In a Man’s Voice: Daddy Used to Whistle by Steve Alberts

Steve writes faith-based stories about “God’s grace throughout (his) life.” He dabbles with song lyric writing, is attempting to write a novel, and enjoys acting, photography, hunting, fishing, and woodworking.

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, raised and educated in Spencer, and having Bachelor and Master Degrees from WVU Steve says, “I now live in Tennessee and love it here, but West Virginia is my forever home…until I get to the other side.” Visit his blog, On Steve’s Mountain.

Daddy Used to Whistle | by Steve Alberts 

I love wakin’ up in the mornings!

It’s just starting to break dawn, but I‘ve already been up here for an hour or so… I was way up on top of tHis mountain before I ever woke up this morning…could hardly wait to visit the past…up on my mountain.

Lookin’ down on the little community of Speed…near Spencer…Roane County…West Virginia.

Moved there in ’47.  I was just barely two years old at the time.

We lived there until we moved to town in ’56.

It hasn’t changed much since we lived there in the late forties and early fifties.  O.O. “Double O” Casto’s horse show arena and barns are gone from the field beside Charleston Road, but our old house still stands on up the hollow… it’s the next to last house.

My bedroom was on the left just at the top of the stairs.

When I was real little I didn’t sleep there often ‘cause most nights I had dreams that would awaken me. Most nights I would slip out of bed, sneak down the hall and into the bedroom that Auntie and, my sister, Roylene shared…slip to the sanctuary of Auntie.

Never did figure out why Roylene got to share a bedroom with Auntie and I had to have my own bedroom.  After all, I was the one who woke up every night imagining the bears and wolves from Grandpa’s stories coming to hunt me down. Even the Roy Rogers bedspread with its six shooters and lariats woven into the fabric wasn’t the sanctuary that Auntie provided.  But, that’s another story.

When I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old … and sleeping in my own bed more frequently, early summer mornings I would often awaken … bedroom windows open…the humid summer air barely stirring…and just listen to the sounds.

…songbirds

…the grey fox barking up near the barn in the hill meadow

…the rooster crowing

…the feed buckets clanging

…the barn cats meowing for their breakfast

…and, daddy whistlin’.

It was comforting to hear the sounds of those routines being repeated.  It meant my world was safe and solid.

I could tell when daddy had just fed and milked the old Jersey ‘cause I knew the sound of the stall door opening and the gentle lowing from her little bull calf as he was “turned back in” to nurse the last of her milk.

I knew the barn cats would get a portion from the milk bucket as daddy made his way back to the cellar to set the milk to cool before he finally made his way back to the house.

If daddy stayed with his normal routine next would be the sound of the chickens contentedly clucking as the grain was scattered and then the sounds of the trace chains clinking along the floor of the barn as he began to harness which ever work horse he was going to use to skid logs to his sawmill across the run.

The little grey horse was more tractable, easy to drive, stood well when being hooked, but was lighter framed and best when skidding the logs down the mountain.  If there was to be a long haul or if the logs had fallen in the bottom of the cove and had to be skidded up hill the bay was used as he was a little stouter ‘though a little more difficult to handle.

Lying there in my bed in the early morning I could even tell which horse he had harnessed just by listening to the rhythm of the trace chains as the horse pranced across the barnyard…then I would know whether daddy and Bud were cuttin’ on top of the mountain or somewhere around in the cove … in case I decided to test my resolve by hiking up the mountain later to share his cheese sandwich and drink from his water jug at lunch.

I guess it was part of my growing up to leave the sanctuary of the house, wander up the mountain through those scary woods, find daddy, sit with his arm around me as I ate part of his sandwich, then have to return down the mountain by myself.  I knew each end was safe, but the journey in the middle was sort of scary… at that age.

Once I got near the top of the mountain I always knew what final path to take through the woods by listening for the gentle rhythmic sawing of the cross cut, the sound of the horse skidding the logs toward the landing, or …daddy whistlin’ his way through the day.

The little sawmill is long since gone, but I can clearly see it in my mind’s eye sittin’ on the bank at the south side of the run…the motor and drive train from some old truck providing the power…the large circular blade slicing through the white oak and red oak…the sawdust piling up beneath…the slab pile…the ricks of lumber being air dried…Daddy and Bud Nichols using the peaveys and cant hooks to sort and align the logs to get the greatest yield, the straightest grain… and daddy whistlin’.

Cuttin’ red oak and white oak logs with a two man cross cut saw, skiddin’ it to the mill, sawing and stacking was all hard work.

Most days the routine was the same except for Saturdays when we went to town or Sundays when we went to church, visited with neighbors and rested in preparation for another week probably just like the last. 

And, … most days … daddy would whistle all day long.

Daddy used to whistle

…as he wandered through the day.

‘Till now I hadn’t even realized I had heard him

…I’d been young … busy with childhood play.

Whistlin’seemed to make daddy happier

as he made up a brand new tune.

The tunes were seldom ever alike

Whether ‘twas in the early morning, or

late

…in the afternoon.

