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, 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.


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.

If you have any questions about this post, as always, please submit your enquiries below.

© 2013

The Harlan County Way


I grew up in Eastern Kentucky–born and raised as we say. What is Eastern Kentucky? I guess you’d call it a region or sub-region of Central Appalachia. It is not, as you might think, simply the eastern half of the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. Here’s my personal map of the area:


This seemingly random boundary results in some folks calling it Southeastern Kentucky which, geographically speaking, is more accurate. A few notes:

  • We can’t include any counties on the Ohio River. They aren’t isolated enough. This excludes Boyd, Greenup, Lewis, etc.
  • I-64 runs through Montgomery, Bath, Rowan and Carter Counties. Again, they are excluded because of lack of isolation. Elliott County is an exception because–well–you just have to visit there to see.
  • Once you push too far north, you get out of the mountains, and we have to exclude you. Goodbye Fleming, Nicholas and Robertson Counties. Robertson County is the toughest to exclude. It definitely has an Eastern Kentucky feel to it, but it’s out.

The qualifications for Eastern Kentucky status include:

  • Mountains. You have to have mountains, not hills. Fleming County has beautiful, rolling hills, but they aren’t mountains.
  • Isolation. It has to be kind of tough to get there or at the very least it’s just on the way to somewhere else. Rarely is an Eastern Kentucky county a destination. On this criterion, Robertson County would qualify, but again, it’s just too far north.
  • Coal Mining. You need some coal mines, either now or in the past. We’re from coal mining stock.
  • Accents. You have to sound like us. Now, people in Carter County pretty much sound like us, but they have that Interstate.

I hail from Harlan County, the Eastern Kentuckiest of all counties. We’re isolated. Very isolated. Harlan County is not on the way to anywhere. If you need to go someplace that can be accessed through Harlan County, I guarantee that there’s an easier, quicker way to get there. Harlan–that’s what we call it–isn’t a destination, either. There aren’t any hotels to speak of, really. No Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, etc. There are a couple of places to stay, and they’re okay. If you’re spending the night in Harlan, you probably have family there anyway.

We have mountains all around us.  We’re hemmed in.  We mine coal and have for over 100 years.  We also have accents, heavy mountain accents–the kind that can be indecipherable even to natives of the area.

I don’t live in Harlan now, but I’m still a Harlan Countian. Always.  So, I speak of how it was 30 years ago.  One of the great things about Harlan is that changes very little.  It’s still pretty much the same.

Now, don’t confuse Harlan County with the town of Harlan, our county seat. If someone tells you that he or she is from Harlan, they could mean any town from Pathfork to Holmes Mill to Cumberland to Cranks. Only if we’re talking to another Harlan Countian would we narrow the description to the town. Myself, I’m from Loyall which is three miles from the town of Harlan.


I’ll say I’m from Harlan, but don’t get confused. I’m from Loyall.

Unless you lived in the town of Harlan, you don’t go to the “city” schools–Harlan High Elementary and Harlan High School. I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High and James A. Cawood High School. Cawood was named after James A. Cawood, long time Superintendent of the Harlan County Schools. None of my schools still exist. Now kids go to Harlan County High School which consumed Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland High Schools. We used to be territorial based on our schools. When we went to high school, we identified as being from Loyall or Hall or Wallins. We rarely hung out with anyone from Evarts or Cumberland–in those days, they had their own high schools. They might as well have been in different states.


The vast majority of Harlan Countians are proud to be from Harlan. We are our own world. We like that it’s called Bloody Harlan by some folks even though that name is based upon events which occurred 70 years ago. Bloody Harlan is just badass. We like being the badasses of Eastern Kentucky.


Your author proudly claims his heritage.

Many people watch the FX series Justified. Justified portrays Harlan as a lawless frontier of wanton violence. Harlan Countians like Justified. We like people to think we’d kill them for some trivial reason.

Before Justified, many people got their image of Harlan from the award-winning documentary Harlan County USA which followed the Eastover coal mine strike at Brookside, Kentucky. Harlan County USA divides us into two groups: Those that love it and those that hate it. The ones who love it love the depiction of rough and ready union brothers and sisters ready to wage war with the coal company thugs. The rest of us (that includes me) hate the image of Harlan Countians as violent, uneducated hooligans. They point to the many fine folks in the county who were (and still are) horrified by the goings on at Eastover. The truth, of course, probably lies somewhere in the middle. The folks in Brookside were surely Harlan Countians as was the chief gun “thug,” Basil Collins. Basil was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid, so I know he was real. My mother drove through Brookside to go to work every day, so I also know the strike was real.  Harlan has always been divided into pro- and anti-union.  It still is in some ways, although it has been many years since the United Mine Workers Association held great sway.

That bastion of journalism, Hustler Magazine, once listed Harlan (the town) as one the three meanest towns in America. It was described as a place where people only smiled when they heard that someone had died. Harlan Countians did not like that. Not at all. I suspect it’s mostly because they didn’t care much for Hustler, at least not publicly.

Overall, we like the stereotypical portrayal of Harlan. Harlan is tough. Harlan is mean. Harlan is total badass.

Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly tough. Then, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky and found out that I was pretty tough by Lexington standards. For instance, threats didn’t faze me. I knew that truly dangerous people don’t threaten much. They just inflict harm. Of course, there’s a downside.  A mouthy little man like me finds out the hard way that bad is good, but big is better.  Bad and small isn’t a recipe for success.


Who are the Harlan Countians? Besides the accident of birth, we have certain commonalities:

  • We know that houses have winders and chimleys
  • We mispronounce light, fight, white and night.
  • We all know someone named Lonzo.
  • We have accents which are obscured by our penchant for mumbling.
  • We know at least one person who has been shot with a gun by someone else or by themselves accidentally.
  • We own guns.
  • We are related to at least one coal miner.
  • We say Papaw and Mamaw.
  • We know trash when we see it, and I’m not talking about garbage pick up.
  • We know at least one person whose mother was really their grandmother, and sister was their mother. Trust me on this one.

Harlan Countians can be found everywhere. Who are we?

  • The Stalwarts

These are the folks who stayed in Harlan. They are either Harlan by birth or moved there at a young age. They might have gone to college or joined the military. Regardless, they came back. Maybe they never left.

These are small town people just like in every small town. Small town life can be hard or easy. If it’s hard, it’s hopeless. If it’s easy, there’s nothing better. In that regard, Harlan is Small Town, USA. There are doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, coaches, laborers, deadbeats and criminals. There are good people and bad people. Like anywhere else, you have to hope to you don’t cross paths with the bad ones at the wrong time.

Among this crowd are those that my father called “off the grid.” He said we had a sub-culture of people “so far off the creek” that they weren’t plugged in to the modern world. That is certainly true, but I must say that those unfortunates (if that’s what they are) are the in minority.. They may be from such places as Shields, Jones Creek, Smith, Cranks, Punkin Center or Happy Top, although I can name you folks from all those places who have done quite well for themselves.

