So…Where Are You From?

I’m always interested in where people are from. Maybe it’s because it allows me to end a sentence with a preposition without fear of reprimand. After all, no one asks “From where do you hail?

Maybe it’s a Kentucky thing. One thing you often hear in Kentucky is something like this: “He ain’t from around here. He’s from somewheres else.” Seems like we’re always asking people where they’re from–Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, etc. You might even be from Louisville, which is part of Kentucky in only the most technical, geopolitical sense.

Everyone is from somewhere. I’m sure someone famous said that at some point. I live in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington is a college town and, as such, most of us Lexingtonians are from somewhere else. I suspect that’s true of most college towns. In fact, one of the first things you want to know when you meet someone here is “Where are you from?

Where you are from is important. Okay, it might not be as important as where you are. How you got from where you’re from to where you are is even more important. After all, that’s your life. It’s certainly more important than where you’re going since you might never actually get there.

When I’m out of state, I’m from Lexington. For example, I was in Newberry Springs, California a few months ago and a guy named Shaggy asked where I was from. I said “Lexington, Kentucky” without hesitation. Truth be told, I’m not from Lexington. I only live there. Actually, I’m from Harlan, Kentucky.  If you were familiar with Harlan, I’d never tell you I’m from Harlan, though. Harlan is a town, and I never lived there. I’m from Harlan County, a much broader designation. To a fellow Harlan Countian, I’m from Loyall. I might even specify Rio Vista or Park Hill. If you knew anything about Loyall, that would make sense.

My father was from Evarts, also in Harlan County. My Mom was born in Detroit but grew up on Island Creek and in Cumberland. So, she was from Pike and Harlan Counties.

I’ve probably met people from all 120 counties in Kentucky, which is an ungodly number of counties. By contrast, California has 58 counties. Texas, on the other hand, has 254. I’ve met very few people from either of those states.

I’ve traveled through a lot of small towns in America. They all have one thing in common. Someone is from all of them. Some folks are so well-known that the town claims them.

In Kentucky, we claim Abraham Lincoln who has born in Hodgenville. Nevertheless, Illinois is The Land of Lincoln. Honest Abe is one of those folks claimed by a lot of places. Will Rogers is like that. He’s all over Oklahoma. If you fly into Oklahoma City, you might land at the Will Rogers Airport. If not, you’ll land at Wiley Post Airport. Oddly enough, Rogers and Post died in the same plane crash but not in Oklahoma. Claremore, Oklahoma honors Rogers even though he wasn’t really from Claremore. He’s also not from Vinita, Oklahoma, which has a statue of him near what used to be the world’s largest McDonald’s.

I read an excellent essay by Ander Monson, The Exhibit Shall Be So Marked, in which he notes the generic qualities of small towns. In my travels, I’ve noticed the same thing. Small towns are small everywhere. There are scandals and gossip, good people and bad. They all have an air of folks living easy and hard. Being there because they love it and because they can’t leave. Not all small towns are friendly. Some people are friendly and some won’t give you the time of day. It’s not all Norman Rockwell.

With the exception of geography and accents, I’m not sure that you could tell the difference between Prestonsburg, Kentucky and Commerce, Oklahoma. That’s not entirely correct. The major difference is that Mickey Mantle is from Commerce. Folks in Commerce know it, too.

IMG_7572

Brantley, Alabama, knows it’s the home of Chuck Person aka The Rifleman, former Auburn University basketball star and long time NBA player. Brantley is an otherwise quiet, nondescript town that has seen better days.

Brantley loves Chuck Person.

Brantley loves Chuck Person. I’m sure they love his less famous brother Wesley, too.

 Brantley isn’t a lot different from Binger, Oklahoma, home of Johnny Bench. Schools, churches, stores, city hall and better times long ago.

JB's sign needs straightening

JB’s sign needs straightening

A lot of people are from Oklahoma. Eric, Oklahoma is the home of Roger Miller. How do I know? Well, they have a Roger Miller Museum, just as Binger has its Johnny Bench Museum.

IMG_7795JB Mus

Twenty-five or so years ago, I was in Yukon, Oklahoma. Someone told me that Garth Brooks was from there. I had never heard of him. Of course, that changed. Now, no one has to tell you that Garth is from Yukon. They’ve painted it on their water tower.

Elk City, Oklahoma is notable not for elk but for a huge oil derrick in the middle of town. It’s also the home of Jimmy Webb, who wrote the  MacArthur Park and bunch of other great songs.

Canonsburg, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a Perry Como Museum, but they have a Perry Como statue in a down town that could be anywhere in the country, except for the Perry Como statue. Perry doesn’t stand on Bobby Vinton Boulevard, though. That would be awkward.

Your author and Perry Como.

Your author and Perry Como.

Canonsburg is close to Washington, Pennsylvania, home of Jerry Sandusky–no statue of him.

I’ve been to Wailuka, Hawaii on the island of Maui. Baseball player Shane Victorino is from Wailuku, but they don’t have sign or statue or museum for him–yet.

Carthage, Missouri has a beautiful courthouse. It also has both Marlin Perkins and Old West outlaw Belle Starr as natives.

Edd Roush was from Oakland, City, Indiana, through which I happened to drive when I was lost once. If you don’t know Edd Roush, don’t feel bad. He was one of baseball’s great stars in the early 20th Century. That’s why they have a park named after him.

I once spent a couple of days in Newark, Ohio, which is pronounced “Nerk” from some reason. I didn’t spend as much time there as Wayne Newton did. That’s where he’s from.

Cuba, Missouri is the City of Murals. As far as I can tell, no one is from Cuba (which can’t be literally true), but Bette Davis and Amelia Earhart visited Cuba–at least according to the murals. I’m not sure if they were together, but that seems unlikely.

Kennesaw, Georgia is a nice town. It’s best known as the town with an ordinance requiring everyone to own a gun. I didn’t have a gun when I was a there, but I was just visiting. Thankfully, I didn’t get caught. A lot of people are probably from there. And they’re packing.

You can get some good barbecue in Clinton, Oklahoma. Country singer Toby Keith is from Clinton, at least that’s what a waitress told me. Why would she lie about that? She wouldn’t.

I ate lunch in Needles, California on a 115 degree day. It was probably that hot when Charles Schulz lived there, but I don’t think he was born there. Then again, maybe he was. Snoopy’s brother Spike is from Needles, too.

What about Loyall? We have Jerry Chesnut.  Jerry is a country music songwriter of some renown. He’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He even has a website. It’s no wonder we named a road after him.

Other people are from Harlan County. Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones was a famed basketball star at the University of Kentucky. Legend has it that Nick Lachey was actually born in the county, but we don’t have a sign or anything for him.

Kentucky claims a few people. Muhammad Ali is from Louisville. So was Hunter Thompson, but Louisville is a big city. Lots of people are from big cities. It’s a numbers game.

Charles Manson is from Ashland, Kentucky. As far as I know, they haven’t built a museum or park in his honor. Maybe after he dies….

Jesse James wasn’t from Kentucky, but he robbed a bank here. So did Willie Sutton. Col. Sanders was a Kentuckian, but you probably knew that. He wasn’t a criminal.

