I had talked to my mom earlier in the day. It was our usual call. She had just put on a pot of beans and wanted to tell me that she wished I were there to share them. She said it was cold there and the Carolinas were bracing for a winter storm, but otherwise, everything was OK.
When the phone rang shortly after 5 p.m. and I saw her number on the caller ID, I instinctively knew the news wasn’t going to be good.
I even answered the phone by asking, “What’s wrong?”
“Elmer just passed away,” she told me. “I just got off the phone with Wanda (my cousin). She said Elmer died peacefully. Wanda was on her way to the house when she called.”
Elmer is one of my mom’s older brothers and since PawPaw’s passing had been the patriarch of the Woody clan.
Elmer was more than my uncle.
He was one of my first role models — a larger-than-life man who had sailed around the world and seen and done things that a young boy growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina couldn’t even begin to fathom.
He took me on my first ride in a convertible — a Ford Mustang he purchased in the late 1960s.
When dad was in Vietnam, Elmer always made sure that when he had a hankerin’ to play hooky and go fishing, I was asked to tag along.
And during the lean years, Elmer and my Aunt Mae always made sure that my sister and I had something extra special under the Christmas tree.
He and Mae were always doing things like that.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received came from Elmer on my 18th birthday.
I had just finished my first year of college and he invited me to take a week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail to see the old Woody homestead. Granny and PawPaw had carved out a place in the mountains when PawPaw returned home from World War I. They planned to spend the rest of their lives there.
That was before the Great Depression changed those plans.
I had heard the story many times growing up, sitting in the front porch swing listening as Granny and PawPaw talked about the “olden days” before they lost the homestead. To the day he died, PawPaw wouldn’t tolerate anyone saying an unkind word about President Roosevelt, because if it hadn’t been for his Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), PawPaw said the family would have starved.
PawPaw got a job on one of the CCC crews working on public works projects in North Carolina and Georgia, sending money back to Granny and the kids, who had moved into town in Bryson City.
PawPaw later found work in a factory in Asheville, where he and Granny finished raising 11 of 12 children (one of their children died while still a toddler).
But they always talked about their homestead in the mountains.
Until my trip with Elmer, I only had my grandparents’ stories to use for the pictures I would imagine as they talked about their early life in their mountain homestead.
A few days before my 18th birthday, Elmer, his buddy Horace and I set out on the trail by Clingman’s Dome in what is now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest. We hiked for two days over some pretty rough terrain — mostly in the rain. The rain didn’t bother me because we had to ford about two dozen streams and I’d usually end up getting soaking wet from falling in at least one of them.
Every night we would build a fire and I’d sit and listen as Elmer would tell stories while he made dinner. Regardless of what he was cooking, the meal was loaded with wild ramps he and Horace had picked along the trail. For non-mountain folk, a ramp is a wild onion — only with an odor that permeates every cell of your body and takes a couple of days to sweat out.
But as Elmer would say as he ladled a scoop of supper on your plate, “That there is good eatin’.”
And he was right, as always.
About mid-morning on the third day of our trek, Elmer pointed down in the hollow and led us off the trail. The forest was so thick I don’t know how he knew where we were, let alone where we were supposed to be. It had been about 20 years since the last time he had made the trek back to the homestead, and he was just a boy when PawPaw and Granny had to leave their land.
But he knew where it was. Walking without the benefit of a marked trail, we hiked down the ridge for about a half-mile until we came to a clearing. I could see a chimney made of smooth rocks pulled from the creek still standing tall and true, just like the day PawPaw built it.
I dropped my backpack and ran over to what was left of the home. You could still see parts of the stone foundation that hadn’t been covered by soil.
I must have asked a million questions as I walked around, soaking it all in and picturing what the rest of the house must have looked like. Elmer did his best to answer every question, and I think, enjoying the fact that I was so passionate about learning about our family’s heritage.
Granny and PawPaw’s stories were so vivid, the old homestead was just like I pictured. I could see the area, although now covered with trees and growth, where PawPaw farmed. I even found planks that were probably used for his hen house or the pen where he kept his hogs.
I could visualize my Uncle Jack running around the house and getting into trouble by chasing my Aunt Bonnie with a toad, just as Granny would tell in her stories. I could even see the place where Frank, the uncle I never knew, was bitten by a rattlesnake while playing in the yard and died in Granny’s arms when he was just a toddler. I had heard the story so many times, I could almost picture it happening in front of me.
The homestead was so remote. It had taken us two and a half days just to hike in. I asked Elmer about the closest neighbor and he pointed up over the ridge, saying, “about two miles over yonder.”
It was a very simplistic, rugged way of life. No electricity. Running water consisted of the creek that ran about 50 yards from the house. No indoor plumbing and none of the modern conveniences that most of us today couldn’t live without.
But every time Granny and PawPaw would talk about their homestead, their eyes would sparkle and their voice would dance as they spoke. They loved mountain life and never forgot the freedom that it provided.
As we ate lunch at the homestead site, Elmer handed me a bowl of whatever he had made with ramps and told me, “Happy birthday.” With all the excitement — and worn out from two and a half days of hiking — I had completely forgot it was my birthday.
It was a birthday memory I’ve always cherished.
And in that moment, I realized that I was seeing a part of the Woody family history that most of my cousins — and even my mom — had never seen. My mom was the baby of the family and PawPaw had relocated the family to Asheville before she was born. To this day, I view that trip as a special pilgrimage to my family’s roots. Without Elmer, it never would have been possible.
Two days later we hiked out of the trail near Bryson City. After a week of eating Elmer’s trail cooking, Horace wanted a cheeseburger from one of his favorite stands near Cherokee. I will always remember walking into the restaurant that day. Needless to say, having spent a week on the trail eating ramps and not bathing, we cleared the place out pretty quickly.
But boy, was that cheeseburger good.
While that’s my favorite story about my uncle, I have so many great Elmer memories.
He has always been one of my role models and my heroes. After graduating high school he joined the Navy. He was part of the Naval crew that tested atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll following World War II, and his stories about that experience kept me spellbound. As a boy growing up in the mountains, I loved listening to his stories about his adventures on the sea.
No doubt, those stories heavily influenced my decision to join the Navy.
Then again, Elmer influenced so many things I did — as well as who I am.
Though funeral arrangements are still being worked out, I know he wanted to be buried in the Veterans Cemetery at Black Mountain, N.C., near where my dad and three of my other uncles — Elmer’s brothers — are buried.
My heart is heavy with sadness at his passing. But I know my spirit will always be enriched because of the imprint he left on my life. Elmer was a larger-than-life hero and a man I am blessed to call my uncle.
Neal White is the Interim Publisher and Editor of Waxahachie Newspapers Inc. Contact Neal at email@example.com or 469-517-1457. Follow Neal on Facebook at Neal White – Waxahachie Newspapers Inc., or on Twitter at wni_nwhite.