Into the flames: Red's story
John Rosser “Red” Laubscher was born in Vass, North Carolina, a small town located along the Seabord Air Line Railroad at the foot of the Sandhills, a place known for its sweet summer crops of dewberries and the longleaf pine forests that once supplied world shipping interests with prodigious amounts of tar and turpentine until the trees had been nearly bled dry of their resins. In 1926, the year that Red was born, Vass had only one doctor, Dr. R.G. Rosser, whose name was bestowed upon a number of children he helped usher into the world, Red and his son included. Life was quiet there, and the local newspaper reported extensively on the lives of the locals, their comings and goings, providing detailed accounts of the "sumptuous feasts" prepared for various family reunions and birthday parties, down to the color of the table linens.
Red was the second son of Alvin Rheinhardt Laubscher and Margaret Seawell, both of whom were born to families with deep roots in the region, farmers, mainly, who knew and loved the land intimately enough to shed blood for it during the Civil War. Alvin served as Chief of Police and general town servant for most of his adult life and was widely regarded as a decent man of unimpeachable character, a staid Methodist who valued God, family, and community and could be counted on in anyone's time of need. He stood in stark contrast to his wife, a brooding and irascible woman who held and nursed grudges as if they were her own precious children. Though Alvin was a steady presence in his family's life, his quiet temperament only gave space for Margaret's rage.
It was amid these contrasts that Red was raised, in a world that must have seemed transient in some way, a mere stop on the rail line, nestled into forests that were first bled dry and then denuded, overrun by golfers in summer and soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg at all other times of the year, all people whose sense of home was always away. Vass was simply a pleasant distraction, a stop on the way to somewhere else.
Somewhere else is likely where Red wanted to be if only to escape his implacable mother and the bleakness of remaining in a place that was his only through the accident of birth, not choice. He joined the Navy as soon as he was able, and while he returned to the area after his service, he became a long-haul trucker, driving up and down the East Coast, joining the ranks of visitors to Vass whose concept of home was elsewhere.
What he thought about during those long drives alone is anyone's guess. Maybe he sang to himself as he drove, trying to replicate that distinctive break in Hank Williams' voice, a kind of yodel he'd never attempt in the company of anyone else, at least without the aid of a few shots of vodka. This was the freedom life on the road provided: an utter lack of self consciousness, a certain ease with himself that he could never feel while under the thumb of his mother, or the military, or even his father, gentle and loving as he was.
But this lack, he surely discovered, this freedom from, could be a burden in its own right. How to account for the days when there's no one to be accountable to, no one to confirm what otherwise exists only in your own mind? Freedom from the clutches of domestic life is also the absence of the comforts such a life could provide. Surely he had time to consider this as he drove.
Whatever loneliness Red might have felt while on the road was eased somewhat by his friend Oliver Schott, who also drove trucks out of North Carolina. Oliver had grown up in rural southwestern Pennsylvania but joined the military at 18 just as Red had, hoping to escape a future in the coal mines, a fate that awaited most young men from the area. Mining was a hard life, and even Oliver's father had tried to escape it, moving his own family to Baltimore to find work in the steel industry. The Schotts still resided in Baltimore when Oliver had settled in North Carolina, and they always welcomed their son and his friend Red during their long trips along the coast.
It was there in the Schott home that Red would meet a teenage Lillian, six years his junior and spirited, restless in a way that he must have found alluring. They were kindreds of sorts. Perhaps, he might have thought, they could be restless together. It was there, with Lil, that he would find an eager audience for his thoughts, that his life would become more real in some way, grounded, not just wheels on pavement.
He was 23 years old. He had already been to war, had spent months away at sea. Later, even on solid ground, he was still unmoored, spending his days with whatever memories crept up to accompany him on the road, his nights alone with a bottle of vodka, or brawling with the locals wherever he found himself, if only to feel passion of some kind--a fist to the face was at least contact, skin on skin, an expression of need.
In Lillian he surely sensed a woman who could spar with him, could meet him in that space where his anger met desire. Whether he fell in love with her or she told him to love her, he decided to try out a home life for himself, to see what life would be like coming home to a woman's waiting arms. He decided, for a time, to trade his freedom for an anchor.