Larry Flynt is a Kentucky boy, from Magoffin County. Unrelated but just as interesting, famous White House correspondent Helen Thomas was from Winchester. We also claim Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lawrence and Ashley Judd, so we have are fair share of beautiful people, too. Flynt and Thomas are not two of them.  You probably wouldn’t guess that any of these folks were Kentuckians (except for Flynt), but they are.

Some people have a hard with identifying where they are from. Military people are a good example. They’re from all over the place. Some folks are embarrassed about their origins and will only vaguely answer with something like “Eastern Kentucky” or “back East.” If you push them, you can get the details.

Of course, accents can give you away unless you are from Kansas or Nebraska or some other accent-less land. I have an Eastern Kentucky or Appalachian accent. I knew a woman from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and found it odd that she would say “eh” of “hey” at the end of sentences. I found out that was a dead giveaway of the UP.  Similarly, folks from New England speak with an odd brogue and say things like “aayuh” during casual conservation. There’s no hiding where they are from.

We’re all from somewhere, even without road signs, museums and parks in our names. I guess most of us are proud of where we’re from or, at the very least, we don’t lie about it. Taking pride in it does seem a little odd given that we really have no say in the matter. Oh well… so, where are you from?

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2014

MY PERFECT POKE SALLET RECIPE

Spring is just around the corner. Soon, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will bloom and young men’s thoughts will turn to love. Some, though, will think of poke.  I’m one not of them, but I’m sure some people are ready to pick poke or whatever it is you do to harvest it.

Some of you ask: What the cuss is he talking about it? What is poke? I’ve written about it before. Read this. It will tell you all you need to know.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky–the very heart of Appalachia. We like poke so much that we have an annual festival in its honor.

When I originally wrote about poke, I drew some mild rebukes for my perceived criticism. Well-meaning folks told me that I was misguided. It has caused me to reconsider my views.

My mother was a home economics teacher, and she taught me more than a little bit about cooking. I have now applied these skills to the issue of poke. Rather than dismiss this weed as foul and unpalatable, perhaps I should find a way to create my own culinary masterpiece. Thus, I present the perfect poke recipe.

First, you’ll need a mess of poke. How much is a mess? One pokeful should be sufficient. You’ll also need a pot of water, a raw onion and vinegar.  A double sink would also be helpful.

Thoroughly wash poke in cold water-or don’t. It doesn’t really matter.

Much like marijuana, remove all stems. In fact, smoking some of it while you cook may not be a bad idea.

Bring water to boil.

Place poke in boiling water.  You may also place poke in which poke is gathered into boiling water for added flavor.

Boil poke.

When poke reaches a consistency somewhere between algae and human baby excrement, it may be done. The smell should also approximate algae and/or fecal matter.

Drain poke in colander.

Look at poke.  Vomit in poke-tainted side of sink (This is where the double sink is important.  You do not want poke vomit in part of sink where dishes may be placed).

CAUTION:  DO NOT LEAVE PREPARED POKE WITHIN REACH OF CHILDREN OR PETS, LEST ACCIDENTAL INGESTION TAKE PLACE.  IN THAT EVENT, NATURAL GAG REFLEX SHOULD INDUCE IMMEDIATE VOMITING.  IF NOT, FEED VICTIM MORE POKE.

Open window and throw poke water into yard.  WARNING:  Poke water may contaminate ground water supplies or result in the actual growing of poke.  The author disclaims any responsibility for roaming hill jacks picking poke in your yard.  

Place prepared poke in toilet.  Flush repeatedly until all contents are expelled.  In cooking, this is known as “eliminating the middle man.”  In this case, the “middle man” is your digestive system.

Eat raw onion washed down with tall glass of vinegar in effort to erase memory of poke cooking.

So, there you have it. Bon apetit!

©www.thetrivialtroll.com

Here’s Something Funny: How I Talk

I talk funny.  No, I don’t have a speech impediment.  If I did, it’s likely that very few people would mention it.  Then again, maybe they would.  Still, I talk funny, and I know it.

I didn’t always know it.  For 18 years, I thought I sounded just fine, better than most, in fact.  I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, the very heart of Eastern Kentucky.  Harlan is Appalachia at its finest.  We’re proud of our heritage.  We’ll tell anyone who’ll listen.  Unfortunately, many times those people won’t understand a damn word we say.

When I was 18, I went to college but not very far from home.  I attended the University of Kentucky, a mere 3 hours (at most) from Harlan County.  There were a lot of Eastern Kentuckians at U.K., and those folks became my friends.  As one friend from Bell County (Harlan’s next door neighbor) told me “We’re like Indians.  We’re lost when we leave the reservation, so we have to hang together.” So we did.

I met people from different places, and they talked funny.  They had accents.  We did, too, but not so bad.  I knew plenty of people in Harlan with accents, heavy mountain accents.  They were hard to understand even for a native.  I didn’t sound like that.  Or so I thought.

When I was 19, I met a girl from Louisville–Kentucky’s big city.  She broke the news to me about my accent. For example, I pronounced the word “light” all wrong.  It has a short “i”, not the long, flat “eyyyyyye” I used.  In fact, I was practically saying “lat” instead of “light.”  Damnation.  Who knew?  She complained about my mumbling.  Little did she know, that she should been have happy that she couldn’t understand everything I was saying.

Once someone talks about your accent, the relationship is doomed, I suppose.  Nevertheless, I realized that I did have an accent.  I’ve been cognizant of it ever since.  You can’t tell I have an accent by reading this, but I do.  It’s a pretty thick one, too.  You know what?  I don’t give a fat damn about it.  [“Fat damn” sounds really good with my accent, by the way.]

What kind do I have?  Appalachian.  That’s not southern.  I don’t sound like Foghorn Leghorn, although folks in the Northeast will ask me if I’m “from the South.”  I’m not from the South.  I’m from the Mountains.

Our accents are a mountain drawl combined with a distinct mumble.  Our words run together but kind of slowly.  We aren’t fast talkers.  Go to Michigan if you want to hear that.  Our accents have so butchered the English language over time that translation is often required:

You from upair? Translation:  Are you from up there? [Up where, you ask?  Upair.]

Them yor people?  Translation:  Are you related to those people? 

He done got farred.  Translation:  That fellow was discharged from his employment.

Gimme em warcutters.  Translation:  Please hand me those wire cutters.

He thoed that out the winder.  Translation:  He threw that item out of the window.

I et a mater sammich yesterdee.  Translation:  I dined on a tomato sandwich yesterday.

Them fellers fit upair.  Translation:  Two gentlemen from up there engaged in fisticuffs.

He clum upair and worked on the chimley.  Translation:  He climbed up on the house to repair the chimney.

These are but a few examples, extreme though they may be.  We’ll say “tar” instead of “tire.” Someone may be “lexicuted” rather than electrocuted.  We fish with “minners,”not minnows.  People live in hollers or they may holler at you.  We’ll even “GARNT-tee” something for you.  We can do all of this but you won’t have a damn clue if we explain it to you.

So, you’re thinking:  “You people are ignorant hill jacks.”  No, we’re not.  That’s just how we talk.  I guess we have our fair shares of idiots, but almost all of us have accents which render us, to some extent, incomprehensible.

