Hunting Big Foot

This should read “Loyall, Home of Big Foot.”

I grew up in the Golden Age of Big Foot–the 1970’s.  I also grew up in the Land of Big Foot–Harlan County, Kentucky. I realize that the proper spelling of the species is “bigfoot,” but I prefer “Big Foot,” as his proper name.  I never saw Big Foot, but he was around, lurking.

Some 40 years later, my contemporaries ponder the state of the World.  They grieve over politics and social issues.  They worry about such mundane topics as prostate health and cardiovascular disease.  I, however, still think about Big Foot.

Eastern Kentucky has always had its share of tall tales.  There was Old John Shell, reputedly living to the ripe of old age of 130.  He killed a bear with his bare hands in a creek.  Thus, that creek is now known as Greasy Creek from the grease left by the bear’s carcass.  My Papaw used tell of a headless man who roamed the woods in Island Creek in Pike County.

We now live in a new era of Big Foot.  He’s making a comeback.  The History Channel used to be devoted to subjects like war–you know, history.  Now, it has shows about Big Foot.  Big Foot is on the Science Channel, The Learning Channel and others.   He’s a star again.

I first became familiar with Big Foot’s cousin, The Abominable Snowman.  The Abominable, of course, was one of the stars of the classic Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  He terrified me, even after Hermey sadistically pulled all his teeth.

I learned of the real Abominable through a magazine article–it might have been in Boy’s Life.  Someone had made plaster casts of his foot prints. They were huge!  He had to be real.

It was around that time that I first heard of Big Foot.  He might be known as Sasquatch elsewhere, but in Harlan County, he was–and will always remain–Big Foot.  Harlan County had Big Foot.

To be precise, Loyall had Big Foot.  Loyall is where I grew up.  It was–and is now–a small town.  For years, the sign into town said “Population 1100.”  I guess that was right.  I don’t know how long Loyall has been there, but I’d guess since 1911, the year the first trainload of coal was shipped out of Harlan County.

Loyall is a railroad town, home of a railroad yard.  Originally, it was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  Today, it’s CSX.  The “Yard” is huge, full of old relics and buildings which haven’t been used in decades, but it still runs trains.  It seems like most folks in Loyall worked for the railroad.  My uncle Jack was the Trainmaster at the Yard.  He made sure the trains ran on time–literally.

The Loyall Yard, many years ago. It looks pretty much the same today.

I lived most of my childhood in Rio Vista, a subdivision of sorts just outside Loyall.  It was 5 blocks of houses and a nice, quiet place to live.  Nice neighbors, you slept with your doors unlocked, etc–typical small town USA.  The only downside was that we lived right by the railroad tracks–as did most folks in Loyall.  Even today, I’m sure I could sleep soundly right by a train track.

Just outside Loyall is a mammoth cemetery, Resthaven.  That’s where my parents and younger brother–and many others–are interred.  Near the cemetery was a curved railroad bridge, which I was told was the first curved railroad bridge in the country.  I doubt that, but I like to think it’s true. So, Loyall was pretty ordinary.  Our biggest claim to fame was being saluted once on Hee Haw.

Even though Loyall was ordinary, it had its mysteries.  For example, there was Good Neighbor Road.  For the most part, it was just a little road at the foot of Park Hill lined with houses.  After about a half mile, the road ran out and turned into dirt.  People lived on that stretch, too, but I don’t know who they were.  Their dogs were vicious and would chase you like a pack of wolves.  Past those few homes was the sewer plant.  Past that was a big old house full of people.  We didn’t know them or what they were about.  A friend of mine and I used to go into the woods above that house and look at it with binoculars.  It looked like the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  We never saw anything interesting going on, but it was still creepy.  We knew they were up to no good.  My knew those folks and said they were alright.  I’m sure he was wrong about that.

Then, there was Old Loyall which really was no different from “new” Loyall except that’s where the Yard was located, and I guess it was older.  It’s also where City Hall and the fire department were–and still are–located. But, on the other side of the Yard was a strange stretch of road running behind the Yard.  In the back of the yard were a couple of old school buses with stove pipes in the windows.  People lived in those buses.  At least, I think they were people.

Our biggest mystery was Long Hollow.  It is above Park Hill, where I moved at age 12.  We lived–literally–on the side of the mountain.  The city of Harlan was on the other side of the mountain.  On our side of the mountain was a holler (“hollow” for you city folks).  That was Long Hollow, land of mystery.  To get to it, you had to hike straight through the woods above our house, maybe 500 feet.  Then, you hit the old mine road which you could follow for about a mile.  When it ran out, you just hiked.  Long Hollow was shaded, cool and more than a little eerie.  This is where Big Foot resided.

When I say I lived on the side of the mountain, I mean it.

I think my friend Norman first made me aware of Big Foot.  Norman was a font of information, some true and some false.  He knew of Big Foot, because Big Foot lived up above his house, deep in the woods.  Deep in Long Hollow, the mysterious cove well back in the mountain.

An aerial shot of Loyall showing Big Foot’s last known whereabouts.

It was probably in the 3rd or 4th grade that Norman described the great beast to me.  Big Foot had “the eyes of man; the nose of a bear; the ears of a man; the mouth of a bear; the hands of a man; the feet of a bear.”  Whew.  That’s one scary-sounding abomination.  Even at that young age, I could recognize exaggeration or outright lying, but it was an entertaining tale.

Norman and I saw the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek at the Margie Grand Theater in Harlan.  It was sort of a mock-documentary about the Boggy Creek Monster, kind of a poor man’s Big Foot.  This film had production values that would embarrass a pornographer, but it terrified me.  If Big Foot was anything like the Boggy Creek Monster, we were in trouble.

As an aside, the atmosphere of the Margie Grand made the film all the scarier.  The Margie Grand was an old theater–really old.  Plaster hung in big chunks from the ceiling.  The balcony sagged dangerously overhead.  The only time I was ever in there when the balcony was open, some kid peed off it–on to the audience below.  That’s a special effect George Lucas never thought of.  It had an old stage in front of the screen.  Norman and I would throw popcorn on the stage and watch the rats run out to eat it.  It added a certain grimy creepiness to anything you watched.  Years later, I watched The Legend of Boggy Creek on TV.  It wouldn’t frighten a preschooler.  But, at the Margie Grand, you half-expected the Boggy Creek Monster to be selling tickets.

We hunted for Big Foot.  Imagine, two small 10-year-old kids, heading into the woods, with knives on our belts seeking a beast which would tear us limb from limb.  We would stab him to death if it came to it. We were ready to take him on.

We walked the mining road, occasionally stopping to play with the old equipment.  Hey, we might have been Big Foot Hunters, but we were still kids.  An old dump truck was pretty cool.  Sometimes we encountered feral dogs or “wild” dogs as we called them.  Skinny, mangy and growling–they were damn scary.  I don’t care what kind of dog-lover you are, these mutts would scare the hell out of you. Sometimes, we’d go inside the portals of the old coal mines, an action far more dangerous than Big Foot.

I made several treks into Long Hollow to look for Big Foot.  I never found him.  Oh, occasionally, I saw his footprints or heard him off in the distance.  But, I never had the chance to take him on with my knife, which, incidentally, my cousin brought to me straight from Vietnam.

Some 40 years later, I still have my Big Foot hunting knife.

Even though we never saw Big Foot, people still had some fun with him.  I knew a kid who was obsessed with, and terrified by, Big Foot.  His father sawed huge feet out of plywood, strapped them to his feet and stomped around in their yard when it snowed.  He made tracks right up to his son’s bedroom window.  The kid didn’t sleep for weeks.  That’s a good way to assure years of therapy.

A friend of mine and I once took another kid in the woods to show him where we “saw” Big Foot.  We had another kid waiting to jump out and scare him.  Of course, we had no Big Foot costume nor were any us 9 or 10 feet tall.  Our ersatz Big Foot leaped from behind a tree screaming his best Big Foot scream and whacking a tree with a stick.  It sounded kind of like “YOWWWWWYAAHHH!!”  He had improvised his own Big Foot costume by combining a football helmet with a green Army poncho.  Strangely, it worked and our poor dupe ran screaming out of the woods.

Mostly, Big Foot disappointed me.  Honestly, I never saw him.  I also never saw any footprints.  I tried hard to imagine that I did.  I had seen the eponymous Big Foot film (known as the Patterson Film to us Big Foot-philes).  That’s what I wanted to see, but I didn’t.

Truthfully, I’ve always been a bit of a coward.  If I had really believed he existed, I probably wouldn’t have set foot in those woods.  Nevertheless, it was fun to think about it.  It still is.

Eventually, Big Foot became like the Wallins Creek Panther.  I heard for years that there was a panther in Wallins.  A HUGE panther.  After awhile, I realized that if that many people had seen it, someone would have killed it.  Big Foot–being gargantuan–couldn’t have hidden that long. Say what you will about Harlan County, but our people won’t hesitate to kill something.

Gradually, Big Foot left my consciousness.  He became a thing of memories, like 10 cent cokes and baseball cards.  When I visited my parents, I would sometimes look up toward Long Hollow and think about hiking around.  Mostly, though, I thought about how my parents must have been crazy to allow an 10-year-old to wander off into the woods.  I wouldn’t allow my kids to walk to the corner at that age.

One night, my sons and I watched an atrocious film called Yeti on the SciFi Channel.  Yeti (or Yetti) is another name for the Abominable Snowman.  This Yeti was a maniac, able to leap 40 feet in the air and cover 100 yards in a single bound.  He slaughters most of the football team from “State University” whose plane crashed on his mountain.  Eventually, the Yeti falls off a cliff.  Of course, we find out in the final frame that there were two Yetis, setting the stage for a sequel.  It did, though, bring back my memories of Big Foot.

I’m not sure what has caused the rest of the world’s renewed interest in Big Foot.  Maybe he’s just making a comeback like zombies have done in last few years.  I hope no one captures him.  Capturing is for wusses.  Stab him to death.  That was my plan.

One thing that has always puzzled me is whether there are multiple bigfoots (bigfeet?).  I mean, there have to be, right?  They re-produce, I guess.  Or maybe Big Foot is 130 years old like Old John Shell.  That might make more sense.

So, there you have it.  An actual Big Foot hunter right in your midst.  Oh, by the way, the men’s room at the Margie Grand had its toilet at the bottom of a long flight of stairs.  You had to stand on the steps to pee.  Weird.

© 2012

A Touch Of Evel (Knievel)


I grew up in the time of Evel Knievel. If you are of a certain age, that name resonates. If you are young, you may wonder why I don’t know how to spell evil. Trust me. It’s Evel.

Robert “Evel” Knievel was an icon of the 1970’s. He dressed like Elvis. He had swag before there was swag. If you were a kid in the ’70’s, you knew Evel.

Good or bad, there was only one Evel Knievel

He rode motorcycles. “Rode” isn’t quite right. He jumped things on his motorcycle. Cars and buses mostly. Actually, he attempted to jump things. He crashed a lot, and we loved it. It was said that he broke every bone in his body. That wasn’t true, but we didn’t care.

Evel could jump trucks, cars, vans–you name it.

He would do this a lot, too.

He was a staple of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I’d tune in to see him jump stuff. Secretly, I hoped he’d crash–that was far cooler than a successful landing. He’d ride back and forth in front of the ramp, popping wheelies. Then, he’d ride to the top of the take off ramp and give the thumbs up. Then, it was on!

There was movie about Evel called, appropriately, Evel Knievel, starring a pre-tanned George Hamilton.  It was a largely fictionalized story of his life.  It ended with Evel contemplating a jump across the Grand Canyon.  Even though I was a little kid, I had been to the Grand Canyon and knew that would be no simple feat.

