As any reader of this blog knows, I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky. I’ve written extensively about that before, but I got to thinking about some of the things I experienced there that I haven’t seen since. Here is a sampling:
THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS
As my readers know, I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky. When I was a kid, Loyall was home of a Louisville & Nashville Railroad yard, and I lived about 200 yards from the track that ran from the yard to parts unknown. The 1970’s were the time of the Coal Boom and trains ran day and night. They were as much a part of life as the sun coming up. We didn’t give them a thought, until the Nerve Gas Express came to town.
Some one decided to ship old nerve gas by rail to somewhere. Loyall was on that road to somewhere. We knew it coming. It was in the local paper–several times in fact. People talked about what would happen if the train derailed (which they did sometimes) or, God forbid, there was a real wreck (which almost never happened). The nerve gas would leak, and we would all die. Everyone was quite excited.
What was the nerve gas, exactly? I don’t know–sarin gas maybe. I also don’t know where it was headed. I do know that it had the capacity to kill us all.
Given the deadly qualities of this Hellish trainload, one might think that the townspeople would have cowered in their basements or taken cover in old bomb shelters. Remember now, we were Harlan Countians, which means two things: (1) We’re a fearless bunch of hill jacks; and (2) We don’t have a hell of a lot to do most of the time. As a result, we did what you would expect, and gathered by the railroad track to watch the paralyzing cargo roll through Loyall. It was reminiscent of the episode of the Andy Griffith Show where all of Mayberry gathered in town to see the “gold truck” pass through.
I should note that my Dad talked quite a bit about how stupid it was to watch a train go by. He thought it was especially dumb since the only possible excitement was the annihilation of all the spectators. He noted several times that if the gas leaked, you could get the same thrill of being gassed hanging out in your house. He was not a fan of the Nerve Gas Express.
Just as planned, the train came through Loyall. Unlike the Andy Griffith Show, I don’t think it was decoy. As far as I know, it contained enough nerve gas to kill every man, woman, child and beast in the county. I’ll admit that I watched it go by. It was just a train, but everyone seemed pleased. No one cheered, although that would have been somehow appropriate. There were no protestors. No one died.
THE WONDERS OF DUCT TAPE
Okay, the entire world knows about duct tape now, but there was a time when it was actually used mostly for duct work. In the 1970’s, for example, it wasn’t as ubiquitous as today. Naturally, we called it “duck” tape, just as many people do today.
I knew this guy who used it for everything. Have you ever seen a shotgun held together with duct tape? I have. He had a Stevenson shotgun (12 gauge, as I recall), which he affectionately called “Stevie.” Stevie had fallen into disrepair to the point that the stock (that’s the wooden part for you novices) fell off. Duct tape fixed that. He simply taped it back together. I never saw him fire it, but swore it held together. I have my doubts.
The same guy also made his own boots. How, you ask? Three pairs of tube socks and duct tape. I’m not kidding. He said they were both comfortable and water tight.
Okay, that’s actually TWO things you don’t see every day–duct taped a duct taped shotgun and duct tape boots. I’m proud to say that I’ve seen them both, on the same day, in fact.
THE COAL MONUMENT
I’m sure other coal-producing counties have their tributes to coal mining, but we had–and still have–a genuine monument:
You have to navigate your way around the monument, which isn’t too tough these days. Back in the 1960’s and ’70’s, this was the main drag to Harlan and quite busy. Plus, Ken’s Drive-In was a popular eatery across from the monument. For the uninitiated, this was as much a traffic hazard as it was a historical marker. Nowadays, one could comfortably nap in this intersection.
We should salute the builders of the Coal Monument. As I write this, I am 51 years old, and the Monument has been there as long as I can remember. As far as I know, it’s never even been repaired. I don’t know who build it, when or why it’s in Baxter. If anyone knows the story behind it, please let me know.
If you live in Baxter, Kentucky, it’s probably wrong to say you don’t see something like this every day. In fact, you may well see this every single day, but I don’t know many people who live in Baxter. Close enough.
