Friday, July 15, 2016

A Man of Men Roams These Mountains Part 1

“I guess I'm pretty much of a lone wolf. I don't say I don't like people at all but, to tell you the truth I only like it then if I have a chance to look deep into their hearts and their minds.” 
― Bela Lugosi

How do I write a mere blog post about a man who lives in the shadows among us up here on Roan Mountain whose life is deserving of a book? 

A man knitted with complexity yet with a wisdom cloaked in simplicity; one with demanding loyalty to his reclusive lifestyle yet tightly embracive of those he does let into his world; he who comes across with the fierce call of the wild until he privately picks up his pen when beautiful words flow... 

My friends, I would like to introduce to you my neighbor and dear friend, Robert Lane Street.

I will never forget the day I met R.L. as he is known in these parts. Tony and I had settled up here in Misty Hollow, one of many hollows that branch off of the (often) one lane road winding up into these mountains we folks up here call home.  R.L. and his home and acreage are located off that main artery, and his gravel road leads up into his hollow.

Since moving, I had been busy meeting my new neighbors and had already picked up a few tidbits about R.L.  I knew he was a loner who lived up at the top of the ridge. I knew he had hunting dogs and was an avid hunter. I was told he was shy. I did not have to be told he practiced daily on his shooting techniques as the somehow comforting sounds of his various guns ricocheted throughout the valley.

So realizing R.L. was the only neighbor I had not met, I figured it was time to take the bull by the horns. I jumped in my car one day, drove down the mountain and started the climb to his place.

As I reached my destination and was parking, R.L. came out onto his small front porch and stood warily watching me; he looked nothing like the one man welcoming committee I had hoped for. I stepped from the car, flashed him a huge grin and started up the steps to his porch. The first thing I noted was this...

…and then I saw the 357 Magnum lying on the railing.
Extending my hand, I blurted out I was Linda, his new neighbor who lived up in Misty Hollow and I thought it was high time we met.
Quickly sizing him up, this crusty fellow looked to be in his mid-seventies and he had a lean athletic build with piercing eyes set in a face whose deep etches announced he had witnessed more than his share of trouble, fear, and heartache. His demeanor alerted he'd be damned if he intended to take on any more.
A fascinating hour and two cups of coffee later I was leaving with a promise I would be back based on his slightly gruff but kind invitation to visit again. After some gentle probing that day, R. L. had mesmerized me with a little about his incredible life.

With a cock-eyed grin, he later told me I had this peculiar way of pulling stuff out of people that had long been buried. I smiled and said I was honored he felt safe to share with me.   
That day, my friends, was the root of a great friendship. Early on I asked my bud if I could call him Lane as I had a son named Lane. He reckoned it was okay; he had a grandson named Lane.
With time I have learned in our friendship when I can push. Mostly though I’ve discovered by a slight raising of those eyebrows when I’ve crossed a line. Through the telling of his stories, I’ve also learned of the many and varied branches of life my friend has laid under. The more I was able to draw him out the more I realized his life and ways should be shared, and I was thrilled he shyly agreed to let me do the telling.
As a young boy of seven, R. L. said he would go off into the mountains with his grandpa to hunt. Though he was not allowed to shoot, that is when he began to fall in love with the beauty and peace of God’s creation. He shared that spending time with older family members who spent time with him in this way was what he felt kept him out of the typical trouble of most youth.
Loving horses from an early age, R. L. at age twelve milked cows early morning and evening, and by selling the milk and butter, he was able to buy his first horse. That sparked a lifetime of owning, riding and breaking horses.
At age sixteen his father bought thirty acres out on Gap Creek Road in Elizabethton, TN. That young boy loved the acreage and wanted it so much he approached his dad. R. L.’s father told him if he would work in the family mercantile store from age sixteen to the day he turned twenty-one and not join the armed services, the property would be deeded to him.
The boy agreed and did keep up his end of the bargain, and his dad did likewise. Unfortunately, the reality of the draft was the law of the land so the day R. L. celebrated his twenty-first birthday he became both the owner of the thirty acres and the United States Army became the owner of him. Realizing he was preparing to be to be drafted, he did join that birthday of January 22, 1964.

R. L.’s tour of duty in ‘Nam began September 15, 1965, and he found himself in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and worse…in the thick of the first major battle of the war on November 14, 1965, the Battle of la Drang. Serving in the Division Artillery of Headquarters Battery, his assignment was to support his infantry with artillery as well as give visual coordinates as they engaged with the North Vietnamese. His given creed was held close, just a heartbeat away...I am the Infantry. I am my country’s strength in war, her deterrent in peace. I am the heart of the fight-wherever, whenever. I carry America’s faith and honor.

