Tuesday, April 16 – It was a quiet morning on the tranquil beaches of Treasure Island.
I saw no brown pelicans herding fish into the shallows and dive-bombing them in search of breakfast. I hoped this would be a daily treat. Not today. Not one.
The surf was littered with large shells that tapered to a point. They look like fattened powder horns. I’d never heard of the saw-toothed pen shell (atrina serrata). Wikipedia says the saw-toothed pen shell is a bivalve mollusk. Just so you know.
I uncovered even more exotic artifacts on my morning stroll. On the way south, I pulled a “Fresh to Go” (Sevenus Elevenus) plastic bag from the foam. On my return trek, I landed the following specimens: one Doritos bag, two paper coffee cups with plastic lids, a small styrofoam cup and finally, a veritable whopper, the prize catch of the day, a mammoth stryofoam cup from Circle K. They call it the “Polar Pop,” and its capacity is 44 ounces. I had to restrain myself from breaking into a verse of “America the Beautiful.”
In a few hours I’m going to take the short walk over Johns Pass and meet Willie Broox Webster Jr. at a coffee shop in Madeira Island. Those Websters from Fairmont, N.C. You just can’t shake them off. Yesterday Will Jr.’s little sister, Elizabeth, forwarded me a photograph of their daddy, our old pal Willie Broox Sr., taken during his 1937 screen test for “Gone With the Wind.” I do declare he favors Ashley Wilkes more than Rhett Butler. See for yourself:
Willie Broox Webster Sr., the prince of Fairmont, was a handsome, dashing young man in any case. We will return to him later.
Now I’ll move on to March 20, Day 2 of this leg of the epic journey to somewhere.
I always like to jump-start a journey with a visit among the Vias of the Shenandoah Valley.
And so we were on our way to Waynesboro, Va.
We awoke Wednesday morning, March 20, in the sprawling macadam park otherwise known as the Walmart parking lot. Before we departed York Haven on Tuesday, I telephoned Shelley Via Smulsky to see if she’d be amenable to a visit. She said she was.
Nearly a year ago, on March 9, 2012, we visited Shelley’s older brother Arnold at a VA hospital in Martinsburg, W. Va. Arnold, the fifth of nine sons born to William “Shake” and Cora Via, suffered from gangrene and a host of other maladies, but he was a gracious host nonetheless. He was an independent spirit who had returned from a harrowing experience in World War II and become intimately involved in the American atheist movement. His friends and neighbors didn’t know what to make of him, but he didn’t care.
At 86, Arnold still had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and he took a liking to Max. He shared his cheese curls with the kid. Before we left, he got out of bed and accompanied us on a pleasant stroll around the perimeter of the fifth floor, his neighborhood. He didn’t much like it, but the fates had conspired against him and he was making the best of it.
When we returned to room 512, we said our goodbyes and promised to visit again when we returned east. We never made it. Arnold died on January 8 of this year. He was 87. He departed this world broken physically but unbowed in spirit. Godspeed, Arnold. I only wish we had known you better.
(Editor’s note: In the interest of transparency, I did not stumble upon the Shenandoah Vias in my usual, haphazard fashion. This was a set-up. Somewhere out there riding high on what he likes to call the “Left Coast,” there’s another indomitable spirit named Via. Kenny Via. He is a great friend of mine and great nephew of Arnold, Shelley and Herbert. His granddaddy, Clarence, was Shake and Cora’s third son. Kenny inspired me to visit the Via’s home place on Paine Run Road in Harriston, where the clan settled after the government created Shenandoah National Park and forced them off their land on Via Mountain. The family has endured a linguistic schism. In the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge, they pronounce their surname Vie, as in Vie till I die. Out on the rheumy shores of Puget Sound, they say Vee-ah, as in Via Appia. Pretentious bastards.
Speaking of Paine Run Road, I’ll pause here to give what the kids call a shout-out to Charlie Via, Kenny’s older brother and former sparring partner. Charlie Via is a madman with a giant heart of gold. For many years Charlie Via was lead singer of a band called Pain’s Run. They ripped up bars from Belfair to Bellingham and drank enough beer to drown Seattle. Charlie Via has a voice that could summon Satan from the black pits of hell and leave him quivering on his knees.
Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of Pain’s Run on the youtubes, save for a brief thing on “Globe Trekker.” The sound is atrocious, but it’s all I got. Charlie Via’s the guy wielding the microphone and looking like he’s bound to kill his mother. Wait! You can check out some stripped-down Pain’s Run on the Facebook. Love to all the Vias, East and West, Left and Right. P.S. Hi to Old Man and Valarie. And Valarie, thanks so much for reading!)
While we were in Berwyn this winter, I received a lovely card in the mail from Shelley Via Smulsky, the second of Shake and Cora’s girls and one of three surviving Via siblings. Shelley shared a bit about Arnold’s last days and thanked us for our interest.
This gesture backfired on her, for now we were bearing down on her home. Shelley and Ed Smulsky live in the winsome valley just seven miles south and west of Paine Run Road.
We exited Interstate 81 at Verona and stopped at the Food Lion. I called Shelley to make sure she wasn’t having second thoughts and tell her we were on the way.
You never know how these unsolicited visits will pan out. Usually they deliver an array of surprises. Today would be no different. We parked the behemoth in the driveway, rang the doorbell and soon nestled into the living room of Ed and Shelley Smulsky. First we got hugs from our delightful hostess, the former Shelley Via.
A baseball game flickered on the TV, a replay of 2012 marathon between the Red Sox and hometown Orioles that went 17 innings before Baltimore emerged with a 9-6 win.
Taking in a 17-inning baseball game is an apt metaphor for an afternoon spent in a southern living room. Nothing is hurried. You might as well find a nice chair and let events follow their natural course. (Damn. I fear I’ve just allied myself with the legion of poets and pundits who insist on making baseball a metaphor for the very meaning of life. Sorry.)
Nonetheless, it’s exactly what I did. I slumped in an easy chair, chatted with our gracious hosts and pawed through pages and pages of Via history. It’s colorful stuff.
The Vias leap off the black-and-white pages of genealogy and stride across the Blue Ridge with an independent streak as long as the mountains are high. They clear forests of oak, chestnut and hickory. They haul 50-pound barrels of brandy on their backs and deliver mail on horseback. They make brandy, and they make moonshine,
During World War II, the Vias of Harriston, Va., were a five-star family. William “Shake” Via and his wife, the former Cora Harris, saw their first five boys leave this handsome valley to fight overseas. Rufus, James, Clarence, Leonard and Arnold all saw combat duty.
Miraculously, all five came home alive.
Back in the valley, they worried. Having five boys in harm’s way is a worrying thing.
“Mom had a trunk, and it used to be full of letters,” Shelley said. “A day didn’t go by when she didn’t worry that a telegram would be delivered. Can you imagine? Every day, watching and waiting for the mail. That would have to be so gut-wrenching.”
But time didn’t stand still. There were kids to raise. They were crops to plant and gardens to weed. The relentless, demanding rhythms of rural life didn’t stop for war.
There was work to do. The work, lord it never stopped.
There was wood to collect, carry and cut up to fire the stove. In the fall, there were hogs to butcher. Someone had to milk the cow. Someone had to pick the potato bugs off the potatoes and drop them into kerosene-filled cans. Someone had to pick huckleberries from the nearby Blue Ridge slopes.
There was lots of canning to do. There was always canning to do.
“Mom would’ve canned the squeal from a pig if she could’ve,” Shelley said. “You had to preserve for the winter. She canned and preserved anything that grew.”
Someone had to keep it all going. Fortunately, there were lots of someones to help out.
By war’s end, there were seven more Via youngsters on Paine Run Road. They ranged in age from 2 (Hessie) to 18 (Alice). Shake and Cora came from hardy, resilient mountain stock. Cora bore Shake 12 children, and all 12 lived to maturity.
Shelley Smulsky came into this world as Shirley Jean Via on Sept. 7, 1940. At least that’s what the record says.
“That’s what my birth certificate says, but that’s not my name,” she said. “I’m thinking that a physician was drunk when he filled it out. Because it was not my name.”
Shelley was child No. 11. The first was Rufus Lee Via, born nearly a generation earlier on Oct. 19, 1917. The government was ratcheting up its propaganda campaign in an effort to recruit young men for America’s entry into the war in Europe. Before Rufus was month old, the Bolsheviks would seize power in Russia.
The big world beyond the mountains was beginning to change, but down on the farm it was business as usual. The first three boys were born in the ancestral mountain home they called Sugar Hollow. James was born in 1919, Clarence in 1921.