My little brother had the Evel Knievel stunt cycle and action figure. Evel was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Evel was a rock star.  He even gave me one of my favorite quotes.  “If you were supposed to hang on to money, they’d put handles on it.”  Or something like that.

The apex of his career was the Snake River Canyon jump.  He abandoned the Grand Canyon idea but still harbored dreams of a “big” jump.  Snake River Canyon in Idaho was it.  It was hyped for months.  Evel built a steam-powered Sky Cycle which would fire off a launching platform and hurl him across the canyon.  The event was so big that it was available only on closed-circuit television (the grandfather of pay-per-view, for you youngsters).  On September 8, 1974, it happened. Alas, the parachute deployed on take-off causing Evel to crash to the canyon floor without crossing the river.  I was very disappointed, but I admired his trying.  You had to be crazy to try that.

Evel being lowered into Sky Cycle X-2 at Snake River Canyon.

Evel became so popular that he eventually starred in his own movie, Viva Knievel, an almost unwatchably awful film.  As with most bad films, the plot was a convoluted mess of drug dealers, conspiracies, fights and romantic subplots.     Evel was duped into performing a dangerous stunt in Mexico not knowing that drug dealers planned to kill him and then use his fabulous 18-wheeler to ship cocaine back to the US. Gene Kelly, at what had to be the low point of his career, plays an alcoholic mechanic and Leslie Nielsen is a villanous drug lord.  Evel actually heals a child in a wheelchair by merely visiting a hospital.  Evel also delivers several inspiring monologues on the evils of “dope.”   Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons and Marjoe Gortner all makes appearances, a bunch of stuff happens and Evel saves the day.

Viva Knievel is when Evel jumped the shark, as they say.  If it wasn’t then, it certainly occurred when he beat the living hell out of a writer named Shelly Saltman.  It seems that Saltman wrote an unflattering book about Evel who expressed his displeasure with a baseball bat.  Evel drew a little jail time and kinda faded from view.  He would reappear on occasions like filing bankruptcy or getting a liver transplant.  His influence on me was brief but strong.


I offer all this as background to explain Evel’s influence on me.  For a brief time, I wanted to be Evel Knievel wearing a leather jump suit and cape, risking my life.  His idea of jumping the Grand Canyon intrigued me.  How could you do this?  I thought a lot about it.  You’d need wings, I guess.  I got an idea.

How hard would it really be to fly?  The Evel Knievel movie came out in 1971, so I was probably 9 when I got this idea.  I would try to fly in my backyard.  Simple enough.  I just needed wings.

I thought about making some out of plywood, but abandoned that after I realized how heavy plywood was.  At my diminutive size, I wouldn’t be able to flap them fast enough.  But I didn’t give up.  What about jumping off the porch with an umbrella?  That was just stupid.  Then, I got an idea–a brilliant idea.

My little brother had an inflatable baby pool.  What if I put it on my back–kind of like a cape? I could spread it out and glide.  It was lightweight and gliding eliminated the aerodynamic impossibility of flapping hard enough to stay air-borne.  Perfect.

My test run was off the back porch.  Now, our back porch was only about 4 feet high. If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t get hurt.  I got up on the porch with my baby pool, spread my “wings” and hunkered down for the jump.  Our clothes line was about 20 feet away, and I figured that would be a good landing spot.  3…2…1…LAUNCH!  POW!  I hit the ground.  Hmmm.  I’m sure the Wright Brothers had failures, too.  The good news was that I was sure that I did sense–if only briefly–that I was suspended in air.  Not a complete failure.  Back to the drawing board.

I was a pretty smart kid, and I quickly realized that caution had been my enemy.  By using the porch, I had denied myself the benefit of (1) Being in the air longer; and (2) Catching enough air to hang up there for a while.  If I could catch even the faintest of breezes, it could make all the difference.

After some consideration, I determined that the top of the garage was the perfect launching spot.  It was probably 10-12 high and right by the clothes line.  If something went horribly awry, I could just grab the clothes line and safely swing to the ground.  If it worked–as it surely would–I would glide across the back yard and land safely on the porch, covering a distance of about 30-40 feet.

At this point, I should note that I had an older brother.  He was much smarter than I was.  If I had only consulted him, things would have been different.  I suppose I knew that and didn’t want him to crush my dreams with some brainiac explanation.

The day came.  First, I got the ladder and tossed the pool on top of the garage.  Then, I climbed up.  It’s funny how 10-12 feet doesn’t sound real high until you look down, especially if you’re about 4 feet tall.  I’ll admit that my confidence was a little shaky.  On the plus side, there was a good breeze.  The only problem was that it was blowing away from the porch toward Mr. Wade’s farm across the fence.  I really hoped that I didn’t blow over there.  He scared me a little.

I pulled the pool on my back, tightened my grip and readied myself by squatting into launch position.  I had reasoned that I needed to first launch upward, then I could bank toward the porch.  3…2…1…LAUNCH!  For split second–very split, mind you–it was working.  I was among the birds.

If you ever fall and have enough time to think about it while you’re in the air, it is terrifying.  The ground rushed up at me at around 1000 miles an hour.  Embarrassingly, I think I actually flapped my wings once in an effort to prevent the inevitable.

The ground was hard.  My ankle rolled.  I face-planted.  It hurt.  Luckily, I wasn’t seriously injured.  A scrape on my forehead and sprained ankle.  Now, I felt like an idiot, of course.  I had to pretend I wasn’t hurt since I would never admit that I had jumped off the garage with a baby pool on my back.  I hobbled around a few days and that was that.  Later, I casually asked my brother how birds could fly.  He offered me an explanation about aerodynamics.  Boy, was this all a dumb idea.  Oh, well.


I wasn’t done with my daredevil ways.  There was still the matter of jumping things.  I, of course, would use a bicycle instead of a motorcycle.  This time I had a partner, my best friend Jimmy.  Jimmy was, in a sense, my alter ego.  He was the kid who would do anything, regardless of the danger involved–and he had the broken bones and scars to prove it.  Remember how your mother cautioned you about losing an eye? He did that–a stick right in his eye.

Jimmy and I were probably 12 years old, and we both admired Evel.  I’ll admit that Jimmy had a bit more Evel in him that I did.  He had, for example, invented the game of Tire Wrestling where we would roll large truck tires at each other and try to tackle them.  It was a very painful–yet fun–game.

We tried our hand at jumping our bikes off ramps on occasion, usually just a 2 x 10 and cinder block, but I had greater ambitions.  We built a ramp in my back yard.  A real ramp.  It was made out of plywood and about 3 feet high.  It looked something like this:

Artist’s rendering of ramp design

In our past efforts we had encountered two problems.  First, was the ramp itself.  A piece of wood on a cinder block was too unsteady, plus it didn’t launch us high enough in the air.  This was now remedied.  The second was that bicycles are not really designed for flight.  They tend to be heavy in the front or at least almost as heavy as they are in the back.  This tended to cause the bike to land on its front tire, a disaster as Evel had learned on several occasions.  I needed a bike with a better design.  As luck would have it, I had one available.  My brother had a Schwinn Lemon Peeler, just about the coolest bike ever made.

The Schwinn Lemon Peeler

After studying the design of the Lemon Peeler, I was confident that it was perfect.  The larger racing “slick” in the back, the smaller wheel in the front, shock absorbers–perfect.

Jimmy went first–on his own bike.  He hit the ramp flying, shot up in the air and hit the ground in a violent crash with his bike flipping backward.  He landed almost squarely on his back.   He got up laughing, ready to for another go.  But it was my turn, and I wasn’t crashing.

I made a couple of passes by the ramp, just like Evel, and I was ready to go.  I took off, got my speed up and hit the ramp.  It felt right.

I wish there was a video of my jump.  Jimmy said the landing looked good-right on the back wheel as planned.  Here’s what I remember: The handlebars hitting my jaw and the back sprocket digging into my right shin.  I don’t know what went wrong, but I was on the ground with my head ringing and my leg throbbing.

I looked down at my shin and there was hole–right on the shin.  The hole was about an inch long and a quarter-inch wide.  It was gunked up with grease from the sprocket but there was still the white gleam of bone shining through.  Oh, and the big hunk of skin on the sprocket.

I ran to the house and looked at it.  This was bad.  I called to my older brother.  He looked at it and went into a swoon.  He gathered himself and told me that it HAD to be cleaned out.  I begged him not to tell our parents.  I then went to bathroom to find appropriate cleaning supplies.

Peroxide first.  I poured it in the hole.  It stung a little but not too bad.  The hole wasn’t bleeding, just weird-looking. (Later in life, I had horrible infection in my left leg and learned that the skin on one’s shin has very little blood flow).  The throbbing subsided, but it was still filthy.  My mother had warned me of the horrors of infection, so I dabbed it with a cotton ball.  That helped, and it still didn’t hurt. too bad.

I thought about putting Mercurochrome on it, but it seemed beyond that.  I only had one choice.  Rubbing alcohol.  I knew this was the ultimate disinfectant.  Oh, I knew it would burn some.  My mother had applied to various injuries, and it always stung.  I would soak a cotton ball and drip a little in the hole as a test.

Sometimes pain in so sudden, so severe, that it isn’t really like pain.  It’s more like something you taste-like you have taste buds in the middle of your brain.  It was like someone had driven a burning nail into my forehead.  That subsided and then it focused on my shin.  It burned so deeply that I was certain it would kill me.  I then stuck my leg in the tub and rinsed it.  That helped. A little. Forty years later, I can still feel it.

I managed to hide my leg from Mom for a few days.  The hole started to turn black around the edges and smelled funny.  That’s when I showed Mom.  She cried and carried on and then took me to the doctor.  Some strong antibiotics and I was good as new.  Of course, the leg was never the same:

Your author still bears the scar of his backyard folly

That was the end of my daredevil career.  It’s probably for the best anyway.  Evel had drug problems, money problems and was crippled up pretty bad.  All I got was the scar on my leg.  But it’s pretty cool.

 © 2012

High Marks for Groucho

Groucho Marx was a good guy.  I know this from personal experience  How, you say? First, I have to give you some context.

As you may have gathered from some of my earlier posts, I was, to put it mildly, a bit of a different sort of child.  For example, I liked Richard Nixon and hippies.  At the same time, too.  It seemed reasonable to me.

I also loved the Marx Brothers.  If you don’t know the Marx Brothers, please stop reading and leave our country.  Groucho, Harpo and Chico should be well-known to any American.  You should know Zeppo, too, but he was the straight man.  You may have forgotten him.  I could forgive you if you didn’t know Gummo.  I didn’t know about him until Groucho told me.  Groucho was the best of the bunch, firing one-liners as fast as he could speak.  He always made me laugh.  Still does (“I never forget a face.  But, in your case, I’ll try to make an exception).

In addition to general oddness, I was one of those brooding kids.  I kept my own (poor) counsel and didn’t have a lot to say unless I wanted attention (which was often).  I’m fortunate to have had great parents.  In the hands of poor ones, I’m sure I would have become a sociopath.

One of the things that my parents battled from the time I was 5 years old was school, starting with kindergarten.  I hated school, only “hated” isn’t strong enough a word.  Abhor, despise, something else has to be more accurate.  I went to a fine school with good teachers and mostly good kids.  Hated it.

The first day of first grade I cried.  A lot.  So did other kids.  One little girl’s mother decided to just pull her out and wait a year.   I can still hear that mother ask my Dad:  “Are you just going to leave him here?”  Dad’s response:  “If crying helps, let him cry.  He’s here to stay.” Indeed I was.

The good news is that I eventually stopped crying, but I didn’t stop the hating.  Couldn’t stand it.  I was a good student, as had been my older brother, and a good kid.  Teachers liked me.  I had friends.  In fact, I made one of my lifelong friends by making his acquaintance while we BOTH were crying during recess.  Misery loves company.  I soldiered on making good grades and staying out of trouble.  Good student.  Good kid.

