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Family and friends remembered Roy Bush Laughter as a practitioner and preserver of the old mountain ways, a storyteller who always had a quip and most of all a father and grandfather who put his family first.
A tall white-bearded Henderson County native who had about a dozen bit parts in movies as a mountain man, Laughter died Sept. 30, at age 86. He was known around the town and the county for his tall tales and hillbilly wit and had written three books of mountain tales, some tall, some true. He wore overalls with no shirt and often went barefoot, and once flunked a building inspector's course in Chapel Hill for sleeping in class.
He was on a winning streak in a "bullshooting" contest at the North Carolina Oyster Festival before his 8-year-old granddaughter Angel unseated him with a tall tale about a scarecrow — a story in which Bush was the butt of the joke.
Whatever else he was, he was an original and family members said they were mighty sad to see him go.
"He had one of the greatest memories of anybody I know," said his son-in-law Alonzo Manley, who felt lucky to be an adopted son, since his own father died young and Bush had daughters. "I've talked to people that went to school with him. He was just an old rough guy. They said he was the smartest man in that school. They said they didn't know how he was so smart."
Born July 2, 1927, to Columbus Robert "Lum" and Nannie Lee McMinn Laughter, Roy Bush Laughter traced his family roots to a Scottish ancestor, John Laughter, who landed in Philadelphia in 1645. His branch of the Laughters migrated to Surry County, Va., then to Rutherford County before settling in Henderson County.
After serving in the Army in World War II, Laughter came home and married Betty Jane Roland, on Sept. 1, 1950. She died on Sept. 26, 2007.
He was survived by three daughters and their husbands, Angie and Herman Hollifield of Marion, Tammy and Alonzo Manley of Valley Hill, and Robin and Ronnie Gray of Mountain Home; two sisters, Alta Fowler and Flossie Nelson; five grandchildren, Ray Hollifield and wife Stephanie, Jesse Gray and fiancé Carmen, Cody Gray and fiancé Katie, Angel Pearson, and Krystal Hollifield Drake and her husband, Alonzo; and five great-grandchildren, Garrett and Katelyn Hollifield, Amerah London, Mason Gray and James Drake and several nieces and nephews.
At his funeral service on Oct. 5 at the Chapel in the Pines of Jackson Funeral Home, tears mixed with laughter as mourners talked about the life of Bush Laughter.
There were more motorcycle jackets, blue jeans and wallet chains than one usually sees at a funeral, and as many people under 50 as there were Laughter's age. The facial high quotient was high. And several of those burly bearded men wiped tears from their eyes.
A young minister who preached the funeral, Anthony Craver, recalled the first time he ever saw Bush Laughter. He asked a senior minister who was that man planting flowers in the yard of the Pentecostal Holiness Church.
"Does he have a long white beard?" the older man replied. "That's Bush Laughter, our local character-slash-legend-slash-mountain man."
If it was a big man with a long white beard planting rose bushes, bulbs or annuals, it could only be one person.
"One day, when Bush was a boy, he was in Sunday school and the teacher was teaching and he got to talking in class, and the teachers have a standard reply," Craver said. "The teacher looked down at him and said, 'Bush, if you think you can teach this class better than I can, why don't you just get up here and teach.'"
The titters and chuckling started before Craver could finish.
"I know by the laughter I already heard, you know what happened. He got up and taught the rest of the class, and the after he quit the Sunday school teacher said, 'You know, I learned a few things in that class.'"
One day Laughter was on a job with an electrician.
"He was trying to drill a hole through a beam so he could run some wires, and the guy had not brought a big enough drill bit," the preacher said. "He complained to Bush, 'I don't have any way to make this hole. I don't have a drill bit big enough.' And Bush said, 'Well, just show me exactly where you want that hole.' And Bush went to his truck, got his muzzle loader and made a hole for him. Don't you just love that can-do attitude? I'm gonna get it done no matter that. I just love that spirit. People like him make an impact on the world that outlives him."