Now, not all mountain people have accents.  Some work very hard to get rid of them or to never have them.  I’m cool with that.  That’s not how I was raised, though.  We just talked how we talked.  We didn’t really think about it much, except for my mother who was a stickler for correct grammar.  She pointed out to me on many occasions that only the lowest of trash used double negatives.  “Ain’t” made her practically shriek, but not as much as “hain’t” did.

I do feel a bit bad for the folks who lose their accents.  They become sort of like people from Nebraska.  Try to say something and sound like someone from Nebraska.  You can’t, because no one knows what they sound like.  I can identify an Appalachian accent in about 5 seconds.

One group I don’t care about is those who shed their accents because of their shame of coming from the mountains.  They don’t want to sound like us.  It’s embarrassing.  They’re above that.  They are the same folks who pontificate about people in the mountains need, when in truth they wouldn’t care if the place was used for nuclear waste disposal.

So, how thick is my accent?  I was eating at my neighborhood Waffle House recently, when the waitress asked where I was from.  When I said Harlan, she said “I thought so.”  Oh, she then added:  “Half my family is from Harlan–the half we don’t speak to.”

Recently, I was in Las Vegas and struck up a conversation with a couple of strippers on the street.  One asked:  “Where are you from?  Your accent is so cute.”  I gave her five dollars.  I also met aspiring rapper, Young Cheese.  Even he asked me where I was from.

These ladies like my accent.  That's not so bad, is it?

These ladies like my accent. That’s not so bad, is it?

The obvious downside to my accent is that I am often incomprehensible to the untrained ear.  I once ordered lunch in a restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The waitress couldn’t understand me nor could I her, yet we were both speaking English.  My lunch companions worked as translators.

My own wife struggles to understand me, and we have lived together for over half our lives.  Here is a typical exchange:

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER:  What?

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER: Huh?

ME:  DINNER!  WHAT ARE WE HAVING?

HER: Don’t yell at me!

ME:  I have to yell.  You can’t hear.

HER:  What?

ME:  YOU! ARE! DEAF!

HER:  I am not! You mumble!

…and so on and so on. It always ends with my wife pointing out that her friend Lisa can’t understand me, either.  Maybe I do mumble, but you’d think 26 years would be enough time for someone to get used to it.

 [In my defense, I would note that my father often accused my mother of mumbling.  He was almost completely deaf, yet never conceded that his lack of hearing was an issue.]

As a lawyer, my accent comes in handy.  I handle many cases in Eastern Kentucky and sound the part with no real effort.  Occasionally, it’s a hindrance.  I recently tried a case in Illinois, and explained to the court reporter that she may have problems understanding me.  She did.

Mountain accents help in other ways, too.  They are really good when you threaten someone.  If someone with Locust Valley Lockjaw says he’ll kick your ass, you’ll laugh in his face.  When someone from Harlan says it–male or female–it has a ring of truth to it.  “I’ll whup your aaasss” just sounds serious.  It also makes curse words sound better. “Hell” comes out like “Haaaiiil.” Shit becomes “I don’t give a shiiiiiit.”  It creates an emphasis that others lack.  There are many more examples that good taste prevents me from discussing here.

The only time my accent bothers me is when I hear it.  I’ll hear myself on video and think “Man, oh man, I sound like a weed bender.”  I guess I do.

Naturally, many folks hear us talk and think we’re dumb. Many of these people are, in fact, dumb people with different accents. Sure, if we’re interviewed on TV, there may be subtitles, but we’re not dumb–at least not all of us. If you ARE dumb, a mountain accent won’t help. Nevertheless, it won’t actually make you dumb.

Of course, we aren’t the only people who sound funny.  New Englanders sound funny, too.  So do folks from Wisconsin.  New Yorkers are hard to understand, just like people from the deep south.  Appalachians just have the disadvantage of being in perhaps the last remaining group of people who can be openly derided with no repercussions.

Now, read this again in your best Appalachian accent. If you still don’t get it, watch the TV show Justified. It’s set in Harlan County, and they do a good job with the accents. Maybe you’ve seen the Patrick Swayze classic, Next of Kin. There are some good accents in that one, with the exception of Liam Neeson. I’m not sure what he was doing, but I’ve never heard anyone sound like that.

Aint’ got nuthin left to say about this hyere–nary a word.  I’m still upair in Lexington, but I’ve still got people in Harlan.  Reckon I’ll stay hyere, unless I end up somewheres else.  Proud to know you uns.  Holler at me if you get up this way.

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2014

Five Things You Don’t See Every Day

As any reader of this blog knows, I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky.  I’ve written extensively about that before, but I got to thinking about some of the things I experienced there that I haven’t seen since.  Here is a sampling:

THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS

As my readers know, I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky.  When I was a kid, Loyall was home of a Louisville & Nashville Railroad yard, and I lived about 200 yards from the track that ran from the yard to parts unknown.  The 1970’s were the time of the Coal Boom and trains ran day and night.  They were as much a part of life as the sun coming up.  We didn’t give them a thought, until the Nerve Gas Express came to town.

Some one decided to ship old nerve gas by rail to somewhere.  Loyall was on that road to somewhere.  We knew it coming.  It was in the local paper–several times in fact.  People talked about what would happen if the train derailed (which they did sometimes) or, God forbid, there was a real wreck (which almost never happened).  The nerve gas would leak, and we would all die.  Everyone was quite excited.

What was the nerve gas, exactly?  I don’t know–sarin gas maybe. I also don’t know where it was headed.  I do know that it had the capacity to kill us all.

Given the deadly qualities of this Hellish trainload, one might think that the townspeople would have cowered in their basements or taken cover in old bomb shelters.  Remember now, we were Harlan Countians, which means two things: (1) We’re a fearless bunch of hill jacks; and (2) We don’t have a hell of a lot to do most of the time.  As a result, we did what you would expect, and gathered by the railroad track to watch the paralyzing cargo roll through Loyall.  It was reminiscent of the episode of the Andy Griffith Show where all of Mayberry gathered in town to see the “gold truck” pass through.

REPLACE "GOLD TRUCK" WITH "NERVE GAS," AND YOU GET THE PICTURE

REPLACE “GOLD TRUCK” WITH “NERVE GAS,” AND YOU GET THE PICTURE.

I should note that my Dad talked quite a bit about how stupid it was to watch a train go by.  He thought it was especially dumb since the only possible excitement was the annihilation of all the spectators.  He noted several times that if the gas leaked, you could get the same thrill of being gassed hanging out in your house.  He was not a fan of the Nerve Gas Express.

Just as planned, the train came through Loyall.  Unlike the Andy Griffith Show, I don’t think it was decoy.  As far as I know, it contained enough nerve gas to kill every man, woman, child and beast in the county.  I’ll admit that I watched it go by.  It was just a train, but everyone seemed pleased.  No one cheered, although that would have been somehow appropriate.  There were no protestors.  No one died.

THE WONDERS OF DUCT TAPE

Okay, the entire world knows about duct tape now, but there was a time when it was actually used mostly for duct work.  In the 1970’s, for example, it wasn’t as ubiquitous as today.  Naturally, we called it “duck” tape, just as many people do today.