By the time I was in the 5th or 6th grade, everyone thought I was pretty much under control.  Oh, I’d moan and carry on about school on occasion but no more than any other kid.  My parents breathed a little easier.  I was still a good student, had friends and seemed okay.  A little high-strung maybe but okay in general.  Unfortunately, it was the calm before the storm.

The storm hit when I was about 11 or 12.  Today, I suspect that school counselors and psychologists would be called in.  This was the 1970’s, though.  What started was truancy.  And a lot of it.  I would be dropped at the front door of the school and walk out the back.  What did I do on those days?  Not much.  I was what became known later as a “latch key” kid.  I’d just go back home.  One of my weaknesses is my unfounded belief that I am smarter than everyone else.  It did not serve me well in this instance.

As you might suspect, my plan was ill-conceived.  Unable to convince school officials that I had contracted the Plague, I was soon found out.  Oh well.  My parents, of course, were frantic.  How could this happen?  What was wrong with the boy?  Honestly, I can’t answer that.  Maybe it was anxiety.  Probably it was some form of depression.  Could have been some kind of half-baked rebellion.  All I know is that I aged my parents in dog years for about a year.

What does all this have to do with Groucho Marx?  Bear with me.  As I said, I was a huge fan of his.  I read books about him and watched  old Marx Brothers films whenever they were on TV.  In those ancient times before the Internet, one had to really work to find out much about people–even famous ones.  You had to read books and that type of thing.

One Sunday when I was around 11 or 12, I saw a letter someone had written to Parade Magazine asking whatever happened to Groucho?  He was still alive, of course, but was a bit of a recluse.  He was in his 80’s and lived in Beverly Hills with a woman who looked after him. Erin Fleming was her name and she was either his companion, secretary, Svengali or succubus.  It depended on whom you asked.  I was intrigued. I, too, was a bit of a recluse.  I lived in Harlan, Kentucky, not Beverly Hills, but that didn’t matter.  I thought:  “I bet he’s a lonely old guy, now.”  I had a thought.  I’ll write him a letter and check on him.  Why not?

Nowadays, you can find anyone, anywhere.  40 years ago, it wasn’t so easy.  I had no address for him, but I had ingenuity.  You see, I had written many letters to baseball players over the years and knew that all you had to do was get pretty close with an address, and the Post Office would do the rest.  I figured “Groucho Marx, Beverly Hills, California” would work.  So, I wrote him a letter.

It was the typical embarrassing fan letter, “I’m a big fan, send me an autographed picture, etc.”  I was a kid, so I could be excused, I suppose.  I also asked about his health and if he had any other siblings besides the famous ones.  I wanted him to know I was genuinely concerned with his well-being.

Well, what do you know?  He sent me a picture.  He even wrote on it “My 4th brother is Gummo.”  Here it is.

The photo I got from Groucho in 1974. I later learned that this was from the press kit for an album released in the early 1970’s.

This was very cool.  Very, very cool. I loved it.  My parents loved it. They were very impressed.  Now, my mother was a fabulous person and a great mother.  She, however, tended toward the maudlin.  She loved the picture, but it made her sad.  She imagined this old man getting a letter and having nothing better to do than sign a photo and send it across the county to some kid.  Being a depressive sort myself, I agreed with her.  She said I needed to write him a thank you note.  So, I did.

It wasn’t just a thank you note, of course.  I thought of Groucho as my friend (sort of), so I told him a little about me, where I lived–that kind of thing.  I also told him that I had read about how he dropped out of school and that I thought that was very cool.   This was my plan, too.  I told him that I refuse to go to school and that it was obvious that one could be very successful without it.

I didn’t expect a response.  I really just wanted him to know how much I appreciated the photo and that I really admired him.  I was wrong.  He wrote back.  Quickly.  Here’s what he had to say:

My letter from Groucho. I was 12. He was 84.

You might think this thrilled me.  You would be wrong.  I didn’t like it.  He had, as some might say, called me on my bullshit (forgive the language, but sometimes that’s what it is).  Funny thing, though, I kept the letter and read it over and over.  He was right–and pretty funny, too.   A good way to wrap this up would be to say that it inspired me and made me straighten right up.  That’s not real life.  I continued for some time to be a thorn in my parents’ sides until it all just passed.  Nevertheless, the letter made a great impression on me.  Here was a man who took the time to write a letter to a little kid he’d never meet.  It was nice.  Very nice. In fact, it’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.  I’m almost 50 now, and it still impresses me.

Note how someone typed “G.Marx” above the fancy engraved address.

Groucho was not generally considered a great guy.  He had difficult marriages and, by some accounts, equally difficult relationships with his children.  When he died, his son battled Erin Fleming over money from his estate–and won.  After many years of mental illness, that lady killed herself.  I guess the point of this is that there are layers to everyone–some good, some bad.

When I got older, I learned more about him.  He was a relentless letter writer.  He corresponded with everyone.  I guess was not so unusual that he wrote me a letter.  He was a friend of such diverse people as George S. Kaufmann, Dick Cavett, Alice Cooper, Elton John, Carl Sandburg and T.S. Eliot, to name a few. While he was writing letters to these folks, he found time to fire one off to a kid in Harlan County.  Cool.

A collection of Groucho’s letters (The Groucho Letters) were donated to the Library of Congress as “culturally significant.”  Groucho said that was his greatest achievement. They missed one.

© 2012

I Hate The Waltons

The whole contemptible Walton clan struggling through hard times with another meager meal.

I hate the Waltons.  Not the Walmart Waltons.   I like them.  Save money.  Shop smart.  Only at Walmart. That’s good stuff. I mean the TV Waltons–John, Olivia, John Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Jim Bob, Ben, Erin, Elizabeth, Grandpa and Grandma.  All of them.

In real life, I try not to hate people.  It’s just not good.  I have no such reservations with fictional characters.  Aunt Bee, Jenny from Forest Gump, Bruce Dern in The Cowboys, any Jim Carrey character–each of these is vile in its own way and intended to be so.  The Waltons, though, are different. They are supposed to be sympathetic, even likeable, yet I hate them.  Why?

The Depression

The Waltons lived in the Great Depression, except for them it was the Not So Bad Depression.  They had a house.  A sawmill.  A truck. They lived on Walton’s Mountain, which means they had their own freakin’ mountain, for God’s sake.  Ever see their meals? Roast pig, turkey, chicken, vegetables, pies, cakes–you name it.  My Dad grew up in the Great Depression in a house with seven kids.  Mush, that’s what they ate.  Oh, and maybe ham they cured themselves.  The Waltons lived like kings.  I hate that.

Here’s what a family with seven kids looked like during the Depression.

The Parents

John and Olivia were a lovey-dovey pair right up until Olivia got shipped off to a TB sanitarium in a contract dispute. So solemn, so wise, just like real parents, right?  Here’s how you’d be if you had seven kids with all the drama of that crowd:  John Boy would come in with one of his pressing social issues he was trying to resolve.  John would look at him and say:  “How the hell should I know?”  Or he’d say something like:  “Hey, egghead, how ’bout working at the damn sawmill for a while?”

The Kids

Okay, I know there were seven of them, but there really were only three and a half for all practical purposes.  John Boy, Mary Ellen and Jason. These were the Big Three before anyone ever heard of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.   The other four just drifted in and out occasionally.  I’m not even sure Erin was really on the show.  She disappeared for long stretches.  I never could keep Jim Bob and Ben straight.  I had to remind myself that Jim Bob delivered his lines like he’d suffered a debilitating head injury.

One would think that the casting folks could have at least tried to find kids who resembled each other to play siblings.  In a modern setting, that bunch would have subject to DNA testing the first time anyone saw them together.

John Boy is my biggest problem.  He’s like one of those people you should like, but you just can’t.  You know the type.  The neighbor who is very friendly, always speaks and will help you with anything.  You want to kick a nail into his ear.  John Boy is like that.  Almost every episode has “Here he goes, again” moment with John Boy.  He’s helping someone or misunderstood or stuck in the middle of some issue.  Lighten up, John Boy.

Earl Hamner wrote The Waltons, and I assume John Boy–being a writer–is modeled after him.  That probably explains why he dominates the Walton landscape.  Here’s a question:   Was Hamner called Earl Boy?  If not, why the hell is John called John Boy?  NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN CALLED THAT!  If you grew up in the ’70’s and shared this name, you were at some point called “John Boy.”  Even today, you will be called that.  I know from whence I speak on this one.  That is reason enough to hate John Boy.

I have to mention Fake John Boy.  At some point in the series, Richard Thomas (John Boy) decided to leave to pursue other acting opportunities in the most ill-conceived career move since Pernell Roberts abandoned the Ponderosa to embark on his storied movie career.  Fake John Boy was worse than the real one.  He wasn’t John Boy.  Oh, he was nauseatingly earnest like the real one, but you couldn’t help but yell “FAKE!” when he was on the screen.  Okay, maybe I’m the only one who did that.


Look, I know generations of families used to live to together.  I guess that was realistic enough.  Man, these two had their noses in everything.  I hated them.

Wil Geer played Grandpa.  He was a hippie and friend of Woody Guthrie, which means I should have liked him, but no, I didn’t.  I think it’s because the writers couldn’t figure him out.  Was he comic relief?  Was he a wise old sage?  Was he just a pain in the ass like some old people?  You never knew for sure.  To some extent, he suffered from a 1970’s phenomenon known as “The Hip Oldster.”  In the ’70’s, TV writers, being largely devoid of original ideas, wrote every older character the same.  They would be hip, oversexed, “cool” people.  They rode motorcycles and said naughty things.  Sometimes, that’s what they did with Grandpa.  Sometimes, he was the voice of reason.  Mostly, he just annoyed me.

Ellen Corby was a little more tolerable as Grandma.  She actually acted liked an old lady.  Surly, hard to deal with, opinionated and not particularly pleasant.  Now that I think about it, I kinda of like her.

The Godseys

Ike Godsey owned the General Store.  Other than a few passing references to “hard times,”  Ike seems to have thrived through the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II.  His store was FULL of stuff.  He was probably the richest man in Virginia by the end of the war.

Cora Beth wouldn’t have been so fired up about “Mr. Godsey” if he’d owned this Depression era store.

He married Cora Beth, an impossibly haughty friend or distant relative of Olivia’s who showed up to sponge off the Waltons’ inexplicable largesse.  Ike decided to marry her.  Even John recognized what a pain in the ass Cora Beth was and tried to talk Ike out of marrying her.  Like a lot of folks, he didn’t listen and married her anyway.  She continued to preen around for years.  Oh, and she always called Ike “Mr. Godsey.”  I hated that.

How about have Erin turn up pregnant and marry Ike in a shotgun wedding?  That would have been a ratings bonanza!  Plus, Erin would have actually played role in the show.  No, we got Cora Beth.  I hated her.

The Pathos

At the heart of The Waltons was some pitiable, sad story with a comparatively uplifting ending, usually because of the superior intelligence or morality of the Waltons themselves.   No family is THAT good, except maybe the Cartwrights.  I cared nothing for it and always wanted the Waltons to get put in their place.  It never happened.  I hated that.

The Ending

Good night, John Boy.  Good night, Mary Ellen.  Good night, Jim Bob.  Blah, blah, blah.  That’s how the show always ended.  Hey, were they all in the same freakin’ room?  That’s weird, especially since they were able to say good night to their grandparents without raising their voices.  I shared a room with two brothers when I was little.  It’s not fun.  Just once–once, mind you–I wanted someone to say:  “Hey, shut the hell up!  I’m trying to sleep!”  No one ever did.  I hated that.

Here’s the kind of house the Waltons would have lived in. I’m guessing they wouldn’t have been quite so chipper at bedtime in this place.

