Ross W. Dye was born on January 9, 1925 in a little house on a hill across the river and about a quarter mile up the road from Stringtown Rising Farm. My dad spoke of his childhood in Stringtown this way: “The wood were full of squirrels, the fields were well supplied with rabbits, the streams abounded in fish, and the countryside was populated with foxes, weasels, minks, skunks, opossums, raccoons, muskrats, and other animals. We never lacked for something to do. We had chickens, cows, geese, ducks, guineas, turkeys, sheep, and hogs. We raised a garden and canned a cellarful of fruit and vegetables every summer. With hogs to kill every fall and all of the eggs and milk we could use, we never wanted for anything. I grew up working on the four farms which Grandma and Grandpa owned in the area. When I was six, Grandpa said it was time for me to learn to work, so he started taking me to the fields and I worked. We all learned to work, and before and after school we had chores to do. The milking had to be done twice a day, and other things required attention daily. But we had fun and really did not have to work every day for there were seasons when only the men were needed. Also, some things we were never expected to do for Grandpa kept a man working for him all of the time.
“The age of the pioneers had passed by my time, but in our remote community vestiges of its aura still were to be found. The old-timers could tell the tales of the Civil War period, and our family, with its roots going back to Colonial Virginia, kept alive the lore and traditions of the earlier days. Most of the country roads were dirt. There was no electricity except along the main highway and life partook of the spirit of the frontier.
“The home I knew was more than a house. It was the land, the people, the swimming hole, the hunting grounds, our Pony called Major, the molasses-making in the fall, the popcorn on winter evenings, the Christmas holidays, sleighing in the snows, the fishing, the work, the school, stopping in to see Grandma and Grandpa going to and from school, the fodder shocks in the cornfield with ripe pumpkins on frosty mornings, the snows which closed school, the family reunions, Saturdays in town, walking barefoot in the mud, and all the adventures of growing up in a rural community with enough outside influence due to the oil fields to lend a special excitement. These are my memories, but so many changes have come now that the memories are all that remain of those days.”
You can read my dad’s full account of his childhood in Stringtown here.
My father often said of West Virginia that he left as soon as he could, yet he loved West Virginia despite those words, and shared that love with me repeatedly throughout my childhood as he took me to West Virginia. Over and over, he told me the stories of our ancestors here, going back over 200 years in Roane County. He took us to the farms, to the places they hid horses from Confederate soldiers, to the cemeteries where they were buried. He didn’t know he would inspire me to move here one day, and he wasn’t thrilled when I did. He left West Virginia looking for opportunity and a better life, and worried about what I was doing with mine by moving back here. It took him a while to understand that opportunity and a better life, for me, was the place he’d left. But it was, and for me, West Virginia is one of the greatest gifts my father gave me.
From the time my own kids were little, I took them to West Virginia, too. By then, my parents were retired and they would come spend a couple months every summer in the Slanted Little House. I’d bring the kids and come out for a week or two and stay with them. We’d go on the “old family tour” and my dad would tell my children the same stories he’d told me as a child.
My dad, with Ross, Weston, and Morgan at my great-grandparents graves at the little cemetery in Stringtown.
Here, he was showing the kids a little waterfall on my great-grandfather’s farm where he used to play.
In 1944, my dad was a tailgunner in the 456th Bomb Group, 745th Squadron, 15th Air Force, based out of Italy (near Foggia). He flew missions over Germany (Munich), Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Hungary. In this photo, he’s the second man from the right in the front row.
At the time, the Air Corps was actually part of the Army, but is what later became the Air Force. After the war, he was sent to a base in Oklahoma where he met my mother, a 16-year-old dust bowl farm girl. She was young, and they eloped, which sounds a tad naughty, and when he was released from the Army, he took her to West Virginia where he milked cows twice a day to work his way through college at West Virginia University. After college, he left the hills and hollers behind for good, except for summer trips, bound for the ease of life in the suburbs and cities. No more milkin’ cows. He got a degree in agriculture, but he became a successful Church of Christ minister. He preached at churches all across the country, and we moved several times during my childhood. He wrote books and magazine articles and sermons. He spoke at Congressional prayer breakfasts and dined with senators and ambassadors. He came a long way from the molasses-making fires. To me, he was just my daddy.
On the porch at the Slanted Little House:
I was his youngest child. He was nearly 40 when I was born, and his hair was already turning silver. I was born after his oldest son, my brother Stanley, died in a tragic accident involving a tractor. My childhood was sheltered and very religious. My father was strict, but loving.
I wrote this poem, below, in 1988, and had it printed and framed as a gift for Father’s Day that year. I was taking a creative writing class in college at the time. The professor loved the poem but marked a note in the margins that the father of a young girl wouldn’t have silver hair. He didn’t know MY father. The poem expresses, exactly, what happened every day after my father came home from work when I was a little girl, down to the exact words he must have said to me a million times.
Echoes of Daddy and Me
Wintry air blustered in with the slam,
behind the silver-haired man
who grabbed at the whirl
of a brown-haired girl
as she rushed by
with a little girl gust.
“How much do you love me?” he said,
kissing the tousled head
as he sat in his chair,
putting her there,
where she cried,
“Daddy, I want to play.”
Her short, stubby arms stopped flailing,
her lips upward sailing,
as she joined in the game,
always the same,
and giggled and
hugged her daddy.
“I love you this much,” she tried,
flinging her arms out wide,
But daddy shook no,
groaning out low,
“Tell me how much
you love me.”
“A bushel,” she cried, “and a peck,
and a hug ’round daddy’s neck.”
Then with a smug little grin
and a slide down his shin
she leapt up
and danced away.
For my daddy with love from your baby Suzanne, 1988
I took that framed poem home with me from Texas this weekend.
My dad had a sense of humor, too. He wasn’t always serious. He loved to tell stories, and play pranks, mostly on my mother, who took it all in stride. He loved jokes and apple butter and Gunsmoke, and most of all, my mother.
I never had an argument with my father in my entire life. I respected him. I didn’t always agree with him, and sometimes he didn’t agree with me or my choices, but he always loved me and made sure I knew it. He wasn’t one of those “buddy” kind of fathers like they make today–he was more of a 1950s-style daddy though he was raising me in the 1970s. As their youngest, my parents were always older than anybody else’s at school. Sometimes that made me feel different, but I always felt fortunate that they were my parents. I had good parents, and that is the best start in life any person can ask for. My father was one of those men from “the Greatest Generation” as Tom Brokaw put it, and they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
He was a good grandfather, and he was particularly close to Morgan. She was his only granddaughter. She sat by his bedside in the hospital and read the Bible to him as he died. By the time I got to Texas, he was gone, but to me, this was all right. I got to spend some time alone with him the night before the funeral. I’m not a fan of open caskets, and would not have thought I would want to do that, but I did. I talked to him, and he knew I was there just the same as if he was still alive. I said everything I needed to say, and I told him I was a terrible milkmaid and he would be ashamed. And I told him that I loved him a bushel and a peck and hug around the neck.
And I said goodbye to my daddy.