GENE HENDERSON sat down to write a letter home to North Carolina. And the chore was a tough one. The 35-year-old Ford factory worker, who had been raised in backwoods country, could barely read and write. Nevertheless, Mr. Henderson took on the letter-writing task because his family had no phone, and he needed to send word that he was all right living up in Detroit.
He penned some scribbles. Then he mailed the letter. That's when it hit him.
``I really hated the letter. No, didn't hate it; I was ashamed of it,'' he recalls.
So he climbed into his car and drove all night, covering 652 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains. He managed to be ``home'' two shakes ahead of the postman.
When his letter was delivered, he plucked it from the mailbox and ripped it up. Then he walked in the door for a surprise visit.
This happened way back in the '60s. Henderson, however, went through 20 more read-less years with this academic handicap that cramped his lifestyle.
He quit an adult Bible class at church because everyone read verses out loud. His wife, Pauline, did all the filling out of forms, and a trustworthy friend had to help him vote.
In restaurants, if he couldn't figure out the menu, he ``ordered the house special -- no matter what it was,'' Henderson says. And when he sent birthday cards, he always looked for a pretty picture, an indication that the written message inside was probably pretty, too.
But those days are over.
Two years ago Henderson, still an employee of Ford Motor Company, signed up for a basic skills class at the Ypsilanti plant. The course is just one phase of a broad 17-segment program developed by Ford management and the United Auto Workers (UAW) for both active employees and laid-off workers.
Henderson turned out to be a star pupil with ample sparkle. Now he not only reads, but he writes. And writes. And writes. His desk is stacked with dozens of tales reaching back to his growing-up days.
He writes of the chilly springtime when ``dogwoods stand like snowmen on the hillside.'' He writes with poignancy of the hound dog who pined to his grave when his master went to war. And he tells with delight of bears that trundle down the hillside to drink at the creek with the hogs.
Then there's Grandpaw. Grandpaw made loads of money and moved around a lot, because, as Henderson says, he was never known for being nice.
``Grandpaw rode out of Tennessee on a mule named Rhoda. And he rode into North Carolina with a satchelful of money.''
Henderson may not be a second Eric Sloane or William Least Heat Moon, but he has a firm hold on the land's lore and a kinship with days that are gone.
For 50 years he's been stockpiling memories in his heart's hideaway, and now he's playing them out on paper.
When he spells out his childhood, there are no streets or stoplights, or groceries on the corner. These were foreign fare to this story spinner who never saw a football field until his 20s, but he remembers well killing 27 copperheads in one hayfield.
Henderson doesn't try to sell his stories, but some have appeared in print.
The Ann Arbor (Michigan) News published his story ``The Blue Chicken,'' and several narratives were printed in the Mountain Laurel, a publication put out in Meadows of Dan, Va. And the UAW-Ford program picked up one of his poems to use in recruitment for its basic skills program. Henderson wrote the poem on a napkin one noon in the plant cafeteria, hoping to convince other employees to brush up on basic skills.
Henderson grew up in Madison County in western North Carolina without indoor plumbing, electricity, or a phone.
``But not because we were poor,'' he says. ``We weren't.'' And he wants that understood. Utilities and services simply weren't available to folks who lived so deep in the hills.
The family farm covers more than 100 acres of hill and valley land, producing tobacco as its money crop. A 12-room frame farmhouse, built by Henderson's great-grandfather, still stands sturdy with fireplaces and porches both upstairs and down.
``You can sit on the front porch and cast into the creek and catch trout, brown speckled ones,'' says Henderson, who hasn't cut ties with the Appalachians, even after 33 years of working for Ford.
He was raised with 11 brothers and sisters, the majority of whom finished high school, a long bus ride away from home.
But not Henderson. He only went through fifth grade in a two-room school house. When 40 kids showed up, there were two teachers. When pupil population was less, one teacher took care of all the first through seventh graders.
``If I'd have read a book earlier, I might not have been so work brickle,'' he says. His bushy brows raise a fraction, and he adds, ``That's a workaholic.''
Whichever term is used, the description fits.
In his early years, Henderson got to school before 6 a.m. to chop kindling and stoke up a coal fire in the pot-bellied stove. After classes, he stayed to sweep up. He also had a paper route with 15 customers strung out along five miles of hills.
When he quit school, he pitched hay, cut tobacco, and hoed corn to earn 50 cents a day.
``Didn't need the money. Just preferred work to studies,'' says Henderson, who labels his childhood as ``beautiful.''
After returning from active duty in Korea, he and his friends were enticed to the North by Ford's wages. He got a job right away because one of his squirrel-hunting buddies bought passage to the head of the hiring line with moonshine.
When short-term layoffs hit in the mid-'50s, Henderson sized up his situation, and from then on began to peg his security to land instead of a factory job.
``I know how to survive on the land,'' says the storyteller, who now owns property near Lake Michigan, two lots on the Tennessee River, land in Alabama, plus his own home and another house in the Detroit suburbs.
He keeps his hand in farming with a backyard plot that produces vegetables, a showcase rose garden, and an apple tree grafted with five different varieties.
But writing has definitely made inroads into his spare time.
``Writing stories is kind of like unwinding a ball of yarn,'' says Henderson as he sits, slightly stooped, on a couch in an ultra-tidy living room.
With no hesitation, he attests that the UAW-Ford course switched his life around.
``You learn a little, and it makes a lot of difference,'' he says. Six months after starting classes, Henderson applied for another job within the plant. The new post didn't require literacy, but ``it took a confidence I never had before,'' he admits. He got the job.
He counts off additional changes, saying, ``I know more about what the president is doin'. I understand the bills being passed in Congress. And I know who I'm votin' for and on what.'' He's also reading ``Winnie-the-Pooh'' to his granddaughter.
And, of course, never before did he put stories on paper.