Anyone who has been much among the mountains of Appalachia and the people living there could hardly escape the notion that mountains seem to possess strong, demanding personalities of their own.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect that people who welcomed a life amid the highlands and came under their enduring influence should have some characteristics in common with the massive mounts and rises reaching all the way from Maine to Georgia.
Reasonable, yes, it is. However, could you rationally relate to the southern Appalachian folk, those who scattered themselves through the seemingly rough and rugged terrain of what many consider rural remoteness and isolation? Those who stayed, because they liked what they found and perhaps would never think of themselves as a people apart from other Americans?
John Settles, 81, (1900-1981) formerly of Ike’s Fork in Wyoming County, only had a few years of schooling when his family moved to Southern West Virginia from Pigeon Forge, NC, in the early 1940s. His Cherokee Indian father, the late Ben Franklin Settles, was lured to the coalfields by the promise of steady work and decent wages.
“It was only a matter of time until I drifted to the mines myself after I came of age,” Settles recalled of his choice. “Work was scarce at the time, and the coal mines offered a measure of security.”
Word has it back in the day that the legendary Settles stood six-feet-six and was broad-shouldered, with ripples of muscular, steadfast, and unflagging flesh undulating underneath his denim work clothes as he made his way home following the strenuous evening shift.
For years, Settles was known for his generosity and willingness to help his neighbors during the changing seasons. The father of six, three boys and three girls, was respected for who he was and for what he stood for: honesty and fairness, as well as his frankness and openness in dealing with others.
The man’s word was his bond. If he said he would come to your house at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you could set your pocket watch upon his arrival. “I had been taught to respect commitments,” he says. “It was deep-rooted in us growing up.”
Over the years in his community, folks just naturally seemed to rely on “Big John” (an affectionate moniker gained for both heart and spirit, as well as for his masculine image), a man for all seasons and enterprises, great and small.
If some new ground needed to be turned with a bull-tongued plough in a neighboring field, Settles was first to oblige with his sure-footed mules. If a neighbor needed some help bending and hooking up stovepipes in early fall, Settles would lend his massive, pliable hands for the job.
If a child suddenly took sick in the community and parents needed a way to reach the nearest doctor, Settles would offer the convenience of his pickup truck. “I always tried to be useful,” he said. “It felt good to help other people.”
Even when it meant transporting his fellow miners to work when they needed a ride, or he would share a string of catfish or sack of garden yields with fellow growers if their table fare ran low at the end of the month. “I did whatever I could,” he said.
It seems that Settles, a benevolent, country-style benefactor, was never at a loss. He could patch or repair a leather harness for a team of workhorses or put shingles on a leaking family residence.
When money was tight during the dry season, Settles could be counted on to lend a fellow planter a few dollars until payday or until the man’s crops came in.
There was hardly ever a mission that Settles would not try to work out, no difficulty he would not try to ease, no problem he would not try to solve.
Time, though, has a way of catching up with everyone, both in work and in play. And the years that Settles spent slogging in the coalfields and tackling other people’s troubles eventually came round on the wheel of time and took its toll on the affable Appalachian.
Settles retired from his toils while in his early 60s, but by the time he was 70, his heart string and soul chain had just about worn out. “I just wasn’t able to help out any more like I used to,” he said. “I had to learn how to say no. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
Most of his evenings now were spent either pursuing an elusive finny prey on shady riverbanks or cultivating his root vegetables in the sandy-bottom soil near his homestead.
When for the last time I spoke with him, on a sultry August afternoon, the once fine-figure-of-a-man reposed languidly with bamboo pole in his hefty right hand, as he drifted in and out of his reveries and ruminations. He awaited some aquatic nibble under a sprawling, weeping willow on the shoreline of the meandering Guyandotte.
Then grizzled in both carriage and character, with his back seemingly bent in its faintly perceptible fading of both strength and spirit, the renowned coalmine trackman of tortuous dark underground tunnels was forced to acknowledge that his life’s tough, drudging conduct left its fatigued and dog-tired trace on his once brawny and outwardly unfaltering frame.
Settles’ verve and vigor had come and gone, smothered in a cloak of hollow misfortune and ill-fated misery, suffocated in the dark and murky sorrows of yesterdays, his charitable effervescence having fleeted as if in a dream, wandering off without so much as a whimper in the dust and dimness of time.
The weary time traveler’s withering silhouette no longer recalled one of those high-anchored Oaks, toughened and twisted by gusts on craggy bluffs and blustery summits, where pathways are few and axe-men are fewer.
Yet Settles remained one of the mountains’ most indomitable individuals, established for generations in the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia.
He lived by the code and shared the characteristics of a fierce breed who looked other men squarely in the eye and talked straight and direct, wasting neither breath nor gesture. A solitary glance from his piercing, hazel-grey eyes, under a mishmash of bushy brows, normally was enough to make his point both gracious and concise, drawing neither wrath nor ire from any other human figure.
“Some of my friends and family folded up their belongings and left for what they saw as greener pastures in cities and factories farther north, at times when mines were slack and bellies went hungry,” Settles reminiscence sympathetically.
“I always felt I could tough it out with the Good Lord’s help, and it worked out for me. But I do not blame those who packed it in and left the mountains. I reckon it was what they felt they ought to do. We all must do what we think is right.”
Then Settles drew a deep and somber breath and exhaled in the late-evening breeze, his crooked bamboo shaft arced over the murmuring eddies of the inscrutable river.
In the sky overhead, a fan-tailed hawk circled among a bevy of billowing clouds, drifting toward a rock-rimmed ridge where sunlight sinks behind a darkening emerald shield.
“As for me, I just couldn’t turn my back on those trusting, innocent folks who called these mountains home.”
Top o’ the morning!