Janice Busic

“I’m talking about my memories of the Appalachian culture that I grew up with. I’m talking about a time that we didn’t have television and on Saturday nights, we all gathered around and listened to the radio. There weren’t a lot of things for people to do, so we used our imagination.” 

Janice Busic, Retired Teacher, Civil War Re-Enactor; Russell County, Virginia:

“I live in Honaker, Virginia. I grew up in Buchanan County, just across the mountain from Honaker. I was born during the World War II. When I was just a few months old, my father was called to serve. When I was two years old, I lived with my grandparents. 

I could tell you some stories about going to church with my Grandmother. We went to a baptizing one morning. It was cold, and I spent the night with my Mom. I woke up the next morning and smelled the coffee and sausage frying in her kitchen. I came downstairs. Mawmaw said, ‘We’re going to a baptizing today.’ I had been to baptizings before, but not when it was quite that cold, because there was a little snow on the ground. We dressed in our warmest clothes and walked down the road to the river where there was a pond of water.

Ice had formed around the river, around the rocks. I thought that might be a little interesting, but the most interesting thing was the lady who was going to be baptized that day. See, my Grandmother had a little country store and Post Office, and everyone gathered there. The talk had been going on for a week that Aunt Hettie had joined the church, and she was going to be baptized that Sunday, so the entire community turned out for that. They had walked from the tops of the mountains to down on the creeks. Everyone was there for the baptizing. 

Uncle Dave was one of the preachers. He was a tall, thin man. I don’t know who the other preacher was, but he was a little, short man. They went down to the river and they prayed. They sang a few songs, and they prayed some more. I figured they dreaded going out into that water. I got a little bored. I was probably five years old. They finally went out into the water, and Aunt Hettie came down. Aunt Hettie was quite a hefty lady. They got one on each elbow, and began to walk out into the water. Uncle Dave was preaching as he went, [with] his arm up in the air. They got out to where it was deep enough to baptize her, they turned around and Uncle Dave said a few words, and one on each side, they laid her back in the water. 

As soon as Aunt Hettie’s backside touched that water, she sprang forward and didn’t intend to go under. Uncle Dave sort of cleared his throat, and he said, ‘We’ll try this again.’ So they said a few words, and he raised his hand and they leaned Aunt Hettie back…the same thing. As soon as she touched the water, whew! She came right back up. I think about three times, and they finally got her under the water. Both arms were going like helicopters, and she took Uncle Dave under with her. Uncle Dave had a little goatee [and] all you could see out there was that little goatee sticking up out of the water. 

I looked over at Mawmaw, and she had a white handkerchief up over her face. Her shoulders were shaking. Mawmaw had a little bit of a belly, and her belly was just bouncing up and down, and I thought, ‘Oh she’s so upset, because they are having this accident out there.’ So I ran over [and] put my arms around her. I could look up under that white handkerchief, and she was laughing fit to kill. (Laughs) But that’s my story of the baptizing, and it is true.

I had two half-brothers. I lived in a community of all boys, so I really wanted to be like the boys. I couldn’t understand why Mom wouldn’t let me wear bibbed overalls like they did, and brogan shoes, but she didn’t. We grew up on a river. My brothers and I found an old half of a boat one time that had washed in on the river. We used to ride that boat. We’d pull it up the river and float down. My job was to bail, and the boys had two big sticks to guide it along the river. Mother never knew of that boat. 

My Mother was a schoolteacher. I was a breastfed baby, so I started school when I was born. I finished elementary school, going to a one-room school where there were seven grades. Mother was one of the teachers [and], and it was built, I understand, about 1920. My Grandfather had taught there for a brief time. Had two cloakrooms, one on each side, one for the boys and one for the girls. [There was a] big bucket with water and a dipper. In one of the cloakrooms, we had a big pot-bellied stove, Warm Morning, I believe it was, and the boys carried wood and coal for the stove. When it was really cold, we’d bring our desks up in a circle and sit around the stove to keep warm. 

