Mack Williams column: The ‘little man’ on the side of the mountain
The fall of the year always makes me think of roadside stands and little stores selling apples and cider in the North Carolina mountains, bringing to mind a special memory.
Although the above title is reminiscent of one of those “Fractured Fairy Tales,” presented weekly on the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” by the late Edward Everette Horton, this isn’t one of them.
When I was a student at Appalachian, I often went “down the mountain” for the weekends. The great number of students going home on Fridays along U.S. 421 and 321 back then caused us to joke that the “S” in “ASU” stood for “suitcase.”
On those frequent back-and-forths (or down-and-ups), I would stop by a particular roadside stand (more like a tiny house) in the fall which offered apple cider and apples. Some of the gallon jugs (glass, not “moonshine-aura” plastic) also contained an apple-cherry cider mix, but I never cared for it, especially since the DNA of apple and cherry trees doesn’t “blend” in the wild. (But with today’s genetic engineering, who knows?)
My late wife Diane, as an Appalachian student, did some roadside shopping at that particular place as well. After we married, set up home in Yanceyville and had Rachel and Jeremy, we brought them to Tweetsie and visited the same little store just a few miles from Boone on U.S. 421. When heading home, Diane always said, “We need to stop and see the little man.” So it was she who coined that name for him. (Don’t worry; even though I’ve now established that “there once was a little man,” and “he had a little stand,” I’m still not “Rocky and Bullwinkle” bound.)
The vast majority of our shopping with the little man was done on the way home; but one time, on the way up we bought a gallon of apple cider from him which had evidently “hardened.” The amber liquid had a “head” on it, and in our motel room I gave the jug a good shake before each pouring to make it even more frothy. When we started down the mountain, there was a little less than half of the cider remaining. After reaching home and carrying in the suitcases, I went back out to bring in some items purchased at Tweetsie. There must have been just “one shake too many” of that jug over the weekend (combined with the three-hour ride to Yanceyville), because when I returned to the car, its wet interior smelled of fermented apples and was filled with fragments of shattered cider-jug glass everywhere. I’m just glad it didn’t explode en route.
The little man’s little store was literally perched on the side of a mountain, so much so that vertical boards of support were attached to the part of it which protruded into space. These reminded me of those stilts supporting the houses built dangerously close to the ocean, but instead of preventing water’s lapping, these boards prevented the store, little man, apples and all from succumbing to the constant gnaw of gravity and tumbling into the valley below.
A chalet is set, partially and fashionably in space; but despite this little store’s hanging off the mountain, its design only made it “fashionable” for the selling of apples and cider.
The little man was small in body type and made to seem even smaller by the unfortunate circumstance of being wheelchair bound.
Our young family would descend the mountain on Sunday morning following that short respite from my job as social worker, and my late wife’s brief break from her work as a first-grade school teacher. When stopping at the roadside store, we were always greeted by the little man in his truly warm, truly Appalachian accent. A small portable radio always played close by, broadcasting a live church service from somewhere in the “hills.” I suspect that the little man would have liked to have attended church, but was kept “mountainside” by his work, especially during that great weekly, fall, sabbath-day exodus down U.S. 421 by the piedmont and coastal plain flatlanders.
On one occasion of our stopping, a tour bus had pulled off into the little man’s limited parking area, and we barely had room to park. Apparently, his roadside store was seen as a “mountain icon” by many more people than just us.
The little man always assisted his customers in their choice of the paper, handle-tote sacks of apples, and if you had set your sights on one particular bag, he would often say, “Take this one instead. It looks better.” He was more honest about and knowledgeable of his product than most of the modern-day chain store clerks. (Forgive me, I forgot that they have been known as “associates” for some time now.)
One Sunday morning, we stopped by, and the little man wasn’t there. Someone else was running the store. The radio was playing a live church service, and the wheelchair was present, but vacant. I felt a momentary sinking in my stomach as I made inquiry as to his absence, hoping that the discarded wheelchair shared no similar meaning as that of the abandoned crutch and vacant chair in the ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to come’s predictions for Tiny Tim.
This “different man” told us that the little man was fine, and that a neighbor had taken him to his home church, which he hadn’t been able to attend for quite some time due to the minding of his store. The gentleman told us he was glad to fill in so his friend could partake of that rare opportunity.
Most fortunately on that day, the little man’s wheelchair had not been left to him as a memorial, but only left by him, temporarily. His friend evidently didn’t have room for it in the car, and there was one available at church.
Some years later, the little store on the side of the mountain was demolished, as U.S. 421 was widened to make more room for vacationers. For that construction’s planners, consideration of the travelers’ safety and convenience outweighed any regard for roadside stores.
More room was made for the tourists, but none at all for the “little man.”