Hoss became my step-father when I was only three after my Dad died in a logging accident. At 16, I couldn’t remember calling Hoss any other name but Hoss after the Bonanza television character. Momma said my father lived two days after a rattlesnake spooked the mule that drug him down the hillside. His heart burst from a birth defect, the doctors said, but Momma always claimed it was because he had too much love in it.
“Turn right,” Hoss said. “Let’s take Ballard Hill instead of Bootleggers Hill.” I gulped but followed his directions as I turned from our drive. I knew we weren’t traveling this way because of the Fall scenery.
My Dad had returned to Kentucky after factory work ran out up North. Momma told me Dad traded Old Man Colson a new shotgun and $35 for our seven acres. The rocks were free. He used the remainder of their savings to build a three-room house, an outhouse of course, and for the 1949 Chevy truck I was driving today.
Trying not to think of the purpose of our trip, I focused on the beauty around me. A sentry of towering pines more than 50 feet tall lined our road frontage. Behind them was what I called Dad’s Sanctuary where he had spilled his blood trying to support his family. For every tree cut, he always replanted two, Momma said. There were maples with light yellows, oranges, dark greens, and brilliant reds. Interspersed were oaks that would continue a colorful landscape whenever the maples shed their leaves. God had sprinkled in a few sumac for their breathtaking reds. Momma had never allowed Hoss to cut any timber in that five-acre tract; Momma, Hoss, my brother and I, and three step-sisters lived on the other two.
At the far end of Dad’s Sanctuary, I stopped the truck before starting over Ballard Hill.
“What are you doing?” Hoss barked. “If you were in town, you couldn’t stop in the middle of the street.”
“Just trying to get my nerve up.”
I let out the clutch as I shifted gears and a groan shook the truck.
“Double clutch!” Hoss yelled.
Hoss normally let me drive his ’62 Ford that you clutched only once. But today, for the first time, he was requiring me to drive the old truck down Ballard Hill.
I swallowed hard and began my descent. The narrow, curving lane required that you constantly blew the horn in case someone coming up the other side had to scramble for a spot to pull over. The truck tires plowed through the layers of gorgeous leaves, showering them over the hood. Only a patchwork quilt of brilliant blue sky illuminated the pathway through the treetops.
The hill led to Mr. Ballard’s hundreds of acres of bottomland where he raised a variety of crops and cattle. A single pine bent over an enormous pond like it was dipping its branches for a sip when the cattle weren’t looking. Black-eyed Susans and purple ironweed dotted the pond’s bank. I laughed at the fence row of scrawny cedar trees that looked liked Momma’s hairbrush standing on end.
I came to Ballard Cemetery next atop what I considered the true Ballard Hill. This steep 600-foot stretch of road crossed Antioch Lane that was likely to have church-goers heading home or to eat out.
Suddenly, Hoss told me to stop.
“See that scrubby cedar with the blue berries on it there by the right. I want you to think of that as a stop sign in the city.”
I used my shirt-tail to wipe perspiration from my brow. Observing the beauty of autumn was the last thought on my mind now. I remembered to double clutch, braked enough to avoid spinning gravel, and came to a standstill at the cedar just as another vehicle barreled through the crossroads.
Thank God I successfully stopped my Dad’s truck, but my heart was racing. Looking across the road I saw a dying cedar leaning backward. Its top branches were spread like arms and its front roots had pulled away from the rocky soil as if trying to run from beginning drivers like myself.
I heard laughter to my side and turned to see Hoss handing me a partial role of toilet tissue.
“When you go Wednesday to retake your driver’s test, I bet you don’t fail this time because you didn’t completely stop at a stop sign!”
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