Harlan is no more defined by any subculture than Chicago should be defined by its sad history of public housing or New York by the worst of its slums. Yes, we have folks living in poverty–too many (as though there is an acceptable level of suffering) but most folks live just fine.

My parents were stalwarts. My Dad was born in Evarts and–expect for military service and college–never lived anywhere else. My mother moved to Harlan County from Pike County at around age 12 and never left except to attend college. They had no desire to ever live anywhere else. And they didn’t.

  • The Outlanders

I am an outlander. An outlander is someone who used to live in Harlan. We’re still Harlan Countians. We just live somewhere else. There are a lot of us spread over the country, but we still think of ourselves as being from Harlan. I haven’t lived in Harlan in 30 year, but if someone asks where I’m from, “Harlan” is the immediate response.

Some are like me. I went to college and had personal and professional opportunities that pulled me away. Others leave to find better opportunities.

We outlanders like our Harlan roots. It’s a kind of mountain street cred. If we meet anyone else from Eastern Kentucky, we can get instant acceptance with a simple “I grew up in Harlan.” Translation: “Despite appearances, I will kill you if necessary. So, watch your step.  I’d hate to have to kill you.  Just kidding–about the ‘hate’ part. I am a badass.”

  • The Pretenders

There are people who will pretend to be from Harlan or any place else in Eastern Kentucky. That’s right–they’ll pretend. They have cousins or in-laws or remote ancestors who hailed from the mountains. This, so they say, makes them mountain people. Of course, it doesn’t. We laugh at them but let them have their fun. They’re usually the folks who dream of turning all of Eastern Kentucky into a massive tourist destination by having all the people who live there pack up and move. Then, they can come back and pay admission to see where they used to live.

Sometimes, these people would show up to help us.  We were always suspicious of outsiders, especially those offering “help.”  We could tell if you were from Ohio or Michigan or some other exotic place.  You talked funny.  You weren’t one of us.  Go help someone else.

  • The Loathers

These folks are Harlan Countians, but they don’t like it. They might even live in Harlan, but it doesn’t suit them. It’s too dull. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. There’s no future. It’s bleak. But they don’t always leave. They just hang around and complain.  Most of us pass through this phase at some point.  Many never leave it.

Some of these folks do leave Harlan–a lot of them, in fact. They go to other parts of the state or country and live as ex-Harlan Countians. They don’t like being from Harlan. They don’t want to sound like Harlan or look like Harlan. They pity Harlan. They know what’s best for Harlan, though, and won’t hesitate to tell you. Even though they know what’s best for Harlan, we don’t really like them.


My children are fascinated and perhaps slightly horrified that I grew up in Harlan. Even though they have visited my homeland many times, they remain baffled by it.

Even though I haven’t lived there in many years, I still visit.  I’m fortunate that my job regularly takes me to Eastern Kentucky. Harlan is quiet, unless you grew up near the railroad tracks like I did. Then it was quiet except when the trains ran, which seemed like every 15 minutes or so.

Loyall had a school, a railroad yard, one stop light, a movie theater (at one time), the Corner Store (a genuine soda shop), a gas station, a barber and a couple of stores. A convenient store replaced the gas station and stores.  The school closed. All that’s left is the yard and that light.   We had our own post office, City Hall and fire station. They’re still there.   About 1,000 people lived there when I was a kid.  Maybe 700 or so now.  It was quiet then.  It’s quiet now.

We once had a train full of nerve gas pass through Loyall.  People gathered at the railroad tracks to watch it.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe they were hoping to see (or experience) some kind of catastrophe. Maybe they just didn’t have much else to do.

Sometimes you hear gun fire in the distance, but that’s in the woods. There aren’t running gun battles anymore like the famed Battle of Evarts many decades ago.  Oh, people still get shot occasionally but at much lower rate than we’d like you to believe.

The county is big, about 50 miles across, but sparsely populated. Like much of Eastern Kentucky, the population has declined for decades.  One can argue that it’s always been over-populated what with the chronic high unemployment and high poverty rate.

The “first of the month” is a big time in Harlan. That’s when people get their checks. Government checks. Disability checks. Welfare checks. Food stamps, too. Town is flooded with people. When I was young, the Government Cheese truck looked like a scene from an African relief mission. People were practically hanging on it. Although we certainly weren’t poor, Government Cheese is excellent, and my Dad would get us a block whenever he could. I miss Government Cheese.

We only periodically had a movie theater, the fabulous Margie Grand in Harlan. It would occasionally be condemned but re-open at some point. It was an old theater whose best days had long past. Plaster would fall from the ceiling and you could throw popcorn on the stage in front of the screen and watch the rats scurry out to eat. It was tough to find two functioning seats together. It reeked of Pine Sol. It was a movie experience like no other. Sometimes, the film would jam and you could watch it melt.  It even had an old balcony where–rumor had it–black folks used to be seated. Loyall also had a theater–the Roaden–until I was about 6 years old. For many years now, Harlan has had a multi-screen cinema. Sweet.

Mostly, we didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much to do. Oh, you might go to Gary’s Lounge and Roller Rink sometimes. Gary’s was a fun place. One side was a roller rink. The other side was the Lounge, a long, narrow open room with a dance floor. A friend of mine once drank a beer from a girl’s cowboy boot at the Lounge. You don’t see that every day.

Mostly, we just hung out. Funny thing is, that’s what my kids do, even though they live in a small city with a million things to do. I guess teenagers everywhere just hang out. Oh, and we moaned and complained about not having anything to do. My kids do that, too.


When I went to college, I befriended other Eastern Kentuckians. One guy said we were like Indians who left the reservation. Even though I had been lots of places, leaving Harlan took me out of my comfort zone. Honestly, it took me years to adapt. I went from a county of about 35,000 people spread over 1,000 square miles to a campus of 20,000 + crammed into a few blocks. No wonder I was overwhelmed.

Since I’ve been gone, Harlan–like all of Eastern Kentucky–has been devastated by prescription drug abuse. We didn’t have that problem when I lived there. If we had a problem like that today in my slice of Suburbia, there would be a full-blown panic. Now, sadly, it’s a way of life in the mountains.

Coal mining runs in cycles.  Right now, it’s in a big down turn.  That hurts everyone.

There is a bleak side to Harlan, as anywhere else. Like inner cities, there are generations locked into a poverty cycle. Some escape, but most don’t. There has always been tension between those who work and those who don’t or won’t. Nothing will get a hard-working coal miner or school teacher fired up like a discussion about those “drawing a check.”  That’s how it was when I was a kid, and it hasn’t changed.

We also suffer from stereotyping.  Our teeth aren’t all that bad, although mine aren’t great.  We didn’t all drink Mountain Dew as babies.  I’ve never known anyone who didn’t wear shoes–and I knew some pretty rough characters.  I knew no one married to his own sister and just a handful married to their cousins.

