“I’m a rover, seldom sober,
I’m a rover of high degree,
And when I’m drinking, I’m always thinking
How to gain my love’s company.”
“Gonna leave here Monday morning,
Gonna leave here Monday morning,
Gonna leave here Monday morning,
And I never expect to see you anymore.
“My home’s across the Smoky Mountains,
My home’s across the Smoky Mountains,
My home’s across the Smoky Mountains,
And I never expect to see you anymore.”
The highlanders of America have always been a world apart from the rest of society.
The highlanders of the Appalachian Mountains—of mostly Scotch-Saxon stock, with the odd Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Scandinavian thrown in for sake of variety--, though they’re now mostly “civilized” (read: bastardized), have historically been a rebellious, independent, unruly people. They’ve been documented in a number of works of fiction, from Catherine Marshall’s Christy to James Dickey’s Deliverance, and even Edgar Alan Poe gave them a passing mention, referring cryptically to mountains “tenanted by fierce and uncouth races of men,” but no writer ventured to adequately explain just what it was about the mountain whites that made them as they were, save for one: Horace Kephart, author of the deservedly lauded Camping and Woodcraft, hit the nail on the head in his second significant book, Our Southern Highlanders: The people of the Appalachians, until the outbreak of the 14-18 War, existed in a kind of time pocket, living lives almost identical to those that they had lived in 1776; the geographic isolation provided by the gloomy and unforgiving hill country, that modern-day Cimmeria, meant that until the twentieth century, the hillbillies of Virginnie and the Overmountain men who helped us to win our independence from England were nearly one and the same. Though the Great War, and the industrial “progress” that followed, took much of the bite out of them, the highlanders are still a race unto themselves, and the rugged individualism of their ancestors can be brought out with the right stimuli. A case in point:
Erwin Rommel “Chef” Stronghammer had recently been honorably discharged from the Special Forces branch of the U.S. Army and was on his way to temporary lodgings at the home of some relatives in the town of Oslo. He had just crossed the North Carolina state line into Georgia. As he considered where he had been and where he was going, it dawned on him that he was sandwiched between two kinds of death; behind him awaited the North Carolina highway patrol, the boogermen that had haunted his teenage years, and before him, in Oslo, awaited his mortal enemy, one Richard Matheson “The Ballbreaker” Maguire. As he pushed his compact Mitsubishi sport utility vehicle (shaped not unlike a shoebox, with plenty of storage space but barely any seating space) along the Interstate at a fair but reasonable clip (just over eighty miles per hour), he looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the state line and made up his mind. He would push ahead to Oslo. Chances were good that Ballbreaker was away at college that time of year.
Erwin Rommel “Chef” Stronghammer’s long, bony, Nordic hands clung tightly to the steering wheel of his vehicle and his boot-clad foot pressed firmly down on the gas pedal. He wore a faded and tattered old Ramones t-shirt, a pair of ancient acid-washed blue jeans, the obligatory green beret (but with a star-and-crescent pin on it), and two giant lug-soled combat boots. He had buzzed red hair and a great red beard, and his entire body was covered in a thin aura of red fuzz. He stood six feet tall and was extremely gaunt and skeletal.
All of the available storage space in the Mitsubishi was currently being utalised—his vehicle was loaded down with four changes of clothes, two complete combat uniforms (stolen from Uncle Sam), one .45 automatic (stolen from Uncle Sam), two crates of M.R.E.s (stolen from Uncle Sam), one Dragunov SVD assault/sniper rifle, one .30-06 bolt-action deer rifle, one Remington double-barrel ten-gauge shotgun, one Colt .44 Anaconda revolver, Dutch ovens, pup tent, full backpack, several cans of gasoline, fishing equipment, ammo cases, combat boots (stolen from Uncle Sam), and various other essentials. There were four bumper stickers on the back: The Confederate stars-and-bars, one reading “Think Cherokee”, another reading “Just try and take my gun!”, and the fourth proclaiming his status as a former Green Beret. The license plates were fake.
Erwin glanced at his speedometer—he was going his usual safe and sane eighty-eight miles per hour. Unless some misfortune were to arise, he would arrive at Oslo right on schedule.