At this point, you’re asking:  “If you hate the Waltons, why do you know so much about them?”  First, that’s really none of your business.  Second, I watched a lot of TV as a kid.  A lot.  I didn’t care what I watched.  I watched the Waltons to just hate them.  Sometimes, my Dad would watch with me and ridicule them.  I liked that.

Occasionally, I’ll see the Waltons on TV and tune in for a few minutes.  It doesn’t take long for me to be disgusted.  I always hope I’ll catch the episode when their house burned.  At least I think that happened.  Maybe that was just my own fantasy.

Good night, John Boy.

© 2012

Festival of the Poke

Poke in its natural state.

It’s that time of year in Harlan County, Kentucky. Time for the Poke Sallet Festival. It’s been many years since I attended the Festival, but I have many memories of it.

“What is poke?” you ask. It’s a weed. It grows out in the woods. It doesn’t look like anything you’d eat. It also doesn’t taste like anything you’d eat. Legend has it that folks would go into the woods, pick it and put it in bags. Bags of course were–and still are–called “pokes.” You cook it down–often boiled–and slop it onto a plate. A green onion and cornbread usually completes the presentation.

The foul weed prepared for eating.

I’ll admit that I’ve only eaten poke a couple of times. It’s foul. It smells bad when it cooks and on your plate. I think it is served with an onion to give the diner something to kill the taste. It’s kinda like kale, only more pungent and weedier tasting. Like all greens, it also has a violent laxative effect when eaten in large quantities.

I don’t know what in the world “sallet” is, except a mispronounced word.  Sallet isn’t any easier to say than “salad,” but I guess that doesn’t matter, does it?  Besides, poke isn’t eaten in a salad, as far as I know.  It’s just cooked down into a slimy, nauseating mess.

Why am I writing about poke? Because I enjoyed the Festival when I was a kid. For several years, my father was the chairman of the Poke Sallet Festival. I was a little kid, and that impressed me. Dad seemed like a big deal. I liked that.

I don’t know why Harlan County chooses to honor poke. Seems like every Kentucky county has a festival for something. I guess Harlan wanted something, too. Coal was probably too obvious a choice.  We don’t have much else.

There are a lot of things from childhood that I don’t remember well. But I remember the Poke Sallet Festival.  What do I remember?

Gladys Hoskins: She was the long time boss of the Harlan Chamber of Commerce and lived across the street from us. I don’t know if she was Chairperson or President or what, but she was the boss. She and Dad worked every year to bring it all together. I can still see Mrs. Hoskins smoking a cigarette and–always–dressed to the nines.

Stone Mountain Park: It might have been Stone Creek, but it’s where the Festival was held when I was a kid. It was somewhere up around Smith. It was a couple of shelters but pretty nice–or I thought so. Eventually, things moved to downtown Harlan which makes more sense. Plus, there’s slightly less chance of getting killed in town.

The Red, White and Blue Band: There was always music at the festival. One year, The RWBB played. Never heard of them? They were, as Dad said, “a bunch of hippies.” It was the late 1960’s/1970’s early and that’s what they were, I guess. Actually, they were from Clover Fork in Harlan County. The lead singer was Merle English, one of my Mom’s students at Evarts High School.  Someone told me they played Acid Rock. An old man said they looked like “dope fiends.”  I loved them. I’m pretty sure no one else did. As you might imagine, the bands were usually country or bluegrass.  Years later, English became Max English and a successful lounge singer.  True story.

Jimmy Skidmore: Jimmy liked to dance. He danced to whatever the band played. He could dance the hell out of any song. No partner required. He was a nice guy and had a helluva good time. I’m sure today’s more politically correct world would frown on this. That’s a shame. He had fun and everyone enjoyed it.

Alfred: I don’t his last name, but he could sing. He also didn’t have front teeth, leaving him with prominent fang-like canines. But, like I said, he could sing. He would usually sing Six Days on the Road or Okie From Muskogee.He would belt them out. Good stuff.

The Governor: Governors Louie Nunn and Wendell Ford would come to the festival. Ford was great. He would eat poke, shake hands and pose for pictures with everybody. Nunn was good, too. One time they presented Nunn with a portrait painted by a local artist. It was pretty good, but for some reason Louie’s face was painted with a scowl. When it was unveiled, his reaction was roughly the same look. Even as a small child, I knew it was funny. Dad laughed himself silly.

Steve Lyon: He was Mrs. Hoskins’s son-in-law. He was a hippie–or at least I thought he was. He had LONG hair and a beard. In case you haven’t noticed, I was a bit fascinated by hippies. By “a bit,” I mean a lot. We didn’t have hippies in Harlan, but I’d seen them when we went on vacation. Steve was definitely a hippie. Anyway, he was also a musician. A pretty good one, too. He played at the Festival one year. He played the electric organ and sang a song about throwing his mother down the stairs. Even my Dad was impressed. Much like the Red, White and Blue Band, he wasn’t the audience’s idea of entertainment, but he was good.

Virgil Q. Wacks:  Virgil Q came to the Festival to film highlights for his weekly show Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time. His show was part advertising, part travelogue.  He filmed around Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.  He used an old-fashioned, windup camera with no sound.  He would narrate the film on his show.  His trademark was the extreme close up where he would zoom in on his subject until the picture blurred out. He would also refer to most people as “smiling” and “genial,” regardless of how unfriendly or even dangerous looking his subject was. Virgil Q always excited the crowd, because you knew you might be on television.  It’s hard to describe Virgil Q’s show, but we loved it. Any time I hear the old song Happy Days Are Here Again, I think of Virgil Q.  By the way, I don’t hear that song all that often.

The Melting Pot:  The Festival was a true Harlan County melting pot.  People from all over the county came to it:  Loyall, Harlan, Wallins, Evarts, Cumberland, Benham, Lynch, Chevrolet, Cawood, Cranks, Smith, Punkin Center, Ages, Verda, Lejunior, Lenarue, Catrons Creek, Pathfork, River Ridge, Holmes Mill, Baxter, Keith–every town, community, camp and holler was represented.  Harlan County is sparsely populated but 50 miles wide.  You can live your whole life in the county and never see some parts of it.  The Festival was where everyone gathered.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been to the Festival.  By then, it was already firmly established in downtown Harlan. The poke dinners were served at Jay’s Restaurant.  I took a friend of mine with me.  He was running for some office and wanted to go to Harlan to meet people.  This was during the last gasps of the United Mine Workers Union in Harlan, and the UMW was out in force.  A lot of union folks were dressed in camouflage and fatigues like some militia.  My most notable encounter was with local character and raconteur, Rubber Duck.  I introduced him to my friend, whereupon The Duck said:  “Buddy, can you believe  I got run over by truck?”  My friend looked at The Duck’s scarred up face and said:  “Well, yeah…I can believe it.”  The Duck responded:  “It takes more than a truck to kill The Duck!”  That’s about all I remember, but, man oh man, did that make me laugh.

Back to the poke.  I don’t recommend it.  I think it’s something people ate back when there wasn’t much food.  You’d find something growing and eat it.  If it didn’t kill you, it was food.  My Dad said he used to eat mush, which he described as “not fit to eat, but that’s all we had.”  Poke is like that.  Now, I know people who eat poke and claim to like it.  Maybe they do.  I’ve known people who ate souse and other vile foods and claimed to like them, too.

I’m sure poke has all sorts of nutritional value–antioxidants and whatnot.  I’ve heard people say that it can cure various ailments.  That may well be true.  If you say it is, I really have neither the knowledge nor the energy to argue with you about it.  I still don’t like it.  Nevertheless, it makes for a helluva festival.  Corbin, Kentucky has a Nibroc Festival, which is just “Corbin” spelled backwards.  I guess Harlan could have the Nalrah Festival, but that sounds like some Middle Eastern deal.  Poke it is and should forever remain.

Based on the photos I see of the modern Poke Sallet Festival, it doesn’t resemble the one of my youth.  There are bands with real stages and sound equipment.  Sometimes, all we had was a guy with a banjo.  Honestly, it’s probably much more entertaining now.  Plus, you don’t have to drive all the way out to Smith.  It looks like there are multiple venues for entertainment, too.  Of course, there’s still the poke, but I bet you can get lots of other stuff to eat now, too.  Progress is a good thing.

There a lot of things I don’t remember about my childhood–birthdays, school events, holidays.  I remember a lot about the Poke Sallet Festival, so it must have been pretty good–all except the poke part, I guess.

© 2012

Colonel Earl

“Why do men fight?” In his old age, my Dad would often ask that somewhat rhetorical question. I knew not to answer. He would answer it, explaining that men fight because they’re trained to fight–no other reason. I always saw the military through my Dad’s prism. He was a veteran of two branches of the military and two wars. He was as proud as one could be of his service. I was born in 1962, perfect timing to avoid military service. The draft was suspended before I was 18, and there were no wars while I was a young man. Besides, Dad told me that I wasn’t military material anyway.  He was right.

Almost everything Dad told me about his service was in the last 5 years of his life. Prior to then, I’d heard a few stories, like the time he debriefed a couple of pilots who spotted UFOs over China.  He also told a few stories about the time he spent in the hospital in WWII. Otherwise, like a lot of men of his generation, he didn’t talk all that much about it.

In January of 2003, Dad had a stroke while at a meeting. He passed out, but came to almost immediately. Because he seemed disoriented, a friend of his called me and said “Earl had some kind of spell. You better check on him.” I called Dad, and he seemed fine but very tired. I made him promise to see the doctor in the morning.  I talked to Mom, too, and she said he seemed okay.

Turns out that Dad had a major stroke that night. Oddly, he had no severe physical effects from it, but it did affect his mind. At first, I couldn’t tell any difference, but one day shortly after the stroke, my mother called and said I needed to make the 3 hour drive to Harlan to see them.  It was, she said, “a crisis.”

My mother was given to hyperbole, and I assumed this was more of the same. She had fallen about a week before Dad’s “spell” and was still pretty sore. I was talking to them both daily, and he seemed fine to me.  Nevertheless, I headed down there.

When I got there, Mom was on the couch and Dad was in his usual spot in the kitchen. I sat down with him and asked if he was okay. He said: “Did I ever tell about Korea?” He then drew a map of Korea and told me about it. In detail. He drew the map from memory, and it was remarkably accurate.  After about an hour and half of listening, I told Mom:  “Okay.  You’re right.  Something is wrong.”  After a few doctor’s visits, we found out he had a significant stroke.  As with a lot of my Dad’s ailments, he was an unusual patient.  His doctor at the University of Kentucky told me that out of the thousands of stroke patients they see each year, they get 3 or 4 like him–those who suffer severe strokes without physical damage.  The good news was that the doctor told me he would have these spells of “delirium” where he would talk and talk, but that it would get better.  It did.  In the meantime, I learned a lot I had never known.

Oh, and my mother was right.  It was a crisis.  Her fall led to a series of issues for her, and she was dead by May.  Dad was alone now, and we had much more time to talk than ever before.  He wore me out.  As with a lot of things, what at first was maddening turned out to be a blessing.  For the next five years, I got to know him in a way that I never had up until then.

Dad was born on January 19, 1925 in Evarts, Kentucky, the fifth of seven children.  He had four older sisters–Emma, Pauline, Mabel and Mildred–and two younger brothers–Jack and Paul.  His father, Walker, was a coal miner and later ran a gas station.  Dad grew up poor.  He said “You know how people say they were poor and didn’t know it?  WE knew it.”

Dad joined the Navy in late 1942. He turned 18 on January 19, 1943. He didn’t finish his senior year at Evarts High School, but he graduated anyway. They would do that for you in those days. My Granny accepted his diploma. He was 5′ 5″ and weighed 115 pounds.