The Vias couldn’t resist the tide of change forever. Soon they found themselves caught on the dark side of the national park movement.
More than 500 families were forced out of their homes and pushed off their lands to make room for Shenandoah National Park. They were shoved aside and treated with contempt. The new, car-driven tourism industry was about to explode. There was money to be made enticing affluent folks from nearby Washington to the Blue Ridge hills. Lots of money.
If you ever wonder why Fox News reaps staggering profits, and how the super rich ably manipulate common folks’ distrust of government and so-called “elites,” this is as good a place as any to start. The roots lie deep in these hills.
Suddenly, people who carved out lives in the mountains for generations were portrayed as alien to the American way of life. They were portrayed as brutes and half-wits who squatted in rude cabins and held no legal right to their lands. Forcible “relocation” would be doing them a favor. Sociologists and journalists claimed people of the Blue Ridge hollows existed outside the rule of law and the benefits of socialization.
The Vias lived in Sugar Hollow or thereabouts since about 1730, when William Via, son of Amer Via, moved into the area. Amer Via, a French Huguenot seeking to outrun persecution, landed at Jamestown in 1685 and settled nearby modern-day Richmond.
Shelley’s great-grandfather, Christoper Columbus Via, was born in 1850. Is that a great name or what? Christopher Columbus Via. Remember that name.
Christopher Columbus Via was nobody’s fool. According to Darwin Lambert’s “The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park,” Christopher Via was a shrewd businessman who solidified the family’s preeminent place in Sugar Hollow. He traded in livestock, lumber, apples and more. They operated a sawmill and a produce packaging plant.
Christopher Via held a license to produce and sell brandy.
Sugar Hollow still runs in the Vias’ blood.
“It says Sugar Holler on Arnold’s death certificate,” Shelley said. “That was moonshine country. I think we can figure out why the sugar came in up in the mountains.”
Shelley figured right.
“Because sugar to make brandy and whiskey was always being hauled up Moorman’s River,” Lambert wrote, “the North Fork became known as Sugar Hollow all the way to Via Gap.”
Making moonshine was simply a way of life in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. Especially when times were tough. It was a traditional way to make a few dollars and make ends meet. Getting caught and going to jail was accepted as an occupational hazard. Cora’s daddy, Edward A. Harris, and Shake each spent time in federal prison.
Edward Harris was something of a mountain poet. He wrote a poem about his time in a Georgia penitentiary. It’s called “A Prisoner’s Thoughts of Home” and dedicated to his wife, Emma. It concludes with the following verse:
O, could I drink again tonight from a cool Blue Ridge fountain,
And with my coon dogs Jack and Mike, hunt the woods of Cedar Mountain.
It would be an old man’s heaven, in God’s great world, fair and free,
And in life’s shadows and in sunshine I would glad and happy be.
You can still find Via Gap on the map. It’s right on Skyline Drive. To reach Via Gap from Paine Run Road today requires a circuitous, hour-long drive south and then north.
Christopher Columbus passed the reins of his operation to his son, Robert Via. He was known locally as Bob Vi, and he was the King of Sugar Hollow.
He ran a sprawling apple orchard and bought a Model A truck to haul them over Black Rock Gap and to a railroad junction in the valley.
He was described as a mammoth man, standing well over 6-feet tall and weighing in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. He was, Lambert wrote, “a schemer, often domineering, about to turn profit and gain power in many different ways.”
Poorer quality apples unworthy of going to the market were fermented into cider in wooden tubs and later distilled into brandy.
Bob Vi’s mountain empire came crashing down when the state of Virginia seized his land via eminent domain in order to hand it over to the national park. Bob Vi, however, was not the kind of man to go down without a fight.
He sued to stop Virginia from taking his 152-acre spread. He was the only one of the displaced to file suit. He lost and moved on, buying farmland near Hershey, Pa.
“All of daddy’s brothers and sister moved to Pennsylvania,” Shelley said. “That’s why we didn’t. Hessie’s middle son lives right outside of Hershey.”
Edward Harris wrote a lament for his lost home in the hills called “The Blue Ridge Mountaineer.” It has the ring of an old mountain song, and it offers poignant insight into the plight of the displaced. It also gives lie to the notion of the hollows as breeding grounds for illiteracy.
It includes the following stanzas:
In came the government people with papers in their hands.
Saying, “Old man we have taken your land.”
You must vacate by April 1st.”