We’re also the last of a breed–and this applies to all of Appalachia. We’re the last group that can openly derided.  We can be called ignorant, inbred, genetically inferior, toothless, shoeless–you name it.  If you do so, you won’t be called a bigot or a phobe of any type.  You might even become a best-selling author or reality TV producer.

My life is very much divided into two parts–before and after Harlan.  Now, far in the past, at least until I visit.  Give me about 30 minutes, and it’s like I never left.  That’s pretty cool.

If you live in Harlan, I can’t say that I blame you. If you don’t, I can’t fault you for that, either. It’s a nice place. Different, but nice. If you don’t believe me, I just might have to kill you.

© 2013

Why I Loved Carnivals

Last night, I saw a lady at the store who looked like a carnival performer I once saw.  When I was young, I loved carnivals.  REAL carnivals.  I’m not talking about something your church does as a fundraiser and calls it a carnival.  I’m also not talking about a circus.  A circus is a completely different thing.  A carnival is, well, a carnival.  Cotton candy; funnel cakes; rickety dangerous rides; sketchy employees; rigged games; cheap prizes; rough, flinty women; side shows; and a land armada of trailers where the workers live.  A carnival rolls from town to town spreading joy and not a small amount of trepidation when it arrives.

I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky.  We had carnivals, usually at least once a year.  The Guthrie Shows was the big one.  The Shriners sponsored it.  It would set up in the parking lot of one of the local high schools for a week.  Ray Guthrie was from Middlesboro, Kentucky and would roll his carnival all around Southeastern Kentucky.  We loved it.  There was also Myers Midway–excellent, too.

I’ve written before about how wrestling brought out the real Harlan Countians.  The carnival brought our everyone.  It created a vast melting pot of our small corner of Kentucky.  You could see people from Holmes Mill to Pathfork at the carnival.  When I was in high school, some friends and I stood in line for a ride behind some stereotypical Harlan Countians.  Trying to get a rise out of them, we began to complain loudly about how bored we were and shouldn’t have vacationed in Harlan.  A woman turned around, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and said:  “Who sent you here fer a vacation?  All we have here are back stabbins, back shootins and cooooold-blooded killins!”  She wasn’t from the Chamber of Commerce.

When I went to college, I would still go to carnivals, albeit not quite the same as in Harlan.  Lexington, Kentucky has the yearly Lions Bluegrass Fair.  It has evolved into more of a state fair atmosphere over the years, but–in the 1980’s–it was pure carnival.  It was the Guthrie Shows on steroids.  Good stuff.

Why the love of carnivals?  Let’s see…


As most folks know, carnival workers are called carnies.  They are a singular subculture.  They have a grizzled, dangerous look about them.  They set up the carnival, operate the rides and run the games.  It’s not a carnival without the carnies.

They often have missing digits or limbs.  This doesn’t stop them from doing their jobs, of course.  They’ll pull the lever to start the Tilt-A-Whirl with that one good arm with a smoke dangling from their lips.  Sometimes, they’ll have an eye missing.  Do they wear patches or buy glass eyes?  Of course, not.  They just leave a gaping hole or simply sew the eye shut.  They’re carnies.  I saw a carny with a lame arm.  He just had it strapped to his side.  You don’t see that outside the midway.

Carnies fascinate me.  What is life like for them?  They live in their trailers at the carnival.   I imagine them drinking rot gut whiskey and playing cards far into the night, perhaps stabbing someone.  The romance of it all is intriguing, but it probably sucks..


My Dad’s Uncle Jay was a carny for many years.  Jay’s wife, Aunt Ruth, was a fortune teller.  They were true carnies. I believe they may even have lived in Gibsonton, Florida at one point.  Gibsonton is famed as the Winter home of carnies and sideshow performers.  Such luminaries as Lobster Boy and Percilla the Monkey Girl called it home.

Jay was a barker.  The barker is the guy who yells at you when you walk across the midway trying to get you to waste your money on something.  After he retired, Jay came back to Harlan for a visit.  As luck would have it, a carnival was in town.  Jay went to the carnival and ended up staying there a week.  Carnies all know each other.

My parents once visited Jay and Ruth in Florida.  They were told that Jay’s house had a “big palm” in the front yard, as one might expect in Florida.  As my parents drove down the street, they spotted it.  Yes, it was big palm–a hand identifying the home of Madame Ruth, Fortune Teller.  True carnies.

Once Ruth was trying to find Jay who was, apparently, wont to disappear on occasion.  She came to my Granny’s house demanding to know his whereabouts.  Granny responded with:  “Why don’t you look in your crystal ball?!?!”  Granny wasn’t impressed with carnies.


I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky, which had a bit of a carny flavor to it.  No, it’s not because the residents looked like carnies, although a few surely did.  It’s because there was a family in town that owned and repaired carnival rides.  One member of that family was my younger brother’s baby sitter.

The patriarch of the clan was “Hoss,” a man whose girth no doubt led to his nickname.  He had rides and parts of rides all over his yard.  For a brief time, he even had a small Ferris Wheel.  My little brother loved that house.  The best days at the baby sitter were when he would come home and say “I played with Hoss today.”  Hoss also had an even more imposing son called “Mighty Moe,” but that’s a story for another time.

When I was small, that house was a wonder to me.  Why did they have all those rides in their yard?  I thought they were part of a carnival.  I was a tad disappointed when I found out they were just regular people.


Real carnivals had side shows or, as they were called in less politically correct times, Freak Shows.  I know that we’re not supposed to call people freaks.  It’s just not good form anymore.  That is, however, what they were called.  I didn’t come up with the term, so don’t assail me for using it here.


You don’t see this much anymore

Sonograms and evolving human decency have largely destroyed the Freak Show as an art form.  Modern medicine has also played a part in limiting the numbers of qualified entertainers.  Surely, the Elephant Man and the Mule-Faced Woman would receive at least some rudimentary medical care before their conditions became acute.  In days past, these unfortunate folks had little else to do but turn to the world of side shows.  It’s not like they could work in service industries.

If you want a good look at this bygone world, rent Tod Browning’s classic film, Freaks, made in 1932.  It stars real sideshow performers such as Prince Randian The Living Torso, Johnny Eck The Half Boy, Josephine Joseph and Zip The Pinhead.  It was so disturbing at the time that Browning had difficulty even finding theaters to show it.  It was banned entirely in England.


Prince Randian and Johnny Eck, stars of Tod Browning’s Freaks

I will confess that I have attended several freak shows.  This is nothing of which to be proud, but it’s true.  I’ve seen many of the typical freaks, such as Blockheads.  A Blockhead is a person who will push a nail straight into his face just beneath his nostril.  It’s gross, but anyone can do it if he or she is will to poke a hole in their face.  It’s more of trick than it is pure freakiness.


Typical Human Blockhead in Action

Here are my personal Freak Show highlights:

Helga The German Giantess

I saw Helga at a carnival in Lexington, Kentucky.  She was billed as The World’s Largest Woman.  The sign claimed that she was OVER 7 FEET TALL!!  I was with a couple of friends, and we were intrigued.  We paid our money and were led to a dingy tent where Helga sat on a shabby throne.  She wore a long, black dress and a tiara.  I’m not sure how old she was, but I would have put her in her late fifties.  It’s really hard to say what with her being a giantess and all.

