Grey Eagle, is a quaint town of about 8,000 in Western North Carolina on the southern end of the Black Mt. Range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. where downtown stores open late and close early and where people don’t feel the need to lock their doors. Locals gather Saturday mornings behind the First Baptist Church at the organic tailgate market, sipping coffee, eating pastry, and stocking up on local produce while they catch up with friends on the green before going on about their business before it gets hot. Kids run around barefoot, and dogs sniff each other and tangle their owners in their leashes. It’s a Mayberry kind of town where, despite the recent encroachment of meth amphetamines, parents feel safe about letting their kids roam.
The original settlers were the Cherokee, but they were displaced starting in the 1730’s by Scots-Irish settlers coming from Pennsylvania via The Great Wagon Road. The population of the town is still largely made up of people of Scots-Irish heritage, attractive red-haired, fair-skinned folk, and there are at least eight Presbyterian Churches, out-numbering the Methodist, Baptist, and other Christian churches. Early Presbyterian Missionaries formed an enclave just outside town for summer holidays when they returned from their missions abroad, so their children would have a home base and have friends in the US. The area is still there, attracting thousands of Presbyterians every summer for church retreats.
However, more and more Baby-boomers from the diaspora are finding their way to Grey Eagle to retire in a place that reminds them of their childhood hometowns, and it’s less likely to hear Southern accents than it used to be. The Been-heres are irritated by the traffic, development, and brashness of the Newcomers. For seven or eight generations the Been-heres lived in this peaceful valley before the influx of outsiders, and they resent the change the recent arrivals bring. The land their ancestors had accumulated has been sold off and they are left with small holdings on swaths of land their families once controlled.
Billy Ray Davidson is one of the Been-heres with a grudge. The Davidsons were among the first white settlers to the valley before the Revolutionary War. They fought the Cherokee and the elements and made a life for themselves. At one time they owned most of the valley, but Billy Ray now held only about five acres. Not long ago some Newcomers bought his brother’s land above Billy Ray’s holding, and every time they speed by his farm raising dust, Billy Ray curses them under his breath. “Goddam yankees!”
The wife in her red sports’ car and the husband in the too-large truck wave and smile, and Billy Ray turns his back and pretends he hasn’t seen them go by. The construction traffic when they built their house just about killed Billy Ray. His tiny vegetable garden was choked by dust raised by the trucks. Then when they moved in, they seemed never to stay still. They drove up and down the narrow dirt road dozens of times a day, and they continue to have an endless steam of visitors joining them frequently.
What was wrong with these folks? Dust and noise. As the road was not well marked, the guests would occasionally pull into Billy Ray’s driveway and ring his bell late at night, after eight, wanting to know where those yankees lived. Billy would greet them, “Goddam it! Can’t a person get some rest in his own house? Get the hell off my land and don’t dig up my grass on your way out! Freaks!”
The Fields, Jennifer and Adam, loved their new home, but they couldn’t understand the hostility they detected from Billy Ray. Southerners were supposed to be friendly, and even their neighbors in New York City were friendlier than he. Adam tried bringing a big bottle of bourbon down to Billy Ray as a peace offering. He knocked on Billy’s door and saw Billy’s red face and bloodshot eyes glaring up at his as the door opened. Billy’s stocky body stood only about five feet tall. “What you want?” Billy demanded.
“I guess I haven’t really introduced myself properly,” Adam began. “I am Adam Fields and my wife Jennifer and I have moved in above you. I hope we haven’t been a nuisance. We intend to spend the rest of our lives in this place. What a beautiful valley we live in!”
Billy Ray glared at Adam. His hair hung limp and greasy and the beginning of a scruffy beard partially covered his acne-scarred face. ”I have lived on this land for eight generations. We whipped the asses of the Cherokee and the French and poured our blood and sweat into this land. Where were y’all in the late 1700’s while my people were taming this land? Probably sitting pretty in some European city drinking tea! I don’t like you and I don’t want you here.” He grabbed the bourbon from Adam’s hand. “Now get off my land!” And he slammed the front door, and yelled through the closed door, “And stay off my grass!”
“Wow,” thought Adam. “That’s not how I imagined that going!” He smoothed back his thick gray hair, climbed into his white Ford truck, and drove back up the hill to tell Jennifer what had happened.