Right then I felt my heart would burst.
Yes, you have taken my home and destroyed my life.
And I have no place to carry my wife.
And now I am old, and can’t work no more.
I’m now standing in the Blue Ridge wondering where to go.
Life on Paine Run Road
Edward’s daughter and son-in-law had already accepted defeat and moved their family out of Sugar Hollow and into the new home place on Paine Run Road. Cora gave birth to her fourth son, Leonard, there in 1923. Arnold came along in 1925, followed in succession by Alice in 1927, Herbert (1929), Lorenders (1931), Curtis (1934) and Chester (1937).
Cora was an an iron-willed matriarch. She held the family together in good times and bad. Even the bad times, Shelley said, were not as bad as they could’ve been.
“We ate good,” Shelley said. “We were poor. But we weren’t the poorest people around. She had five sons (in the service) and they all sent their allotment home. She was probably better off than a lot of people around.”
Cora Belle Harris was born Feb. 17, 1897, in Sugar Hollow. She earned renown across the family for her great cooking. She made biscuits from scratch and cooked up a delicious cornbread on an iron skillet. She also was known for her unflinching honesty.
“She would say what she had on her mind, and she didn’t care who heard it, the preacher or the devil,” Chester is quoted as saying in the wonderfully expansive Via genealogy, compiled by Elaine Via Bouscher, Clarence’s daughter (and Old Man Via’s twin).
Cora was was strict and sober, stern and unyielding. She didn’t smile a whole lot.
“She did not find much in life to laugh about,” Shelley said. “She did not have much of a sense of humor.”
When one of her kids got out of line, she wielded a mean switch.
“She kept a long switch made out of hickory,” said 83-year-old Herbert Via, the last of the Vias on Paine Run Road. “It’s the only kind of switch she used. She would burn you up with that damn switch.
“I made a mistake one time and did something she didn’t like and she said, ‘Go get me the switch!’ I went out and borrowed one off a tree I knew would break and I gave it to her. She said, ‘you know that switch ain’t no good. I had to go get another one. I knew what kind she wanted, but I didn’t want it.”
When Shelley was 7, Shake and Cora separated. The war had been over for two years, and the Via five boys had come home and moved on. Cora moved the family to Grottoes for a spell. When they moved back to the home place, Shake moved into a one-room cabin Rufus built at the end of Paine Run Road.
Born in 1893, William King “Shake” Via married Cora on Nov. 8, 1916, in Charlottesville, Va. He died in Grottoes in April 1968.
Shake worked at the Crompton factory in Waynesboro, where they manufactured corduroy. He remained an integral part of the family
“We had to carry supper to him for a hundred years,” Shelley said. “Especially if it was Sunday and there was family there. We always had to take Daddy supper.”
I asked if she had any theories on why her parents separated.
“Had no clue,” Shelley said. “Maybe she didn’t want to get pregnant anymore. That would be a good reason. He was still part of the family. All the boys and grandchildren would go to see him. He had the best of two worlds. He didn’t have to live with my mother, and he still got supper. Kinda made out better than everyone else.”
Soon it was just Curtis, Chester, Shelley and Hessie at home with Cora. Little else changed.
Discipline was still Cora’s watchword.
Shelley exuded a rebellious spirit. Hessie, born in 1942 and the last of Cora’s 12 children, was more demure.
“Hessie would read her Bible by the kerosene lamp,” Shelley said. “She was very honest. She wouldn’t lie for anyone.”
Shelley was more of a free thinker. She thought there was no reason to absorb a switching if it could be avoided.
“Hessie would not run,” she said. “I would take off like a striped ape. I’d be gone and then I’d hide out till late in the evening, till Mama had gone to bed. It didn’t always work.
“We would have a Mexican stand-off most times. There was always supper up in the warming closet on top of that stove. I never went to bed hungry that I could remember.”
The worst job was gathering and cutting the firewood with a two-person saw. Shelley performed so poorly at the latter job that she never had to do it.
“Mama said I couldn’t saw, so I’d get out of it,” she said. “I was smart like Huckleberry Finn. I ended up doing the dishes in the nice, warm house.”
Sometimes Cora would use a belt instead of a switch. Neither were as terrifying as the time she got so mad she bolted Shelley and Hessie in the root cellar.
“It was an eternity to us,” she said. “I’m sure it wasn’t that long. It was dark as night, and it had a dirt floor and dirt walls. I hated going down there. It was crawling with salamanders and little lizards.”