She held court and prattled on about her adventures.   Then, she stood up.  I don’t know if she was really seven feet tall (they cleverly had her sit on an elevated stage), but she was big.  REALLY big.  Maybe 6’8″ and a good three bills.  She asked for a volunteer from the audience.  There were 6 or 7 people in the tent and some young fellow raised his hand.

The volunteer made her look even bigger, because she was about a foot taller than he was.  She held out one of her gargantuan hands and ask him to hold it.  My friends and I squirmed at the thought of it.  On her hand, she had a ring with a large fake diamond (I say fake, because if it had been real, I doubt she would have been toiling in a Freak Show).  He took her hand with all the enthusiasm of someone meeting a leper.  Helga then boomed:  “MAKE A WISH!!”  Then, she took a step back and hiked her dress up to her navel.  The giantess wore not a stitch of under-clothing.  She dropped her dress and said “DID YOUR WISH COME TRUE?!?!”  For some reason, this terrified us, and my friends and I fled from the tent.

More disturbing was that one of my friends kept saying we should go look for her trailer.  We said “no” and slowly backed away from him.


I saw her in Harlan when I was a kid.  She sat on the floor of a tent, chained to a post.  She held a baby doll in one hand and drooled.   The story was that she had been a normal college girl until a “bad trip” turned her into the LSD Freak.  Now, she was a dangerous lunatic who had to be chained up.  The barker said that if she escaped she would kill everyone.  I didn’t believe that, because her condition appeared more catatonic than psychotic.

Now, she wasn’t a real freak, not in the classic sense.  She was probably the wife or daughter of one of the carnies, but she disturbed me.  Why?  Because I wondered–even as a kid–about what kind of bad turn one’s life could take for that to be your job.  The Elephant Man had little choice in regard to his profession, but this was something else entirely.

I felt sorry for her and the whole lot of them.  But, I never forgot it.  So, it must have been a good show.


As noted above, Blockheads aren’t really freaks.  They’re just people willing to do something weird.  Like a sword swallower (which I’ve also seen, by the way).  I’ve seen several Blockheads, but one stands out.

Again, I was kid, maybe 10 or 11.  This guy was billed as “The Human Blockhead.”  He came through the back of the tent and was an unimpressive sight.  He might have weighed 130 pounds.  He was pale and somewhat unhealthy-looking, perhaps the pallor of someone who lives in a trailer behind a carnival.

The Blockhead disinterestedly pushed a nail into his face.  People gasped.  Then, he breathed some fire.  Ho hum.  He walked in box of broken glass with an apathy that made me think he really wouldn’t care if his feet got shredded.  He laid on a bed of nails.  Yawn.  Then, he did it.

A couple of guys set up two folding chairs while The Blockhead lay in the dirty floor. The two men picked him up.  He was stiff as a board.  They placed the back of his head on one chair and his heels on the other.  He was still perfectly straight.  A cinder block was placed on his stomach.  He didn’t budge.  This was an impressive feat of strength.  THEN, one of the guys picked up a sledgehammer and–BOOM!–smashed the block!  The Blockhead just bounced up and back down like a steel beam. He was still perfectly balanced on the two chairs.  The guys picked him up and laid him back in the floor.  He stood up, took a bow and left with the same apparent ennui with which he entered.

I was there, and I saw it.  It wasn’t a trick.  They smashed a freakin’ cinder block with a sledgehammer on his stomach! I don’t know how he did it, but he did.  I hope The Blockhead went on to bigger and better things.  I doubt it, but I hope so.


I can’t discuss carnivals without mentioning the food.  Corndogs, funnel cakes, cotton candy, snow cones and all manner of other food you wouldn’t eat anywhere else.  Everything that can be deep-fried is deep-fried.  And it’s all good.

There are still carnivals, although they are somewhat sanitized now.  Oh, you’ll still see a two-headed calf or dwarf on occasion.  There might even be babies in jars somewhere out there (Truthfully, I hope this one has been permanently eliminated).  You might even see a blockhead.  They still have all the crooked games on the midway, but I was never a fan of the games, anyway.  Some folks still have freak shows, like The Jim Rose Circus.  For the most part, though, the carnivals have lost their flavor.

Carnies remain the same–sketchy, dangerous and forbidding, but the rides seem safer.  I guess decades of litigation took care of that.  I haven’t been to a carnival in years, but I don’t think I can top what I’ve already seen.  Why try?

© 2013

The Wonderful World of My Mother

I have written here before about my Dad. Twice in fact. He was an interesting, quotable character and a fine, fine fellow. Great father, too. I haven’t yet written about my mother. Until now.

Why not? It’s not because she wasn’t a fine person. She was. Certainly, it’s not because she wasn’t a great mother. Of that, there is no doubt. The reason, I think, is because–unlike Dad–she is difficult to capture in words. But I’ll try.

Mom died in 2003. Her life was probably unremarkable by most standards. She was born on January 19, 1930 in Detroit. (Coincidentally, my father shared the same birthday, being born in 1925). Her parents were in Michigan, because my Papaw was looking for work. Shortly after her birth, they moved back to Eastern Kentucky. She grew on Island Creek in Pike County and in Cumberland in Harlan County. She graduated from Cumberland High School and then Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1951. After a year of student teaching at Benham High School, she taught at Evarts High School in Harlan County for the next 30 years. She was a Home Economics teacher. She married my Dad in 1957, and they stayed married until her death. They had three sons, of which I am the middle one.

Mom in 1945 in Cumberland, Kentucky

Mom in 1946 in Cumberland, Kentucky

She had a brilliant mind. After her retirement, she became something of an expert on investing and taxes. She was my primary financial advisor. If my Dad was the engine that drove our family, Mom was the brains of the outfit.

She survived breast cancer and the resultant toxic chemotherapy, although she suffered neurological damage from the treatment which left her with a bizarre set of symptoms for the remaining 20 years of her life. She also weathered the death of her youngest son. Overall, she had a life like most folks–ups and downs, good time and bad times.

A rare photo of Mom with all three sons.  Your author is on the right.  Note my dutiful older brother holding the purse and bottle.

A rare photo of Mom with all three sons. Your author is on the right. Note my dutiful older brother holding the purse and bottle.

She was, by turns, funny and sad; inspiring and discouraging. She could make me angry enough to yell at her (which I would NEVER have done with Dad) and the next moment be kind and thoughtful. She was generous and genuinely tried to let me know that she cared. She probably wasn’t different from a lot of mothers in that regard.