Instead of improving, the animosity grew. Billy Ray did everything he could think of to make the Fields uncomfortable. He dug trenches across the road so that when Jennifer drove her little Fiat, the car bucked like a wild horse.
He piled garbage beside the road behind his house, so that the Fields and their guests drove past discarded bags of trash, an old, rust-stained toilet and sink, and brightly colored highway cones tumbled around each other. Jennifer called Billy Ray and asked politely if he would mind cleaning up the roadway. “It’s my land and I do what I want on it. Don’t like it? Go back where you come from! That’s Davidson land where you put your house!”
“Look, Billy Ray,” Jennifer said. through gritted teeth, “We bought that land at no small price from your brother. It is no longer Davidson land. It’s Fields land. Get over it. We are here to stay. Now please clean up the road! The wind keeps blowing the debris onto the roadway and I have to get out of the car to pull it to the side.”
“Ain’t that too bad!” Jennifer heard Billy take a swallow of something. “Little Miss Priss gets her hands dirty. What a shame!”
“Look!” Jennifer barked. But Billy Ray had already hung up.
Adam advised Jennifer to cool down when she reported the conversation she had had with Billy Ray. “The man is not a monster. He just wanted to sound off at you to save face. He will no doubt clean up that mess. He doesn’t want his yard to look crummy either, so he will soon clean it up. Just pretend it doesn’t bother you, and you will see how quickly he tires of this little game.”
“Do you think so?” Jennifer asked. “He seemed pretty angry to me.”
“Let’s give it a month,” Adam advised. “If he doesn’t clean it up by then, we will figure out the next step.” Jennifer agreed.
Weeks went by and the trash pile grew. The road was lined with garbage and old tires. The wind had been bad and the road was impassable more than once, but the Fields just pushed the junk off to the side of the road. Then one day as Jennifer approached her house, she lost it. The junk had blown or was pushed into the road. She stopped her car and got out into the bitter cold. She gathered up everything she could lift or drag and pulled the junk down the road and tossed it behind Billy Ray’s barn, just off the roadway. It took a while, but it felt good to expend the energy it took to move the heavy objects, and when she was done and the roadside was cleared, she felt great. She continued on to her house and had a glass of wine to celebrate.
Later that evening as Adam was driving up the road, he had to slam on the brakes as a drunk Billy Ray stepped out into the road in front of him. Billy laid his hands on the front of the truck. He raised his eyes to Adam and slurred, “Get out of that truck. Ima gone kick your ass!”
Adam could see that the man was plastered, while he himself was in good shape because of his healthy eating and his daily workouts at the Fleetwood Health Center. “Step away from the truck, old man!” Adam shouted out the window of the cab. “You don’t want me to get out of this truck! What’s your problem, anyway?”
“You bastard! You been trespassing on my property! I told you stay off my land and you moved my stuff from where I put it. You ain’t allowed to set foot on my property.”
It was just then that Adam noticed that the roadside had been cleared. “You mean all this crap you had piled beside the road? You didn’t move it?”
“No I didn’t move shit!” Billy Ray roared.
“I’m just now getting home. I don’t know anything about it. I’ll see if Jennifer knows what happened, and I’ll get back with you.”
“Tell it to the judge, Yankee. I aim to call the sheriff and swear out a warrant against your wife. She is soon gonna call the jailhouse her new home.”
“What are you talking about? You want her arrested for cleaning up your trash?”
“That wasn’t no trash! Those was my things on my land and I can put whatever I dam well please on my own land. Y’all cannot set foot on my propity. That’s called trespassing in these parts.”
“What are you saying?” asked Adam. “This is a public road and there is a ten foot right-of-way on either side. That is also public land. Whoever cleaned up that mess was surely on public land the whole time.”
“Ain’t so! We killed all them redskins for this here land and we own every inch of it.”
Adam said, “You go ahead and call the sheriff then if you are so sure. My guess is that he will laugh in your ugly face.”
“It’s on, Yankee!” growled Billy Ray.
Days passed with no sheriff pounding on the door and so the Fields guessed that if Billy Ray had in fact tried to sicc the sheriff on them, he had failed. They relaxed, but still felt some anger as they drove past Billy Ray’s tumble down house and barn. And they kept their eyes pealed for a landmine.
So much for the friendly South. But it wasn’t over yet.