He heard the banshee-like keening of a siren behind him and checked his rear-view mirror. Exactly as he feared. Pigs. Fuzz. Bulls. Gestapo. Les Guardia Civil. Fortunately for him, it was a Georgia cop. Erwin did the only sensible thing.
He cut the wheel as hard as he could and—nearly tipping his machine over—turned onto a barely-visible gravel road on the edge of the Interstate. He came to a stop along the shoulder of the tiny gravel road, not putting her in park but keeping his foot firmly on the brake.
The traffic Nazi turned onto the gravel road and parked his vehicle several yards behind Erwin’s. Erwin scanned the area for an escape. Luckily, he had parked only a few feet from what appeared to be the turnoff for an old logging road. As soon as the officer stepped out of the patrol car, Erwin slammed on the gas and turned down the logging road—for logging road it was, luckily--, leaving the baffled traffic Nazi in the dust. His vehicle shot down the steep hillside, ricocheting off of ruts and bouncing off of tree roots. Laughing, he sang a song that he’d learned in the army:
“O, we’re dirty sons-a-bitches and we’re raiders of the night, we’re filthy horny cowards who would rather fuck than fight . . .”
Steadying the steering wheel with his knees, he flashed the pig a two-finger sunroof salute.
“Hidy-tidy-gosh-a-mighty, who the fuck are we? Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, we’re the Infantry!”
The vehicle came to a stop at the bottom of the ridge, safely concealed behind a thick growth of laurel. He cackled maniacally and turned on his police scanner, listening closely for voices.
He hit paydirt.
“ . . . turned off onto that old logging trail off of Ericson Road. Over.”
“Could you get a visual? Over.”
“Negative. Tinted windows. Over.”
“There’s only one place that logging road could come out at. We should be able to cut him off. Over.”
“Roger. Over and out.”
A toothy, amused grin spread across Erwin’s face. He’d given them the slip. Overwhelmed with mirth, he hopped out of the vehicle, removed the bumper stickers (all magnetic), and switched the plates for the ones actually registered with the vehicle. He hopped back in, turned around, and headed back onto the gravel road. His trusty pocket GPS told him that there was a gas station at which he could resupply not far from here, and after that he could continue down the road to Oslo. The gas station was on the wrong side of two miles of forest from a small parking lot marking the entrance to a state game preserve, but he didn’t mind a short hike.
On that day, there were several tourists and day-hikers milling around the seashell parking lot that marked the head of the trail which would lazily through the state game preserve. Imagine their surprise when a battered old Mitsubishi SUV loaded down with all sorts of dangerous and probably illegal weapons came charging out of the woods, doing a buck-ten down the rutty gravel road, spraying shrapnel blasts of gravel and seashells as it skidded to a halt in an unoccupied parking space. As soon as it rolled to a stop, a tall, gaunt, seemingly insane young man hopped out, looked around, ran to the back of the vehicle, opened it, and took out an overfilled external-frame backpack. He locked up his vehicle and strode deliberately up to the big wooden sign that marked the start of the trail. The others gave him a wide berth.
Erwin cocked an eyebrow as he read the writing on the sign. Apparently, the trail led to a gas station, visitors’ center, and restaurant, and following the trail would mean walking six miles as the wolf runs. His pocket GPS told him that the buildings were only two miles away as the Nâzgül flies. Without a moment’s hesitation, he disregarded the trail as an option and plunged into the forest.
Erwin Rommel “Chef” Stronghammer felt at home in the forest.
In the forest, in the mountains, in God’s country, was where he belonged, not in some empty and wasted desert, but here, here in the mountains. This country had good bones. This country had trees.
Erwin looked at the various trees and reviewed their qualities in his mind. There was oak, excellent firewood, excellent for building things out of, excellent for finding deer and squirrel under. If boiled first, the acorns can be eaten. Crushed, they make a nice flour substitute.
There was cedar. Eastern Red Cedar. Good for expedient shelter during bad weather, and good for cover from observers.
Hickory. Very sturdy wood. Excellent firewood. Good for guitars and fiddles because of the natural curve in its grain. Nuts can be eaten in hard times.
Erwin stood on the edge of the ridge and looked down. There was a sandy-bottomed creek at the base of the ridge, full of plump fish ready to be caught and eaten. He unzipped his fly, whipped out his penis, and sent a long stream of urine falling into the pristine water, scaring the fish.