With Shake out of the house, Shelley gravitated to Arnold, the freest thinker in the family. They were been born 15 years apart, but they were kindred spirits.
“My beloved favorite Arnold was never a character to me,” Shelley said. “Arnold was my father figure. Him being single, he kind of took to the father figure naturally.”
Sometimes after the sun had gone down, Shake would wander up to the home place to secure provisions.
“Daddy would come down to the well after we’d gone to bed fill up his water buckets,” Shelley said. “We could hear him out there pumping.”
Late one Saturday night Cora saw someone poking about the hen house with a flashlight. She suspected an egg thief. Chaos nearly ensued.
“That’s the night mom shot at the henhouse,” Shelley said. “We kept a .38 pistol in the bedroom. None of us was too qualified to use it. Hessie and mom and I all slept in the same room, this big, old bedroom that went all the way across the top of the house.
“She woke us up one night and told us she was going to be shooting a gun so we wouldn’t be scared. There was somebody down there in the hen house with a flashlight. We concluded later it was Daddy.”
Through all the waves of change, life in the country remained the same. There was no indoor plumbing, no electricity and a whole lot of walking.
“On Saturday about noon we’d get our baths, get dressed and Curtis and Chester and Mama and Hessie and I would walk from our place on Paine Run Road to Grottoes to Grandma Harris’ house and spend the night,” she said. “We’d go to church the next morning and walk home. If we were lucky we’d get a ride. A lot of times we didn’t.”
Then in the early 1950s, the Vias embraced modern convenience and bought an old Model A Ford. They’d tool back and forth to Grandma Emma’s place in Grottoes. They say Emma made a mean squirrel pot pie.
“Chester was only about 14, but Chester could drive it,” Shelley said. “We went the back way and had to cross a little creek in the mountains. I can remember Mama yelling at Chester, ‘Give it the gas! Give it the gas!’ so he wouldn’t get stuck in Horsehead Creek.”
When Shelley and Hessie were teenagers, Arnold bought them a car. Cora wasn’t too keen on the girls taking it out on the town.
“We would beg all day on Saturday to get the car,” she said. “We’d go to the skating rink in Waynesboro to see the boys. Mom would say ‘no use in you working so hard today, you ain’t going anywhere tonight.’ We would beg for two or three hours.”
Shelley eventually tired of the restrictive lifestyle on Paine Run Road and set out on the road.
“I ran away from home and crashed on Arnold’s bachelor pad in Baltimore,” she said. “Mom was too strict. She definitely thought I should get a job, and I wasn’t interested in working. She didn’t like people to lay around and not work. She thought idle hands were not something people should have.”
She got a job as a nurse’s aid at the city hospital and stayed in Baltimore about 16 months. She returned home and got a job at the hospital in Wayneboro, and after a few years went to school and got her LPN.
When Arnold died in January, Shelley took it hard. He was her closest sibling and her surrogate father. As she talked about his passing, she choked up a little.
“Arnold never raised his voice to me in all the years I knew him,” she said. “I fussed at him. When he died, nobody would clean out Arnold’s room but me. With every load of clothes I carried out, I cried harder.”
She blinked. Then she smiled. Arnold always could make her smile.
Arnold the blithe spirit. Arnold the evangelist for atheism and Madalyn Murry O’Hair’s right-hand man. Arnold the graverobber. Arnold the clothes horse. And Arnold the superhero who once saved a neighbor’s life.
“A boy was drowning, and his sister came running up through the woods to our house,” Shelley said. “I remember my mom had just made a big pot of soup. The girl came up through woods screaming and crying.”
She was about to learn a hard lesson about rural life.
“Arnold and I went down to the pond,” she said. “He was tearing down through the woods in his ’55 convertible. I remember Arnold hitting one of those ruts and the car jumping through the air.
“When we got there, the mother was in the middle of the pond with the boy. He didn’t make it, but Arnold saved the mother.”
Arnold took care of Cora for the last decade of her life. She died on June 30, 1982. She was 85. She loved him, but she never knew what to make of her free-spirited son.
“She called Arnold ‘Long-tongue,'” Shelley said. “She called him the devil. She had several names for him.”
Then there was Arnold the snakehandler.
“That picture’s as close as you’re going to get to Arnold’s mentality,” Shelley said. “Arnold was fearless.”