1928 - Alderson High School - 1968

 

 

A LITTLE SELF-EXAMINATION
David Shields '58

I cultivated a deep appreciation for the utility of pre-emption early on in life, in the mountains.  I canít really say it has served me as well as the flatlanderís penchant for negotiation and compromise would have, but I didnít have much of a choice.  Mountain people are just different that way.  And you are, in large measure, a product of your surroundings donít you know.   

Of course, Iíve been a flatlander longer than I was a mountain man.  Truth of the matter is I wasnít a man while in the mountains.  I just grew up there, became an adult there, in the Appalachians and at the feet of the Great Smokies.  Iíve been living here in swampland, barely above sea level, since I was 22.  But like I said, moving through childhood, adolescence and manhood you bring things with you and shaking off some of the unwanted baggage is not easy.   

For example, folks say Iím not very approachable, that Iím sort of out there and not easy to know.  I know why that is.  Mountain people are quite a bit more territorial than flatlanders.  That is they prefer hanging with the familiar, both things and people.  People and things from across the river or on the other side of the mountain are generally thought to be foreign and not much effort is given to getting to know them; less to trusting them.  Consequently, mountain people, absent better learning, are not always warmly inviting.  Or as they would say these days: not quite as sociable as some others in the same crowd.   

Being thusly afflicted one doesnít wind up winning many friends or influencing many people, but at the same time it certainly pre-empts a lot of senseless chatter and invitations to gatherings of pretentious wannabes.  This, of course, leaves you a little lonely at times but I seem to get over it without much difficulty thanks to the handful of folks who, for whatever reason, decided that my company was worth seeking and allowed me into their circles without compromise or much effort on my part.  Like many mountain people, Iím most comfortable with that kind of relationship.   

Itís the same thing with casual conversation.  The rap on me is that I donít talk much; that I just look and listen a lot.  That probably comes from the mountains also.  Mountaineers will seldom fight you to get a word in.  I think they figure if you want to hear what they have to say you wonít interrupt them while theyíre saying it.  If you do theyíll generally yield the floor and let you talk to yourself.  Iím that way.  Civil conversation should be a give and take proposition.  That is you say something and then I say something.  Any thing else is a struggle and unworthy of my time and effort.  If youíre not listening why should I waste my breath?   

I have stopped brawling though.  I did a lot of that in the mountains.  Despite the stereotypical view of the hillbilly being a shoeless, toothless, mentally challenged inbred, mountaineers will survey a complex situation, evaluate it and draw a conclusion about it quicker than most.  If that situation involves any kind of potential for human conflict the mountain man doesnít wait around very long discussing the issues.  He more often than not hits his adversary in the mouth the moment he concludes that his situation has a fist fight in it somewhere.   

Pre-emption plays a large role in this as evidenced by the one common denominator of all mountaineer feuds: one party or the other shot first and asked questions later.  Itís just the way of the mountains.  I learned this the hard way at the outset of my brawling days.   

We were all gathered together on the end of the bridge in my hometown of Alderson, West Virginia one afternoon after school seeking the great truths of life when a couple of older guys came up and said something smart-alecky to us, never mind what exactly because I donít remember.  Iím sure it was nothing more than a hazing remark that older guys typically say to younger ones to remind them of the generally accepted pecking order of adolescence and whereby the younger ones acknowledge same by not talking back; otherwise there was always the potential for a fist fight.   

Needless to say (youíre way ahead of me, arenít you?) I talked back, and as I did I eased off my concrete perch.  Now I may have gotten away with talking back had I kept seated, but there was no way I was going to get away with talking back and standing both.  My foot had no sooner hit the sidewalk than my head seemed to explode.  Coco had hit me upside the head and my legs had turned to rubber.  The fight was over and I had been disgraced.  But I had also been initiated.   

To the best of my knowledge I was never disgraced again.  I learned the art of street fighting rather quickly after that initial lesson, largely because I did a lot of it, but mostly because I developed this deep appreciation for the utility of pre-emption that I talked about starting out.   

In retrospect Iím not proud of being such a ruffian.  In many ways Iím ashamed of all that for it certainly embarrassed and humiliated my mama whenever she found out that I had been fighting, but Iím wondering if this mountaineer predilection for pre-emption doesnít explain some things about me for me.  Hmmmm.  Let me think on that some more.