I knew this guy who used it for everything.  Have you ever seen a shotgun held together with duct tape?  I have.  He had a Stevenson shotgun (12 gauge, as I recall), which he affectionately called “Stevie.”  Stevie had fallen into disrepair to the point that the stock (that’s the wooden part for you novices) fell off.  Duct tape fixed that.  He simply taped it back together.  I never saw him fire it, but swore it held together.  I have my doubts.

The same guy also made his own boots.  How, you ask?  Three pairs of tube socks and duct tape.  I’m not kidding.  He said they were both comfortable and water tight.

Okay, that’s actually TWO things you don’t see every day–duct taped a duct taped shotgun and duct tape boots.  I’m proud to say that I’ve seen them both, on the same day, in fact.

THE COAL MONUMENT

I’m sure other coal-producing counties have their tributes to coal mining, but we had–and still have–a genuine monument:

Our monument is in Baxter--right in the middle of traffic (such as it is).

Our monument is in Baxter–right in the middle of traffic (such as it is).

You have to navigate your way around the monument, which isn’t too tough these days.  Back in the 1960’s and ’70’s, this was the main drag to Harlan and quite busy.  Plus, Ken’s Drive-In was a popular eatery across from the monument.  For the uninitiated, this was as much a traffic hazard as it was a historical marker.  Nowadays, one could comfortably nap in this intersection.

We should salute the builders of the Coal Monument.  As I write this, I am 51 years old, and the Monument has been there as long as I can remember.  As far as I know, it’s never even been repaired.  I don’t know who build it, when or why it’s in Baxter.  If anyone knows the story behind it, please let me know.

If you live in Baxter, Kentucky, it’s probably wrong to say you don’t see something like this every day.  In fact, you may well see this every single day, but I don’t know many people who live in Baxter.  Close enough.

COON ON THE LOG

The only Coon on the Log contests I’ve ever seen were in Harlan County at the Fish and Game Club.  What is that, you ask?  It involves 1) A raccoon; 2) A log; 3) Water; and 4) Dogs.  Here’s how it worked.  A raccoon was tied to log.  The log was placed in the middle of a pond.  The dogs swam out to the log–one at a time, of course–and attempted to knock the raccoon off the log.  Simple enough. Now, you ask, what is the entertainment value in that?

You might be a city person who thinks raccoons are cute, like their cuddly cousins, the Pandas.  You would be wrong.  Raccoons are, in fact, vicious critters.  They have sharp teeth and long, razor-like claws.  They also have bad dispositions.  They might rabies, too, although I don’t believe that is true with competition-level raccoons.  Knocking one of these nasty bastards off a log is no mean feat.  They fight.  They claw.  They bite.

I was probably 6 years old or so when I attended the Coon on the Log.  My Dad took my brother and me. We sat by the pond and watched the dogs do battle with the hellish beast.   I only remember one dog.  He was black hunting dog of some sort and could swim like a fish.  He swam out the log and immediately engaged the raccoon.  They fought tooth and nail until the raccoon managed to claw the dog’s face, sending him back to shore much worse for the wear.  The next year, the dog was back, this time with a scarred face.  I recall that he vanquished the raccoon.  Honestly, it could have been a different less fierce raccoon, but I remember being pleased for the dog nonetheless.

I know you animal lovers are poised over your keyboards to attack me and, possibly, my late father, like a rabid, typing raccoon.  This is not an endorsement of Coon on the Log contests.  PETA hates them, as you would expect.  I doubt that they are very popular anymore, having gone the way of Donkey Basketball and Greased Pig Contests.  (I’ve attended both of these events, too, and they were quite entertaining; however, I do understand why the use of cattle prods in a basketball game is now frowned upon).  These days, people get all torn up over monkeys riding dogs (possibly the most entertaining thing on Earth, by the way).  The Coon on the Log doesn’t stand a chance.

TIRE WALKING

My Dad didn’t throw away things.  He always figured he could use them as some point.  Old magazines, engine parts and the like might come in handy.  For example, when I was a kid, he found a six-pack of beer and put in the trunk of his car.  While Dad was fond of Scotch and Bourbon, he didn’t drink beer.  But he knew a guy who did.  He said he would give the six-pack to that guy.  I don’t think he ever did, but he drove around with that six-pack in the trunk of his car for several years–just in case.

Among Dad’s collection were old tires.  He would change tires on his cars but keep the old ones.  You never know, he might need them one day.  During a summer of my childhood, my friend Jimmy and I were bored, having exhausted the possibilities of bike riding and playing Army.  So, we started rooting around in my garage where we happened upon two tires.  We could do something with those.

The first thing we tried was walking on them, kind of like a circus bear walking on a ball.  It just couldn’t be done.  Even though we were both slight of build, our inconsiderable weight caused the tires to collapse.

Then, we came up with Tire Wrestling, which consisted of rolling the tires at each other and diving on them.  That was kind of fun, but we couldn’t devise a scoring system.  So, there ended up not being much point to it.  It never caught on, not even with Jimmy and me.

I didn’t give up on the idea of walking on tires but just couldn’t master it.  Then, Uncle Jack showed up.  My Uncle Jack was my Dad’s younger brother and probably in his 40’s at the time.  As a bachelor, Jack spent a lot of time at our house.  Jack had all kinds of tricks.  He would pull out his dentures and put a cigarette between them and make the cigarette bounce up and down.  He could play a mean harmonica.  He could shuffle cards like a magician.  He was always entertaining.

Jack was a small man, about 5′ 5″, maybe 140 pounds.  His hair was the kind of silvery-white you want if your hair turns gray.  He was quick with a joke or some smart-ass comment, and always laughed at his own stories.  He chain-smoked Phillip Morris non-filter cigarettes.

One day, I was on the back porch with a tire leaned against the side of the porch, studying the possibilities.  Our porch was a wooden structure about 3 or 4 feet high with railing only on the sides and 5 or 6 steps on the left hand side.  I was on the steps when Jack and Dad stepped out on the porch.

“Whatta ya know, boy?” Jack asked (this was the same greeting I got from Jack for the remaining 40 years of his life).  I explained that I had tried to walk on the tire but couldn’t do it.  Jack said, “Let me see that tire.  I can do that.”  Dad looked at Jack and said, “Now, Jack, you’ll break your neck on that thing.”

Jack ignored Dad, as he usually did whenever Dad started a sentence with “Now, Jack….”  Jack balanced the tire perpendicular to the porch, stuck his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and grabbed the side rail of the porch with his left hand.  He was ready to roll.

He did it.  It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.  He just stepped off the porch on top of the tire and took off.  He looked like a tap dancer on hot coals.  His arms stuck out to side for balance and a thin trail of cigarette smoke coursed behind him like a contrail.

Had we owned a clothes dryer, I’m confident that he would have made all the way across the yard to the back fence.  As it was, our clothes line ended the ride.  It caught Jack just under the chin and flipped him backward off the tire.  He slammed to the ground like bag of sand.  For a moment, he didn’t move.  Then, he hopped up, grabbed his smoke off the ground and just laughed.  Dad was laughing himself into a fit on the back porch.  If you think walking on a tire is easy, try it sometime.