1943. Dad at the Great Lakes Naval Station.

Dad went to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. The last time I spent the night at Dad’s house, he said to me–completely out of the blue–“Did I ever tell you about playing the bugle?” No, he hadn’t.  Here’s what he said, almost word for word:

“When we got to Great Lakes, they asked if anyone could play the trumpet. Of course, you know I was an outstanding trumpeter. I said I could, and the Petty Officer said ‘You play Taps at lights out.’  Well, buddy, I knew I could do that. So, I played Taps at lights out every night. Then, I’d go to my bunk, square away my bugle and listen to everyone cry themselves to sleep. Every night. We were all children, and we all wanted was to go home.  How ’bout that?”

Dad saw no action in the Navy. He did get in a plane crash in Florida.  The transport plane took off without refueling and came down right after take off.  Dad was unhurt, but he saw one man decapitated.  When he got to Panama, he got sick. Very sick. I’m not sure what he caught, but he always said it was either malaria or black fever or both. He also got jungle rot, which ate up his feet. That pretty much ended his chances of seeing action in the Pacific. When he was in the hospital, nurses used to bring people to see him to show how young he was. As Dad liked to say, “I was a just a little fella.”

Dad living it up with some nurses in the Navy.

The Navy ended up training Dad to be an airship rigger. That’s right, airships–blimps. Dad noted many times that he couldn’t have been trained in a more useless vocation, although Goodyear did offer him a job. By 1946, Dad was out of the Navy.  With the future of airships not looking promising, he had to do something with his life.

Dad never hesitated to credit the GI Bill for his success in life. All he’d ever aspired to was a “good job outside.” By that, he meant at the coal mines but outside, not underground. Instead, he got to go to college. He went to the University of Kentucky and immediately signed up for Air Force ROTC.

Dad had enjoyed the military life but didn’t like being an enlisted man. He wanted to be an officer, and college gave the chance to do that. He graduated with a degree in geography and as a Lieutenant in the Air Force. He wasn’t a pilot. He trained to be an intelligence officer. He didn’t think there would be another war as soon as Korea, and he didn’t think the pilots would have much to do during peace time.

Well, Dad ended up in Korea, where he was an intelligence officer. He was attached to the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing of the 5th Air Force.  He oversaw spy missions.  When the war ended, he came home aboard a morgue ship. It was the only ship heading out, and he took a ride along with 1500 dead soldiers.  “It was a quiet voyage,” as he liked to say.

Dad sailing home from Korea, the epitome of cool. I have that scarf.

Dad returned to Evarts.  He had met my mother just before leaving for Korea–she was a school teacher at Evarts High School.  They married in 1957 and had three children.  Me, my older brother Tom and younger brother Richard.  Richard died in 1987 at 20 years old.  Dad weathered that like he did everything else.

Dad went on to serve 30 more years in the Reserves. Most of his service was as a Liaison Officer for the Air Force Academy. He recruited potential cadets for the Academy. He loved every minute of it.  We also got to visit the Air Force Academy quite a few times.

Dad had a variety of jobs, including Health Department Inspector and field agent for the old Kentucky Water Pollution Control Commission.  His greatest success was as one of the first environmental consultants for coal companies.  Nothing, however, topped his military experiences.

With all his military service, one would think Dad was a super-patriot. Not really. He was always proud of the military and his own service, but he had a very cynical view of wars and those who start them. He did not believe that there were war “heroes.” He told me that there were two types of “heroes”: One was a person caught in a dangerous situation who just did what he was trained to do. The other was a crazy man who just didn’t care. Dad’s view never wavered. Soldiers do what they are trained to do. Period.

Here’s an example of Dad’s view.  He served in Korea with a pilot about whom a movie was made. What Dad remembered about him was having to tell the pilot that he would be court-martialed if he got arrested again. As Dad said, “He wasn’t a hero. He was crazy.”

Here are some of the things Dad drove home to me, over and over:

  • Soldiers aren’t driven by patriotism. That might be why they are in the military, but it’s not what drives them. Discipline and training are their motivators. You are trained to follow orders, and that’s what you do.
  • No one wants to die for their country. They’ll do it, but not because they want to do it. Everyone he knew wanted someone else to die for their country. He met a lot of injured in the hospital. He said not a one of them thought it was worth it.
  • World War II was a miserable experience for almost everyone involved.
  • Nothing–nothing–got his back up more than politicians talking about soldiers “defending freedom.” Dad’s view was that wars may be about freedom–but maybe not. They’re about whatever a politician decides is worth it.
  • He despised George Patton. He said Patton was a “glory hound.” Dad told me that when he was in the Navy, he “heard about Patton slapping that boy in the hospital,” alluding to the famous story of Patton slapping a shell-shocked soldier. “Slapping was too good for that SOB. They should have shot him.” I said something like: “Geez, Dad, the poor guy was in the hospital.” Dad: “I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about Patton!”
  • He also wasn’t impressed with General MacArthur, either.  “A soldier who can’t follow orders isn’t a soldier.”
  • Never, never underestimate the importance of the GI Bill.  Without it, he never goes to college, and we all end up suffering as a result.

You’d be wrong to think my Dad didn’t love his country or the military. He did, warts and all, but he taught me to never overlook the warts.

He drew me maps of Korea and showed me where they flew spy missions.  He told me detailed stories right down to the names of those involved and even dates.  His stroke had scrambled up his recent memory.  He could remember most things, but he got the timing of things out of order.  His military career, though, stayed sharp.

Without intending to do so, Dad learned to compensate for his memory problems.  He kept notes.  He had a billing paying system that required him to keep every bill and envelope, but it worked.  He kept track of his medication on a legal pad that he kept with him at all times.

I also found out some less serious things.  When he was at Great Lakes, he used to like to visit the “Old Sailor’s Home.”  He said:  “I would sit and listen to the old salts tell their tales of the days of wooden ships and iron men.”  Wooden ships and iron men.  That had always been a favorite expression of Dad’s.  I never knew that he heard it at the Old Sailor’s Home.  He told me many times that, if he couldn’t take care of himself, to just send him to the Old Sailor’s Home.  Of course, he didn’t really mean that.  The one time my brother and I talked to him about “assisted” living, he responded with “I will die in this house!” (Which he almost did, by the way).  That was the end of that.

What Dad enjoyed most was being Colonel Earl, as a lot of folks in Harlan County called him.  He would have been General Earl, but he wouldn’t attend War College because he didn’t want to be away from us to do it.  He loved attending events where he could wear his uniform.  When I was a kid, we would visit the Air Force Academy in the summer.  I would love those times when someone would salute him.  Very cool.

Lest you think he was a hard-core military father, he wasn’t.  He wasn’t The Great Santini.  He was a kind, doting father who probably should have been much tougher on me than he was.  He had expectations of us, but no one ever praised our accomplishments more.  He could make any trivial success seem like the greatest thing in the world.   One of his favorite expressions was to say that one had a place at “the roundtable.”  This meant you had arrived.  He was always telling me that I was at the roundtable, even when I didn’t feel like I was even in the room.

In 2005, my brother convinced Dad to visit San Francisco, where my nephew lived.  I’ll admit that I was not in favor of this.  I could imagine Dad getting lost in an airport or just being generally difficult taken out of his element.  This is a guy who couldn’t stand to spend a single night away from his home.  As usual, I was dead wrong.

Dad toured the USS Hopper that week during Fleet Week.  Because he was a retired officer, the ship’s bell rang when he boarded and he was treated like a celebrity.  He absolutely loved every second of it.  He also had dinner at the Top of the Mark restaurant where he ate in 1953 when he returned home.

Dad aboard the USS Hopper in 2005, no doubt telling this young man of the days of “wooden ships and iron men.”

Few people knew how bad Dad’s health was the last few years of his life.  We would visit his cardiologist, and the doctor would be amazed that Dad could walk up steps or even breath unaided.  The day before he died, Dad and I talked. He was in bad, bad shape and lucid for only brief periods.  He said:  “I think I might have a death rattle going on now.  I’m not scared.  I’ve lived a life mortal men only dream about.  Don’t you go moping around about your poor old daddy.  This is how this is supposed to go.”  He died the next day.  I spoke to him on the phone only minutes before he died.  The last thing he said:  “I feel fine.”  You know what?  I think he did.

Dad’s last big military honor was his funeral in May of 2008.  The Air Force Honor Guard from Wright Patterson Air Force Base served as pallbearers.  A bagpipe played Amazing Grace.  The Harlan County Honor Guard was there, too.  One of the men presented me with a Bible.  He leaned over and whispered:  “Your daddy was a good buddy to all of us.”  At the end, a bugler–unseen, mind you–played Taps just as three jets flew over Resthaven Cemetery.  I thought about that little fella from Evarts playing Taps at Great Lakes.  Mostly what I thought was that Dad would have LOVED it.

© 2012

Love and the Color TV

Your author pictured in the middle being forced to watch black and white TV. I can’t even look directly at it. December 1962.

“This is the happiest day of my life.”  Thus I spoke one day in 1967.  I was 4 years old and talking to a television salesman.  Why was I so happy?  My family had just purchased its first color television.  Color TV, my friends.  It was that simple.  I had seen Batman and Get Smart with their tantalizing “In Color” graphics at the bottom.  Until that day, I could only dream of what that really meant.  Lost in Space, too was in color, as were many other TV shows.  Even at 4 years old, I knew that a life-changing event was unfolding.

My first color TV. No, it wasn’t crooked. That’s the photo–I think.

I think the TV was an RCA.  Could have been a Philco or Zenith.  Of course, it had a round screen.  No remote control, either.  The only remote control I had ever seen was on an episode of Dennis the Menace.  It was roughly the size of a brick.  No, our new TV had a dial.  That was okay, because I liked to sit so close to it that I could just reach up and turn the channels as needed.  My mother told me that sitting close to the TV would cause me to die of radiation poisoning, but I was willing to risk it.  (As a side note, she said standing beside the TV would give one a mega-dose of deadly radiation waves.  I never bothered to find out if any of that was true. After all, you couldn’t see the screen).

TVs used to be complex.  They were called TV “sets,” for some reason.  If you removed the back, the cabinet was full of vacuum tubes of every size imaginable.  Those tubes held all the magic, especially the big one–the picture tube.  I was never allowed behind the TV.  My mother made it clear that to venture to the back of the TV was almost sure to result in sudden and fatal electrocution injuries.  I did, however, have occasion to watch the TV repairman work on it.

Oh, yes, there were TV repairmen.  They would come to your house and work on the TV.  They carried large cases full of vacuum tubes.  Once, I mistook the Jewel Tea Man for Mr. Simms, the TV repairman.  I furiously castigated him for being so late to fix the TV.  I think I was 6 years old at the time.  I was serious about the TV.

TVs used to be full of these. They held all the magic.

Remember vertical and horizontal “hold” dials?  If you do, you’re as old as I am.  For the uniformed, these were tuning knobs you could use to adjust the picture if the screen image began rolling or zig zagging. “DON’T TOUCH THOSE DIALS.”  If you messed up the picture, you might never get it right again.

TV was dangerous in those days, too.  If you broke the picture tube, the TV would explode, killing everyone in the house.  “DON’T HIT THE SCREEN WITH ANYTHING.”  There was the poor boy who–for reasons that remained obscure–kissed the screen and died immediately.  My mom never said whether he was related to the boy who died under similar circumstances kissing a toaster, but it seems likely.  Perhaps my unbridled love of the TV made mom concerned that I would get carried away with passion.  At least I understood the toaster story, given that I liked to stare at my reflection in it like a small Narcissus.

TV stations used to go off the air at midnight, some at 11:30.  They’d usually sign off with The Star Spangled Banner.  You’d just have white noise or maybe a test pattern until 6:00 a.m.