COON ON THE LOG
The only Coon on the Log contests I’ve ever seen were in Harlan County at the Fish and Game Club. What is that, you ask? It involves 1) A raccoon; 2) A log; 3) Water; and 4) Dogs. Here’s how it worked. A raccoon was tied to log. The log was placed in the middle of a pond. The dogs swam out to the log–one at a time, of course–and attempted to knock the raccoon off the log. Simple enough. Now, you ask, what is the entertainment value in that?
You might be a city person who thinks raccoons are cute, like their cuddly cousins, the Pandas. You would be wrong. Raccoons are, in fact, vicious critters. They have sharp teeth and long, razor-like claws. They also have bad dispositions. They might rabies, too, although I don’t believe that is true with competition-level raccoons. Knocking one of these nasty bastards off a log is no mean feat. They fight. They claw. They bite.
I was probably 6 years old or so when I attended the Coon on the Log. My Dad took my brother and me. We sat by the pond and watched the dogs do battle with the hellish beast. I only remember one dog. He was black hunting dog of some sort and could swim like a fish. He swam out the log and immediately engaged the raccoon. They fought tooth and nail until the raccoon managed to claw the dog’s face, sending him back to shore much worse for the wear. The next year, the dog was back, this time with a scarred face. I recall that he vanquished the raccoon. Honestly, it could have been a different less fierce raccoon, but I remember being pleased for the dog nonetheless.
I know you animal lovers are poised over your keyboards to attack me and, possibly, my late father, like a rabid, typing raccoon. This is not an endorsement of Coon on the Log contests. PETA hates them, as you would expect. I doubt that they are very popular anymore, having gone the way of Donkey Basketball and Greased Pig Contests. (I’ve attended both of these events, too, and they were quite entertaining; however, I do understand why the use of cattle prods in a basketball game is now frowned upon). These days, people get all torn up over monkeys riding dogs (possibly the most entertaining thing on Earth, by the way). The Coon on the Log doesn’t stand a chance.
My Dad didn’t throw away things. He always figured he could use them as some point. Old magazines, engine parts and the like might come in handy. For example, when I was a kid, he found a six-pack of beer and put in the trunk of his car. While Dad was fond of Scotch and Bourbon, he didn’t drink beer. But he knew a guy who did. He said he would give the six-pack to that guy. I don’t think he ever did, but he drove around with that six-pack in the trunk of his car for several years–just in case.
Among Dad’s collection were old tires. He would change tires on his cars but keep the old ones. You never know, he might need them one day. During a summer of my childhood, my friend Jimmy and I were bored, having exhausted the possibilities of bike riding and playing Army. So, we started rooting around in my garage where we happened upon two tires. We could do something with those.
The first thing we tried was walking on them, kind of like a circus bear walking on a ball. It just couldn’t be done. Even though we were both slight of build, our inconsiderable weight caused the tires to collapse.
Then, we came up with Tire Wrestling, which consisted of rolling the tires at each other and diving on them. That was kind of fun, but we couldn’t devise a scoring system. So, there ended up not being much point to it. It never caught on, not even with Jimmy and me.
I didn’t give up on the idea of walking on tires but just couldn’t master it. Then, Uncle Jack showed up. My Uncle Jack was my Dad’s younger brother and probably in his 40’s at the time. As a bachelor, Jack spent a lot of time at our house. Jack had all kinds of tricks. He would pull out his dentures and put a cigarette between them and make the cigarette bounce up and down. He could play a mean harmonica. He could shuffle cards like a magician. He was always entertaining.
Jack was a small man, about 5′ 5″, maybe 140 pounds. His hair was the kind of silvery-white you want if your hair turns gray. He was quick with a joke or some smart-ass comment, and always laughed at his own stories. He chain-smoked Phillip Morris non-filter cigarettes.
One day, I was on the back porch with a tire leaned against the side of the porch, studying the possibilities. Our porch was a wooden structure about 3 or 4 feet high with railing only on the sides and 5 or 6 steps on the left hand side. I was on the steps when Jack and Dad stepped out on the porch.