I could tell a lot of other stories about Jack but that one stands out.  Jack was always entertaining.  Every kid needs an Uncle Jack.

Well, that’s it.  Five things you don’t see every day.  If you’re ever in Harlan County, ask a local for directions to the Coal Monument.  I can’t promise you that will see any of the other things I described, but I’m confident that the Monument will still be there.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Hometown Loyall-ty

I’m told that I had a bad upbringing.  Oh, no one says I had bad parents, mind you.  Nevertheless, I had it bad.  Why?  I grew up in Eastern Kentucky.  Apparently, that’s bad.

I’ve written about Eastern Kentucky before and probably will again.  I haven’t lived there in three decades, but it is as much a part of my life today as it was then.  It’s home.

WHERE (OR WHAT) IS LOYALL?

I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky.  Here’s where Loyall is:

loyallmap

Exactly where is THAT?  As I told a guy who picked me up hitchhiking, it’s three miles outside Harlan, to which he responded “Where the hell is that?”  Harlan is the county seat of Harlan, County, Kentucky in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields.  When I was growing up, about 40,000 people lived in Harlan County.  Today, that number is closer to 30,000 and dwindling everyday.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

The first thing to know is how to pronounce “Loyall.”  It’s not LOY-al, like the word “loyal.”  It’s kind of like “Lole.”  More accurately, it’s pronounced “Lowell” but without the “w.”

Harlan County is known for two things:  Coal mining and stone cold bad asses.  There’s not nearly as much mining  as there used to be and there never were as many bad asses as people thought.

Here’s what I can tell you about in which I was raised:

  • I always heard it was named after a railroad executive.  That might be true.
  • It had around 1,000 residents when I was a kid.  The welcome sign now says 776.  Frankly, that might be a bit of stretch.
  • Loyall consists of two parts:  Loyall and Old Loyall.  Old Loyall is exactly what it sounds like–the old part of Loyall.
  • The CSX Railroad Yard is in Old Loyall.  When I was kid it was the Louisville & Nashville Yard.  A lot of people in Loyall worked at the yard.
  • Trains ran day and night out of the yard hauling coal out of the county.
  • We had one traffic light.  It’s still there.
  • We had a full service gas station (long gone now).  They’d fill your car, clean your window and always ask:  “Check that oil for ya?”
  • We had a soda fountain, The Corner Store.  It sat on the corner, of course, by the traffic light.  They had fountain drinks and excellent hotdogs with chili.  They also had a pinball machine.
  • We had a movie theater until I was about 6 or 7.
  • We  had a barber, Gene Harber.  Very nice man.  He always asked “How do you want it?  ‘Bout the same?”
  • The Cumberland River ran through Loyall and washed us away in 1977.  Thanks to the largesse of the federal government, the river now runs through a man-made channel so it won’t flood.  Of course, they cut the town in half for that bit of high-tech engineering.
  • We had a school.  It was Loyall High School until the late ’60’s and then became Loyall Elementary and Junior High.   It still stands but hasn’t been a school for several years now.
  • We had a post office, City Hall, Fire Department and Chief of Police.
An artist's rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office.  This was done from an old photo.

An artist’s rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office. This was done from an old photo.

In other words, it was Small Town, USA.  You knew your neighbors and lots of the folks in town.  We slept with the windows open and the doors unlocked.

I must confess that I was not raised within the city limits of Loyall.  I spend my first twelve years in Rio Vista, a neighborhood just outside Loyall.  I spend the last years on my childhood on Park Hill which overlooks Loyall.  Still, we thought of it as Loyall.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH HARLAN COUNTY?

I thought it was a pretty good place, but I learned differently.  My first lesson was when I attended the University of Kentucky.  I talked funny.  Evidently, I had (and have) an accent.  That’s weird because I never noticed it.  I did know people at home with heavy accents, but I wasn’t one of them…or WAS I?  I was also a redneck, at least by Lexington standards.  Trust me on this one, but I was NOWHERE close to being a redneck by Harlan County standards.

I took a class at the University of Kentucky called “Appalachian History” or something like that.  It was taught by an odd fellow who had visited Harlan County on several occasions.  He had read Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He had been to Evarts (where my father grew up), which he pronounced EE-varts.  So, he was some kind of an expert.

I was told three things that I didn’t know:

  1. I was the victim of abusive Robber Barons who operated coal companies.  OR I was the victim of a well-meaning but misguided government which institutionalized poverty.  OR both.
  2. As a result, I lived in stifling poverty.
  3. It was likely that I was too ignorant to comprehend points 1 and 2.

I had a substandard education and health care.  Bad teeth, too.  Inadequate clothing.  Wow.  You’d think I would have noticed some of that, but I didn’t–maybe all the inbreeding made me less perceptive.

Later, after I graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Finance and Law, I continued to learn about my homeland.  It was a bad, bad place.  Bad coal.  Bad government.  Bad drugs.  Bad, bad, bad.

Eastern Kentuckians, it seems, can’t take care of, or think for, themselves.  Others, though, can do it for them.  They need help.  Here’s why:

  1. Schools are horrible.
  2. Health care is horrible.
  3. Everyone is poor, even people with jobs.
  4. All the unemployed people are victims of something or other.
  5. Everyone is a drug addict.
  6. There is no drinking water.
  7. There are no roads that can be driven on.
  8. The people aren’t smart enough to know that they are unhappy.

Honest to God, it sounds like Somalia.  How the Hell did I survive?

LIVING IN REALITY

Fortunately, I grew up in the Real World.  It wasn’t a perfect world, mind you, but it was far from what was (or is) portrayed.  Imagine if your hometown–whether small town or large city–were always portrayed according to lowest and worst performers.  I now live in Lexington, Kentucky, the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World.”  We have about 300,000 people here, but it’s a college town at heart.  It’s a nice place to live, and I’ve enjoyed raising my family here.  We don’t promote Lexington by showing our homeless shelters, the rundown shotgun shacks that litter downtown, the hobo jungle or our public housing projects.  If we did, one would wonder why anyone would set foot here–except maybe for the horses who wouldn’t know any better.

I like Lexington, but honestly I don’t see it as being that much better than Harlan County.  Lexington has poor people–a lot of them.  Unlike my life in Harlan County, I don’t see them here.  They don’t live near me.  My kids might go to school with them, but they really don’t socialize with each other.  That’s just how works.  You won’t see Lexington’s homeless shelters, unless you go looking for them.  The last time I went to one of them, I saw two men I know–LIVING IN THE SHELTER!  I didn’t know anyone who was homeless in Loyall.

In Harlan County, there was no insulation.  Your friends might live in poverty.  I had a good friend who lived in a housing project.  Housing projects in Harlan County are no nicer than anywhere else.  His father was chronically unemployed.  It didn’t matter. We were friends. Same with my friend whose father was illiterate.  He was a good man.  He just couldn’t read and write at any functional level.  I don’t see that here in Lexington, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s well-hidden.

