She sewed at Bassett-Walker Knitting mill. She cleaned in the Bassett Furniture corporate offices. She took care of middle managers’ kids and cleaned people’s homes and, judging from her recent funeral, Mary Thomas took care of the rest of the factory town of Bassett, Va., too.
We should all be blessed to experience the kind of jam-packed sendoff that Mary Thomas had on November 24, where funeral attendants wearing white nursing uniforms handed out cardboard fans, and the choir blew the rafters off. Friends spoke hilariously about Mary’s “Let’s Make a Deal” purses (“She had whatever you needed in that thing”) and her home remedies — including her secret cure for taking the sting out of a burn. She could do it in person and over the telephone. “You could just feel the fire comin’ outta you,” one speaker recalled.
Mary Thomas, 81, and her husband, Junior (aka, Joon), are two characters in my forthcoming book, “Factory Man,” which recounts the rise and fall of factory work in a small Southern town. They were some of my favorite story beacons — connectors who helped me understand the place I was trying to describe, beginning with the curvy, snake-filled holler where Mary and Junior were born and where they lived the entirety of their lives (previously named Snot Holler, Carver Lane and Chigger Ridge). They also went out of their way to introduce me to other people I needed to talk to and know.
They were astute interpreters who didn’t shy away from controversy or raw truths about race, class and sex. They understood the gray nuances of life in a company town. After everything that had happened to Bassett, and to their friends and families, they wanted the story, finally, to be told.
And they were kind, never once letting me leave their home without handing over an icy bottle of water and a pack of Nabs for the road, thinking my hour-long ride home to Roanoke from Bassett was fraught with danger at every turn. Junior insisted on driving my Subaru down his winding driveway, both of them admonishing me to “be careful” and “have a blessed day!” as I drove away.
They helped me research family stories, volunteered for fact-finding errands to save me the drive, and once, during a visit with our mutual friend Naomi Hodge-Muse, they literally had me in tears and collapsed on the floor. The stories featured William “Porkchop” Estes — a neighbor who was Naomi’s stepfather and Ruby Bassett’s longtime driver — and another relative of Naomi’s who once blew out his television set with a shotgun after watching a wrestler take a slam in the privates. (“Just because he didn’t like what he saw on TV!”)
The stories had nothing to do with furniture-making or the global economy. But listening to them made for the single-most entertaining afternoon of reporting my book.
I think of the Thomases every time I look in the obituaries and learn that another member of the Greatest Furniture-Making Generation has passed. These were men and women who helped construct a rich industry (as well as a rich family dynasty) while making a modest but upwardly mobile life of their own.
Eddie Wall, a Bassett native and longtime factory manager, died in August at 73. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Eddie worked for Bassett Furniture for more than three decades and was happy to describe the cutthroat and pain- and prank-filled world of American furniture-making in its heyday.
He gave me names and phone numbers of other people to call, and described what it was like to watch a worker die right in front of him one day at the J.D. Bassett plant. A saw had worked itself loose from a machine and flew into the main artery near the man’s groin. “You could follow the trail of blood where he was trying to get to the nurse’s office,” Eddie recalled. “I’ve often wondered if I’d thought to grab a rag and put my knee on there and hold it, maybe he could’ve made it.”
Early in my research, Eddie schooled me in both furniture lingo and southside Virginia accents. Back when I couldn’t tell whether my interviewees were calling the area where the dried lumber enters a plant the “rough end” or the “rough in,” Eddie set me straight on the rough-and-tumble rough end.
Finally, my heart goes out to 97-year-old Mabel Pullen, who lost her husband, Charles, earlier this week — at the age of 95. Their stories aren’t included in “Factory Man,” because I only met them recently while reporting another story related to food insecurity, prompted by cuts to the federal food stamp program.
But we spoke about what it was like to be born into a sharecropping family in the Jim Crow South, and they reinforced many of the stories I’d heard from others. About not learning to read because you were too busy working the fields when the tobacco came in and couldn’t go to school. About the pros of factory work (buying property, a family first) and the cons (discrimination and tough working conditions).
It was a privilege to meet Charlie Pullen, though he was no longer lucid enough to talk. Still trim at 95, he displayed a hearty appetite as his daughter, Janet Johnson, whipped up four eggs and a skillet full of gravy on a late-October morning, and he lapped up every bite.
The couple would have qualified for food stamps but they were too proud to apply, Janet explained. One reader was so moved by the newspaper story that he sent me a very generous check for them. So back to Truevine I drove the week before Thanksgiving to deliver the gift. When Janet saw it, she showed me the Thanksgiving dinner wish list she’d just jotted down. She said she’d had no idea how she was going to buy the food.
“God bless you a double potion,” she said, hugging me and saying she’d put the donor’s name on her church prayer list.
I often tell people that working as a reporter is like getting paid to get a graduate degree in whatever you’re interested in.
But the even bigger gift is getting to know people like Charlie Pullen, Mary Thomas and Eddie Wall.
May their souls rest in peace, and may my words do them the justice they deserve.