Black and White Test Pattern. What this was supposed to test or why it had an Indian on it are beyond me.

I don’t know the purpose of the test pattern, but someone used it to test something every night.  The old TVs were powered by the magic of the cathode ray:

Diagram showing the basic set up of a TV picture tube.

To this day, I don’t understand any of this.  To me, here is how it works:

Your author’s basic understanding of television technology.

We all know the power of television.  Dress up any troglodyte and put him on TV enough, and–PRESTO!–he’ll be elected to public office.  Have you ever been on TV?  Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re just a little better person than you were before?  People will say:  “Hey!  I saw you on TV!”  You could be on TV eating a live squirrel and people would still think:  “Hmmm.  There’s something different about him, now.”  The first time I was on TV, I was probably 8 years old.  It was the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival Parade.  My brother and I were riding in a convertible.  I think it was John L. Belcher’s car.  If not, it should have been.  It was the kind of car John L would have driven.

Virgil Q. Wacks filmed the parade for his TV show, Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time.  If you’re not familiar with Virgil Q, I can’t describe his show.  It was a kind of an advertising/travelogue program.  He filmed us in the car and there we were–on TV.  His film collection is archived at East Tennessee State University where we live forever.

There were many disadvantages to growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, but TV wasn’t one of them.  We had cable.  That’s right–cable TV in the 1960’s  It was the only way to get a TV signal in the mountains.  (As a side note, I am the owner of 1 share of Harlan Community Television, Inc., the longtime local cable company).  In those days, TV channels ranged from 2 through 13, with the little understood UHF channel to boot.  We had signals on all the channels on the dial:  Lexington, Kingsport, Knoxville,  Asheville.  We might have been Ground Zero in the War on Poverty, but by God we won the TV War before it even started.

I loved that color TV.  Eventually, the dial (or channel changer, as I called it)  fell off.  As most families did, we replaced it with a pair of pliers until it could be located, a minor inconvenience.  Sometimes, I would lie on my back and watch the TV upside down just for the hell of it.

I spent many hours in front of that TV. Yes, Batman was in color.  Spectacular color, too.  By the end of the ’60’s, everything was in color! When I was around 8, I started watching sports on that TV.  Hey, kids:  There used to be one Major League Baseball game a week on TV.  It was called, fittingly enough, The Game of the Week.  It came 0n Saturdays, and I always watched.  There was also an NBA Game of the Week.  My earliest sports memory is Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers vs. Lew Alcindor and the Bucks.   You rarely saw some athletes at all.  The only time you’d see some players would All-Star games or playoffs.  The NFL, being ahead of its time, always had a couple of games on Sundays.

I am part of the TV Generation.  I knew the TV schedule every night of the week.  When I was 3 years old, I surprised my parents by counting to 100 one night.  When my mother asked where I learned that, I could only reply:  “From the TV.”  I was told–and still am–that TV will rot my brain.  Perhaps it has.  I know the lyrics to the theme for Gilligan’s Island, yet I will sometimes forget my children’s birth dates.

One of the calling cards of the intellectual is the refrain that “I don’t watch television.”  I’m not an intellectual, and I do watch TV.  Always have, always will.  I watch sports on TV.  I watch movies on TV.  I watch sitcoms and true crime and reality shows.  I’ll watch anything for a few minutes.  I’ll watch Toddlers & Tiaras just to get outraged.  I’ll watch shows about 900 pound people.  I’ll watch reruns of King of Queens just to marvel at how it could have been on the air for years.  It’s as funny as a truck load of dead babies, but I’ll watch it.  I’ll watch the news, the weather, the History Channel.  I’ll watch Road House for 500th time.  I may know more about the Beverly Hillbillies than any person alive, and I’m proud of it.  TV series, miniseries, short films, previews, reviews–everything.

That first color TV didn’t stay around all that long.  Within a few years, my father enjoyed some financial success, and we had TVs everywhere.  We even got a remote control Zenith.  We had a TV in our bedroom (technically, it was my brother’s).  We had a TV in the kitchen, too. The old TV was relegated to the basement where we continued to use it, but it was now like an old horse put out to pasture.  Like a horse, it sat in that basement for many years after it quit working entirely.

Now, I have monstrous TVs.  46 inch, 60 inch, plasma, LCD, high def–you name it.  Hundreds and hundreds of channels–all at my finger tips.  I not only have a remote control, I have a pillow which doubles as a universal remote. None of them, though, ever thrilled me like the first one.  I’ve loved them all, but none of them–none–ever made me declare that it was the best day of my life.

One day, there may some disaster which destroys society and forces us to start over.  The first thing I’ll do is try to figure out how to build a TV.  TVs–like ships and airplanes–work on some kind of magic, I’m sure.  So, I don’t where I’d start, but I’d get right on it.

Oh, and it would have to be a color TV.

© 2012

To All The Dead and Dying

Those are people who died…died.  They were all my friends, and they died.

People Who Died, The Jim Carroll Band

This is about death.  Not mine, of course, since I’m not dead or in imminent danger of dying (as far as I know).  At this point, you probably have stopped reading.  Who wants to read about something so depressing?  A lot of people, really, because we all think about it, we deal with it and–eventually–experience it.

Why I am thinking about it?  Not sure.  An uncle of mine recently died, and it got  me thinking about it.  He died in May, which is also the month that both my parents died.  That’s apropos of nothing, other than it happened.  My middle son was also born in May.  A bunch of other people were, too.

Could be because I’m an American, and Americans love death. Okay, that may be an overstatement. I don’t suppose we LOVE it. But it damn sure amuses us. Kurt Vonnegut observed that if you die on TV, “you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.”

We like death in our movies and video games.  Why do you think there’s a Saw V, for God’s sake? We have the death penalty, which seems to otherwise be the exclusive province of countries we consider evil.  Speaking of which, we aren’t even averse to war anymore. We want peace and will turn the planet into a graveyard to achieve it.

Some death is noble. Some not. Die in a war, and every future generation of your family will know your name. Get stabbed by a hooker, and you’ll be pruned right out of the family tree. I had an ancestor die of “swollen testicles.” That’s not a disease, but syphilis is.  Don’t know his name, but I know uncle Ollie died on the USS Houston.

We’re also the World’s leader in producing serial killers. We don’t get enough death through disease, war, executions and accidents. We kill for sport, too. No wonder I think about death.

Once you reach a certain age, you’ve seen a lot of people die–grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, co-workers–you name it.  In my life, I’ve lost both parents, a brother, two aunts, five uncles and a close friend.  That doesn’t even include distant relatives, co-workers and acquaintances.  You live long enough, and you’ll get your fair share of it, too.  Don’t live long enough, and you’ll just be dead.

Even if you haven’t personally experienced it, you can live–or die–vicariously by picking up the newspaper or surfing the internet.  Death is a common topic.  We run obituaries, some brief and to the point.  “Joe Smith died yesterday.  His funeral is today.”  Some are long tributes to the deceased, documenting their every accomplishment, great or small.  We have an unquenchable thirst for news of murders and accidents, the more hideous the better.  Death is everywhere, I suppose.

I think I’ve learned a few things about death, although what I’ve learned may apply only to me.  Indulge me.

Death may the greatest of all human blessings


I don’t know much about Socrates, other than he was supposed to be smart.  I went to law school where they use the “Socratic Method” of teaching.  So, I can also assume that he was a bit of a pain in the ass.  I hope he had better material than this quote to comfort the grieving.

Most people will say that they don’t know what to say to a grieving person.  Welcome to the club, friends.  Almost NO ONE knows what to say.  If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know this, because folks have said these things to you.  Here are some things which don’t help.

“I know how you feel”:  No, you don’t.  You don’t know how I feel about anything, really.  So, how could you know how I feel about this?  If you knew how I felt, you wouldn’t have said that.

“He’s gone to a better place.”:  Really?  Exactly how do you know?  I wasn’t even thinking about THAT.  If you’ve been dead, I’ll listen.  I mean REALLY dead, not just flat-lined for a couple of minutes.  Dead, as in taken to the funeral home, embalmed and buried dead.  If you’ve done that, you might have some helpful insight.  Otherwise, no one knows where anyone goes when they die.  Plus, even if you THINK you know, maybe my relatives all go straight to Hell.  Let’s just not talk about it.

“Life is for the living“:  My dad used to say this a lot.  Honestly, I don’t know what it means.  Of course, life is for the living.  Dead people don’t do a whole helluva a lot, being dead and all.  I think it’s supposed to mean, “Okay.  Show’s over.  Move on.”  Not helpful.

“Death is just part of life.”  This and other philosophical meanderings about the bigger picture mean nothing.  Yes, I agree.  It’s part of life.  The part that sucks.  Thank you.

“You’ll always have your memories”:  I had those before he/she died.  It’s not like I just got them.  I’m not grieving because I can’t remember things.  That would be a completely different problem.  In fact, if I DIDN’T have those memories, this wouldn’t be so tough.

So, what should you say?  “I’m sorry” is good.  Simple, to the point.  No way to be offended by that one.  “What can I do?”  That’s sort of useless, since you can’t do anything, but it’s a nice thing to say.  Honestly, there’s not much more to say.  And it’s better than saying nothing.

I wanted to tear my teeth out.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

–Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

I can’t talk about death without talking about grief.  Real grief drains your soul.  It takes your life and flattens it.  Nothing looks or sounds right.  Food doesn’t taste good.  Time warps and you lose track of hours, even days.  It’s different for everyone.

Most people know about the Kubler-Ross seven stages of dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These were observed in dying patients and have subject to debate over the years.  Some extrapolate these stages to the grieving process.  I’m not one of those people.

I suppose people can go through some or all of those stages, but some people are more resilient than others.  Myself, numbness has been an immediate reaction followed by sadness.  I agree with C.S. Lewis who observed that grief was much like fear.  I want to run from it, but there’s really nowhere to run because it hangs with me.

I don’t know that I have become depressed over grief, as much as I’ve dealt with a heavy sadness.  It’s like wearing clothes that are just too heavy.  It wears me out by the end of the day.

I can say that I’ve been angry more than once over death.  A close friend died in the prime of her life, suddenly and without warning.  This seemed unfair–and it still does.  I raged against it, but it didn’t change.   I guess I’ve come to believe that death is actually very fair.  It comes for all of us.

Eventually, though, I do agree that acceptance settles down on me.  I’ve grieved both poorly and well.  I’ve held on far too long to some of it.  Thankfully, it loosens its grip over time.

That’s about me.  What about you?  I don’t know how to tell people to grieve.  If you’re upset and crying and raging, that’s okay by me.  Hell, you’re supposed to be upset.  That’s what we do.  Be upset about it.

What I don’t have is any good advice for how YOU should grieve.  It’s tough, and it’s miserable.  Some folks benefit from counseling.  Others just tough it out.  Some never get past it, and that’s the worst.

You should always go to other people’s funerals.  Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.

Yogi Berra

We have to talk about funerals, those odd ceremonies where we give our loved ones a send off (although they’re really already gone, of course).  I’ve been to a lot of funerals.  Some have been quite good.  Others have been lacking or had downright odd happenings:

  • A lady who was one of the finest people I’ve known had the strangest funeral. After the obligatory bible readings and songs, it morphed into Open Mic Night.  Anyone who wanted to say something could take the stage.  One guy–possibly under the influence of hallucinogens–said death was like walking through a “water wall just like in the movies.”  What movies had he been watching?  One man was so overcome by emotion that most of his comments were confined to odd barking noises as he choked back tears. One eulogized by telling HIS life story.  Others just babbled.  Three hours later, it was over.  As one person said:  “When I die, I hope people have good things like that to say about me and that they keep it to themselves.”
  • I had a friend in high school who died in a car wreck.  His funeral was at a Pentecostal or Holiness Church (one of those fiery denominations).  The preacher observed:  “Every Sunday we heard the putt-putt-putt of his car’s engine as he pulled into our parking lot…THE SAME CAR THAT TOOK HIM TO HIS DEATH!!!!”  There was much weeping and wailing after that zinger.
  • Saw a man come out of the closet during a eulogy.  There’s really not much more to say about that, other than that it was peculiar timing.