Except that “Rock Of Ages”

or

“Amazing Grace”

would sometimes just appear.

I guess those hymns were thrown in to keep him grounded

…humble,

…grateful

…to help keep Jesus near.

‘Till lately I hadn’t realize just how much that whistlin’ stuff

had stuck there in my mind.

But, now I think of daddy’s whistlin’

often

And,

…now

I whistle

…from time to time.

I see daddy when I whistle.

I see him driving his old truck.

I see him working at his little sawmill,

…skidding timber

…and,

…doing other stuff.

But most times when I see daddy

He’s standin’ in the creek

…waiting,

…white shirt,

…dark tie,

Easter Morning,

…lightly snowing.

Standin’ up with his friend Carl

… the Reverend Raymond Straight’s just startin’ to speak.

Daddy “standing up” with his friend Carl Cutright – Roane County, Spring Creek along US 219 south of Spencer – “out Charleston Road” – an Easter baptizin’ – probably around 1950 or so.

Friends and neighbors from the church

were watchin’ from the bank.

Most had already been baptized

but, some were waitin’ their turn.

And, still a  few others were dunkin’

…for a second time

…just to reaffirm

…the cleansing of an Easter baptism

at the shoal along Spring Creek

between Watson’s barn

and the Hickman place

with the neighbors lookin’ on.

I see daddy when I whistle.

It puts a smile upon my face.

Don’t know if it’s seein’ daddy,

the baptizin’

or,

if it’s the whistlin’ that’s takin’ place.

But, more important,

Whistlin’ taught me

at an early age

…to listen

…by now, I guess you knew.

That whistlin’ reminds me of daddy,

…of Jesus,

…of life’s lessons,

the ones we should daily do.

And

…every time I whistle

whistlin’ make me a little happier, too

There’s a whole lot more to this whistlin’ than a man would have ever thought

First there’s

…the whistlin’,

then there’s

…the listenin’.

that leads me to

…the thinkin’

about the sanctuary of my earthly and heavenly homes

…the sometimes scary journey in between

about grace and faith along my path

in things I have not yet seen

I think about my daddy

standin’ in the creek

I think about the cross

about

…our eternal sanctuary

that through God’s gracious act of love

our savior, Jesus, bought.

Thank you Lord for another dawn, thank you for giving me another beautiful sunrise, thank you for those memories of growing up, thank you for a family that taught me Your ways, thank you for not giving up on me when it perhaps would have been easy to do, and Lord, thank you for a daddy that whistles…today up on tHis mountain.

Steve Alberts

                                                                                                            Bethpage, TN

 September 3, 2007

© 2007 Steve Alberts

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Hippies and Filipinos – A Spencer, West Virginia, Childhood in the 1970s

Esse Diem is privileged to share a reflection by Amy Hamric Weintraub as part of the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project.

A very young Miss Hamric

Amy is one of the most intense and effective community leaders I have ever known.  I have seen her go to the mat for reproductive rights, fair housing, jobs, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace.  She is a devoted wife, mother, and friend, as well as an accomplished professional with a long history of executive leadership in key community nonprofit organizations.  Her essay about growing up in a family with a long West Virginia heritage, while playing and learning among “children of hippie farmers and Filipino doctors,” just charms me.  I am delighted but not at all surprised by her focus on her early experiences with diversity, as those times have clearly helped make her the woman she is today.

Hippies and Filipinos – A Spencer, West Virginia, Childhood in the 1970s

Amy with friends Kelli and Hilary

I was born in Spencer, West Virginia, in 1968; in that year, the town was home to generations of born and bred West Virginians.  Though a few, like my mother (an Oklahoman) had “married in,” most could count their Mountain State ancestry back multiple generations — indeed prior to the Civil War.  Like small towns across America, however, things were a-changin’.

In metropolitan centers in the Northeast, malcontent young people turned away from the professional tracks their parents had planned for them, seeking social change, for their own social order.  Evoking the pioneer spirit of the early 20th century, these adventurers rejected conventional life for something new, land-based, and communal.  Arriving in my rural county in their “wagon trains” of Volkswagens vans, these young urbanites pooled their money to buy or rent farms, taking advantage of the low demand for rural West Virginia property in the early 1970s.  They proceeded to raise crops and animals, make art and love, and in some cases have children.  The locals dubbed them “hippies” — or in polite company, “back-to-landers”.

In this decade, Spencer opened a community hospital and began recruiting medical doctors.  The first doctors to sign contracts at Roane General were finishing their residencies in New York City hospitals — and all hailed from the Philippines.  They landed in Spencer in waves complete with their warm chocolate skin, foreign accents, and in most cases, complete families with children.

Student Council president Edgar, a Filipino American, leads a meeting at Spencer High School

By the time I started school, my first grade class contained the expected number of “Roane known” names such as Greathouse, Nichols, Casto and Miller.  But one also found Arabia, Fitzpatrick, and Kershner along with Gamponia, Ambrosio, and Lo.

As I reflect on the many ways the presence of these dear souls enriched my life, I return to my own childhood in a vivid wash of memories. 

