I live on the other side of the North Toe River, facing the Penland Post Office. The Post Office, built in 1900, is on the National Historic Register. If something isn’t done about it soon, it will continue its slow yet determined process of decomposition, just like all of us, I suppose. I was pleased when Bucky the Carpenter put some new boards over the hole in the row of planks that constitutes a front porch. Now you can just walk straight into the post office, without having to be sure not to fall in the hole.
Claude (who was slow to larnin’ but hell on critters) blew that hole in the boards about twenty-five years ago, after Carlene, the previous postmistress, started hearing strange sounds emanating from under the boards; and the source of the sounds was revealed when she came out from behind the counter to close up the post office one evening and there was a great-granddaddy of a rattlesnake grinning at her from the doorway. After she got done shrieking, which could be heard all the way to Bailey’s Holler, she got on the phone and called for Claude to quick come down with his shotgun, which he was happy to oblige, and blew that hole in the post office porch. Once he had it opened up, he saw that there was a whole nest of rattlers living underneath there, so he fired off the other barrel, which pretty much took care of that problem.
Inside the post office isn’t much more sophisticated. The fifty mail boxes, vintage 1879, are beautifully cast in brass, having been moved from another post office. All the original scales and equipment are still there, although since the computer has invaded the scene, it is some crowded. The post office inside has plank walls and a puncheon floor. A puncheon floor is made by smoothing out some dirt and laying some boards over it. That’s it. That way you don’t have to go to the trouble of making a foundation. It is a matter of speculation what the postmistress and her clerk do about bathroom needs, as we know for sure there isn’t any over there, not even a port-a-potty like I have.
The best part is the postmistress, Becky, who is Carlene’s niece. She started out as Carlene’s clerk when she was about fifteen, and then took over as postmistress after Carlene got too sick to work. She smoked herself to death. Carlene, not Becky. Becky is as charming a mountain lady as you will ever meet. She likes to tell me about Mr. De Bell, who is the ghost who lives in the Old House, which sits on the same rock as the one I live on. In fact the two buildings are attached. Anyway, Mr. De Bell, who died of a heart attack some fifty years ago, likes to come sit in the rocking chair next to the wood stove in the post office and smoke his pipe. Becky says he smokes that cherry pipe tobacco. She loves the smell of it. She maintains that Mr. De Bell is good company, and it always makes her feel safe when he’s there with her.
But you didn’t really come here to hear all this gossip about the speculative inner workings of the post office. What you’re after is the view.
This shot is taken from the River Road, which is the road I live on. What you see here is a spray of wild Dogwood blossoms hanging out over the North Toe River. The river’s real name is North Estatoe, after a Cherokee princess named Estatoe who jumped off a rock because her parents wouldn’t let her marry a boy from another tribe. But I think the name of the river has been officially changed to the North Toe, because there is also a South Toe River.
On the other side of the river is the railroad grade. It was once a narrow-gauge railroad, called the Clinchfield Railway, and there was once a thriving town where you see a few little buildings. The Clinchfield had a passenger line, and Penland was a regular stop, not a whistle-stop. A gigantic flood in 1916 wiped out the village, leaving only the post office, the general store, and a couple of houses that were fortunate enough to be above the flood line.
The flood also wiped out the narrow gauge railroad, and a standard gauge track was built to replace it. It used to be a Conrail track but now CSX has taken over, and to tell you the truth even though I hate CSX for personal reasons, they take a lot better care of the track. When Conrail had it there were derailments every five minutes, practically. Now, for the two and a half years I’ve been living with Mr. De Bell, there hasn’t been one.
There is a railroad crossing right next to the post office, so the trains have to blow four times every time they approach it. The standard pattern is BWAAAAAA, BWAAAAAA, BWA BWAAAAAAAA, but they like to mix it up so it could be anything as long as they get their four infernal blasts in. I hate them. I have visitors (VERY rarely–I hate visitors too) who simper, “Oh, a train, I LOVE trains! Don’t you just LOVE living near a train?” No, I don’t. They come BWAAAA-ing down here day and night, and some of them have OK voices and some of them sound like a cow in labor.
I don’t have to tell you that I don’t have indoor plumbing. Plus, if I told you, the building inspector would shut me down and I would have to move; which might be a good thing, but at least here I don’t pay rent.
But I do have to put up with Mr. De Bell, who makes an infernal racket walking around in the attic at all hours of the night. I can always tell when Becky goes home from the post office, because he starts up tromping away in the rafters. If he thinks I’m going to invite him down here, he can think again: not only do I hate visitors, but I’m asthmatic and I’m not about to put up with his damn pipe. And by the way: whoever told you that ghosts don’t cross water was WRONG. Mr. De Bell lives over here, but he crosses the North Toe River and visits Becky the Postmistress whenever he wants to, so that completely debunks that old myth. I never believed it anyway.