What made her different, at least to me, were the things she said, the stories she told and the myriad eccentricities to which we all became accustomed. To give you a better picture, I’ve decided to share some of those:


Like most mothers, Mom had a vast library of cautionary tales which were repeated over and over and over…. Here are some of the classics:

Poor Cousin Stubby: Around the 4th of July, I would hear about Mom’s cousin, who lived in Chicago at some time in the distant past. He was just called her “cousin.” If he had a name, I’ve long since forgotten it. Cousin had a penchant for setting off dangerous fireworks. One year, he set off some particularly deadly explosive and “BLEW HIS FINGERS OFF.” That’s how it was always described to me. Not one finger, mind you (which still seems unlikely, unless he was playing with blasting caps). In my child’s mind, this meant every, single, damn finger. My little mind imagined Cousin fumbling about for the rest of his life with his stubs–all because of fireworks. Some years later, a short-fused firecracker went off in my hand. Other than making my ears ring and slightly burning me, it was no big deal. Oddly, I was a little disappointed at the lack of maiming. Just a little.

I actually did have a cousin who cut off his finger in a door. He was never presented as any kind of example. He was just an idiot.

The Medicine Cabinet Moron: We lived in a house with an old-fashioned bathroom. It had a steel tub and steel sink with a medicine cabinet over it. The toilet probably used about 10 gallons of water per flush. As a lad, I would climb onto the sink to access the medicine cabinet. This was, as Mom taught me, one of the most dangerous stunts a child could pull.

It seems there was a boy in an unspecified part of the world who also liked to climb on sinks. Coincidentally, he was about my age at the time. Sadly, he lacked my sure-footedness and fell while reaching for his medicine cabinet. He crashed to the floor, cracking his head on the tub. The result? “BRAIN DAMAGE!” No, he didn’t just split open his head. He had BRAIN DAMAGE. As a result, as Mom said, he became a moron. Not only that, but he was also a “VEGETABLE.” THAT, my friends, is a bad deal. I am now 50 years old. A few weeks ago, I was at my in-laws house (which is very similar to my childhood home). I looked at their medicine cabinet and could not help but glance at the tub to satisfy myself that there was enough distance between the two to prevent a moron-inducing fall. Oh, I didn’t climb on the sink. But I thought about it.

The Boy Who Made Out With The Toaster: I have had a lifelong habit of looking at myself any time I pass a mirror. This isn’t because I am particularly handsome. It’s just a habit. My Dad did the same thing. When I was small fellow, I used to look at myself in the side of the toaster. I know that’s weird, but the toaster had a dent in it, and you could treat it like a fun house mirror. Besides, I just liked doing it, okay?

There was once this boy who, like me, stared at the toaster. One day–for reasons I didn’t understand–he kissed his own reflection! Much like Narcissus, he was done in by his own beauty. How, you say? By ELECTROCUTION. That’s right, he was electrocuted. Immediately. Dead. Just like the other kid who tried to get his toast out with a fork. D-E-A-D.

Here’s a secret: After she told me that, I kissed the toaster. What the hell? Life on the edge. Don’t tell anyone about that.

To this day, when I see a shiny toaster (you know, the silvery chrome kind), I’m tempted to plant one on it just to see. I don’t. Usually.

Sputum: If Mom saw me touch the bottom of my shoe–even for a split second–she would say “Oh, there is nothing filthier than the bottoms of your shoes. You have walked in people’s sputum.” Not spit. Nor phlegm. Not even snot. Sputum. When I got older, I would do it just hear the word sputum. She’s the only person I ever heard say it.


Mom had a habit of saying the same things over and over about particular people or situations. I considered these to be her catch phrases. This is best described by the following examples:

Social Disgrace: This was something to be avoided at all costs. A social disgrace would bring shame upon your family name. Divorce was a good one. Marital infidelity was another. Getting arrested was a biggie. Mom’s description was “Honey, you know that’s a social disgrace.” I’ve done my best throughout my life to avoid these.

The Lowest of Trash: One big step below a social disgrace was behavior reserved “the lowest of trash.” This behavior included drinking, drugs, premarital sex, children born out-of-wedlock, foul language, poor grammar, bad table manners and general trashiness. Normally, this was used as follows: “Honey, the lowest of trash wouldn’t do a thing like that.” Often, a woman who looked like a “floozie” would be used as a living example of the lowest of trash.

Stomped-Down Moron: To be a stomped-down moron may or may not involve social disgrace or the lowest of trashiness. All it required was poor judgment. Then, Mom might observe that “You act like a stomped-down moron.” This is not to be confused with a brain-damaged moron.

As an aside, Dad once observed during an argument with Mom: “Anna, I know that it’s important for you to get the last word, but you’re the only person I know who has to get the last scathing insult in any conversation.” Stomped-down moron fell into that category.

He Wears A Diaper: My parents knew a man who became involved with a much younger woman. It was a social disgrace, of course. This guy was about Dad’s age, and the gossip horrified Mom. Naturally, she talked about it all the time. Every time it came up, her description of this fellow included this tagline: “He wears a diaper.” WHAT?!? Evidently, this fellow had suffered some sort of hideous medical condition or that’s what folks said, anyway. As a result, “He wears a diaper.” Sometimes she would say “You know he’s incontinent. He wears a diaper.” Did he? Who the hell knows? How would Mom know this? I have no idea. It’s not like he was a close family friend. He was just some guy they knew. I doubt that he ever told Mom he wore a diaper. Regardless, his name was never mentioned without reference to his diaper.

Some years later, I happened to be in Harlan on business. I was at the Hardee’s and guess who I saw? Diaper Dandy! We exchanged banal pleasantries. I must admit that I checked him out for any tell-tale signs of diaper-wearing. You know what? I think that man was wearing a diaper.

The Ugly Man: Mom went to college with a man so ugly, so repellant that he was denied admission to medical school. This man was so hideous that the mere thought of exposing him to the sick and infirm was a shock to the senses. Since Mom was quite a few decades too young to have attended school with Joseph Merrick, the famed Elephant Man, what could this man’s affliction have been? Bad teeth. Yep, poor dental work. So bad–or “deformed” as Mom always said–that he couldn’t cover them with his lips. It seems to me that if you couldn’t cover your teeth, the lack of saliva would cause them to rot. Maybe they did or maybe he licked them frequently. Either way, it had to be really gross. I tried to envision this man’s appearance, his grotesque twisted teeth protruding. By the way, I’ve seen a lot of ugly doctors. Think about how bad this guy had to be.


Mom had a number of peculiarities or eccentricities or whatever you want to call them:

Car Sickness: Mom usually got car sick when she opened the door of the car. Sometimes, she would just puke in a plastic grocery bag. (Oh, the word “puke” is only said by the lowest of trash). Other times, you’d have to pull over to let her “get some air.” Once, we when she was a child, her father drove their family from Pikeville to Cumberland, Kentucky. When asked at the gas station how far he had driven, Papaw replied: “Nineteen pukes.” Normally, when my parents came to visit my home in Lexington, the first thing Mom did upon arrival was go to the bathroom and vomit. My wife thought it was odd, but I was so used to it that I rarely even noticed.