And then that terrifying night came when his body was simultaneously riddled with shrapnel from an enemy mortar round as well as a piercing bullet into the back of his skull. The pain in his head exploded, then nothingness. He dropped.
R.L. regained consciousness where he learned his fellow comrade Joe Campbell, who had also been wounded, had dragged him to an aid station still frighteningly close to the fighting. He eventually learned he had taken nine hits.   Mercifully, a medivac helicopter extracted R.L. and flew him to a safer field hospital. To this day he has a bullet fragment in his head and shrapnel fragments in his leg.
While still swathed in head bandages and on crutches, the U.S Army was preparing to send him home. He pleaded with them to not discharge him; he did not want to leave his fellow comrades behind. Convincing them he could still function in other ways other than battle they relented and he was allowed to complete his full two years of service.
Finally, the day came when Uncle Sam broke his plate and sent him on his way. They flew R. L. into California and left him on his own to get back home to the East Tennessee peace he so longed for. The Purple Heart he had earned, though appreciated, was not as healing at gut level as the purple Catawba Rhododendron growing wild back in his neck of the woods.
He had a deep need to spend that first summer riding a motorbike through the mountains of Carter County. He recklessly rode in places that one wrong move would have sent him careening over high bluffs into deep crevices below where He would have laid until only God knew when. “Just like in Vietnam, and the many times of dangerous situations I had faced before, God still had me wrapped in His big hands.”
I gently asked my buddy what he thought about the time he spent in Vietnam and he, with a far-away look softly muttered, “The looks in the eyes of the children, the people, made me feel that was the reason I should be there.”
A front page article was written January 27, 1966, in the Elizabethton Star regarding their returning hero and quoted Street as saying, “Seeing the children and the way they have to live keeps the soldiers from really minding the hardships over there.”
R. L. felt his final closure on that tragic war of so long ago came when Elizabethton High School invited a keynote speaker a few years ago and local Veterans were asked to attend. The guest's name was Bruce Crandel, and he was a highly decorated Army medivac helicopter pilot from the Vietnam War.
My friend sat up front in the roped off section. As soon as the program was over, R. L. quickly made his way to shake hands with the man who, risking his own life, had picked his shattered body up and flew him out of that battle hellhole with his angel wings to an army hospital in a safer place.
On a side note, the much acclaimed 2002 war film, 'We Were Soldiers' starring Mel Gibson and based on the 1992 book 'We Were Soldiers Once…And Young' by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway (both in that battle) focuses on that deadly day at la Drang. A 'must see and read' in my book.
R.L. did pick up the pieces of his life and marched on. He eventually met and married his Jane (now deceased), and they built and settled down on those thirty acres he so loved. They even opened a western store, and life was good. Jane blessed him with his three (now) grown children.
All three of those children, two sons, and a daughter, have gifted him with his six grandchildren. All of these, cherished in his life, are according to R. L. a gift from God. I personally consider Jerry, one of R. L.’s sons, to be a Godsend as well. He is my farrier and takes excellent care of my Tennessee Walker, Trig.    
Years passed and with Jane gone and his children grown life for this man, still slightly bent but not broken, eventually settled down into the rhymes and rhythms of his life up on the ridge in his hollow. An avid hunter, he began to spend time hunting out West in Kansas and Colorado. His time in Kansas, in particular, gave him solace and he spent much time there in solitude. The love of that place is what drove R. L. to purchase a farm there. He still strikes off and spends weeks on end there.
As a hunter, R. L. has always carried a lifetime "code of the hills." He also carefully taught his children (and now grandchildren) this same ethos. "Don't kill it unless you are going to eat it unless it's going to kill you."
The living room wall around this hunter's home on the ridge is lined with the heads of the game he has killed from years past. That first time I barged in on R. L. I questioned him about the mounted heads and he, with not one iota of care for political correctness, proudly shared the stories of a couple of those heads.
He also let me know those heads hanging there was just a drop in the bucket but those particular ones each had an unusually funny, sentimental or freighting story that stood out for him, thus their placement.

It was important for my friend to let me know he will never drop an animal that he does not immediately gut, skin, quarter and ice to bring back home to his own family members, someone up here in the hollow, or food banks that depend on his much-needed donations.
I remember so well a day I pulled out of Misty Hollow and started down the mountain passing my neighbors Berta and Barney's house. There they both stood with large chunks of deer meat splayed out in the back of Barney's pick-up truck. They were processing it into smaller roasts for their freezer.They told me it was given to them by R. L. It was killed in South Carolina and had been marked for them and they were grateful for the winter meat. It’s thought of like the circle of life up here in this beautiful place we live.
Very fiscally wise, R. L. has his office set up in a back bedroom where he methodically fills and refills his own cartridges. Some of those brass cartridges have already been used several times. I find it fascinating to watch this tedious procedure, but he says it’s the only way to go if you do as much shooting as he does.

Never leaving anything to chance, R. L. has weapons strategically placed around his home. Curious, I asked him if he had guns in every room and he said, "No, not in my bathroom." To be honest, I have to be very wary as my friend has a subtle sense of humor and oft times I don’t know if he’s pulling my leg or not.

(This concludes Part I of 'A Man of Men Roams These Mountains'


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  2. Thank you for capturing and putting to words the side of my hero that so few people know. I am beyond blessed to have been raised by this amazing man that I get to call my daddy.

    1. Sharon, it has been my honor to write your dad's story. I am equally blessed to count him as my dear friend now as well.