In 1978 I signed on as an instructor for The Appalachian School of Experience, a Wilderness Adaptive Outward Bound type program for adjudicated teens from Pennsylvania.
My first crew of a dozen miscreants had been convicted of various sorts of minor mayhem and were given the choice of doing time in juvenile lock-up or completing a 28 day course that included hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, canoeing the Chattooga River in Northern Georgia and completing a 3 day solo in the National Forest not far from the river.
The recent and historic election of the two democratic senate candidates in Georgia, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff, has brought vividly back to mind the final hairy day of that trip.
If you’re not familiar with the Chattooga River, you might be familiar with the movie Deliverance, the adaptation of the James Dickey’s novel. Much of the movie was filmed on the Chattooga, a Wild and Scenic River known for treacherous class 4 and 5 rapids. You may also remember that some of the local characters were portrayed as wild and treacherous as the river.
With the help of local guides, we all survived five days on the river. I remember being in the river about as much as in the canoe, though we did successfully get through Decapitation Rock.
Now it was time to hike into the National Forest, establish a base camp, and then spread out the teens far enough to be out of shouting distance to each other, and leave them with 3 matches, a sleeping bag and some freeze dried food.
We parked the van at a trailhead at the end of a gravel road. There was a house there, and as we threw on our packs, a couple came out to the porch, asked what we were doing, and shook their heads in disbelief. and as we headed up the trail the woman called after us, “What do you want to do that for? There ain’t nothin’ up there but copperheads and rattlesnakes.” Just what we needed to hear. Now I had to swallow hard, project confidence and leadership and keep one of my biggest fears, hidden from these kids.
On the second day of “solo,” my instructor/partner hiked out to the trailhead, drove to the nearest town and came back raving about the local cafe, featuring the all you could eat smothered and fried chicken, fixings and peach pie. The next morning, I was eager for a taste of that pie and it was my turn to hike out for a trip to town.
When I got to the trailhead, the man of the house, Orville beckoned me over, and invited me to sit on the porch and chat. His wife came out and served iced tea. Of the first part of the conversation, what I remember is Orville telling me how much he loved the place where he lived, and how he waxed poetically about the rich earth of the bottom lands, the rolling hills, and a life of living close to the land.
I was thinking to myself, just how unexpectedly friendly this hospitality was, when I looked up and saw two wild eyed characters emerging from the trail. When I say wild eyed, I mean a look of menace that surpassed anything I saw in Deliverance. One of them was about in his mid sixties with a shock of white hair, a weeks stubble of beard, and a Colt 45 holstered to his belt. His slightly younger companion was bald, beet faced, and in a great state of almost gleeful agitation.
“Hello John,” Orville called out. Eyeing the pistol he asked, “Been snake hunting?”
John spit and snarled out in a slow drawl, “Yep, in a manner of speaking.”
Then he stepped onto the porch,put his face mere inches from mine and asked,
“ Are you from that there Appalachian School of Experience?”
“Yes, I am,” I said
And now, I’m going to do a little editing here. When you read John’s words, know that when he refers to “Black” he is using the N word.
With spit literally foaming from his mouth, and his hands shaking, he continued,
“You got a black kid up there with you boy don’t you?”
“Yes, we have a black kid, yes we do,” I answered
The quick pivot from Orvilles pleasantness to John’s menacing tone left me emotionally adrift for a moment.
Then began John’s rant, delivered still inches from my face.
“You can call him a black kid, but I call him a ____. He went on for the next five minutes in the most racist rant I had ever heard. Horrible things about MLK. How black people were trying to usurp whites in Atlanta, and how, and it’s hard to even write this, “we have to kill em in their beds before they do to us.”
All this time, I was sneaking glances at his gun, remembering his quip about “snake hunting, and thinking I had to get back up that trail as fast as I could and hope that everyone was alive.
Without waiting any further response, John and companion loped off.
Orville turned to me and said,
“Bob, I’m so sorry about that. Isn’t he the most hateful man you ever met? But I’ll tell you, that hate is real. If he wasn’t afraid of the law, he skin that kid without a second thought.”
By way of a coda, he continued….
“You know, there’s only one thing he hates worse than black people.”
He didn’t have to tell me. I knew what was coming, and it did. “He hates Jews more than anyone.”
I was itching to get away fast now, but Orville wasn’t quite finished.
“Much as I can’t stand that man, he did save my life once.”
Orville had been plowing one day, and somehow got pinned under his tractor. John had come by just in time and pulled him out. After Orville related that, he literally dropped to his knees in front of the chair, started shaking violently, raised both hands to heaven and praised the Lord.
I mumbled a few words of thanks to him and that he survived, then started running back up the trail, thinking, I should have told Orville that after we were gone for about a week and safely back up North, he should tell John that the young man he was talking to on the porch was educated at the Martin Luther King Hebrew Yeshiva. Snappy comeback aside, I was terrified of what I might find back at base camp.
Everybody was safe, all the kids had broken solo, but the camp was in an uproar. The two desperados had stumbled on one of the solo camps, and then spied the black kids camp. They never approached him. But cowards and bullies that they were, they found most of the other kids, waved the gun around and told them that they were “ hunting _____s.
A few hours later we were back in the van and headed north.
All this was many years ago now. So why unearth this ugly and harrowing memory? There are several reasons.
The images of the assault on the Capitol on January 6th are fresh in my mind. The confederate flag in the chambers. The Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt. The noose. The shirt with the code words for Six Million Weren’t Enough.
I write this piece both in warning and in celebration, and as my own brief and personal testimony to a small but perhaps revealing slice of life.
It’s not the copperheads and rattlesnakes that will always lurk in the woods that are most dangerous. It’s the bigots, the racists, and the full throated unapologetic haters, whose venom poisons everything around them who we always need to keep in our sights.
What I took away from that Chattooga encounter was my first up close experience of the presence of primal hatred. It existed then, perhaps more hidden. It still exists today, sanctioned and encouraged by cynical opportunists who fan the flames.
But. But. But. Hallelujah! Warnock and Ossof won! A Black man and a Jew just won the 2020 Georgia races and flipped the Senate.
Martin Luther King’s birthday is in a few day. There is nothing that he said that gives me more hope than his immortal words..
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
Thank you Georgia. Much has changed since 1978. How sweet it is!