I see the dust float through the air as I move my tiny feet from first position to second position in ballet class, taught by one long-haired willowy waif, provocatively named Kis Scary, origins unknown (but she was with us for a year!).  I see the bills fly from Dr. Ambrosio’s generous hands as he lets every child at the Black Walnut Festival carnival have a go at the nearly impossible-to-win arcade games.

I feel the relief of my 6-year-old self as dear Dr. Erlinda, originally of Manila, asks all the right, sensitive questions to diagnose my stomach ulcer and gently explains how I can get well.  I feel my lips curl awkwardly as I try to speak the French words taught to a group of us 8-year-olds at the county library by Preston Clark, formerly of Massachusetts.  I feel new passions awaken as I read an issue of Ms. Magazine, found after being set aside unread somewhere in my house by my schoolteacher mother, who had received it from Kaya’s mom — a well-meaning hippie feminist mama.

Cecelia, a Filipino American and one of Amy's nearest and dearest at a traditional WV potluck party

I smell the nutty, pungent scent of soybeans as they transform to chunky blocks of tofu at “The Soy Dairy” and smell the fresh, musky scent of herbs and wafting out the open doorway of “The Growing Tree” food co-op.  I smell — oh, how I smell!– the gingery, garlicky deliciousness of “Oriental Steak,” created by Remi Lo – a recipe that forever changed the supper repertoire of housewives throughout Roane County.  I taste the savory, aromatic pleasures of my first real Italian meatball and drink my first sip of red wine at the Arabia family (formerly of Scarsdale, New York) farmhouse. 

I hear the clickety-clackety-clack of the Filipino Mah Jong tiles at Cecilia Ambrosio’s house as we race through the family room, occupied by her parents and grandparents, en route to the kitchen for rice cracker snacks.  I hear stories of Cecilia’s and Rick’s trips to the Philippines and wanderlust fills my heart. 

Oh, the impact these folks had on our community!  Even those who were there a short while brought an expanded world view, varied interests and culture, and a zest for life. 

Sadly, many Spencer back-to-landers were not prepared for the realities of a rural life and returned to city living after a relatively short time, mainly due to relationship problems and/or the financial strains involved with making a living from family farms of modest scale.

A "typical collection" of Amy's BFFs (l to r: Rick, Greg, Hilary and Donovan)

Thankfully, most of my favorites stayed; today the hippies you will meet on Spencer streets are integrated fully into their adopted hometown.  They coupled with life partners who had a comparable level of commitment. They made permanent homes that were comfortable and practical.  They became realistic about their financial needs and found sources of income beyond their farms. Some had flexible occupations, like writing and other creative work, or a trade. Most found steady jobs in the town of Spencer or they commuted to Charleston.  They became school teachers and community arts council members and carpenters and business owners.  Their children filled school art shows and plays and sports teams, and they were raised with us as rural West Virginians.

Amy's best friend, Debbie, who became a bridesmaid at Amy's wedding years after growing up together.

Following a parallel track, the Spencer Filipino families rode a wave of migration via the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; the Act allowed for “occupational” migration in response to the need for more American professionals, specifically in the medical field. Thousands of Filipino professionals, mostly doctors and nurses, arrived in the U.S. as complete families, with dozens eventually coming to the town of Spencer.

Spencer Filipinos integrated completely and quickly into West Virginia life.  As our physicians, the parents offered enormous value as a talented and caring community-based medical team.  These doctors and their spouses became leaders in local churches and civic organizations.  They worked tirelessly to build our town’s health-care infrastructure and provided much-needed public health education and information.  Their children filled our school honor rolls and 4-H clubs and homecoming courts as they were raised with us as West Virginia sisters and brothers.

I think often of the ways these childhood friends and their parents influenced the way I see the world and the way I choose to make my way through it.  They helped build my confidence to search out new, sometimes distant places, and to find a way to feel at home anywhere.  They helped form my early love for good food and drink, my love of the sound of different accents, and my constant striving to look beyond skin color or family origin to find the abiding dignity within each soul I meet.   They helped forge my interest in service to community and neighbors and a willingness to take on challenges and risks.

A freezing camping trip to Spruce Knob can't hide the warmth between these friends! (Front row: Ben, Amy and Hilary; Back row: Eric, Kelli, Greg, and Rick)

As we grew up and graduated from dear old Spencer High School (may it rest in peace), these childhood friends and I dispersed around the state and country.  But all of us — the local yokels, the mud-covered hippie children, and those exotic Flips who are late to every meeting and event (running on Filipino time) — still keep in constant contact through the Internet, mail, phone calls, and regular in-person reunions.  We love to reflect on our charmed upbringing in the lovely town of Spencer and to look back on it with rose-colored glasses that we would prefer not to remove, thank you very much.

 And I give thanks on a regular basis that our parents – whether they came from afar or abided in the place of their Mountaineer ancestors – raised us right where they did.

 Debbie, Hilary, Cecilia, Ben, Rick, Donovan:  I adore you, as I always have.

Images credit: Amy Hamric Weintraub