit hole or rock fence along the way. The tenacious animal once tackled an upset Hereford bull that walked through a fence onto our property, grabbed an ear and survived the ‘ride’ bruised but not beaten. Often pranked by his young human pals yet always forgiving, in my time, for my time, my Lassie, my ‘Old Yeller’ together exploring the mysteries of a world only recently discovered.

By my calculations, I was 5 years of age when my parents settled on the narrow Boston Mountain spine called Burkett Ridge; in those distant times the “world” consisted of two 20-acre plots joined, one belonging to my father, Roland Atwell the other to my mother’s uncle, John LaRue. Neither of the plots was ‘move onto’ properties at the time of purchase but had acreage ready for cultivation and room for expansion into parts of the land not yet cleared of brush and trees.

Each built a two room log cabin, the material to build including logs and wooden shingles for the roof were taken from the surrounding forest; the windows, glass and frame, ceiling and flooring of tongue grooved pine boards about the only pre-processed material used in the construction.

The kitchen took up one full room, cooking was done on a cast iron wood burning stove while heat for the un-insulated shanty was a light-weight sheet metal wood fueled stove called a King heater. The King’s thin sheet metal sides were often forced red hot in an effort to warm the airish two-roomer, especially on those frigid days’ temperature dropped so low it produced ice crystal skies, buckets of drinking water froze solid during the night and dampness inside the house turned to ice-glazed walls ere the dawning. Stoked to such intense heat the King burned out over the winter and each following autumn had to be replaced with a brand new store bought. No direct heat was had for a two-room lean-to added to the house later on: air conditioning to relieve the misery of the sweltering dog days of summer was doors left open.

The worse the misery of a cold hard winter cold, greater the joy of springtime.Rebirth of stubbled fields began with miniature wildflowers pushing up through seas of new grass; it came with the arrival of butterfly meadows, lush foliage of newly leafed forests freshly painted with the green pigmentation chlorophyll tempered with a dusting of yellowish pollen; the freshness, the wonder of it more than compensation for being cooped up inside for weeks on end by winters wicked bite the cold misery of evening chores and sleeping beneath tons of quilts and blankets while the sweep of cold nighttime winds wearied one to sleep with weird vibrations, mysterious rattlings and ghostly whispers from the dark cold abyss.

Sanitary conditions were nigh onto primitive those first years on the ridge. The positive of it, was that the immune systems of the ‘hill people’ were so robust from exposure to various vermin any disease that attacked was at serious disadvantage. Got sick you ‘rode it out’ on the back of ancient remedies handed down generation to generation. One survived albeit, not much for the relief of pain and suffering endured.

Not only was there no running water in the old “cabin on the hill” there was no well from which to fetch it, rather, spring water from a robust “seep” a couple of hundred yards down over the slope back of the house. Inconvenient at the least since water for drinking, cooking and bathing had to be carried a distance up-hill in two-gallon zinc buckets or in empty one gallon Karo syrup cans.

Eventually a well was sunk back of the house and beyond it an open-side storage shed/chicken shelter. The shed, constructed of scrap lumber, was used as a place to discard used-up junk that might later be salvaged for heretofore unseen purpose and to accommodate the dozen or so yard hens that served the table with both eggs and meat.

Later still, ‘volunteer’ peach trees sprouted and grew from seeds thrown behind the shed, which, betwixt the shed and the foliage afforded a bit of privacy to replace that lost as the old outhouse, set off a ways to the western most side, weathered, withered and finally collapsed into the ground.

There were other than the comforting presence of an old dog, and a stretch of grass mixed with low growing flowers on warm and sunny afternoons to occupy the time of a lad newly introduced to the general creation. Nearby was a section of ‘new ground’ cleared for cultivation the year before, or the year before that. In springtime a field of small “saplings” grew from the stumps and roots of cut trees and each spring before planting time, the acreage was brushed, sprouts cut, piled and burned ere a plow point broke the ground or the plot given over to pastureland.

The springtime ritual of cutting, piling and burning was a favorite chore, if any labor at all might be viewed favorably by a youngster who’s feet coveted the freedom of game trails, and whose hands sought their own creative devices. Rather the mind drifted to the idleness of day dreams and adventure; amongst the sprouts we cut, piled and burned were saplings forked at the top, excellent to cut and use as slingshot stalks (back when automobile tire tubes had the ‘snap-back’ elasticity of real rubber) and from short pieces of budding hickory shoots one could unsheathe his old ‘Barlow,’ slip a section of bark and carve himself a wood whistle slick as store bought.

Wicked little darts were made by attaching a needle like pin and paper rudder, (fore and aft) to a matchstick, a ‘tractor’ that moved on its own from an empty spool of thread, a piece of bar soap, matchstick and rubber band, a Jews Harp of sorts from string and a small pliable branch. Ground snakes, lizards, salamanders and June bugs were a part of a lad’s youthful distractions, foraging for dew berries, black berries, huckleberries and black haws, part of the action.

As my youthful friends and I grew older the more daring became our adventures the more dangerous became our creations. How we survived climbing trees, scaling rock outcroppings, swinging like monkeys through stands of persimmon, jousting wasps and exploring snake dens may be best attributed to providence. Looking back, how else to explain it?

Today the honey locust over the back fence here at my home in Alma blossoms the whitest of white while, in stark contrast of color, swarms of large black bumble bees the size of a mans thumb gather pollen. Beds of Iris’ ring the lower yard roses dominate the upper, a low cover of small orange wildflowers push themselves up through a cover of Irish green lawn. An ideal place for a boy and his dog to while away a lazy summer afternoon.

Yes, we may dream our way back to yesterday and yearn for worlds of un-ending springtime: but the old dog is gone, the time of making slingshots and whittling whistles past: The magic of the seasons is still there but then was then and now is now and lawns have to be mowed.

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