A flash of movement to the left caught his attention. It was a slow elk—a cow escaped from its pasture—blundering along on hooves not designed for this sort of terrain. An easy target for a hungry human.
Yes, thought Erwin, this is definitely where I belong. Hell’s fuck, the woods is the only place where anyone is really free. Shit.
High on life, happy as a pig in shit to be back in his homeland, Erwin stepped back onto the top of the ridge, followed it several feet . . .
. . . and saw desolation. A huge swath of forest, a full half mile square, had been completely eviscerated by logging crews. Huge ruts were washed into the ground, exposing the stone beneath. Where once stood massive trees, now stood but stumps. A righteous indignation welled up in Erwin’s gut.
On a lonely highway, now visible only because of the clear-cutting, a simi truck laden with anthracite coal dug from a strip mine somewhere in the Virginias was on its way to a massive coal power plant that supplied electricity to the various cities of the American South. Atlanta. Babylon. Jackson. Nineveh. Baton Rouge. Sodom. Little Rock. Gomorrah.
With his anger, once satiated by wilderness, now rising anew, he trudged down the ridge towards his short-term destination, keeping in mind his long-term destination of Oslo. Shit, he thought, Aunt Marcy promised me a place to stay until I figure out what in the sweet motherfuck I wanna do with my life. That sure was nice of her. Plus I get to see my little buddy again, see how much he’s grown up in the past four years. Four fuckin’ years, shit. Long time to spend away from home and hearth, away from a regular supply of booze, pussy, and weed. I’ll probably see that chick he used to hang out with, too. I bet she’s hot now.
He chuckled to himself. You’re twenty-eight now, you jackass, and she’d be, what, like, sixteen? Now’s the time to find some cunt your own age, move to Atlanta, buy a house in the suburbs, get a job deliverin’ packages or some shit, squirt out a buncha snot-nosed waterhead little kids and watch the little bastards grow up. American fuckin’ dream, shit. Or maybe go to some community college, get yourself a fuckin’ education, make something with your life, you dumbass hillbilly twat-licker. You’re twenty-eight. Time to grow the fuck up.
That don’t sound too bad, he retorted to himself, but still, I bet she’s hot. Bet I could tap that shit if I wanted to.
Bet you could, he replied to himself, but fifteen years in State for statutory rape is hard fuckin’ time, especially here in God’s country. Ain’t you ever seen Deliverance?
Erwin Rommel “Chef” Stronghammer walked out of the forest and found himself standing in a paved parking lot in front of three buildings marked as a gas station, a restaurant, and a visitors’ center, respectively. He felt a gurgle in his stomach—hunger pangs—and walked into the restaurant. It was dimly lit and occupied mostly by obese middle-aged men in cowboy dress nursing mugs of beer. Erwin slipped his green beret into his pocket and moved discreetly to an unoccupied table in a dark corner of the establishment. He dropped his pack on the ground, sat down, opened said pack, produced a family-sized bag of fried corn chips, and started munching.
A timid young woman, looked to be about twenty-five or so, probably Cherokee, possibly Mongolian, Erwin couldn’t tell, walked over to the table and gestured at the bag of chips.
“Um, sir, I’m, um, afraid I have to ask you to put those away.”
Erwin stopped eating. “How come?”
“Because, um, it’s against the rules for customers to bring in outside food or drink.”
“Shit, I figured that, I’m askin’ how come?”
She sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, I just work here. Would you please put those away?”
“I’m a veteran, y’know.”
“Do what, now?”
“I’m a veteran. Just did two turns in Iraq. Fought for the fuckin’ country. Haven’t I earned the right to eat some damn chips?”
She sighed again. “Fine. You win. Eat your stupid chips. May I take your order?”
“Turkey sandwich, no mayonnaise. And a Mountain Dew, no ice.”
“Be right up, sir.”
Erwin smiled triumphantly and continued munching on his chips. After about ten minutes, the waitress came back and brought him his meal and a check. He finished off the sandwich in four massive bites and the Mountain Dew in three manly gulps. He could feel the sugar and caffeine of the drink begin coursing through his blood stream almost instantly. Sugar and caffeine—America’s two favorite drugs. He smiled with contentment and ate another handful of chips, ogling the waitress all the while. He could feel in his jeans the familiar twitching of pubis that signaled the onset of true love.
