Starting Out

The very first place that Beth and I lived after getting married was a small basement apartment on South Lumpkin Street in Athens, GA. It was my apartment for a year or so before it was ours. We lived there together for three weeks. Then we packed up and moved to Blountville, TN.

When you start out together as a young couple, life is an adventure. College was behind us. We were pursuing dreams. Chasing careers. Digging deeper into more education. Learning how to pay rent and buy groceries. Counting pennies. Calling Dad about car insurance and asking things like, “What’s the difference between collision and comprehensive?” These were foreign concepts that puzzled a young couple green on worldly experience.

My folks helped us move to Blountville. Moving kids is a rite of passage for parents, I guess. He had his truck and a borrowed trailer. By the time we finished loading it looked like Jed Clampet was leaving town. Blue tarps. Rope tied from side to side and front to back. A lamp sticking out through the top of the pile. Dad led the way. Beth drove her ’69 Dodge, and I brought up the rear in my 71’ Chevy.

The road from Athens to Blountville takes you up through the piedmont of upper South Carolina, into North Carolina and across Sam’s Gap. I understand that there is an interstate through that area now, but in 1978 the road across Sam’s Gap was about a 10 mile stretch of two lane highway from hell. Steep and winding only begins to describe it. There were a couple of times I thought the old trailer with all of our life’s possessions on it was going over the edge, taking Mom and Dad with it.

We had a little upstairs apartment waiting on us just outside of Blountville, on the road to Bluff City. When Dad backed the trailer up to the steps one of tires on the trailer blew and split the rim with it. There were Angels present that day.

We lived over the top of a convenience store called The Short Stop. I know a lot of apartment dwellers talk about the noise from neighbors above or below, but if you’ve never lived over the top of a store that is open from 6AM to Midnight 7 days a week, you haven’t lived. What we still talk about most is the slamming of the door to the cooler that was right under our bedroom. It was a large heavy door, almost like a vault door that shook the whole apartment when it closed. And it opened and closed a lot. All day long.

About 10 months of that and we rented a house in town that sat about 10 feet off the Bristol Highway. Traffic whizzing by all hours. A small two bedroom house, probably built in the 40s with a dirt floor cellar and a coal fired furnace that reminded me of a deep water prehistoric Octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We came home one day to a house filled with black smoke.

The liner in the furnace had rusted out and all the coal smoke came into the house through the vents rather than going out through the chimney. We opened all the windows and put box fans in them facing out. I remember sitting out in the yard watching the smoke boil out into the cold winter sky. It took weeks to wash walls and clean clothes and sheets and furniture.

Best I remember, we loved our new life in upper East Tennessee. You could almost throw a rock from our yard and hit Virginia. The roads were narrow and wound around the hillsides like spaghetti. The early road crews obviously followed the easiest route, not the straightest route through places like Big Hollow and Carden Hollow. ‘Cept up thar in ‘dem hills it ’tweren’t no Hollow. It was a Holler. Reminiscent of Miss Loretta from Butcher Holler.

In the summer of 1978 the price of gasoline went to 55¢ a gallon and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. The lines at the pumps in Blountville were long and the tempers were short. Seems crazy now to think about that. But you have to remember that you could send a letter through the mail for 13¢ and gallon of milk cost you about $1.50. Eggs 80¢ a dozen. And I was making $110 a week working part-time and going to school.

Blountville was where we got our start in life. You never forget a place like that. Beth did her student teaching at Blountville Elementary. We attended Blountville Christian Church, which is where we met most of the people that still live in our memories.

Louise Houser was in charge of the kitchen at the Elementary School. She lived out in Big Holler and in the warmer season walked barefoot to work every day. I’m not kidding. She wore shoes in the kitchen because it was the rule. But when she walked out the door the shoes came off. She was tough as leather and kind as grandma. She raised a couple of boys and made sure they were in church every Sunday.

We had Sunday night singings down at the church several times a year. The highlight was the choir from Bluff City who did a couple of specials out of the Chuck Wagon Gang songbook. A little paper back collection of old gospel songs with shaped notes.

The choir folk from Bluff City could really pound it out. When they got done with their version of “I Feel Like Traveling On” you felt like traveling. They sang with earnest feeling, red faces, and veins bulging out of their necks. They put everything they had into “The Church in the Wildwood”. When they got to the chorus, the men drummed out in bass voices, “O, Come..Come..Come..Come..Come” The sopranos and altos sang on the black keys and white, and some in the cracks between the notes. It was harmony you couldn’t get anywhere else.

We only lived in Blountville for about 2 years, but we made memories that we’ve carried with us for a lifetime. We got married in a whirlwind after graduating from college and a few weeks later found ourselves in East Tennessee without a clue as to what we were doing. But we did it together and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Starting out can be scary. You wonder if your marriage is going to survive it. You wonder if you’ll ever make enough money to do anything other than scrape by. You end up in places that feel far from home. You find out real quick that you don’t know as much as you thought you did. And that maybe you weren’t as ready for life as you thought you were.

I’m at a place now where I have seen this same story play out in the lives of my own kids. School. Jobs. Moving all their worldly possessions 83 times from one place to another and back again. They call me up and ask things like, “What’s the difference between collision and comprehensive? I’m looking at my insurance and I don’t know what that means.” I smile and explain the world to them.

What every young person should know is that no matter how confusing and frustrating life might be, you have to start somewhere. So, just start. There’s really no other way to do life. You can’t really ease into it. You just have to step up to the plate and swing. Eventually the curve balls get easier to hit.

Most of the stories are the same. You live in cheap rented spaces. There’s never enough money. Jobs don’t work out. Dreams are put off. Kids come along and you’re broke again. But one day all of a sudden you’re older and wiser, and life is full of memories that you wouldn’t trade for the world.

It’s a pretty good deal. So, if you’re just starting out, hang in there. Life is good.