What’s a holler?

No, I didn’t spell it wrong.   Though you can spell it “hollow,” those of us from Appalachia pronounce and spell it “holler.”   Technically, it is a “small valley between mountains.”   But we never really think of it technically.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that I was the right person to be investigating a murder case in the hollers of Western North Carolina.   Not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of my common heritage with the people of the region.   While I am not a mountain woman myself, I am not far removed.  (more at https://mysites.charlottelaw.edu/personal/cadcock/Personal%20Documents/Blog%20entries.docx).   In addition, I spent my early adult years deep in Appalachia, getting my schooling at Carson Newman College (recently turned University — http://www.cn.edu/ ).   That is where I met my first husband, who was from “them thar hills” down the road in Kingsport, TN.  We were married 10 years.

My common heritage with Zane, his friends and family was not just geographic in nature, though; it was also socio-economic.   Who would have thought that living in trailers in the country as a child would come in handy as a lawyer in my 30s?  Also, though sad to say, it didn’t hurt that I was white.   It was rare to cross paths with a black person in the hollers but not rare to pass a confederate flag.

So, I was comfortable with driving – though never by myself — the winding, sometimes dirt, back roads into the mountains and down into the hollers.  My most colorful visit was with one of Zane’s aunts, Elsie.  She was a sister of Zane’s mother, Selma.  Selma was living with the Hills at the time of the shooting but had passed away since Zane’s trial.   So, we got most of our information about Zane’s childhood from Elsie, Mary (Selma’s other sister), and Frannie (Zane’s wife).   All three were strong mountain women, but Elsie won the “best in show” prize.

The year was 1994 but it could have been 1894.   Elsie lived in a holler known as Big Sandy Mush.  As one website even describes it today,

Though less than fifteen miles from Asheville, the historic farming community of Big Sandy Mush seems a hundred years away in time. It’s completely ringed by mountains that have protected it from unkind progress. There is no commercial development in Sandy Mush-not even a gas station-and life goes on here at a gentler pace. http://www.randallglen.com/bsmandsh.php.

Though I would typically call the family members of a client ahead of a home visit, Elsie had no phone.  So, my investigator, Pat, and I headed off for Big Sandy Mush, not sure if we could find Elsie or, if we did, whether she would speak with us.

Elsie lived at the end of a long winding dirt road in a wooden shack next to the local school bus turn-around, which was the landmark that people would give us to find her.  What we found there was an old small cabin surrounded by dirt, chickens, and firewood.  Not far from the cabin was a well, situated near a babbling brook.

“Well, this is quaint,” I said to Pat as we got out of our non-descript rental car and approached the cabin.   An elderly woman in a housedress emerged.   “We are looking for Elsie.”  I announced.  “What you want?” the woman responded suspiciously.  I explained that we represented her nephew Zane on appeal and wanted to talk to her about him.  The look on Elsie’s face shifted from concern to relief.  “Of course,” she said, “I would do anything for Zane.”

Elsie welcomed us into the cabin, which seemed to consist of two rooms, only one of which Elsie occupied.   It was dark inside, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.  There was very little room to move around as Elsie’s possessions – clothes, blankets, books, medicine, and just stuff – were piled up all around the walls.   The room included a pot-belly stove which served both as a heater and a cooking surface, a few hard chairs and a big pile of blankets, which appeared to be Elsie’s bed.   We chose to sit on the chairs, from which we could see through the cracks in the walls.

Elsie was a delight.  She had nothing but good things to say about Zane.  “Poor boy.  He never had a chance.”   Describing Zane’s childhood, Elsie provided insight into a world in which women rarely found a good man.   Women who survived either had run off their scoundrel of a husband or were lucky enough for their husband to disappear on his own.    Those that didn’t, like Selma, suffered greatly, as did their children.

Elsie’s husband was long gone, and she had been on her own for decades in her little cabin on the brook.   Her children visited and tried to get her to move out, but she would not.   Despite her 80 some years, she had rarely seen a doctor.  She showed us her leg as evidence of just how little she needed doctors.    She had sores on it but they had been worse.  “I just pulled the skin off the sores and fed it to the chickens,” she said proudly.

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Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.

Setting Off on My Own

Neither of my parents, who divorced when I was five, went to college.  I was a good student and was determined to go.  Rome had two colleges and a junior college, and there were many colleges and universities in the region.   Most of my classmates headed to those or to the big state universities.  I headed to a small private Baptist college in the mountains, Carson Newman College.

I worked three of my four summers in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, two dipping ice cream at a Baptist conference center and another working at a glass shop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tn.  I never would have imagined that I would return to those mountains years later as a lawyer.