Camera Shyness: I suspect that there are more photographs of Howard Hughes and J.D. Salinger than there are of my mother. She hid from cameras like you were the Paparazzi. She would turn her head, hold up her hand, run from the room–anything to avoid the camera. Future generations will wonder why we have so little photographic evidence of her existence.

I took this photo of Mom in 1990.  She is telling me to leave her alone.

I took this photo of Mom in 1990. She is telling me to leave her alone.

Burning Paint: She had no sense of smell or at least that was the claim. There was one notable exception to this malady: She could smell burning paint–and she often did. It was like a super-power. Unfortunately, she would smell it when it wasn’t present. Or maybe it was but only her heightened sensitivity. “John, do you smell that? I smell burning paint.” There was never any burning paint, as far as I know. Then again, I don’t know what burning paint smells like.

The Pre-Planned Funeral: A lot of folks pre-plan their funerals, but not many do it without the help of a funeral home. Mom did. Shortly before her death, she gave my brother detailed plans, including a budget. No embalming (“It’s not required and a waste of money.”) We followed her instructions with one exception. We didn’t tell the funeral home to get all the gold out of her mouth (“They’ll steal it, if you don’t.“). But someone might have:

After Dad died, I found these in a jar.  They were Mom's.  Maybe Dad fulfilled her final wishes.

After Dad died, I found these in a jar. They were Mom’s. Maybe Dad fulfilled her final wishes.


Mom had a vast reserve of maudlin stories, most of which involved her childhood. Here are the best–and most repeated–ones:

Jitterbug: She had a dog named Jitterbug. I don’t remember what kind of dog it was. Here’s what I do remember: Jitterbug go run over by a train or a big truck or something like that. It was horrific. The story had a tremendous build up of how wonderful and loved Jitterbug was. Then, he got killed. I hated that story.

The Bracelet: When Mom was a girl, her father bought her a bracelet. She got mad at him one day, took off the bracelet and threw it at him. He weeped. He didn’t cry or sob or tear up. He “weeped.” That’s how it was always said, like a Bible verse: “Daddy weeped.” My older brother so hated this story that he refused to listen to it after a while. (Dad, being cynical as he was, observed “Can you imagine what a cheap piece of junk that bracelet was?”) Nevertheless, Mom never got tired of telling it.

Poor Little George: Mom’s Uncle George was about the same age as she was. He had some kind of awful liver disease. He died when he was 8 years old while his parents were driving him to a specialist somewhere. This is a legitimately sad story. The kind of story best told once. Once.

Papaw: My grandfather–her father–was one of the finest people I’ve ever known. Kind, caring–just a nice guy. He did, however, have the cardiac history of Fred Sanford, having suffered innumerable heart attacks. Mom would recount some of those to me telling me how he barely survived each. Once, he had one while working underground in a coal mine. Again, he barely cheated death. My Dad’s version was much different: “When we got to Cumberland, your Papaw was flaked out on a lawn chair listening to a transistor radio. He didn’t look too sick to me.” Papaw later moved to Utah and any time we visited him, he cautioned that it could well be the last time we saw him. He reminded us of that, too. He died in 1998 at age 91. Oh, and I never knew him to have a heart attack.

So, that’s Mom. It’s easy to say you love your mother. I did, but I also liked her. She was funny. She cared about what happened to me. She always tried to help. She rarely raised her voice. In her later years, I don’t think she could yell. She spoke barely above a whisper, often prefacing her comments with “Oh, Lord, honey…”

When my younger brother died, sadness infected her like a bad cold she couldn’t shake. She got better but never well. Even with that, she was a good mom and grandmother. She is greatly missed but left me with a lot of good memories.

© 2012

The Sporting Life of Me

I like sports. Maybe I love sports. Loving something like that (or is it those?) seems odd to say out loud, but it’s possible that I do. Why? I’m not sure, but I know this much: It isn’t because I was ever good at any of them.

If you’ve read any of my sundry blog posts, you know that I will opine on almost any topic–politics, religion, TV, movies, fighting girls, self-help and, yes, sports. These things interest me, and I like to write–and talk–about such things. One might call me self-centered. One might be correct about that, too. I assume that others will be interested in these subjects since they interest me. Mostly, I believe that others are, or at the very least should be, interested in what interests me. If not, they must be interested in me, generally. With that in mind, let’s talk sports.

I’m not an athlete. I never was. Oh, I tried my hand at various sports. Never, though, did I find my game.


I played a lot of baseball growing up. I wasn’t particularly good, but I played. I had one God-given skill and that was speed. I was pretty fast. That was helpful, to some extent. I also have decent hand-eye coordination–decent, not excellent. I couldn’t hit very well nor did I have a good arm. In my 20’s, a doctor told me that it was likely that I had torn muscles in my shoulder when I was young, which would explain chronic pain and weakness. I use this now as an excuse to explain my overall mediocrity. I am now convinced that I tore my shoulder when I was 4 years old.

My baseball career, as it were, can be summed up in one game when I was 14 years old. My team faced a pitcher who threw side arm. I couldn’t hit him neither could my team-mate batting in front of me in the order. In the last inning of an extra inning game, we both had struck out four times. There were two outs, and I was on deck. Since we both had the dreaded Golden Sombrero (four Ks), I silently prayed that my team-mate would get out so that I would not end the game for us. He did. On strikes. I was happy. There may be no “I” in team, but there damn sure is one in “strike out.”

I was also volatile and difficult to coach. I would argue with my coaches. I would argue with opposing players. I would argue with my team-mates. These may seem to be attributes of the modern athlete; however, they are best reserved for the modern, outstanding athlete. The borderline, average teenager in the 1970’s did not benefit from such behavior. One time, I even got into an argument with my coach’s father during a game. Not a good move.

I combined lack of skill and bad attitude with laziness. If I needed to work on something, I preferred to just sit around and hope I improved. Oddly enough, it didn’t work.


I also played basketball or, more correctly, tried to play. To say that I was not a good basketball player is to say that William Shatner is not a good singer. The speed which I flashed playing baseball disappeared with a basketball in my hands. I couldn’t go to my left at all. I could barely go to my right. But, could I shoot? No. Try as I might, my jumper was always an awkward “push” shot. It would have looked good in the days of the two hand set shot.

My lack of skill limited my play to pick up games, except for a brief period in elementary school when I played what we called “Little League” basketball in my home town. I played for Loyall Christian Church. Although I did not attend church there, they sponsored our team. I played three years and might have scored 10 points total. Honestly, that’s probably a stretch. I do know that my high game was four points. Wow.

The highlight of my organized basketball career was a fight–not involving me, of course. My Dad had an older kid walk me to my games at night (Dad was often on the road for work during the week). One night, we encountered a hoodlum of some renown. My guardian slapped the cigarette out of the hood’s mouth, picked it up and took a long drag off it. He then flicked the butt off the hood’s chest. I can still see those ashes exploding against his chest in the dark. Why did he do this? I think it was just to make a point. Okay, that’s not really a fight, but I was just 7 or 8 years old, and I thought it was cool.