Bush would spend his life telling tales, and making people laugh. But he had a serious side, one of service to his community.
He was a charter member of the Valley Hill Volunteer Fire Department.
"He played a big part in starting Valley Hill fire department and he's probably a big reason I got started with the department," said the current chief, Tim Garren, a nephew.
"He was always involved in something outdoors."
Tim's brother, Jason, recalled hunting with his uncle. "He took me on my first boar hunt," he said.
Cousins and nephews coveted Bush's beef jerky recipe and over time he gave the recipe to Jason. But a thing of such value was not something Bush Laughter would hand over at once.
"He'd give me one piece at a time until finally I got it all," Garren said.
'Certifiably a genius'
No one knows why some mountain folks hang on to the mountain ways, make them their own and share them with the world. But that's what Bush Laughter did, in his books, his talks at schools, nursing homes and civic clubs
"He was certifiably a genius," said his daughter, Tammy Manley. "He did a lot of wonderful, wonderful things. He could have done anything but he opted to have fun in his life and take care of his family more so than going out and running for Congress and all that junk. I think he did 11 movies. He was in commercials."
After he performed small character roles in "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Patch Adams," which were filmed in the area, Laughter went to Wilmington and got his Screen Actors Guild card. Before a mini-stroke impaired his speaking, he had a goal of getting some speaking parts, Alonzo Manley said.
In a resume, he described himself as 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and listed his movie roles. They included "Journey of the August King," ad lib 1; "Thunder Road," moonshine still operator; Stephen King's "the Night Flyer," aircraft operator." In "Patch Adams" he played a medical patient. In "Song Chaser" he played a mountain man, which was playing himself.
He listed his skills as "Have gab, will travel; deck hand, great smile, cap and ball shooter and speaker," and claimed "dialects spoken" of "German, Scottish, Appalachian, redneck and salesman."
Laughter's grandson, Ray Hollifield of Marion, summed up his grandfather's life during the service.
"He loved to tell stories and share his mountain heritage with anyone who would listen," Hollifield said. "He often told about growing up in the mountains, and how things were in his youth. He was a proud Henderson County native. And though he spent a large part of his life working in different places in the country as a pipefitter, he never forgot his mountains.
"He often bragged about being born in a log cabin he built with his own hands, and living so far back in the mountains they had to haul sunshine in in gallon jugs. Fortunately they hauled moonshine out in the same jugs. His parents were so poor they couldn't afford to buy a clock so they'd just wind the rooster every night to get the morning wakeup call.
A two-time winner of a liars contest at the North Carolina Oyster Festival, Bush lost once, to his 8-year-old granddaughter.
"My cousin Angel even beat Pap out of the first place in the annual bullshooters contest in Brunswick County, North Carolina, in 1993," Hollifield said. "She told of how Pap built a scarecrow to keep the crows from eating his corn. When it didn't work she put a picture of Pap on the scarecrow. Well, they quit eating the corn but not only that they brought some back that they'd stole last year."
Pap plants 'birth trees'
"Pap" always looked after the family and always did something thoughtful even when he missed family events, the grandson said. A pipefitter by trade, he traveled across the country for weeks at a time — a hiatus from home that Bush called "a-yonderin."
"Being gone from home so much, he missed a lot of life's milestones, such as the birth of his grandchildren, including me," Hollifield said. "But being the loving person that he was, he always found a way to make a lasting memory of the occasion. Upon Pap learning of my birth, in August 1981, while a-yondering, Pap planted a small Henderson County Wolf River apple tree to serve as a living memorial to my birth. This trees stands in a cotton field near an irrigation ditch in Tomoka, Arizona.
"One year later, while (Pap was) still a'yonderin', my cousin Jesse Gray was born. His tree, a Henderson County Grimes Golden apple tree, stands on the side of a canal, between two lakes, in Cross, South Carolina.