It was always interesting in recess. We had toilets just like the cloakroom. One end of the playground had a boys’ toilet, and one end had a girls’. One time when we were out on the playground playing, my Dad’s old mule got loose [and] came running through the playground. We scattered in all directions [and] ran to the toilets. When the dust settled and the kids started coming out, my Mother used to tell, all the girls came out of the girls’ toilet, and all the boys and I came out of the boys’ toilet. (Laughs) It was closer, so I went to the closest one. 
My brothers were older than me so they got a bicycle several years before I did. Finally I got one, but I thought it was awfully unfair that they could ride that bicycle and I couldn’t reach the pedals. I thought they picked on me. There were things that they wanted to do, and they didn’t want a little sister following along after them. They used to chase me back to the house, try to make me stay there. I did, most of the time. We swam in the river, waded, fished, climbed trees, played Fox and Hound [and] swung from grapevines.

When I finished high school, I went to Virginia Intermont College in Bristol [Virginia]. I married after that and had three children.

I had started teaching before I got a degree, but then I went on and got my degree, and my Master’s after. I began teaching the first grade. Eventually, I taught lower elementary [and] third grade. Then, I taught Art, grades K-8. I taught Remedial Math and Remedial Reading, then I taught Psychology at the Community College. I was in Administration for a year, then I came back to the classroom and retired as Middle School math teacher. 

I hadn’t been teaching long, and there was a little boy that was a little different maybe, than some of the others. We were in school in what used to be an old dormitory, so my room had a little bathroom off it that we used. One day, that little boy went to the bathroom and came out. He’d left his pants in there, and came out in his underwear, and did a circle of the classroom, and right back into the bathroom. I went in after him and said, ‘you cannot come out again without your pants. Put those pants on.’ He said, ‘I have new underwear, and I wanted everybody to see it.’ 

I can’t imagine living for any length of time out of the mountains. I grew up, as I said, on the river where we had houses within sight, but not close. I do live in a very small town now, and that’s a little different. But it was a simpler way of life. I don’t think my parents even owned a key to their outside doors. 

I bought my first car, and paid less than $3,000 for it. I decided early on that if I wanted to buy things, I had to work and earn some money. 

My Grandmother had the little country store there, and I had heard about selling seeds. As a matter of fact, we had received something in the mail wanting me to buy seeds and sell them. I decided I could work out a deal with my Grandmother, and I could peddle the seeds going house to house, up and down the river. She could sell the seeds, and give me a commission. So she let me bag up a bag of seeds that she got in. I’d walk down to the next house, and the lady went through them. She had a list of seeds that she wanted, but I didn’t have any of those seeds, so I had to go back to the store and get the seeds she wanted, and go back. I went on to the next house, same thing. I decided that I spent more in shoe leather than I’d made, so that ended my first employment. 

I’m talking about my memories of the Appalachian culture that I grew up with. I’m talking about a time that we didn’t have television, and on Saturday nights, we all gathered around and listened to the radio. There weren’t a lot of things for people to do, so we used our imagination. The Appalachian people are some of the most innovative people on earth. We made do with what we had. We didn’t buy a lot of things. We grew what we needed on the farm, and most people worked hard, but they played hard, too. 

When I first went to Intermont College, of course, Bristol’s not that far, but it was a different culture. The things that I grew up taking for granted, I began to think about while I was there. For example, in the fall I would think, ‘I wonder if I was at home, if I could go outside and smell wood smoke burning?’ I couldn’t do that in college. I would wonder in the spring, ‘I wonder if they are planting tobacco seed now, if they’ve made their tobacco beds? Have they put out the first lettuce bed?’ And it was different. Then there was an appreciation when I went back, of just seeing that I could go out on the front porch and look at the mountains and the green hills.