I would occasionally play pick up games, usually quite poorly. The only time I ever recall playing well was in a one on one game with a friend in high school. For reasons now obscure, I had mouthed off about how I could beat him. I don’t why I did that since he was taller than I was and, by all appearances, more athletic. He challenged me to a game to 20 by ones. Something possessed me and, for that one game, I could really play. I couldn’t miss a shot. My awkward, two-handed J hit nothing but net. The game winner was made after a quite accidental cross-over dribble off my knee. My opponent slipped and I nailed a jumper from about 15 feet. My friend was wowed. I used up all my basketball luck in one game.

I also played in the occasional pick up game in college. Again, poorly. My friends tolerated me, because…well…they were my friends. I’m sure it pained them to watch me. Sometimes, I would play against girls. They were also better than I was. Perhaps the highlight of my college career was a violent body check/pick laid on me by a University of Kentucky football player. He was about 6′ 4″, 350 maybe. No front teeth and he wore a down vest to play basketball. After his bone-pulverizing pick, I predictably collapsed in a pathetic heap. He then screamed obscenities at me, rightfully questioning my manhood.

I used to play basketball with my kids. Then, they got better than me, too.


I also tried golf. There weren’t a lot of golfers when I was growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky. Some people belonged to the Harlan Country Club. I heard that they played golf up there on a 9 hole golf course. Other than the occasional miniature golf game (they had miniature golf in Evarts), I didn’t touch a golf club until I was in my 20’s.

I thought golf would be a good game for me. It didn’t require much (or any) athleticism. I imagined myself strolling the links with fellow hot shots, playing and making lucrative business deals. Sadly, my golf play resembled nothing so much as Spaudling Smails in Caddyshack. Here are some of the reasons golf didn’t work:

  • I discovered that most people didn’t enjoy playing with someone in a blind rage the whole time.
  • People would give me pointers which I desperately needed; however, I HATE pointers, advice, helpful hints or whatever the hell you want to call them.
  • I broke my pitching wedge beating it against a tree after sailing an approach shot over the green.
  • I broke my 9 iron. By running over it with my car. On purpose.
  • I bent my putter. Throwing it.
  • I would curse loudly and often.

Ultimately, I abandoned the game because I was just terrible at it. Terrible. The only thing I liked about it was that one could drink alcohol while playing. In my case, it didn’t affect my game at all. Now, I often think about what my father said of golf: “If a man has enough time to play golf, he should do something productive instead. Like work.” That gives me some comfort. Some. I don’t do much productive, either.


I tried other sports. Bowling, for instance. Sucked. Like golf, I can tell you all the fundamentals one must embrace to excel, but I can’t execute any of them. Once I stopped drinking, I found out that the only reason I ever bowled was for the alcohol, anyway.


How about pool? I love shooting pool. I can visualize every shot on the table. I can’t execute any of them. I’ve broken a couple of pool cues over my leg. I used to have a nice pool table, but I gave it away. It taunted me every time I walked by it. Again, though, one could drink beer and play. It had that going for it.


In the 1970’s, there was a yo-yo craze. That’s right–yo-yo. Everyone had a yo-yo, me included. The craze even reached Harlan County. Every hay-shaker and hill jack in the county was walking the dog, rocking the baby and going around the world. Me? I cracked myself in the mouth once trying to go around the world. Split my lip. Sometimes, I would walk the dog, and the yo-yo would pop up and hit me in the forehead. It was just sad.


My mediocrity knew almost no limits. Ping pong, darts, dodge ball, volley ball and softball all mastered me. PE in high school was a struggle, because there were no games at which I excelled. Our PE teacher was an affable enough fellow who went on to a successful career as a college football assistant coach. He was affable, that is, until he had a psychotic episode of yelling and screaming about something. He once hit a kid with a desk. He was better, though, than the head football coach who someone once aptly described as a “shaved ape.” They brought to mind the old Woody Allen joke: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

Of course, it was a right of passage that one take PE. At the time, I suspected that it was because of a homoerotic desire to force us all to shower. I guess that was wrong, but–hey–I was 14. It made sense at the time.

One sport I never tried was football. I was WAY too small and have an aversion to being hit. I also don’t like injuries of any kind. When I grew no one played soccer. I never ran track or swam competitively or played Frisbee. I like to think that I could have excelled at any of those if I’d only tried.

Later in life, I met many people who didn’t grow up with me. Someone would ask if I played basketball, and I could say, “Oh, yeah. I was pretty damn good, too.” Or I could say I was baseball star. Fortunately, when you reaches a certain age, people don’t challenge you or invite you to join their teams. If they do, you can alway claim some injury like a torn rotator cuff or unresolved sports hernia prevents it.

Now that I’ve written this, I think I know why I love sports. It’s precisely because of my incompetence. Perhaps, I live vicariously through these athletes. Perhaps, I admire their expertise. It could be that they represent all that I wanted to be. Or maybe it’s because I REALLY love watching TV. I am very good at that.

© 2012

Harlan County Halloween

It’s that time of year again. Halloween! All the kiddies will dress up and go door-to-door trick or treating. Some of us adults will dress up, too. There are Halloween parties for young and old. I suppose there are even Satan worshipers who use this time for their high holy days.

It was only when I moved to Lexington did I hear a lot about Halloween as a Satanic rite. Maybe there were kids I knew growing up who couldn’t trick or treat because of its Hellish undercurrents. The only kids I knew who couldn’t trick or treat were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they weren’t allowed to do anything.

Despite the many urban legends, Halloween is generally safe for young and old. People don’t put razor blades in apples or needles in candy bars. In fact, my cursory research reveals that there has never been a reported case of such maleficence. The only case of someone poisoning candy was some demented freak in Texas who poisoned his own kids. By the way, if you do think it’s safer for your kids to trick or treat at the mall, I suggest you go the mall and take a look at the human flotsam and jetsam loitering about. I don’t know what your neighborhood is like, but mine doesn’t look like a casting call for Jersey Shore II . Nevertheless, at 50 years old, Halloween takes me back to my youth, to the nostalgia of a simpler time.

I grew up in a Loyall, Kentucky, a small town in Harlan County. Halloween was a big deal in Loyall. Churches had Halloween parties. Our school had a Halloween Carnival. I even escorted the Halloween Princess one year. Alas, I was never either Prince or King of the Carnival, although my younger brother managed to salvage some of our family’s good name by become Prince. To become Prince or King, one had to raise the most money. After my humiliating defeat, my parents made sure my brother faced no such shame.

Your author’s enthusiastic appearance as the 2nd Grade escort for the Halloween Princess.

We enjoyed trick or treating. I lived in a small neighborhood with the exotic name of Rio Vista. It was, in fact, aptly named as we had a view of the Cumberland River, especially when it flooded. Rio Vista consisted of five small blocks of houses and was a trick or treat Nirvana.

