In an ancient rural county in West Virginia on Christmas morning, a bent old man with a face like gentle twisted wildwood will raise the American flag in the frost. Then he will go back indoors, sit down quietly amid the smells of cooking, light his pipe and dream.
My Uncle Nelson raises the flag every morning at the secluded nursing home in the hills of Morgan County, West Virginia. If anyone in this world should have that right, it is he. Because Uncle Nelson, whom we called Nels, never left Morgan County in his life. Not even once.
You see, when he was born a deaf mute over 80 years ago on that lonesome Blue Ridge Mountain farm, there were not handicapped programs available as there are today.
So, my grandparents kept him at home in the belief that was the safest, best path for Nelson's happiness. He grew up splitting wood, gardening, watching the turning of three-quarters of a century of Christmases with a purity of heart I've never seen in another soul. Limiting as their decision may sound today, it was apparently the right one. Because for more than two decades after they were gone, he lived a free, independent and rich life on that farm.
When I was 24, my grandparents died. And Nels did a strange thing. He grieved wildly and openly -- for one day. He then went upstairs to his bedroom in the old farmhouse -- the one he was born in -- and rearranged all the furniture that had been in the same spot for more that 50 years.
And that was it. Period. He came back down, lit his pipe and sat down to wait for the cold January funeral to happen.
Then he went on farming and cooking for himself and was just as happy alone as with people. I don't know many folks who could spend a month alone without restlessness or need for approval or need of something, but he can, and did, for years.
I know now he's the embodiment of the Buddhist "chop wood, carry water" road to grace. Which is ironic for me, because during the 1960s I ran all over the country listening to gurus and studying eastern paths, not knowing I'd already met a man who was a master of his own.
Neither do the people at the nursing home where he lives. They often treat him as if he were mentally handicapped.
"We let him raise the flag," smiles one nurse. No one ever "let" Nels do anything. He just does such things with willing grace that's all. Yet, the direction of his intelligence is clearly different from ours. He doesn't know about Iraq or Paris Hilton or the corporatization of our nation. What he does know is the feel of the first snowfall on his face, the powerful steady calm of plain work done with strong old hands.
Nels' feelings are "close to the surface," the psychologist at the care center tells me. This was not exactly news, since his feelings have been written all over his face his entire life. He cries freely, and seldom out of sadness. When I last visited him he came limping across the lawn of the care center, his broad face streaming tears of joy.
Here before him was a 55-year-old nephew he'd not seen in a decade.
And I remembered how he used to babysit me when I was a kid. Often for days at a time. Which meant giving me rides in the wheelbarrow on the green farmhouse lawn in the summer dusk, happy feedcorn battles in the granary, and long laughing slides down through the hay mow.
And his calm tears were about all that.
In a season allegedly dedicated to the Prince of Peace across a violent planet I take comfort in having seen things inner landscape of at least one great soul -- a silent prince of our forgotten peace.
Joe Bageant is a writer and magazine editor living in Winchester, Virginia. His forthcoming book, Drink, Pray, Fight and Fuck: Dispatches from America’s Class Wars, is due out next year, to be published by Random House. Visit his blog at: www.joebageant.com. He may be contacted at email@example.com. Copyright © 2005 by Joe Bageant.
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