"By the time my cousin Angel was born, Pap had made his way home and was working as the Henderson County building inspector. Her tree, a banana rose apple tree, mysteriously appeared on the front lawn of the Henderson County Courthouse one night. "My sister Krystal's birth tree, a Golden Delicious apple tree, was planted in the Hankins community McDowell County where my family lives today. And my cousin Cody Gray's tree is planted in the backyard of Pap's house in the Valley Hill community.
"Pap was asked one time why he planted these trees to mark the birth of his grandchildren, as well as the children and grandchildren of other friends and family. His response was simple: I just thought it would be a living tribute to them, something they could look at when they were bigger and know that someone did something special for them when they were so small."
Laughter took his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews on fishing and hunting and camping trips. He wanted to be outside. When he retired, he chain-sawed trees and split wood as a hobby. Bush would call his son-in-law Alonzo Manley and say that someone had give him some wood. They just had to go cut it and haul it off. "It's close to the road," Bush would tell Alonzo. When they got there, Alonzo would find out that it wasn't close to the road but it didn't matter. He'd help Bush anyway. A foreman for Pike Electric, Alonzo knows how to use a chainsaw.
Hurricane Hugo vs. Bush Laughter
Hollifield recalled a particularly harrowing camping trip to Cape Lookout on the North Carolina coast, one of his granddad's favorite places to go.
"A small storm that most of ya'll will remember, Hurricane Hugo, came through," he said. "Our tent fell in on us and we started getting just a little bit wet. After finding an old piece of tarpaulin, Pap and I rolled up in it behind some sand dunes. Even though I was scared and it seemed like the world was coming to an end, Pap just wrapped his arms around me and said, 'It'll be OK, buddy, I've got you.' I may have been scared but I knew Pap was going to take care of me. You know, that was probably some of the best sleeping that I've ever done."
Family members counted on Daddy or Pap to reserve their favorite picnic spot on Davidson River every July 2, his birthday.
"Pap would get up at 3 o'clock in the morning, drive up to the river and make sure he got his favorite spot at Sycamore Flats," Hollifield said. "He'd take a big old watermelon down to the river to chill. After we ate he'd retrieve it, and we'd all have some watermelon that was as cold as that chill in the Davidson River."
The last word
Among the records that Bush kept was his Flat Rock High School diploma, issued May 3, 1944, and a sheet showing class honors. "Best in Scholarship" was Roy Laughter. (Valedictorian was Gladys Guice; salutatorian was Sarah J. Jones.)
In a Times-News story on couples that had been married for 50 years, Bush Laughter wrote that the secret to his and Betty's wedded bliss was splitting duties.
"I was the husband, so I worried about the big things and she worried about the little things. I worried about the moonshot and nuclear energy; she worried about raising the children," he said. As for resolving arguments, he said: "Whomever was at fault had to get out and walk. The fresh air done me good."
Laughter's funeral had touches that only a Bush Laughter funeral would have. He got the last word, telling his family in a taped message not to worry but to carry on and love one another.
Although he told his daughter Tammy that he wanted to be cremated and buried in a five-gallon bucket that was one wish the family couldn't grant. He was buried in a nice box, and at a graveside service at Pleasant Hill Cemetery the sendoff included full Masonic Rites and a military service, complete with a 21-gun salute by the Henderson County Honor Guard. The coffin was imprinted with the words "Old Fart." That was just Bush Laughter being Bush Laughter, getting the last laugh.
The important legacy of Roy Bush Laughter, Ray Hollifield, his grandson, told mourners at the funeral service, was not his tall tales or his movie roles or his pranks.
"To my sister and my cousins, let us never forget the man that our Pap was, nor the love that he has shown each of us," he said. "Let us carry on the love of family, the outdoors and for each other. Let us make every effort to instill values Pap was taught us: never quit, work hard for what you want, and love each other like there's no tomorrow, and most of all the love for our beautiful mountains. If we continue to do these things a part of Pap will always be with us.
"Lord I pray open the gates up wide, for the old man of the mountains is coming home."