June 10, 2014

Mark Millican: A guiding star from the valley

The deeper we traveled into the secluded cove the more intrigued I became. The walls of the mountains rose steeper and the road narrowed. A man wearing a ball cap with a long beard stood in the middle of a whitewater stream, fishing for trout and complaining they were taking his bait when we asked how they were biting. His old, battered pickup truck sat in the shade under a stand of trees, and the smell of honeysuckles seemed to flow down with the current.

So this is where my father and grandfather and great-grandfather fished, I mused while looking around the forested recesses of West Armuchee Valley — which everyone who lives here calls “Armurchee.” My wife, mother, cousin and aunt had journeyed with me into the hills and glades of this ridge-and-valley outpost of northwest Georgia between LaFayette and Rome. The valley is just a little east of the north-south Highway 27 corridor also named after Martha Berry — of the college just down the road, and it’s separated by a ridge from the East Armuchee Valley.

The fertile land between the ridges is taken up by fields of burgeoning crops and pastures with browsing cattle and horses and an occasional residence, and sure feels like a place a boy would love to grow up.

Yet from the stories I’ve heard about my father, it wasn’t very pleasant during the Great Depression. He lost his own dad when he was just a kid; the grandfather I never knew was killed while “riding the rails” of a train looking for work after the foundry in Rome shut down.

My late father, Ben Hill Millican, and his family then began a sojourn of living with relatives while they share-cropped, and at one point Dad was even farmed out to an aunt. It was one less mouth to feed for a distraught widow — who had become almost catatonic after her husband’s death — and three little ones. Dad was the oldest.

A couple of Saturdays ago during our adventure I learned what pulled my grandmother out of that state wherein she suspended herself from reality. My dad’s younger brother had become sick, and my grandma treated my Uncle Mel with some medicine she haphazardly pulled down off the mantel over the fireplace. Later she realized with a bit of horror she had dosed him with horse medicine, and ran all the way to the schoolhouse to see if he was OK.

He was, and the shock of what she’d done pulled her out of it — and she got better, too.

As kids, my dad and his brother and sister were too poor for my grandma to pay the quarter a month for each of them to ride the bus to school. They walked three miles one way with the bus passing them and rolling up dust clouds twice a day. In my mind’s eye I can see them having to endure the shouted insults of kids hanging out the bus windows, deriding them for being poor.

A couple of older relatives showed us the haunts and old home places in the valley where my dad’s family used to live. There’s nothing there now except empty space or foundations overgrown with weeds and flowering blackberry vines. It seems my namesake clan was a well-traveled one inside these hilly ramparts.

One point of interest was a grown-over trail my father once mentioned in a short story, “How I Lost My Taste for ‘Possum and Sweet Potatoes.”

To recap, he and some buddies had stolen a chicken and were taking the trail through the woods to the store — it saved a couple of miles from walking on the road — to sell the hen for some candy. On the way they came across some buzzards tearing at a dead mule. They tied the chicken’s leg to a tree with some string and commenced to amuse themselves by throwing rocks at the foul and ugly black birds. Lo and behold, a couple of well-fed ‘possums came waddling out of the rear end of the mule — where they’d eaten their way in — during the commotion.

That’s how my dad lost his taste for ‘possum — a staple in the country during the Depression — and the sweet potatoes that were a traditional side dish.

My father stayed mad at God a long time because of losing his own dad. Plus he was in a car wreck as a young man that left him in a body cast for weeks. My mother gave me a notebook after he died; he had written a few pages about his early years and his feelings toward the Big Guy.

“I cared nothing about going to church and hearing some preacher tell me how good God had been to me,” he reflected. “Think about it from an 11-year-old’s point of view. God had taken my Daddy and left us without food or a place to stay during the worst depression in our country’s history.”

It would be decades later — at age 72, 10 years before he died — when my father walked down the aisle during a Sunday evening revival at my home church and made things right with God.

Down in the valley the other Saturday we searched for and found some long-departed family members in a church cemetery before we headed back home. One of the simple marble headstones weathered darkly by time contained an unreadable epithet in script, so I took a stick of chalk I carry to graveyards, turned it sideways and ran over the hidden words a few times until they revealed, “Thy memory shall be a guiding star.”

So true. Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I’ll see you again some day.

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen staff writer and is editor of the Times-Courier in Ellijay.

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