By the same token, I’ve been to some excellent funerals, ones where you leave feeling better about the situation:

  • Once, I attended a memorial service for a baby.  It was like taking a beating to show up.  Beyond sad.  The minister, however, was outstanding.  The gist of his sermon was:  “We don’t know why this happened.  I don’t have an explanation.  It really is bad, but we will all go on.”  That may not sound very inspiring, but it was much better than a bunch of meaningless platitudes.  It was honest and all that could be said.
  • A few years ago, a friend’s mother died.  She was in her 90’s, and her death was no shock to anyone.  Her minister simply told stories about her.  Although I never met her, I came away feeling like I knew her.  Folks laughed at the stories, and everyone seemed to be uplifted by it.
  • Another friend’s mother died, and my friend was given the tough task of her eulogy.  He hit it out of the park.  It wasn’t maudlin or sad.  He just told what his mother was like and what she meant to him.  Good stuff.
  • My dad was a retired Air Force officer and had a military funeral.  A bagpipe played Amazing Grace and a bugler played Taps at the end.  Just as the bugler finished the last note, jets screamed by overhead.  He had an honor guard from Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  I still get chills thinking about it.  He would have loved it!

What have I learned from this?  First, a funeral should be respectful but short.  Second, it’s okay if it’s not a sentimental tear-jerker.  Third, simple is good.  A prayer, a song or two, a nice eulogy.  Thank you and drive safely.

What might wonder about MY funeral (or even look forward to it).  I don’t care.  I’ll be dead.  Whatever comforts those left behind is fine with me.  Now, I’d like to be cremated if for no other reason that to prevent people from gawking at my body.  “Oh, he looks so good.”  That should always be qualified by “…considering that he’s dead.”  If I am buried, I don’t care if my casket has an extra firm mattress or silk lining.  Remember–dead men don’t care.  Burn me.  Put me in an urn or scatter my ashes somewhere.  Actually, they’ll be someone’s else’s ashes at that point.  They can do whatever they want with them.

Please don’t bury me down in that cold, cold ground.

Please Don’t Bury Me, John Prine

Speaking of funerals, I love cemeteries.  I’m not sure why, but they fascinate me.  Ornate monuments built-in memory of the dead.  My own parents have a fabulous black marker.  So does my brother.  There are religious markers, plain ones, domes, obelisks, tiny stones, benches, huge vases, above ground tombs–you name it.  This doesn’t even include niches, columbaria, scattering gardens and mausoleums.

We visit them.  We talk to the dead people.  We bring them flowers.   Hell, we’re nicer to them dead than we were when they were alive!  Why?  Again, I have no answers.  Personally, I don’t get a connection to my dead loved ones at the cemetery.  I always think it’s just weird to see my parents’ and brother’s names on tombstones.  Other people get a lot out of it, though.  That’s fine with me.

One reason I don’t want to be planted that way is that I don’t want anyone thinking they’re obligated to “visit” me.  My parents are buried three hours from my home.  Honestly, I don’t go visit their graves.  Oh, if I’m in the area, I check on their graves, mostly to be sure no one has kicked over their headstone.  (I was assured that it is sufficiently anchored to prevent any such vandalism).

Well, again I’ve babbled on about a topic on which I have no expertise.  If you take this as advice, be warned:  It could be very harmful.  Of course, as you’ve often heard, we’re all dying.  Maybe so, but as Josey Wales (he killed a LOT of people) said:  “Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”

© 2012

How To Raise Your Children…or Not

Nothing generates more unsolicited advice than children.  Or, I should say “raising” children.  “Raising” connotes that this is a relatively simple task similar to growing tomatoes.  If you’ve ever grown tomatoes you know that they can turn out all kinds of different ways.  Some are big and beautiful and you beam with pride when your neighbors see them.  Others wither on the vine.  The neighbors see those, too, but you’re not so proud of those. Most are just kind of average.  You did your best.  Oh, well.

I have children–three of them, in fact. All boys. I was present at their births.  I’ve stayed up with them at night, fed them bottles, changed their diapers and read books to them.  I’ve played with them outside.  I’ve talked to them and paid great attention to them throughout their lives.  I notice when they grow.  I love them and I think they love me.  All of this qualifies me to advise anyone on how to raise THEIR children.  What?  It doesn’t?  Wait a second.  People have given me all kinds of advice about school, discipline, good manners, sports, and all other aspects of parenting.  You mean they are NOT experts?  Good Lord, why would they feel so free to impose their views on me?  It’s because they have children, and they know what to do.  Or so they say.

I can understand why parents might seek advice.  We all want to raise scholars, saints, athletes and world leaders.  No one intends to end up with Levi Johnston or Snookie.  Also, some children have such profound physical, mental and emotional problems that advice must be sought.  It is those that offer advice that must be ignored, at least by me.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about parenting or, more accurately, parenting advice.  It’s likely to be offensive, but so are my children on many occasions.  What do I know?  As much as you do, it turns out.


You have a child!  It’s a miracle.  It’s a blessing.  It’s a gift from God.  These and many other platitudes are sure to be thrown your way.  We’re all happy for you.  Really.  Good job.

Here’s the deal.  Procreation is not that impressive.  Sorry, but that’s a fact.  Take a look around, folks.  All these people you see got here through roughly the same process.  Oh, now some of us had to work at a little harder and spent time wondering why we had such difficulty doing something which countless teenagers accidentally accomplish everyday. But, by and large, it’s just biology.  Dogs, cats, wolverines, chimps, etc., all reproduce. Maybe that’s miraculous, too.  Possibly, it’s a miracle than anyone reproduced with ME.  I’ll grant you that one.  Overall, it’s just not that big a deal.

Octo-Mom has 14 children. FOURTEEN!  I don’t call that a miracle.  I call that science gone horribly wrong.  Charles Manson’s parents reproduced.  Good job.  So did Charles Manson.  Let’s don’t wear ourselves out patting ourselves on the back.


If you have kids, you know the thrill of a new baby.  It’s just great.  Really.  They’re cute and funny and you just love them.  At some point, though, the work starts.  Usually, right after someone hands you the baby.

We took our first child home and laid him in the floor and just looked at him.  What do we do now?  It’s not a like a car.  They don’t give you an owner’s manual or an 800 number to call if something goes wrong.  They just say:  “Here’s your baby!  It’s a miracle!  Good luck to you.”

One good thing is that babies are tough–a lot tougher than they look.  You can drop them, although I don’t advise testing that theory.  (The second day my oldest son was home I dropped him but caught him by the neck before he hit the floor.  Tough little booger).  You can, like we did, fail to realize that even wet diapers must be promptly changed.  A horrible case of diaper rash will draw your attention to your negligence.  They won’t starve quietly.  So, you’re bound to feed them often.  These basic maintenance issues are much like caring for a pet.  You quickly learned just enough to keep the baby going.  That’s a great first step.

This phase passes quickly. Baby isn’t an “it.” Baby  is a him or her. Baby has a name. Baby has a personality.  Baby is a little person. With a big personality.  He can talk. He has opinions. He schemes. He manipulates. He charms. He lies. He’s a human. Now, the hard part starts…and never ends. This is also when the advice starts. Good luck with that.


“If I had a kid…” Say no more. You don’t have a kid. You don’t know what you’d do. Might as well say “If I owned a camel …” or “If I were an astronaut…” You don’t and you’re not. Shut the hell up.

Similar is “If he were my son…” This comes from someone who has a kid and presumes he knows what would help your son. Here’s the deal. He’s NOT your son. You haven’t seen his best and worst. Good days and bad days. You don’t know his strengths and weaknesses.  Clearly, if he were YOUR son, he’d be like you and know everything. Plus, if he were your son, he’d be your problem, and I wouldn’t need to hear about it.


I love my kids. I also like them. They’re fun and funny. I like talking to them and hearing about what they’re up to. They often impress me, but they’re not perfect.  They’re  not angels nor do I expect them to be.

Some folks have kids who ARE little angels. They are perfect, at least that’s what their parents say. That may well be true. If so, you can’t help me. My kids are human. They are capable of great things. They can also disappoint me. They don’t take all my advice. They don’t listen. Their judgment is often very poor.  In other words, they are like me.

I suppose some children never disappoint.  That’s probably because their parents have no expectations of them and don’t give a damn about what they do.  The rest of us get frequent reality checks.

Perfect kids don’t do things like back talk, lie, break things, drink alcohol, smoke, curse, have sex, take drugs or just generally annoy their parents.  Their parents will tell you that.  They are the ideal.  They also have parents who apparently aren’t paying much attention to what they are doing.  Lucky dogs.


Some folks want things the way they were. “Back in my day….”  Things are better now. They just are.

If you are fond of social media as I am, you’ll see posts like this:

Growing up, I had only one toy, and it was a rock.  I wasn’t allowed in the house and had to play outside all day.  If I spoke at the dinner table, I had to eat with the dogs.  I said “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”  I was hit in the face if I back talked.  I didn’t make eye contact with adults.  I grew up respectful of everyone and did no wrong ever.  If you had great parents like mine, repost.

Wow.  It sucks to be you.  Oliver Twist had it better.  These kinds of posts are based upon nostalgia.  Webster’s Dictionary defines nostalgia as an “excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”  We all believe, on some level, that things were better in the past.  In the parenting advice world, it translates into:  “This is how things used to be.  And they were just better.  If we all acted like this, everything would be better.”

Boy, oh, boy.  This is wrong in so many ways, I don’t know where to start.  First,  if all our parents were so good at raising kids, why have so many of us done so poorly?  Didn’t we learn anything? With such great parents, why do we need any advice at all?  Second, some people have horrible parents.  Maybe you did.  You probably don’t know that because they were the only parents you had.  Third, how’d you turn out?

Folks of my generation largely live in a fantasy world where everyone was raised by Ward and June Cleaver.  Hey, I knew people who had HORRIBLE parents.  Awful people.  These scumbags don’t deserve Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or even their next birthdays.  Here’s some advice that might be helpful:  Tell me how awful your parents were and how you learned from it.  THAT would be impressive.


If you hit your kids, I guess it’s none of my business unless you hurt them.  In that case, it’s everyone’s business.  It wasn’t always that way, but it is now.  That’s a good thing.  If you hit your kids, just don’t tell me that I need to do that, too.

I’m not perfect.  I’ve swatted my kids on the rear end. I’ve thought about strangling them…just a little bit.  I think that’s why babies are so cute.  Even when I’m enraged at my kids, I remember those little babies.  I wouldn’t strangle them. I’ve just reached the point that I’m sure that hitting my kids will help my relationship with them as much as hitting my wife will help my marriage. Readers of this blog know that I have, in fact, fought a woman, but that wasn’t a domestic dispute.

The few times I’ve spanked my kids I was mad.  This bothers me.  Why?  Because I was mad.  I get mad at many adults and hitting them often seems like a good idea, but I won’t do it.  One, I fear that I’ll be hit back.  Two, I fear I’ll get in trouble.  With kids, I don’t fear that.  That’s nice.  So, it’s okay to hit someone too small to defend himself and too much under my control to get me in trouble?  This isn’t a lesson I want my kids to learn.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”  That’s not a Bible verse.  Sorry, but it’s not.  It comes from a 17th century poem called  Hudibras. The Bible actually says “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Proverbs 13:24.  At best, it’s a metaphor.  It doesn’t say to beat the crap out of your kid with a rod.  Discipline your children.  Simple stuff.  By the way, the Bible also says that if your son is disrespectful you should have him stoned to death.  Let’s take it easy on the ancient parenting suggestions.

