Here is an excerpt from my soon to be self-published book having to do with WNC culture and heritage: Billy Ray's Chevrolet - and Other Writings and Photographs from a Southern Appalachian Valley.
Billy Ray's Chevrolet
The 1953 Chevrolet truck had been parked in the same place for many years in a yard just past Lower Grassy Branch beside Riceville Road. I had seen it countless times on my trips in and out of the valley. This trip I pulled into the yard and stepped out into snow flurries and a cold February wind. A closer examination of the truck revealed much more of its history than a passing glance allowed. The fenders and running boards were black, while the rest of the body was red, and I wondered how many trucks had come together over the years as one. A bulldog ornament from an old Mack semi stood atop the hood in a frozen leap forward. The aged glass in the driver’s door was cracked, and it was glazed around the edges. The weathered wooden bed bore the marks left behind by payloads long forgotten.
A small brown house stood a few feet away. It looked as if no one was home, except for smoke billowing out of a grey cinder-block chimney. An accordion-style gate was latched at the entrance to the porch. I unlatched it, walked to the front door and knocked. After a few moments I heard the door separate from the weather stripping. My friend Jonathan had told me earlier on the telephone that his uncle Billy—Bill Ray—would answer.
“Yes, come in,” said the tall and thin old man, with no hesitation. He seemed pleased to have a visitor.
I introduced myself as I entered. For a moment or two I basked in the waves of wood-stove heat, but quickly it became too warm for me. The stove sat in a nook at the front of the house, a little box of a room with old family photographs encircling it, displayed on shelves mounted to the wall about six feet up. The pictures reached far back into the 20th Century, at least to the 1930s. An electric fan, new by comparison, sat by the stove blowing the hot air into the sitting room.
I remained standing, but Bill sat in one of a pair of chairs that had stout pine frames and arms, and plaid cushions. The walls were yellowy. A walker stood before his chair and a cane leaned against the wall. A small desk averted my eyes for a moment. The incandescent light filtered by old lampshades made the room look like a grainy, faded color photograph.
The reason I stopped by, I explained, was that I’d often seen his truck sitting there and would like to photograph it, if he wouldn’t mind.
He told me I was welcome, said his wife loved that old truck and he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of it. She’d passed away eight years earlier.
“I put Christmas lights on it again this year. The neighbors love that,” he said. I wished to myself that I’d seen it.
He told me to stop by and take photographs any time. “If I’m not home, that’s alright,” he said. “Take as many as you want.”
I thanked him and turned toward the door. He gripped the arms of his chair and labored to stand in a way that made me mindful of mobility, age and what I take for granted. Bill had risen to see me out and to check the mail.
“He was late today,” he said.
I told him I’d seen the mail carrier’s white jeep a few curves up Riceville Road just before I stopped.
The arriving mail seemed to be a welcome diversion for Bill. He took his cane from the corner and walked outside with me. I shook his hand and told him it was a pleasure meeting him, then approached the truck and began taking the photographs. I noticed him in my viewfinder as he returned from his mailbox. He re-latched his porch gate.
“Thanks again,” I said, pausing and looking up at Bill.
“Any time,” he replied before stepping inside.
His front door made a quiet thud. My Nikon clicked and whirred its way through a roll of film, my last. I climbed in my Honda and began the drive back to town. My car seemed so uninteresting and store-bought compared to the curves, texture and history of the old truck.
Wait, I thought. I should have photographed Bill.
“Maybe next time,” I said to myself as I shifted gears and accelerated around the curves of Riceville Road.
But with a feeling that I was missing an opportunity, I braked and turned around in a dirt drive. It was in a banked curve not far from the big Baptist church, a couple of turns before the straightaway that goes through the little tunnel where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses. To the left, a developer had made a muddy mess of one of my favorite of the gentle and now disappearing fields overlooking the big mountains to the east. Soon, I imagined, there will be blacktop and mailboxes, square little green lawns and energy-efficient houses with thermal windows that have false panes so they look traditional. Suburban driveways and two-car garages will hold aerodynamic new cars, pickups and SUVs that look like the artists’ renderings of futuristic cars in back issues of the Popular Science magazines my dad subscribed to in the 1960s. Plastic toys will add splashes of synthetic reds, blues and yellows to fenced-in backyards. The future is now.