“Whatta ya know, boy?” Jack asked (this was the same greeting I got from Jack for the remaining 40 years of his life). I explained that I had tried to walk on the tire but couldn’t do it. Jack said, “Let me see that tire. I can do that.” Dad looked at Jack and said, “Now, Jack, you’ll break your neck on that thing.”
Jack ignored Dad, as he usually did whenever Dad started a sentence with “Now, Jack….” Jack balanced the tire perpendicular to the porch, stuck his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and grabbed the side rail of the porch with his left hand. He was ready to roll.
He did it. It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. He just stepped off the porch on top of the tire and took off. He looked like a tap dancer on hot coals. His arms stuck out to side for balance and a thin trail of cigarette smoke coursed behind him like a contrail.
Had we owned a clothes dryer, I’m confident that he would have made all the way across the yard to the back fence. As it was, our clothes line ended the ride. It caught Jack just under the chin and flipped him backward off the tire. He slammed to the ground like bag of sand. For a moment, he didn’t move. Then, he hopped up, grabbed his smoke off the ground and just laughed. Dad was laughing himself into a fit on the back porch. If you think walking on a tire is easy, try it sometime.
I could tell a lot of other stories about Jack but that one stands out. Jack was always entertaining. Every kid needs an Uncle Jack.
Well, that’s it. Five things you don’t see every day. If you’re ever in Harlan County, ask a local for directions to the Coal Monument. I can’t promise you that will see any of the other things I described, but I’m confident that the Monument will still be there.
so entertaining….and sooo true. Thanks for the memories.
John, this is actually Kent Hendrickson (not Jane as indicated on this fb acct.):
THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS:
Although I wasn’t in Harlan at the time (I was off galavanting in Philadelphia), my dad and my brother Steve were running a tipple in Smith. One day, military helicopters swarmed over this tiny coal operation, unnerving (no pun intended) everyone present, whereupon a very slow train came dawdling along the main line toward the Hagan Tunnel into Virginia. Of course, they learned later that was in fact the deadly nerve gas express. At the time, President Nixon had decided to dump all of our nerve gas in the Atlantic Ocean. (Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask the fish why.) In any event, the express was probably headed for the docks at Norfolk where the deadly cargo would be loaded aboard barges, taken out to sea and sunk.
Duct tape is the foremost invention of modern man. If not for duct tape Appolo 13 could not have returned safely to earth (watch the movie). I myself use duct tape to wrap my feet before I run. The result is a pain-free aftermath.
THE COAL MONUMENT:
Yes, the coal monument still stands on what was once the main road into Harlan. It was, and remains, a confusing traffic hazard. It was constructed in the 1920s, and the unique thing about it is this: every block in the monument is from one of the coal mines existing at that time. Unfortunately, because it is dry as a board, it cannot be undone, taken apart, moved or otherwise repaired. It is just there until someone crashes into it hard enough to destroy it.
COON ON THE LOG:
It is not indiginous to Harlan County. I’ve seen coon-on-a-log played out in Bell County under the direction of my Uncle Leo. I really didn’t understand it. Nonetheless, raccoons are dangerous! I’ll stop there.
WALKING ON TIRES:
Are you crazy? I’ve never heard of anything like that. (I knew Jack well, and I would have given a lot to have seen that.)
Thanks for the memories, Kent
Dear John, your blog is a wonderfully literate and compelling description of this wonderful area. I was born in Closplint. We moved to Loyall when I was in the 5th grade. At that time the Loyall High School was still open. At one time we lived in “Old Loyall” and later moved to Chad Street in Loyall. My papaw was killed in a mining accident in Louellen and is buried, alongside my grandmother in Resthaven. I love your work and hope you will continue these wonderful stories. (You are to Harlan what Jean Shepherd was to Northern Indiana.) Best wishes, David
Thanks so much for the kind words. My parents and younger brother are buried at Resthaven, too.
My grandfather was Cam Bianchi, a stone mason by trade who immigrated from Italy and eventually ended up in Harlan. My father, Sylvain White, and my uncle, Raymond White, always told us that Cam built the coal monument. I have never been able to substantiate that claim but we grew up with that story.
Since I originally posted this, I’ve heard from several folks about the Italian stone masons, but no one seems to know the names. Interesting stuff.