We grew up with a kid who was raised by animals.  One day he comes to the house, and his back is covered in bloody welts.  He was beaten with a stick.  I’ll never forget what it looked like.  Now, would it be okay if it didn’t draw blood?  I’d say not.  I’d like to tell you that his story turned out okay, but it didn’t.  You don’t get to choose your parents.

I got spankings and whippings with a belt and a switch.  Why?  Because that’s how my parents were raised, I guess.  Never anything abusive, but it happened.  I guess I don’t trust myself enough to come at a kid with a weapon.  If you do, fine with me.  Just don’t tell me that’s what I need to do.


When I was a kid, here is what I thought of adults:  Most of them seemed unhappy and bitter.  They were overly critical and suspicious and wanted to put an end to any fun I might be having.  Now that I’m 50 and my generation is now the ruling class, here is what I think of adults:  Most of them seem unhappy and bitter.  They are overly critical and suspicious and want to put an end to any fun I might be having. My friends and I vowed to never by like the adults, but we that’s exactly what happened.

Kids today.  Whew.  Listening that awful music.  Look at their clothes!  I wouldn’t have been allowed out of the house like that.  They’re disrespectful, too.  My parents wouldn’t have put with all that back talk.  Irresponsible, too.  We had chores and work to do.  Look at how lazy they are!  Does any of this sound familiar?  Of course, it does.  It’s what we all say now.  It’s also what our parents said about us.

Here’s a little test.  Did you, at any time before adulthood, do any of the following?  Smoke; drink; have sex; curse; lie; cheat; steal; take drugs; skip school.  If so, you were part of the problem.  Consider, too, that you listened to terrible music, dressed like an idiot and were generally a pain in the ass to your parents.  If you didn’t do any of that stuff, congratulations.  I hope you enjoyed those years being chained in your parents’ basement.

Here’s the point.  If any of your advice is founded upon a belief that kids today are so much worse than we were, you’re wrong.  Even my generation, raised by superior parents in superior times did the same stupid things that kids are doing now.  Lighten up.


If you really are a parenting expert, write a book. Better yet, write a book about my kids.  I might even read that one.  It could contain helpful advice. My sons are three different people with three different personalities. Different strengths and weaknesses.  They were all raised the same but didn’t turn out the same. Chances are your book wouldn’t give me a different result.

Here’s MY parenting advice.  Do the best you know how to do at the moment.  Kids and their issues come at you at the speed of light.  Just do something.  Parents are great at acting put upon.  “It’s the toughest job in the world.”  I really doubt that.  Crab fishing looks a lot worse than parenting.  How about the guy who empties porta-potties?  Those jobs would suck.  Parenting is snap compared to that.

I think I had really good parents. They weren’t saints, but they did the  best they knew how to do. My Dad once told me: “Forget all these father-son fantasies.  Find out what your kids like and learn to like it yourself.”  THAT was good advice.

What about my kids?  They’re alright.  The good has far, far outweighed the bad so far.  They say I sound just like my Dad, which I guess is good.  They can aggravate me and disappoint me sometimes.  I’m sure I do the same to them.

So, everyone can (and will) continue to give parenting advice.  I’ll just nod and go on.  Gotta go now.  I’m sure one of my kids is doing something I need to deal with.  I’ll check back if I need any advice.

© 2012

Richard Kent Williams (March 16, 1967 – September 26, 1987)

August 11, 1987. Richard (left) and our parents help me celebrate my 25th birthday. Six weeks later, Richard would be dead.

Richard Kent Williams was five years younger than me.   He was my brother, and he’s been dead for over 25 years now–more than half my life.  “Been dead” isn’t exactly right.  He is dead.  It took me a long time to say that.   Passed, passed away, gone or lost were much gentler terms.  Eventually, I could say that “he died.”  Something about the past tense took the edge off it, as though one could die and that be the end of it.  This ignores the obvious:  those who die remain dead.  They are dead.  That’s the case with my brother.  He would be middle-aged now, but he isn’t.  He was 20 when he died, and 20 he remains.

Richard died in the early morning hours of September 26, 1987, but I’ve always thought of the 25th as the right date.  That was his last day.  He was a student at the University of Kentucky.  He came home to Harlan County for the weekend.  He had a rented tux in the back of his car.  He was going to be in wedding.  His last day.  He didn’t know it, but that was it.

My phone rang at 4:47 a.m. on the 26th.  It was my older brother, Tom:  “There has been a terrible tragedy….”  The rest is now just white noise.  Richard was dead.  He died in the parking lot of a movie theater in Harlan, Kentucky.  It was a handgun accident.  The details have long since become insignificant if, in fact, they were ever significant.  I called my parents.  As I expected, my mother couldn’t speak.  My dad spoke in an eerie, flat tone, almost devoid of emotion.  He said to hurry home but take it easy.  My dad was a tough guy.  I had never seen him upset.  Angry maybe but never emotional.  He just sounded tired.  Very tired.

I left Lexington with my girl friend (now my wife of over 25 years).  I’m sure I was in a form of shock.  Bursts of emotion were followed by almost a catatonia.  I just kept driving.  I didn’t know what to expect at home, but I knew it would be bad.  After our 3 hour drive, we got to my parents’ house.   I recall that there were a bunch of people at the house.  The first person I saw was my Dad.  He was standing in the kitchen, hands on the countertop staring straight down.  He turned and looked at me, his eyes glazed over and red.  “I can’t take this.”  That’s all he said.  This was worse than I expected, because if he couldn’t take it there was no chance for me.  Honestly, I don’t know what happened those few days until the funeral.  I know that Dad and I got Richard’s car from that parking lot.  We picked up his clothes from the funeral home.  There was a visitation and a funeral.  Lots of relatives came from near and far.  That’s about all I remember.

In my favorite film, Apocalypse Now, Col. Kurtz describes a massacre and says:  “I cried like some grandmother.  I wanted to tear my teeth out.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”  That perfectly describes those days.  None of us thought we’d survive it, but we did. We all did.  The world didn’t stop.  The mail ran.  Banks were open.  People went to work, to school.  Our world had stopped spinning, but the rest of it was humming along.  At some point, the inertia of that world carried us forward.  Dad said that going to Harlan was like “running the gauntlet.”  He was so weary of people telling him how sorry they were.    Mom stayed home, which was pretty much what she always did anyway.  One day, Dad told me that “there’s no such thing as not taking it.”  I knew he would move on.  For Mom, it always seemed to shadow her but she, too, continued on.  It got worse before it got better, but it got better.

We moved on.  A month after Richard died, I was sworn in as an attorney.  Four months after that, I got married.  Tom’s son, who was 8 at the time, is now a grown man in his 30’s with 2 kids of his own.  I have 3 sons, the oldest of whom (whose middle name is Richard)  is now older than Richard was when the clock stopped on him.  Mom died in 2003.  Dad in 2008.  Our grandfather died in 1998. Our Uncle Jack, who provided us with so many laughs as kids, died In 2013. We’ve also lost other aunts and uncles in that time.  Life did go on.  Cell phones, satellite TV, HD TV, the Internet, email, texting, another space shuttle explosion, 9-11, three wars, UK won three NCAA titles, and many, many other things happened.  The world is a much different place than it was in 1987.

Those who die young become tragic figures, often mentioned in hushed tones.  Sometimes, they are cautionary tales.  Sometimes, they are examples of the unfairness of it all.  My mother had two uncles who fell into this group.  Uncle Ollie was 18 when died on the USS Houston in the Battle of the Tonkin Sea in 1942.  Uncle George died when he was 8 of liver failure.  He died in the car while his parents were driving him to a specialist somewhere up North.  “Poor little George” was how he was described.  I hated hearing about him.  It was just too sad.

Richard became “Poor Richard,” part cautionary tale, part unfairness.  In hindsight, I came to view his death as a sign of the ultimate fairness.  No one is immune from pain.  We’ll all get a dose of it.  It isn’t my intent to offer anyone grieving advice.  I have no magic pill.  We all grieve, and  I suspect that it’s different for each person.  I don’t know how  other folks feel, and they don’t know how I feel.  We all soldier through the best we can.  I lack the abiding faith that some have that the dead “go to a better place.”  Perhaps that’s because I’ve never heard anyone say:  “Well, Grandpa just went straight to Hell.” Seems like everyone goes to a better place.   Some days I think of “a better place.”  Other days, I just think dead means dead.

Other times, the dead become saints.  Now, this is usually reserved for older people, but let’s be serious.  Not everyone was a great person who will be missed by all.  As my Dad said of a friend of his:  “His headstone should read:  He will not be missed.”  Yet, we canonize our loved ones.  It understandable.  But, c’mon, someone has to go to Hell, right?  Just not anyone I know.

You may be asking:  What is this blog about?  Here’s the deal:  Richard isn’t a tragic figure nor was he a saint.  He was a 20 year old young man who died.  But, before he died–and stained his memory–he was just a person.  I forget that sometimes.  I’ve made a point with my kids to never treat him as a shadowy figure, although to them that is surely what he is.   Here’s what he was:

  • He was born on March 16, 1967.
  • He was a small guy 5′ 5″ 130 pounds.
  • He looked like my Dad.
  • He was funny.
  • He could be short-tempered and profane.
  • He could fight.  I mean REALLY fight.  You’d need to be twice his size to have a chance.  He had lightning quick hands and could throw punches like a boxer.
  • He was one of those guys who never got injured.  My middle son is like that.
  • He was probably the strongest person in the United States for his size and age.  Seriously.  He was the national high school powerlifting championing and collegiate powerlifting champion at 114 pounds.  He could bench 260 pounds and deadlift 400.

Sports Illustrated, July 1985

  • He once put a block of wood in one hand and drove a two inch nail into a 2×4 with two  hits.  Try that.
  • He kept his teddy bear in his bedroom until the day he died.  Teddy stayed in my parents house until Dad died.
  • He was a huge fan of every 1980’s hair band
  • He liked guns
  • He liked cats
  • He was fiercely loyal to his friends.  He fought with them and for them.

Those are just a few things.  Frankly, my memory fades over time, but I can still hear his voice.  I can see his smile and hear him laugh.  He was just a regular guy.  Sometimes, I wonder what he would be like now.  Of course, that’s a futile exercise.  I might as well wonder what I would be like if I had been born in the 1920’s.   I wasn’t, and he won’t ever be 40 or 45 or 50. He’s 20.

August 11, 1978. Richard (and Teddy) and Tom celebrate my 16th birthday. Teddy would “live” in that house for another 30 years.

Like most folks my age, I’ve had my share of grief.  My parents died.  A close friend died unexpectedly.  Nothing ever hit me like Richard’s death.  It still resonates but doesn’t really hurt.  It’s  like getting hit with a hammer.  It would always hurt, but if you got hit with it everyday, you’d get used to it.  I got used to it over time.

Tom and I serenade Richard on his first birthday. March 16, 1968

I would like to say that his death seems like yesterday.  It doesn’t.  It seems long ago, enveloped in the fog of a bad dream.  His life, though–that’s still fresh. He were kids together.  I was his big brother, and I always will be.  I wonder some time if he’d recognize this old man.  He’d probably give me grief about all this gray hair.

When Dad died in 2008, the jacket Richard was wearing when he died was still hanging in the hall closet.  My brother and I just stared at it.  Then, one of us decided to just toss it in the casket with Dad’s body.  Oh, the teddy bear was still there, too.  Teddy got a ride in the casket, too.  After that, some 20 years after Richard’s death, it seemed over.  After all, we wouldn’t bury Teddy for nothing.  Richard is dead, but that’s okay.  It happens to all of us.  It just happened to him too soon.

© 2012