Toxic Town USA - Part Five

STAMINA & STOICISM ~

The entire duration of the documentary shoot, I lived in the Russell's Redneck Castle with them–sleeping on their fold-out sofa bed at one corner of their living room, eating meals with them, transferring, reviewing and managing daily video footage in the evenings while they rested alone together in their bedroom or went about their leisurely evening activities separately and the house was quiet. We took turns bathing in the only bathroom in the house at the end of each sweltering summer day of work before settling down for the evening to soon all fall fast asleep, completely exhausted. This was our routine for several weeks and it worked well for all of us throughout the shoot. All of the new equipment, computer and software was serving well to their intended purpose. Plenty of good video, audio and photos were being captured, transferred and safely backed up each day and I was feeling good about prospects of turning out a fairly decent documentary as I worked through the dailies.

When Harley and Annabelle weren't working I stayed out of their way unless we were having conversations with each other or when we trekked out of town together on road trips in search of antiques to add to their vast collection. Their work schedule was unpredictable and hectic as tourists usually arrived unannounced. Most of the large tour group managers knew by then to provide plenty of advanced warning of their arrival, but not all did. Regardless, Harley and Annabelle always tried to be ready to get up and at it immediately, at any time of the day. Between performances they went about daily chores and practice sessions (woodshedding as Harley referred to it), honing their set to mediocre perfection. I had some significant amount of difficulty just keeping up with them.

Things usually went surprisingly well during performances as they always woodshedded thoroughly enough together to minimize chances for a show going haywire. With Harley's tutelage and frequent performances, Annabelle's skill as backup guitarist and performer increased daily. They both learned to read their audiences well to understand what would work during performances and what wouldn't. And as I watched them working together, as interesting as Harley's life story as a road musician was, the mystery of Annabelle's life as a flower child intrigued me. I learned that she had graduated top of her class from a large high school, earned a college degree and then had promptly hitchhiked to Berkley, California and gone to work for the Berkley Barb as so many hippies had there in the 1960s. She was quiet and reserved but intelligent, open and honest–an interesting Ying to Harley's Yang, a contrast of personality which they leveraged to great advantage in all aspects of their performance work.

Annabelle's naturally introverted core character traits never really melted completely away during her years with Harley, but she became more self confident and a superb performer in her own way, bringing together a raft of natural talents to complement many of Harley's well-honed, extroverted professional skills developed over decades performing as a guitarist in road bands. And the entire five weeks I stayed with them recording what they did together to make their way in the world as the Mediocre Music Makers, I was always struck by Annabelle's stoic approach to it all. Even as external negative pressures were increasingly imposed upon them by hostile parties in the community, I never heard Annabelle complain about any of that nonsense or about the tremendous workload she shouldered as the number of tourists coming to visit at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop steadily increased.

This worried me a bit. Harley never had any problem expressing his frustrations from the hateful assaults, but Annabelle held it all in unless questioned directly about how it made her feel. Even then, she was reluctant to open up much about it. It was obvious she felt deeply that they were being unjustly targeted for abuse and yet she never seemed to be able to let herself get it all out as Harley was able to.


That stolid reticence was concerning because personal experience working in several high-stress environments in my professional career had taught me how sustained stress can take a significant toll on both mind and body. I suspected her ruminative thoughts churned daily over the ugly treatment they were subjected to and that continuous stress from it all could negatively impact her health by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms which could lead to chronic illness. It had happened to me and I had seen it happen to other people I had worked with. I worried about Harley too in that respect, but he vented frequently which seemed to help him cope with it. Annabelle just wouldn't allow herself to do that. They both possessed extraordinary stamina and both were stoic in their approach to their work and life in general. Annabelle's stoicism, though, was disturbingly extreme.