Suddenly he heard a sound that shook him to his very core, causing him to instinctively reach over his shoulder where months ago an M-16A2 would’ve been. It was the sound of a massive Diesel engine running on fuel with a higher sulfur content than the manufacturer recommended.
A big military-style Hummer pulled up beside the restaurant and a morbidly obese man wearing a cowboy hat and a giant brass belt buckle with “Bud” stamped across it stepped out of the vehicle and walked inside. He sat down at a table occupied by four other men and joined in their conversation.
Erwin ground his teeth in indignation. Big dumb jerk driving a car like that just about made me shit myself, he thought. I bet he’s the same kind of asshole who beats his women and who listens to country music day and fuckin’ night.
Erwin thought for a moment. There had been music playing when he walked in, but now there wasn’t. There was a jukebox in the corner of the room, and it was now silent. His face lighting up, he pranced over to the jukebox, dropped in some money, and selected the best song in the world ever performed by man or woman—The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. He half-skatted, half-sang along with Johnny as he walked back to his table.
As soon as he sat down, the music stopped. He turned in the direction of the jukebox, and in front of it stood the new guy, Bud Hummer, who dropped in some of his own money and selected—dear God, why?—one of the latest top-forty country hits. Erwin exploded.
He ran over to the man and obstructed his path. “That was my quarter, asshole! You put my Johnny Rotten back on before I fuck your shit up!”
The man ignored the indignant squarehead, walked around him back to his friends at the table.
“Hey, fatass! Don’t you fuckin’ ignore me! I’m talkin’ to you! Get the fuck back here!”
The man did not move, did not even give Erwin any notice. Erwin slouched back to his table in defeat, his eyes never leaving the target of his aggression.
The waitress came to take the group’s order. Each smiled politely and responded with courtesy. The waitress smiled, somewhat surprised by their courteousness. As she was walking away, Bud Hummer slapped her behind. He and his friends erupted with laughter. As the waitress stood stammering, they returned to their conversation. Erwin, having watched the exchange, stood up and moved swiftly, silently over to where they sat. He tapped Mr. Hummer on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, but I would like to apologize for what I said earlier. I overreacted.”
As Mr. Hummer turned around, his face ran into Erwin’s fist. He fell to the ground, shock-and-dazed, spewing teeth and curses.
All of the other rednecks in the restaurant got up and circled around Erwin. He smiled. Well shit, he thought, if these fuckers want a fuckin’ show, I’ll sure as Hell give ‘em a show.”
“Hey, everybody!”, he called, “My name’s Jack, and I’m a queer! Yeah, that’s right, I’m a queer! And a Liberal, too! And I come down here to Georgia to try an’ get some of y’all to sign a petition I got for the government to repeal the second amendment! I just got kicked outta the Army for cornholin’ the N.C.O., and I could kick the shit outta anybody in here! Any takers?”
There were takers. A few of the rednecks stepped foreward. One of them tried to punch Erwin, who caught the fist just before impact and twisted the man’s arm behind his back. With his free hand, the embattled young squarehead backsacked him several times.
When Erwin released that man, another tried to swing a wild haymaker which Erwin blocked with his elbow. He lost himself. He went berserk.
And then he was himself again. He could barely see out of one of his eyes and his head and stomach hurt badly, but there was a ring of defeated, bruised men, some twice his size, backing off with their tails between their legs.
Erwin thought that this would be a good time to leave. He slipped the waitress a fifty dollar bill, told her to keep the change, shouldered his backpack, and left. The waitress followed him out.
“Hey,” she said, “that was . . . wow. Where did you learn to fight like that?”
Erwin smiled with a twinge of embarrassment, like a schoolboy who’d just been in a scrap, and pulled the green beret from his pocket. He placed it proudly on his head. “Fighting soldiers from the sky. Fearless men who jump and die.”
“Wow. Just . . . wow. And thanks for that—I’m glad somebody had the guts to teach those idiots a lesson.”
“No problem, baby.” He winked with his good eye and started to walk away.
“Wait!”, she called, “Um, what’s your name?”
He thought for a moment. “Uh . . . call me Chef.”
“Chef? Where’d you get a nickname like Chef?”
