West Virginia

Philadelphia Main Line, Lincoln Highway, US 30. Although I grew up in Brooklyn, many of my early memories—much the most intense part of my education, so to speak—are strung along an arc from Montgomery County west to Harrisburg and south to Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Hagerstown. The roads of one’s childhood and youth. Weaving and criss-crossing. Signposted with discrete, not always reliable, memories. Like most things when you are young, devoid of context, but resonant and mysterious.

In 1953, Walter and I, two fourteen year olds, took a bus to Harrisburg and hitchhiked south as far as Hancock, a town on the Potomac River in the somewhat lawless little neck of Maryland, the narrowest part between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

It was fall and the packing plants were humming and Walter and I got hired on at one of these, loading crates of apples into box cars. We camped out on the river in a crude tree house we made. On the second evening the boss said he had to let us go; he couldn’t take a chance with runaway kids.

That night we were out on the highway in front of the packing house ready to hitchhike anywhere, when an old guy pulled up in a battered Buick and asked if we’d help him. No one was around by this time, but he claimed to have permission to haul away damaged fruit, of which there was a great mountain pushed off to the side of a loading dock.

Gordon—he said his name was—found some old grain shovels and we began shoveling apples into the Buick. The back seat had been long removed, so we filled the whole back of the car out into the trunk and, without much being said about it, all squeezed into the front and took off over the river and into West Virginia.

Van Gogh, Crows and Cornfield

Gordon’s method of driving was to zoom up hills and then switch off the lights and turn off the engine and coast down the other side in the moonlight, sometimes for miles on end, at terrifying speeds. We stopped twice on the way. Once by a cornfield where Gordon wielded a corn knife, a kind of stubby billhook, and filled whatever space was left in the back of the Buick with stolen corn stalks. Then out back of a country store he knew of, where he retrieved from a rubbish bin a couple of broken pies and a dented brick of Velveeta cheese.

The apples and the cornstalks were fed to the scrawny red cows he kept, wandering freely along a steep wooded ravine, and we dined on the pie and cheese before falling asleep in his lean-to of a dwelling.

In the morning Gordon said he had a brother, up at Five Forks, in Pennsylvania, who could use some hands this time of year, and so we went there. The brother’s name was Marshall and we pitched hay and cleared stones and shucked corn for our board, and painted out-buildings at a nearby orchard and mixed cement for bricklayers in Waynesboro, which happened to be where my mother’s people were from, and we ran into some of them, but they didn’t tell. Marshall drank Old Crow corn whisky from a bottle while he drove. Marshall’s wife had a limp and could swear something fierce, but she didn’t permit really dirty words. We slept in an unheated attic and sometimes the daughter, Dottie, would come up and crawl under the covers with us.

When the snow started to fall, we headed south and didn’t stop until we got to Texas.

I didn’t see Waynesboro again until I got stationed near there, by chance, in the army, guarding a mountain bunker at Raven Rock, where, it is said, Dick Cheney hid out after nine-eleven.