My friends’ parents included teachers, railroad workers, government workers, politicians, coal miners, coal operators, dentists, barbers, doctors, lawyers and just about every other walk of life in the mountains.  Both of my parents were college graduates.  That certainly was not common in those days, but I was hardly the only kid with that distinction.

Growing up, we lived like kids.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League Baseball, school, dances, romances, fights and all the rest.  I have raised two sons to adulthood and have been surprised how they occupied their time much like we did–chasing girls, hanging out with friends, watching TV, all the while complaining about having nothing to do.  Like my kids, we had all the teen angst that exists everywhere else–wanting to leave our small town, broken hearts, drinking, drugs and general teen mayhem.  We just happened to be in Harlan County while it was going on.

We played Little League in Harlan County.  Your author is on the front row, far left end.

We played Little League in Harlan County. Your author is on the front row, far left end.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT BAD STUFF?

There were plenty of people who had hard lives in Harlan County and elsewhere in the mountains.  Poverty and unemployment rates have always been high and, in the remote parts of the county, people could live bleak existences.

As far as I know, my parents weren’t related to each other.  I did know a guy who married his cousin, but I know someone who did that in Lexington, too.  That kind of thing is frowned upon everywhere.

Did I know people who didn’t have indoor plumbing?  Yep.  I had an uncle in Pike County, Kentucky who had an outdoor toilet until the mid-70’s. By the way, my wife’s grandparents had an outdoor toilet, too.  But they lived in Franklin County, Kentucky, home of our state capital.  That’s not as sensational as one in Harlan County.

Did I know people on food stamps?  Yes sir.  I also knew people whose only goal in life was to “draw a check,” our Harlan County way of saying that a person just wanted to be on the dole.  Some did. My Dad called them “people living off the grid.”   They were cautionary tales.

Did I know any criminals or, as we liked to say, “outlaws?”  You bet–a bunch of them, too.  My Dad had a friend who killed his own father-in-law.  The guy who lived across the road from us served time for attempted murder.  For a time, we lived next door to a notorious bootlegger. I knew a bunch of people who’d been shot.  Like I said, it’s a small place.  You don’t get to hide from people.

Some parts of our county were so remote that most Harlan Countians never saw them.  Jones Creek, Bailey’s Creek, Smith, Black Star, Holmes Mill and many such places were well off the beaten path.  Still, those folks went to church and school and had jobs–a good number of them, at least.

The funny thing, though, is that the overwhelming majority of folks I knew didn’t fit these extreme profiles.  Most people had jobs and took care of their families.  Some families, like mine, had two working parents.  Like parents everywhere, most wanted something better for their children and tried to help them.  It was nothing unusual, just typical American life.

SO, WHAT’S THE  DEAL?

Have things changed since I left Harlan County?  Of course. Time changes everything.  When I grew up, good jobs were fairly plentiful.  That’s not the case today.  The economic base in Eastern Kentucky is shrinking and may well not recover.  The population continues to decrease and is likely to drop precipitously as the Baby Boomers fade.  We didn’t have the prescription drug scourge that has devastated Eastern Kentucky in the past few years.  Regardless of the changes, on my frequent trips to the mountains, I see the same sorts of folks I knew growing up.  These aren’t characters from a Norman Rockwell painting nor are they the “salt of the Earth” or any other such overblown characterization.  They’re just good, solid people for the most part.  They don’t see themselves as victims nor are they trawling for handouts. They’re just living their lives as best they can.

I had an uncle who was fond of saying “Mountain people have mountain ways.”  He meant that there were certain things about life in the mountains that were different–and not always different “good.”  For instance, a lot of people threw their trash in the river.  If we had high water, you see it hanging in trees when the river receded.  We use to have a county trash dump on the side of mountain.  No, it wasn’t a landfill.  It was exactly what it was called–a big, stinking trash dump.  People would line up on the side of the road and shoot the rats.  It was really fun, but you don’t see that everywhere.

Now, as then, some people don’t take care of themselves or their families, either.  They don’t go to the doctor or dentist or do much else.  They pretty much live like their ancestors.  Some of us might  have called these folks “trash.”  I’ve never been any place in this country that doesn’t have its pockets of trash.

Of course, like anywhere else, some people are born into bad circumstances and struggle.  Sometimes, they can’t overcome that.  They aren’t bad people.  They just start life with two strikes against them.  That still happens.  Everywhere.

Are some of my memories skewed by the prism of nostalgia?  Of course.  My father used to rail against people talking about the “good old days.”  He would then talk about Harlan County in the 1930’s when he grew up.  He always concluded with “There were no good old days.”  Fortunately, I don’t have those memories.  I remember the good people and the nice life we had.  Like a lot of people, I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time and probably spent too much time wanting to “get out.”

You may have never been to Eastern Kentucky, and this may not make you want to even visit.  You may have lived there in tough times or under bad circumstances.  Maybe your memories are not fond.  Consider this:  People from every part of this country have the same experiences.  Perhaps we should condemn their culture or treat them all as victims.  I leave that to you.  All I can tell you is what happened to me and most of the people I knew.  We were alright.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

My High School Commencement Address

It’s graduation time, that time of year when we celebrate our young people moving from high school into the adult world. It causes me to ponder what advice I can give to these young people as they enter the world. They aren’t much different from newborn infants. They are about to be thrown into a world where you learn as you go.

As a little background, I graduated from high school in 1980 from James A. Cawood High School in Harlan County, Kentucky. It was the first consolidated high school in Harlan County. It also no longer exists. Who was James A. Cawood? He was the long-time Superintendent of Schools in Harlan County. When they consolidated Hall, Wallins and Loyall High Schools, he decided that James A. Cawood was a good name for the school.

When I graduated, I did not give the commencement address–mostly because I was not asked to do so. Okay, that’s entirely the reason. I think I was in the top 10 of my graduating class, because I looked like this:

john grad

The gown covers my suit which was 110% polyester, in keeping with the times.

My brother–four years older and much smarter than I–gave the Valedictory address when he graduated. That’s because he was the Valedictorian, which I wasn’t. Our Valedictorian and Salutatorian both spoke, as I recall. I’m sure they did a fine job, just as my brother had done. I don’t recall anything they said, but they were all quite bright, and I’m sure they said nothing inflammatory.

It’s just as well that I didn’t speak. First, I hadn’t spoken in public since the 1st grade when I read Psalms 100 at church. I’m sure I would have been terrified. Second, I was only 17 years old. I would have had nothing useful to impart to my fellow graduates.

johnchurch

I knew just as much about life at 6 years old as I did at 17.

I’m over 50 years old now with a veritable life time of experience behind me. I’ve made decisions–good and bad. I’ve done impressive things and baffling, hideous things. Now, it is my time. So, I offer my services.

Here is my commencement speech:

Good [morning/afternoon/evening]. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the graduating class of [INSERT SCHOOL NAME] High School. I am over half a century old. This means two things: One, I am much older than all of you–hopefully. Two, I know more about everything than you do. Regardless of your experiences, I know more and have done more. Any story you can tell, I can top it, unless it involves farm animals and dwarves. Even then, let me hear the story, and I’ll be the judge of whether I can top it.

You are now high school graduates, along with tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of other people doing the same thing this year. I am not impressed. Indeed, it would likely take more effort to not graduate than it would to sit in your seats. Assuming he didn’t drop out, a fairly bright chimp could achieve the same thing.

