Scholarly sportsman celebrates Appalachian traditions, family
A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings and More
By Jim Casada
Softbound 309 pp.
(The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2020)
By Charles W. Waring III
In the same way that he introduced many readers to the “Bard” of South Carolina, Archibald Rutledge, through several lovingly edited anthologies, Jim Casada presents in his most recent book — from firsthand experience — the cultural delights of growing up in Bryson City, North Carolina, and the surrounding mountains. A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings and More is like the old “Carolina Creeper” passenger train in print; Jim is the conductor on a nostalgia choo-choo — one not too distant from the TV show “Mayberry RFD.”
This book offers a virtual travel adventure you will wish to experience because the author consistently conveys that 10-dollar-word known as verisimilitude. In short, this is the real deal, and you will suddenly find that you are seeing fireflies, sitting on the front porch of a cabin and hearing the rain on a tin roof or shivering in a mountain stream during a full immersion baptism.
For the sake of full disclosure, Jim is a personal friend of the wretch, occasional hunting companion and a longtime contributor to many Mercury sporting magazines. Yours truly has also read the entire Rutledge anthology and knows the degree of precision and honesty that Professor Casada pours into the subjects he describes. He is at his best when remembering beloved family members and describing his mother’s cooking in such extraordinary detail that you have to put down the book and start making country-cooking supper plans.
With equal boyish charm and love for his mother, he recalls: “Occasions without number I befouled her pristine clean kitchen sink with guts from small game or feathers from upland birds, yet she always took matters in stride and smiled as she promised (and always delivered) a feast from earth’s wild bounty.” The memories are vivid, as if we observed from the warm pocket of his flannel shirt, peeking at a world of rural wonder and delight.
The book is divided up into four parts: High Country Holiday Tales and Traditions; Seasons of the Smokies; Tools, Toys, and Boyhood Treasures; and Precious Memories. Within these parts one finds 41 brief chapters that create the literary net that scoops up the many nuances of boyhood in the 1950s, when carrying a pocketknife was as normal as having an iPhone today.
About 40 family photos are centered in the book and cannot help but make the reader grin, especially after you have read of the author’s pranks and antics that he fully confesses! He comes at his topic with an enormous amount of perspective, having written 17 books on history, the outdoors, fishing and hunting. Moreover, he has several decades of teaching under his belt, retiring as a history professor from Winthrop University in 1996.
Education plays a special part in his memoir, and he shines a gracious light of appreciation on those educators who played a role in helping him craft his writing skills. Moreover, Jim is careful to put in perspective the education levels of his family members and how one in particular, Grandpa Joe, was “marginally literate, but he read the Bible faithfully every day.”
The volume does not gloss over some of the faults of family members; neither does it dwell on them. He does, however, give a general finger-wagging to anyone who might have neglected the rural cemeteries in the area where he grew up.
The author has a literary surprise in that he introduces many readers to John Parris, a respected writer of mountain lore for the Asheville Citizen-Times and one to whom he offers a tribute, as he was a “giant of mountain letters.” The result is a significant portion of the book akin to an elegant version of the Farmer’s Almanac: We witness something like a winding mountain road trip through each month of the year and what to expect from adventures outside and the “folkways of food.”
One of his most joyous moments arrives when discussing fly fishing for trout in May while camping, and the delight of cooking and consuming such fare. He goes so far as to say, “Fresh from the stream and properly prepared, trout are a gift from the food gods.”
He turns to the fall, which brings poetry where unexpected: “October is a mountain boy, roaming in the gloaming after an afternoon of squirrel hunting, feeling deep in his heart that it is almost possible to touch that hunter’s moon on the skyline.” He explains that he — while growing up — never was concerned that he did not have a television and rarely was able to borrow the family’s only car or eat out at a restaurant. Instead, he had a kinfolk-laden playground that seemingly never ended and merely required common sense, good manners and some simple gear to find the deepest pleasure in every creek and fertile woodland at hand.
As did Archibald Rutledge, Jim also encourages youngsters and their parents and guardians to open the door to the world in which he grew up so happily. He writes: “It is also a quiet suggestion that today’s youngsters may well be missing quite a bit of fun, not to mention a meaningful sense of connection to the good earth, because a multiplicity of joys involving an outdoor setting are vanishing like dandelion seeds caught in spring gusts of wind.” He guides this advice down the pathway of pocketknives and the chain-link fence impasse where was once a proud king but zero tolerance now rules.
He concludes his chapter on pocketknives with the following: “Today’s urbanized world seems increasingly out of tune with a lifestyle where pocket knives deserved praise and held a prominent place in daily life. They are, in short, increasingly part of a world we have lost. How terribly sad.” On the other hand, he delights in that he still has his first shotgun and says to forget what Thomas Wolfe wrote because “you can go home again” as you gaze at and hold the gun of your youth and the many memories it elicits. Sporting readers will likely cheer, “Bring it home, brother.”
Indeed, Jim also has a few words about cane pole fishing, fly rods, slingshots, childhood games and pranks. The boys of Animal House were not the only ones who brought a live animal into a school building.
Amid “Precious Memories,” he reminds us that he is a devoted environmental steward and goes into great detail about the impact of the chestnut blight on the Appalachian ecosystem. He includes a haunting photograph of some mountain folk standing beside what looks like a medium-size sequoia. In one photo, those with a love of being in nature see what could have and should have been; this is a microcosm of the book’s primary theme about the importance of documenting our culture and embracing and saving what is life-giving and noble about these mountain traditions.
Jim takes no prisoners in his appeal to respect the lovely ways, but he does it fairly and from all that he loves dearly. He places us on the porch next to Grandpa Joe and Grandma Minnie all the while eating hand-churned ice cream, watching lightning bugs and listening to the music from various woodland creatures — the screech owls, katydids and grasshoppers. By extending a hand of welcome into his world of paradise, he gives readers every opportunity to become participants in protecting what is left of these honorable traditions and rich folkways that have richly colored the tapestry of the precious Great Smoky Mountains. Take up Jim on his gracious offer, and make this book a part of your library and that of your friends — and especially the youngsters in your life.