“In the army. They said I was wound too tight for Baghdad and would probably end up with my head cut off.”
“Isn’t that from a movie?”
“Sur as shit is. I’m glad somebody noticed.”
“My name’s Angela, anyway, um, Chef. I haven’t seen you around here before; where are you headed?”
Erwin glanced nervously at the urban-cowboys leaving the restaurant, a couple of them with cell phones at their ears. “I think it’s best that nobody here knew that. Tell you what; I’ll come back here sometime. Maybe you and me could go out to dinner sometime.”
“I’d like that. I’ll see you later, I guess.”
“You sure will. Later!”
He disappeared into the gas station, where he bought a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a “Hunt hunters!” bumper sticker. He stuck the bottle into his pack and walked discreetly out into the parking lot, where he found the Hummer in which his adversary had driven up. Its bumper was unadorned; he slapped the “Hunt hunters!” sticker on it and disappeared into the wilderness.
Linda returned home from school that afternoon to find her father’s truck parked in the garage; he wasn’t usually home so early. She tiptoed up the front walk to where the door was hanging open and peeked inside, unseen. Her father, the big, comical old Indian with the grey ponytail and the I.W.W. (One Big Union—Solidarity Forever) t-shirt, was looming over her mother, a petite and aristocratic woman of Scots-Irish descent, and grinning. His wife was blushing.
“So,” he said in a sweet but gruff voice, “Linda’s probably not going to be home for a few minutes, and you’re here, and I’m here . . . we’ve got the house to ourselves.”
His wife giggled. “Oh, Charlie, you’re so bad . . . but no. Linda could be home any minute.”
He pecked her on the lips.
Linda withdrew silently. She hated when her parents acted that way—not because she thought it was disgusting (she was too mature for that), but because she knew her parents shared a kind of love that she couldn’t possibly understand. She walked across the yard to the edge of the forest, where the ground sloped down sharply to the picturesque stream and hollow below. As her boots carried her carefully down the slope, she thought, Maybe Frank and I can have love like that someday. Hell, of course we can. Why not?
She reached the bottom, stood beside the giant, flat-topped, moss-covered boulder, and contemplated her aloneness. The nearest house, besides her own, was a mile away by way of the forest, and few people besides herself ever went for walks in the forest these days, so Linda was utterly alone. She snickered.
She dropped her courier bag onto the ground beside the boulder and scrambled to the top of it, relishing the scratchy feeling of the moss against her cheek. She laid on her back atop the boulder and stared up at the canopy of oaks and hickories high above her, thinking of Frank. Surreptitiously, she placed a hand on her stomach and slid it slowly over the peach-fuzz below her navel, across the untamed forest of her pubic mound, and down the to the waiting valley of her womanhood, thinking of Frank as she pleasured herself. She stuck her free hand into her shirt and massaged her left breast. She thought of Frank.
Over her own gasps and moans, she couldn’t hear the approaching footsteps, but she did here the cry of, “Oh, God—what the Hell are you doing?”
Linda stopped diddling herself and sat up on the boulder, her mouth frozen in a grin of mortification. The offending crier was Frank.
“Um, hi there, Frank,” Linda managed to say.
“Linda,” he exclaimed, “were you—“
Linda held up a hand to stop him. “Frank, let me tell you what’s going to happen now. We, that is, you and I, are going to walk up the hill to my house, and we’re going to pretend that this moment never happened. Savvy?”
“It never happened, Frank. Never happened.”
The two of them walked back up to the Kilgore house in silence, without making eye contact. Linda’s parents were no longer there, had driven off somewhere together; Linda had a housekey. She opened the door and immediately walked to the kitchen and washed her hands.
As she and Frank sat down at the table, Frank looked her over and smiled, painfully aware of how much he loved her. His face contorted as if he wanted to say something but was holding himself back. Linda, seeing this, smiled with her eyes and motioned for him to speak his peace.
Frank swallowed. “Linda, I . . . I need to . . . Well, I . . .”
Linda smiled. “Yeah, Ace? What is it?”
“I . . . I’ve . . . I need to . . .” He sighed, accepting his failure, and picked himself up with, “Do you have your notes from geometry? I lost mine.”
Linda, shaking her head in disappointment, replied, “Yeah, let me go get ‘em.”