Of course, some of you are impressive people. Let’s take the ones who come from dreadful families. You know who you are. Your parents don’t care about your academics or your social life or your behavior in general. Perhaps they are even abusive. That you have overcome this is impressive. Any achievement should be embraced. To you, I say this: Leave those people behind. You owe them nothing. Do not be shamed into believing that you are indebted to people to whom you are connected by nothing more than biological accident. These people will be millstones hanging around your neck. Cast them off. I am not suggesting that you sever all ties, unless that is necessary. That they fed and clothed you creates no obligation. They were supposed to do that. Take a long look at these people. You can and must do better.

There are also those of you who excelled academically. You, too, are impressive. Regardless of your course of study, that takes hard work. Hard work is good. You have the chance to go to college and excel, because you know the value of hard work in school. You may have the chance to go to any college you wish. Good for you. Here’s a suggestion: If your family can afford to send you to college, by all means choose the very best school. If, however, attending the college of your choice means saddling yourself with debt to pay for it, carefully consider your choice. You might paying that loan back when you’re my age. That’s a bad plan.

A rare few of you may have been born into money and have no concerns about your future. I don’t begrudge you that good fortune. Just do us all a favor and don’t pretend it’s an accomplishment. Do something with your life. Warren Buffett’s children are productive. You can be, too.

Some of you just barely got here today. You did the minimum to get your diploma. The good news is that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I’ve known people who were poor high school students and did quite well in life. Notice that I didn’t say that I’ve known many people like that.

Even some of you laggards and wastrels will go to college. That is good. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t benefit from at least trying to go to college. Here is the catch: If you apply yourself in the same sorry-ass way you did in high school, it will likely be a short stay in college. Then, it’s into the work force you go.

Perhaps you have no desire to go to college and you plan to join the nation’s work force now. To you, I say: Good luck with that. Your diploma qualifies you for a vast array of minimum wage jobs. The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Assuming you work a 2000 hour year, you’ll make $14,500. That’s not much money. Oh, and it won’t be a fun job or even a good job. You’ll be easily replaced. Don’t think about buying a house or a nice car or much of anything else. You’ll need a room-mate to help with your rent.

Understand, too, that college isn’t for everyone. Whether you lack the drive, motivation or old-fashioned brain power, you may not be college material. There’s nothing wrong with that but be realistic. For example, there aren’t high-paying jobs for video game players. Under no circumstances should your career plans include mooching off your parents. You’ve wanted to be an adult and have your freedom. Your time has arrived.

When I graduated from high school, some people–all young men in those days–considered the military an option. Often, they had good reasons for this choice, an admirable one if there ever was. A few, however, thought of it as just a better option than work. They were wrong. People in the military take it seriously. Nowadays, they would be extra wrong. Our military is in a constant state of war now. The folks who run things take that very seriously. You should, too.

You may have already derailed your life with bad choices–drugs, alcohol, pregnancy and the like. You can overcome these bad choices, but it won’t be easy. You’ve dug yourself a nice hole. You have a choice now–try to get out of the hole or decorate it and make yourself at home. One thing you can’t do is spend any time blaming other people. Your parents may be vile. It’s almost certain that your friends are. Maybe you are, too. Perhaps people have treated you unfairly. You are now an adult, and here is one hard, cold fact: No one cares about any of that. From now on, you are 100% responsible for your actions. Act like it.

What of those of you who are the outcasts? You’ve spent your high school years as a non-conformist. You don’t do things the way others do, and you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. The world doesn’t work like that. If your face is covered in hardware or you’ve tattooed your neck, that goes over even worse in the real world. The real world seeks normalcy. If you are abnormal, it’s a problem. I’m not suggesting that you kowtow to people, but use some judgment. If you really don’t care what anyone else thinks, you’re probably going to be treated accordingly. Be sure you’re okay with that.

A small number of you are the nerds, the bookish sorts for whom high school might not have been much fun. Take heart. You will sign the paychecks of many of your classmates. That, my friends, is sweet revenge at its finest.

All you need to know can be summed up in a few points. Write them down, for you shall refer to them often throughout your life:

  • Life is not fair. It is random. Fairness is not random.
  • Don’t underestimate good luck. You’ll need a dose of it every now and then.
  • You are not judged on merit alone. How you look, act, dress, speak and carry yourself matter. Again, it’s not fair.
  • If you are the type who won’t follow rules, life from this point forward will become increasingly difficult.
  • Money is good, but once you have your necessities covered and a few toys, it doesn’t make much difference in the quality of your life.
  • Bad things will happen to you, many of which will not be your fault.
  • No one you know will live forever, including you.
  • If you are the same person 20 years from now that you are at this moment, you have done something wrong. Grow up.
  • Learning from your mistakes is natural, but it is not the best way to learn. The best way is to learn from observing other people make mistakes.
  • Play to your strengths. You are good at some–maybe many–things. Find out what they are, and do them.

I should now tell you that the world is your oyster and you can do anything you want, but that would be a lie. You can’t do anything you want, but you can do some things you want and many things that you must do. You will do some of them well and fail miserably at others. That, my young friends, is life and life is good–not easy but good.

Finally, you have spent the past few years believing you know more than you do. You are about to find out all the things you don’t know. One day soon, you will be 50, too, and you will fear that you must depend on the next generation. You will hate their music, their clothes, their attitudes, the way they talk and even the way they look. Take heart, though, somehow it always works out.

Before you depart, take a good look around at your classmates. I leave you with these words from the late Kurt Vonnegut: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The 1976 Loyall Spelling Bee: The Scandal That Will Not Die

Four years after the debacle of the 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball game, another scandal occurred.  Like that infamous game, it remains shrouded in controversy.  In a country wearied by Watergate, perhaps it is understandable that it didn’t capture the public’s attention.  The time has come to clear the air.

I was once quite the fine speller. This was many years ago before spell-check rendered me a virtual illiterate. Spelling was my forte. I did quite well on spelling tests, of course. I well remember the first time I missed a spelling word. It was in the 3rd grade in Mrs. Brewer’s class. I cried. I guess I should also mention that I was quite an odd child, too.

I could spell almost anything. I learned to spell “Constantinople” before I even attended school (I think it was in a Dr. Seuss book). One reason I could spell was that I was an excellent reader, far ahead of many of my peers. You might now guess that I was a child prodigy of some sort (note that it is “prodigy,” not “protegé”). Alas, I was not. I was, however, of above average intelligence and armed with some kind of 6th sense when it came to spelling.

I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High School in Loyall, Kentucky. Loyall is in Harlan County, far off the beaten path for most folks. Don’t be fooled, though–we had our share of smart kids. Just because you live in the mountains of Appalachia doesn’t mean you can’t spell.

loyall

loyall.jpg

Loyall, home the legendary 1976 Spelling Bee. In my day, we did not have the air conditioners shown here. We battled in the sweltering heat.

For most of my education, my spelling was never put to the test. Actually, it was, but those were just spelling tests. We’d occasionally have a class spelling bee, which I normally dominated like an academic version of Michael Jordan with a spelling hang time unseen before.