I began driving back, wondering if the digital camera I had would do the job or if I should first drive back into town for some film for my Nikon. No time.
Back at Bill’s house I retraced my footsteps, walked up to the porch and unlatched its gate. I knocked, and he opened his door to me for the second time.
“I am sorry to disturb you again,” I said, and I asked to photograph him.
“Alright,” he said. He returned to his chair, assuming a rigid posture and a smile. I clicked off four shots. We talked a little more.
Bill had seen so much change in the valley. Houses had sprouted on pastures and ridges the way mushrooms grow on rotting logs.
“Everybody has to live somewhere, I guess,” said Bill. “I liked it the way it was.”
As he spoke I noticed the way he talked, especially with the word ‘was.’ He gave it an ‘ah’ sound instead of ‘uh.’ It is a distinctive and disappearing dialect that traces back to early English settlers.
Before I left, Bill volunteered that he’d been having chemotherapy, that he’d been diagnosed at the VA hospital with cancer of the larynx. Cancer had taken his wife.
The specialist he was seeing in Asheville had given him good progress reports. Bill said the chemo technology must be better today because he hadn’t lost his hair or felt sick or suffered pain like his wife did eight years ago. He recounted his surprise that men outnumbered women in the patient waiting room at his doctor’s office. I said maybe men can’t take stress as well as women, but I thought it sounded anachronistic as I spoke it and I didn’t know what else to say, except to wish him luck beating the disease.
“I just trust in the Lord, whatever his will,” he replied.
Bill dates back to a time when life in the valleys and coves of western North Carolina was different, much simpler and much harder. He grew up dirt poor. He spent his working life moving gravel for the Grove Stone quarry in Swannanoa. He kept more than one old truck running on second-hand parts and the ingenuity that used to be key to survival around here.
The way folks once lived along Riceville Road and throughout the nooks and crannies throughout the Southern Appalachians is slowly fading. New folks and new ways are moving in, along with big new houses, high-speed Internet and satellite television.
The world has become smaller and more accessible. Of Bill’s three daughters, one joined the Navy and married a doctor. Another lives in Colorado. The third married a police officer who went on to serve as Asheville’s chief of police. Fewer and fewer people who live in this valley are natives.
I set out to photograph Bill’s truck because I love old trucks. As it turns out, the truck I captured on film wasn’t about classic Detroit aesthetics or shabby chic. It is a form of inadvertent folk art, I suppose, but that is also beside the point. Bill Ray’s 1953 Chevrolet stands for much more than I had realized. It is a symbol of human dignity and mountain nobility.
Bill Ray died of cancer on March 10, 2005.
Billy Ray’s Chevrolet
Lyric to the song written and recorded by Dave Turner on his album Could Have Talked All Night.
There was a man in the valley, name of Billy Ray.
He had a flat-bed truck, it was a Chevrolet,
Made in 1953.
Billy kept it running half a century.
There was a man at the quarry, name of Billy Ray,
And Billy hauled rock eight hours a day,
Working like a horse, he was a sight to see.
Billy kept working half a century.
The time a met a man named Billy Ray,
Billy was thin, he was old and grey.
He let me take a picture of the ‘53
That Billy kept running half a century.
I hung out some with Billy Ray,
Learned a little bit more about the Chevrolet,
And how living and working used to be.
Billy took me back half a century.
Well, they had a visitation for Billy Ray.
I walked into the room that day,
And by his coffin was a picture of the ‘53
That Billy kept running half a century.
Song © 2007 David Dwight Turner (BMI)
Book Excerpt © 2011 by Dave Turner