THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
They said giants lived in those mountains. I know they did. I knew one. He was six feet four inches, broad-shouldered and athletic. But at six feet four he was the runt of the litter. Even his only sister was taller at six feet five inches.
His family were original settlers of the small community where he lived. There were so many Jones in that small town, one wondered if Mentone had some kind of witness protection program with a lazy peace officer who did not want to think of different aliases for those in the program. The giant I knew cherished his heritage and his little town. Mentone was a resort town. It had three summer camps, the only snow ski slope in Alabama, one large historic resort and a bed and breakfast. Mentone sits on the southwest corner of Lookout Mountain with a population approaching six hundred. It is beautiful. He loved the bluff park that overlooked the valley. He walked the old trails, some said left by Native Americans, that many had forgotten still existed. He visited the small family gravesites on his brother’s land across the road from his land. He knew every tree and plant on the mountain and could call each by name. He took pride in the land his ancestors had homesteaded.
He married a girl down in the valley in a small town called Henager. It was natural for him to marry a local girl; she would know the stories and families he knew and could understand his colloquialisms. She came from a hard scrabble family where the father ruled with an iron fist. Her father took pleasure in allowing her to claim as a pet one of the chickens, goats, or cows he planned to slaughter later. He would let her name it and when the day came he would make her watch as he slaughtered it. So it was with relief that she met this gentle giant who never raised his voice to her.
The Giant loved his daughter and developed the knack of never saying no to her. Once in a store there was a bicycle that his daughter, age six, wanted. So she climbed on it and said she would not leave until he bought it for her. The giant was frustrated but was completely under the control of this six year old. Counting his cash he realized it was too expensive but he couldn’t say no to her and see the disappointment in her face; he would have to skip a few meals to pay for it he thought. He picked her and the bike up and sat them next to the counter and paid for it. He spoiled her a lot but loved her even more.
He took great pride in his physical prowess. When we played tennis he always won. His long arms and legs helped him cover the court with one step either way if he stood in the middle. So he would make me chase the balls from one side of the court to the other while he barely moved. His serve was hard but you could tell he took some zip off the ball to make it appear as though it was a fair game. At the end I would always be a puddle mess of sweat while he barely broke one. He did not brag but would give me a bemused smile because he was confused why I was working so hard. The understatement of the smile was not a brag but a smile of satisfaction.
He enjoyed using his body to work hard and to build things. He became part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and left home to go to the Seattle area as a young man. Jobs were scarce in his part of the world. He also needed to leave to know where he wanted to stay. It would be one of the few times he strayed far from where he was raised. But he was proud to be building up America. After he married he moved to Hueytown where he labored in the Birmingham steel mills. He was proud of his union job. He was paid well and the benefits were good. But more importantly he was making a living by the sweat of his brow and the brawn of his muscle.
For all the pride he took in his work and the home he made in Hueytown he never lost sight of his homestead in Mentone. He wanted to return to the land which he knew so well when he retired. He hoped by saving and scrimping he would be able to retire early. The old farmhouse needed restoring and the land needed reclaiming but he knew through his might he could do it.
The accident at the mill almost claimed his life. It was one of those industrial accidents that laborers will pay for the price of a better America. He was badly burned and was hospitalized for weeks. No one was sure if his physical health would ever completely return. He was able to work his way back to health but the fire had done neurological damage. The gentle giant would have fits of depression and nervousness. He would have immobilizing episodes of crying the rest of his life. This made returning home soon all the more important.
He finally could not wait anymore. He began to drive to his land on the weekends to work it. They eventually moved into a trailer on the property. He renovated the old farmhouse, blazed trails in the woods, and planted a large garden. After all the work was done a paradise had been created. He was home. For the next twenty years life could not get any better.
He was always on call, in retirement, to help his neighbors. He acted as a plumber, carpenter, mason or whatever was needed. He gave his skills to the church. He mowed the grass and worked as their steward. He even built a playground for the two-room school in Mentone. He never asked for acknowledgement or pay; he enjoyed working with his hands and making life a little better for those in his community.
One Christmas Eve we were at his new\old home when a frantic knock came to the door. It was the woman who lived in the trailer across the field and tree line from his house. He had earlier dropped food off at the house for a Christmas dinner. But now she was saying the trailer was on fire not a big fire but the water had been turned off. He woke me up and said we must stop a fire and handed me two buckets and said fill them with water and let us go. Still a little groggy I said, ‘where’. ‘Follow me’ said the man of few words. And so for the next thirty minutes I followed with buckets in hand back and forth. It was freezing temperature and I was barefoot because when a giant tells you to do something you do not stop to put on your shoes. Finally, the fire stopped. After the thirty minutes was up the Mentone Volunteer Fire Department arrived with truck and uniforms ready for action. The giant told them it was put out. But the adrenaline-filled volunteers were anxious to do something so one axe wielding member went to the outside back of the chimney and said we must see if it is back here. He swung the axe before anyone knew it and his axe went thru the aluminum siding of the trailer causing a huge gash. It revealed nothing but he was still game and readied the axe for another swing the giant grabbed the axe and shook his head no. The fire department left. For when a giant speaks, or should I say gestures, you listen.
But time waits for no one, not even giants. After twenty years he and his wife could no longer maintain themselves much less the home and property. His son had, with his own hands (and also with his father’s help), built a home and claimed land in another place. The daughter lived in the college town her husband grew up in. Neither the son nor daughter could use the property. That, combined with the fact that the giant and his wife needed money for the assisted living facility they were living in, led to the property being sold.
He spent his last years with his wife in the college town where his daughter lived. The wide open spaces of his place in Mentone were gone. The heritage and homestead lost. Now if one drives by the old homestead they may see only a piece of land and not the ghost of a gentle giant who once graced this piece of earth. A giant who could call the trees by name and move mountains to grow and plant. A gentle giant who like legends of lore once stood astride this place. Sometimes on a crisp spring morning one might find him if they close their eyes and listen. A sound of feet, on one of those long forgotten paths only he knew, could be heard walking in their gentle, giant, quiet way.