One guy I never met–but whose poetry I would sometimes read in the personally inscribed volume of his poems that he gave to my father–was Don West. West was the author of the mentioned volume, CLODS OF SOUTHERN EARTH, which had sold something like 200,000 copies in its day. I don’t think he made much–if any–money from it, but I suppose it brought cash to his publisher.
West was, like my dad, a leftist in the days of the Great Depression. He continued his leftist ways long after such movements had been quashed and destroyed. I recall that my dad mentioned once that West sought shelter at one of my parents’ homes when he was running from both the KKK and the FBI. For good reason, I suppose, because some time later the KKK burned down West’s house in Atlanta. Even the publisher of the Atlanta Constitution publicly called for West to be cast out of the city.
One reason my dad moved us to Gilmer County in Georgia (where he had purchased 120 acres where he built us a house) was that West was born and raised there. So my dad assumed that there would be other people like Don West around those mountains, hills, and hollows. Alas, we soon discovered that Gilmer County and Ellijay were inhabited by people even worse than those to which we were accustomed–racism, hatred, and ignorance the likes of which it is almost impossible to believe.
Unlike West, who spent his life in a struggle against racism, the rest of the county’s residents were basically monsters, or nearly so. It’s no wonder that James Dickey’s visits to Gilmer County resulted in his creation of the novel DELIVERANCE which illustrated the area as it was then with complete and utter perfection.
As my dad was coming to the realization that he was not going to find the “good mountain men” he thought were present, he discovered that West had relocated to West Virginia where he was trying to operate a school teaching the history and common skills of the people of Appalachia. My dad planned to ride up to make a surprise visit, but for whatever reason he never did.
(A bit of information here–Don West’s daughter, Hedy West, wrote the universally famous folk song “500 Miles”.)
Another dude that I recall visiting my dad’s store, and even our home, was Bud Foote, a professor at Georgia Tech. I vividly recall him stopping by the shop relatively often to converse with my father. I remember that he was funny in a very cynical way and that I enjoyed listening to him. And he would stop by our home on Mead Road in Decatur, sometimes in the company of other professors from Tech. It was on one such visit where I first heard of plate tectonics and continental drift which was, at that time, considered heresy and lunacy. I don’t recall if it was Foote or one of the other professors, but the guy showed me a Mercator map of the Earth that my dad had on a shelf and indicated how each continent “fit” together.
On a trip to see Foote at his own place closer to downtown Atlanta, he showed me a science-fiction magazine in which he had a story. I don’t recall which of them it was, but I remember being impressed, because even as a kid of only nine years of age I knew that I wanted to be a published author some day. After we moved away from Atlanta my dad lost touch with Foote, as the common ground between the Princeton-educated professor and my working class dad had been my father’s bookstore, and nothing else.
At any rate, I think of some of these characters from time to time and wonder about what happened to them and when they died. Foote seems to have led the good life of an Ivy League graduate who collected many friends and admirers over the years. West, although a graduate of Vanderbilt, led the much harder life of a man who actually acted to fight injustice rather than sitting at his desk and penning mild accusations against the system.