I think television, the media, has promoted the stereotypical hillbilly with no teeth, who sits on the front porch, has his hound dog under his feet, with his jar of shine beside him. [That] fits what the television or movie industry thinks Appalachia’s like, [but] the Appalachia I grew up in is nothing like that.

The truth of Appalachia as I knew it growing up has changed. I’m not sure that it’s all good, although there’s certainly been improvements. Everyone has a car now that they didn’t when I was growing up. Children need to be watched closer now. When I was growing up, that didn’t happen. A child could leave in the morning and a mother knew the child would be safe, unless they fell and got hurt, or went in the river. Usually, if they were at the neighbor’s house, the mama there watched that child as close as the others. I figure that’s lost now. 

The convenience now is different. It’s nothing now to drive to Bristol, Bluefield, or Johnson City to go shopping. That didn’t happen when I was growing up. My Grandmother’s store carried bolts of material. If someone needed a new dress, they came up and bought two yards of ‘Dan River’ and made a dress. Sometimes, children’s dresses, especially play dresses and things to wear to school, were made from the feed sacks, and then a better dress for church. 

(The future of the region) In the way that it’s changed in the last twenty years, I expect the population may be greater. I expect that there will be more technology, cellphones. I watched telephones come into the community. I remember the first electricity that came into the community. I remember the first refrigerator that we had. That’s been more than twenty years happening though. 

The thing that concerns me about Appalachia now, is fewer opportunities for employment. people don’t work the farms now to make a living. They can’t make a living from a small farm now, and there’s fewer and fewer opportunities for them to have employment. There is. I have watched though, people do leave the area to get a job, those that have the means to do so. Quite often they come back [for] the love of the hills, the love of the memories from childhood, and the search for what they had then. 

Probably one of the hardest times in my life was when my sons were in Iraq. I have two sons, and they were both there at the same time. That was awfully hard. This is one of the new things that has happened in my lifetime; I could keep in touch with them by calling and by internet, so I did hear from them a lot more often than my Mother heard from my Father when he was in World War II. 

One son was Commander of a truck convoy [and] the other flew drones. The older son called me and said, ‘I’m on the base where Jonathan is. How can I find him?’ While I was on the phone with one son, I got on the Internet with the other and helped them connect. It was wonderful, and it was so rewarding to know that they’d both been there all that time, but hadn’t seen each other and were able to have a short visit. They both came back okay. Both sons are different, but they came back. When my oldest son left, my husband said, ‘You’ll never see your boy again. When he comes back he’ll be a man.’ And he was.

There were a lot of happy times. The birth of my children. There’s nothing like holding a new baby in your arms. Grandchildren. My younger son was stationed in Hawaii when his child was born. At just seconds before the birth, he called me and held the phone down so I heard her first cry when she was in Hawaii.

(The Importance of history) I always say, In order to know where you are going, or even where you are now, you have to know where you’ve been.’ If you were plunked down in the middle of a road in Wyoming [and] you had no idea how you got there, would you know where to go? Would you know what direction to go in? You have to know what’s behind you 

I have [been a Civil War re-enactor] probably ten years. I haven’t always done Mary Custis Lee. The first character I did was Clara Barton. I’m too old to do Clara Barton now. Then I did Molly Tynes. Molly Tynes is a local heroine, and I’m much too old to be Molly Tynes now. But really, this is my favorite character. I almost feel like I become a part of Mary Custis Lee. People didn’t know her history. They know of General Lee, but they didn’t know how she contributed to history, and what an important impact she had.

There was a true, undying love between General Lee and Mary. I read a book early on called, The Softer Side of Lee. That’s how I chose what I portray. Everyone knows about the General. Everyone knows the facts of Arlington. But you don’t often hear about the love they shared. How they raised their daughters. The adoration that their daughters had for their father. How their older son stepped up when General Lee died, and took over the Presidency of Washington College. It became his mission in life to take care of his mother and his sisters. You don’t hear those things.“