Sometime in the late 1980’s, he can’t quite remember when exactly, Smith Baldwin recalls there was a pigeon infestation on the roof of the Front Royal United Methodist Church. The birds were a continual problem for the parish and they gathered in masses on the lawn and roof and telephone wires of the church and surrounding buildings.“Those damn birds were everywhere,” Smith says, “leaving their crap and nasty stuff all over that nice roof.” The issue had been brought up in meetings and gossiped about by old grey-haired ladies on Sunday mornings, but no action was being taken.“Everyone complained about it, but no one did a damn thing,” he remembers. After several months of unproductive babbling by the church, Smith, a retired roofer who had spent much of his younger years balancing on scaffolding and climbing on roof tops, mounted the three story building late one Saturday night. He spread some birdseed he laced with poison around the slate roof. When the pastor and parishioners gathered for church the next morning, they found a pigeon massacre. Bird corpses covered the roof and front and side lawns, and flies buzzed gleefully around the detritus. People complained, the old grey-haired ladies gossiped, but before any meetings could be held Smith had removed every dead bird body from the lawn and roof by that evening. He was seventy at the time.
“Ask anyone in town if they know Smith, and chances are they do,” Smith’s wife, Rosalie, tells me proudly. “Everyone in Warren County knows Smith Baldwin, or have at least heard of him.” She is right too, there are very few in the small rural county in western Virginia that do not have some connection to Smith. To some, he is the roofer that gave them a good, honest deal on their house, to others he is the war hero whose face was splashed across every local newspaper in the 1940s. Many, like me, know Smith from his long membership at the Front Royal United Methodist Church, where he has served as a lay leader, Sunday school teacher, sexton, and general “fix it” man for ninety years. Even those in Warren County who haven’t heard of Smith Baldwin, have probably played in playgrounds and parks commissioned by him, driven over bridges built by his hands, participated in charity events run by him, and everyday listened to the chimes of 12 o’clock church bells donated by him. “He has lived in this county his whole life and hasn’t left in sixty years, so he makes it his business to know the people here,” says Smith’s pastor, Reverend Heaton. “It is his home, and I suppose he sees it as his duty to make it a nice place to live.”
Twenty years have passed since the church’s pigeon problem, and although Smith’s gumption is just as strong at ninety as it was at seventy, his body is no longer capable of scaling buildings and rooftops. These days, he finds his body is not very capable of anything. Smith’s legs gave up on him sometime in the 90’s, his back sometime in early 2000, and his eyesight not soon after. Movement is difficult for him and sitting up straight is a moment-to-moment chore. “My spine’s all messed up,” he tells me of his back problems as I sit across from him on his side porch. “It’s like one of those babies that can’t keep their chin up and their head from flopping around,” he jokes. He is limited to sitting down, and only in chairs that have high backs or head rests because his bald head wilts to one side or the other when he is not paying attention. These days, because of his health, he doesn’t leave the house much. He has a wheel chair, but dislikes it, making departures very rare and uncomfortable occasions. “We haven’t been to church in a while,” Rosalie tells me out of Smith’s ear shot. “We really miss it but it is just too much of a fuss getting our friends to help us get there. They offer, but as much as we would like to go it is just too much.” So Smith spends most of his time sitting on the side porch of his small country home. He built the brick, one-story house (now covered in ivy) himself over fifty years ago, but says he added the screened-in porch about two decades ago so that when he “got to be old like this” he could “jus sit out here and watch the world zip by.” Every day he sits in a brown corduroy recliner that is draped with several towels and has a foam pad and plastic liner covering the seat of the chair. He props his feet up on a high foot-rest and reclines, watching the cars drive by on Route 319.
* Above excerpt is from a piece awarded 3rd place in the Tiberius Gracchus Jones Prize category for best work of literary nonfiction as part of the 2012 English Literary Awards.