West of Woolwich: A story of two Georges

Posted Wednesday, September 21, 2011 in Features

West of Woolwich: A story of two Georges

An unlikely pairing in Appalachia

by Fred Kahrl

My father’s teaching career was spent on the fringes of Appalachia. The small industrial city was prosperous, but you needed only to drive into the surrounding hills for 15 minutes to be plunged into a silent world of poverty and hardscrabble farming.

My father, The Professor, had paid about $80.00 for a few acres of “tax land” up in those hills in Eacher Hollow … a narrow ravine where a shale-paved stream crowded the gravel road. There he closed in a small derelict barn … a shed, really … where we could get out of the weather. During the war, my teenage brothers would go out to “The Cabin” for target practice with their .22 caliber rifles, and then helped load firewood into the old Ford wagon for their Father’s study at home.

Ten years later it was my turn. By then my parents had moved away from their rent next to the campus to a small salt-box style house they had built on the edge of the city, and were busily planting the surrounding landscape on their half acre of formerly scrubby cow pasture. The raw clay ground cried out for fertilizer and my parents wanted an oak split rail fence around their pseudo-Yankee abode.

Both products were provided by a gaunt farmer who lived with his impoverished family farther up Eacher Hollow Road, on a weathered farmstead where the stark hardwood slopes reluctantly gave way to some open hilltop fields and pastures. The farmer’s name was George Canfield, and he still farmed with horses.

The farm may have been prosperous at one time, for the barn was large and solid under its coat of wasted boards and tattered shingles. The house, too, had hints of fancy trim around the porches and up under the eaves of the second floor. But not a flake of paint remained to speak of better times.

The children always seemed to be in dark, non-descript clothing, barefoot in summer, staring across the dirt road at me as I filled bushel baskets with manure from the “old” side of the pile next to the barn.

There was a Mrs. Canfield who was rarely seen, but whose high, raspy voice darted out of the windows on warm days, admonishing the children not to cross the road, or to get down from the hickory trees. She too was gaunt and seemed to always be wearing the same faded cotton print dress. She had the same round, alert, curious eyes as her children when she came briefly out onto the porch, her hands wrapped in her apron, to thank “Dr. Kahrl” for the precious dollar bills she saw being passed to her husband.

More serious money changed hands when we picked up loads of eight-foot oak rails. George Canfield and his horses twitched the logs out of his woodland and split them with wedges on the ground, just like Abe Lincoln. Sometimes we stopped by and there would be a load all ready … sometimes George Canfield and would simply smile and suggest “maybe next time”. He clearly felt no urgency in the matter.

George Canfield was, as you would expect, dangerously lean and wiry. His complexion under the brim of his dirty ball cap was dark, as though the grime of his labors were beyond the reach of soap and water. He wore patched denim bib overalls in summer, and permanently oil-stained dark blue coveralls in winter.

And he was vastly amused by a college professor who hauled manure back to his gardens in the city, and was … of all things … building a split rail fence around his house.

But most of all he liked calling The Professor by his first name  … “George”. There was clearly something delicious for George Canfield not only to be chatting up a college professor from the City, but having the shared nobility of the same name.

Having grown up in a Midwest farming community and having worked summers on neighboring farms, The Professor did not have to dig too deep to match George Canfield’s chatter about the rigors of subsistence farming.

So, there they would be, yakking away like old buddies, while I toiled the “fertilizer” or rails into the back of the Ford. The Professor in his old fedora, flannel shirt and worn-down tweed jacket (with leather patches on the elbows, of course), and his khaki work pants tucked into his L.L. Bean boots (ours were the only ones West of the Hudson in those days, I am certain) …  George Canfield in his hillbilly “uniform”, working on his chew of tobacco behind a nearly toothless smile, his dignity absolutely intact.

Even at an early age, the contrasts in this relationship were not lost on me. I had heard my grandfather talk about growing on a similar hard luck farm in the hills of West Virginia after his father had died, and I could tell that, no matter how tough things got, how his mother guarded and nourished the family’s dignity.

When I would mention this to The Professor on the 12-mile drive home, he would always say the same thing.

“Yes … George Canfield is the genuine article.”

I silently digested this, each time adding something of my own to an underlying definition of what it meant to be the “Genuine Article” up there at the head of Eacher Hollow, in the grim hills above Big Flats, NY.

In time, I came to believe that George Canfield deserved better. The Professor developed a host of these one-liners that would cause students and others of the more fortunate to smile and believe that they had just heard something profound.

In fact, it was more about plugging George Canfield into the supporting cast of “Wuthering Heights” or into a grim Thomas Hardy novel. And having thus reduced him to a literary device, the educated elite could nod over their afternoon sherry by the fireplace, smiling their unspoken agreement that now they had the necessary context to understand and “appreciate” the Canfields’ hard life.

But the facts are very different.

First … and although I cannot look at those stark photos of the starving Depression-era American farmers without thinking the Canfields, I have never thought of them as a stereotype … as “my hillbillys”. They have always inhabited a very specific place in my still-growing tutorial on poverty amidst America’s abundance.

I do not think that family envied us. They were adapted to that life, and though those children may have moved on to something we would call “better” after leaving high school, George Canfield would have hoped that they did not lose their dignity.

Second … I discovered late in my father’s life, when fate placed him in my care, that he actually feared the Appalachian poor.

In the last years before his death, when The Professor had departed in the face of creeping dementia, stripping my father of his protective disguise, he had terrible nightmares … apparently not for the first time. He was to explain that as a child, when his father drove the family down from Ohio to visit relatives around the West Virginia homestead, that the poor hill folk would stand at the roadside to see this fancy contraption rumble past, towing its cloud of dust.

Father said that the blank look on the gaunt faces, the raggedy clothes and bare feet, the hollow cheeks and staring eyes … they haunted him for the rest of his life. There was no convenient literary pigeonhole that would buffer those visions, those fears that somehow those hillbillies were coming for him.

Knowing this now, I must say that I respect my father for rising above those fears, and to treat George Canfield with a kind of respect that enhanced the hill farmer’s simple dignity.

Most of the balance of The Professor’s life was an imitation of English literary tradition. He was the eccentric scholar, the stern but entertaining professor of 18th Century Drama, who rarely spoke in the first person, and whose opinions had each their own bibliographies of great thinkers of that time. It was tweed jackets and vested suits, and ultimately … after “The Book” was published … a coveted membership in London’s prestigious actors’ club … “The Garrick”.

But in those sere hills of New York’s “Southern Tier”, he risked stepping out from behind this costume, and instead tapped into both his childhood memories and fears, suppressing the latter to experiment with a rare genuineness that protected … or, should I say, honored … George Canfield’s self-respect.

In those rare moments, The Professor was … perhaps … The Genuine Article.

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