The 1975-76 school year was 8th grade for me. High school loomed. As with every year of school, my only goal was to go on to the next year. My early school years were marked by two things: 1) stellar academic performance; and 2) spells of habitual truancy. That latter had little impact on the former but great impact on my parents. I spent half the 7th grade at Evarts Junior High where my mother kept a watchful eye on me from her post as a teacher at the adjoining high school. It worked. One semester at Evarts, and I was ready to fly right back in Loyall.

8th grade was mostly uneventful. I promised that I wouldn’t skip school–and I didn’t (that would wait until high school). Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I was part of Loyall’s Health Fair Championship team.

healthfair

Your author’s odd appearance belied his spelling ability

The other event of that year was the school spelling bee.  This wasn’t just any spelling bee. It was for the whole junior high. It was like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, except everyone got a bid. Every kid competed from the smartest of the smart to the most impaired dullards. It was a Battle Royale.

While I was quite confident in my abilities, I didn’t care for the spelling bee. Over the years, I had grown weary of being thought of as a smart kid. As offensive as this might be to say about myself, I was a smart kid; however, unlike my older–and even smarter–brother, I would rather have been an athlete or just average. I just didn’t care for it.

There was no refusing to participate in the spelling bee. I thought about it, but I figured that would just be another issue for my parents. So, I played along.

As you might suspect, I was spelling like a whirling Dervish dances. Every word lobbed to me was like hitting a beach ball. Not all my classmates were so fortunate. Some were felled by simple monosyllabic words. Although I don’t recall the specifics, I’m sure “cat” and “dog” took some out.  Others choked, such as one lad who spelled “neither” N-I-E-T-H-E-R. That’s the spelling bee equivalent of a called third strike.

We started one afternoon in the gym. Participants dropped like flies as we moved to polysyllabic and more arcane vocabulary. I was cruising. As the day wore down, I became troubled (if I had a hobby back then, “being troubled” was it). A fear gripped me: What if I won? I would have to go the county spelling bee. Who the hell would want to do that? It was probably on a Saturday, too. How was I going to get out of this without looking like a moron who couldn’t spell? It was quite the conundrum.

When the day came to a close, only two spellers were left. Naturally, I was one of them.  The other was a was very smart and a fetching young 7th grade girl. I suspected she had lived somewhere else at some time, because she had that Michigan-sounding accent which was a little suspicious. Now, I had another problem: To get out of it, I’d have to lose to a 7th grade girl to boot.

When we broke for the day, I consulted my friend Norman, my confidante on important matters. Norman was a fine fellow but a bit devious. He always had good ideas about how to get out of ticklish situations. For example, he once broke up with a girl by writing her a letter claiming that his father had gotten a job on the Alaskan Pipeline and that he would be moving to Yukon, Alaska at the end of the school year.  A man of his stripe would know what to do.

He suggested a feigned illness. I know that doesn’t seem very original, but we were pressed for time. With the passage of time, I can’t recall which illness he suggested. He once claimed to have gangrene himself.  He liked to accuse people of having VD, but I doubt that was one of the suggestions.

Nevertheless, an illness wouldn’t work. I had been fake sick so many times that my parents never thought I was really ill. Dangerously high fever or vomiting or both were threshold requirements. I wasn’t going to be able to swing that.

There really was only one choice. That’s right: take a dive. Norman was leery of this, believing that I would lack credibility. I told him that I would just screw up the first tough word I got.

As usual, Norman and I hung around after school goofing off for a while. Then, we started our walk home. We weren’t a block from the school when two of our classmates–notorious ruffians–yelled at me: “WILLIAMS!!” Uh oh. They were sitting on the steps of a church enjoying their after school cigarettes.

I’d known these guys since first grade. They were okay, but I was kind of terrified of them, too. They rarely had a kind word for anyone.

Here’s (roughly) how our exchange went:

Kid No.1: What’s this bullshit about the spelling bee?
Me: What?

 Kid No.2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: Why? (surely my spelling prowess didn’t merit an ass whupping)

 Kid No.1: We heard you’re throwin’ it. Gonna let that girl win.
 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: I don’t where you heard that…

Kid No. 1: From him (pointing at Norman)
Me: (looking at Norman): Thanks.
Guys, I just don’t want to win the thing.

 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: Why?

 Kid No. 1: ‘Cause you can’t lose to no 7th grader. We’re countin’ on you. Don’t f— it up.
Me: I’m not throwing it.
 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.

So, with that, Plan B was scuttled.  It seemed too risky.  One of these lads, in particular, was pretty smart, despite his rough ways.  He would probably detect a dive.  The other guy  was like the big guy who put Steve Buscemi in that wood chipper in the film Fargo–very quiet and probably dangerous.  It was a bad combination.

The rest of the evening I vacillated between trying to fake an illness and losing the will to live.  I had one other problem–part of me really did want to win the damn thing.  Why?  I don’t know.  I guess it was because I really was smart.  It was my only real objective strength.

After a fitful night of sleep, I woke up resolved to win and accept whatever embarrassing accolades came with it.  I pictured myself in some sort of World Series of spelling bees with other socially inept children.  Maybe it was just time to accept my lot in life.

We were back on center stage in the gym, spelling away.  We didn’t get the kinds of words you see thrown at these freaky kids today spell in national bees–nothing like antidisestablishmentarianism.  I don’t recall being allowed to have the words used in a sentence or anything like that.  They just gave you the word, and you spelled it.  It was an old school throw down.

We were back and forth for a while until it happened.  I was up.  The word:  “Inquire.”    (I know that’s not a tough word.  This was Eastern Kentucky in the 1970’s.  We weren’t considered linguists). I fired away.  “E-N-Q-U-I-R-E.” Loser!!  I was stunned.  How could this happen?

I was taken down by the most basic of villains–mass media.  As we all know, the National Enquirer uses that spelling.  That is what flashed into my head when given the word.  Yes, my penchant for tabloid journalism was my Achilles’s Heel.  Or was it?

It turns out that “enquire” is a proper spelling, especially in Great Britain where it is used to denote formal queries. You don’t believe me?  Let’s ask Mr. Webster.  He defines it as a “chiefly British variant of INQUIRE, INQUIRY.”  It’s also included in The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, the foremost authority on the English language.  Loser?  I think not. I was hoist on the petard of my own erudition.

I took the high road, of course.  I did not appeal or ask for an investigation.  I made no public accusations of wrongdoing, though I would have been justified in doing so.  I’m also pleased to report that no ass whupping occurred.  One of my antagonists, in fact, was outraged that my opponent was not required to properly spell the word to prove her superiority.  Although I don’t think the rules required that, fair play certainly did.  I accepted my defeat, much like the sore loser I have been my entire life.  After several days of sulking, I returned to my normal activities which at the time consisted mostly of brooding.

Years of mostly unsuccessful therapy helped me deal with this and other injustices. My spelling skills have eroded over time, the victim of age and technology.  I’ve gone on to bigger and better things.  I’m a reasonably successful lawyer with a 25 year marriage and three strapping sons.  Time goes on and heals all wounds.  Far be it from me to allow one minor incident to stick in my craw.

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