We would run around the neighborhood collecting our candy and having a generally good time. Other than the occasional soaped window, we didn’t have much “tricking.” One year, a friend of my brother wrote “WALLACE FOR PRESIDENT” on our front door with a crayon. That wasn’t vandalism, as much as it was a political statement. In fact, the trickster told my Dad he did it. He didn’t want anyone else taking credit.

I don’t remember ever being afraid to trick or treat. We knew most of the people around us. There was one lady who handed out political literature instead of candy. We just skipped her house. There was also one lady I thought was a witch. I never walked by her house anyway, and I damn sure wasn’t taking a chance on Halloween.

As I got older, I realized that the rest of the county was different from my little world. Tree-cutting, for example, was very popular. You would cut a tree and drop it in the road to screw up traffic. Another more daring version involved cutting the tree almost in two and then pushing it down in front of an on-coming vehicle. Oh, how one would laugh at the ensuing carnage. The final–and most deadly version–was to drop the tree ON a passing vehicle. I don’t know of that actually happening, but I’m sure it did. Watts Creek and Jones Creek were two popular areas for this version of “tricking.”

My first personal experience with this difference was in my teen years when a friend and I–being past trick or treat age–decided to walk through Loyall on Halloween night. Without warning, we were caught in an egg-throwing crossfire which left us dazed and eggy.

For reasons long since forgotten–at least by me–someone once threatened to kill me on Halloween. Why did he choose Halloween? Maybe he quite reasonably–though mistakenly–assumed it was legal on Halloween. Suffice to say it didn’t happen.

In October of 1978, shortly before Halloween, I took my driving test for my license. The officer giving the test was an affable fellow, well-known around the county. He wasn’t so affable that day. When my Dad asked him how he was, he responded: “I’m getting ready for this damn Halloween. If I had my way, they’d outlaw that damn night. Declare martial law and arrest anyone out of after dark. As far as I’m concerned, shoot everyone out after dark.” He went on the explain that it was the most difficult night of the year for the police in our county. 75 additional state troopers had to be brought in to handle the lawlessness. As example, he cited a relative of his (it might even have been his brother) who lost an eye for an errant egg throw. I’m not sure I agreed with his Judge Dredd system of justice, but he had a point.

Halloween in Harlan County in the 1970’s and ’80’s went well beyond handing out candy and soaping windows. Our people took it as a night to abandon all semblance of order, to engage in random acts of vandalism and violence not seen during the rest of the year. It was an anarchist’s holiday.

One of my high school teachers was equally adamant about maintaining order on All Hallows Eve. One day, he addressed our class about his concerns. Below is an approximation of what we were told:

Some of you boys know where I live. Last year on Halloween, we had a house burned near us. I’m warning you that I’m not putting up with anything from now on. Anyone sets foot on my property, and I’ll be waiting with a shotgun. I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to unload a twelve gauge shell full of rock salt on you. I’ve done it before. It blows out of the barrel like burning sand. It won’t kill you, but you won’t soon forget it.

That was one house to be avoided at all costs. He lived near an area called Pathfork where the tales of Halloween excess were legendary. His precautions were understandable. Did I mention that he was also a preacher?

My favorite story is a somewhat apocryphal tale right out of Loyall. One of our denizens was well-known for his lawless behavior. For example, he was notorious for huffing lighter fluid, so much so that the local stores wouldn’t sell it to him. He would tie his shirt over his face and soak it with lighter fluid. As you might expect, he was prone to erratic behavior.

In any event, one Halloween, he dropped a toilet from the top of the bridge in Loyall. A toilet. Here is the Loyall bridge (long since torn down) as it looked at the time:

The “x” marks the spot from where a toilet was dropped off this bridge in Loyall. The approximate direction of its path is shown by the red arrow.  

As this photo shows, getting to the top of this bridge was no simple task. Now, I know that this young man could do that, because I had seen him walking on top of the bridge on many occasions. He would climb (or crawl) up the angled supports at the front of the bridge. But, to climb to the top carrying a toilet seemed to defy human capabilities. You might be impressed with that guy who parachuted from space, but I’m still more fascinated by this.

Oh, I should clarify that it was only the bowl part of the toilet. He did not drop the tank, too. This does not make the story any less fantastic. In fact, that is the kind of detail that gives the story the ring of truth.

Why did he do this? Where did he get a toilet? How on Earth did he climb with it to the top of the bridge? Did he intend to drop it on someone? If so, did he realize that it would likely instantly kill that person? I still hope that this story is true. It may well not be, but I hope so..

Then, there were the burnings. I’m not talking about mundane things like bags of excrement or pumpkins, although we had our share of that. I’m talking about houses. Every Halloween, I heard tales of house burnings–real and threatened. I don’t understand how going door-to-door in costumes morphed into felonious acts of violence, but that’s what I heard. Like a lot of stories in Harlan County, they may have been exaggerated.

You may wonder if anyone got killed on Halloween. Not so far as I know. If they did, it probably wasn’t Halloween-related. Nowadays, many people get their image of Harlan County from the television show Justified. I’m sorry to report that, at least in my day, we weren’t stacking up corpses like cord wood. Regardless, I don’t think the kill rate increased on Halloween.

One time in study hall in high school, a guy told me he was going to hang a guy on Halloween, thinking that he could get away with it. I don’t think he did it. He did, however, pull a dog’s teeth one time. You read that right. Nothing funny about that. That’s not too far from a lynching. I’m sure an FBI profiler would agree that it shows a certain willingness.

Even when I was in college, I took precautions. Halloween was on a Friday one year. I made sure NOT to go home that weekend, lest I be driving through the county after dark.

So, if you’re annoyed by trick or treaters, just think: Someone could be burning your house or cutting down your trees or dropping a toilet on you. Happy Halloween!

© 2012

Going Green

I’m going green. That is to say that I might go green. It’s all the rage. President Obama is all for it. All my liberal friends want me to do it. I have tiny feet–the size of matchboxes–but I compensate for that with a gigantic carbon footprint. I like the environment, but if you’ve read this blog before you know I’m not a mountain man. I like the seasons, except for Fall and Winter. Fall is like a really crappy appetizer just before an even crappier meal.

So, I guess I should go green. Maybe I will, but I have some reservations.

Green isn’t usually associated with anything appealing. I hate eating greens. To be green with envy is bad. If you’re green as a gourd, you don’t know anything useful. Have you ever aspired to be a greenhorn? Of course not. Ever see someone sick in a cartoon? Green-faced. Green teeth are really gross, unless you’re talking about Old Green Teeth from Charlie Daniels’ classic, Uneasy Rider. Even Kermit the Frog sang that It Isn’t Easy Being Green. Indeed.

There is good green stuff, too. St. Patrick’s Day and the wearing o’ the green. I’ve drunk green beer. It was just like regular beer but made for really gross vomit. The Jolly Green Giant and the Hulk seem cool (although being associated with gigantism might be bad). Money is green, and I like money. But, when you take a close look at it, it’s not really all that green.

Where I grew up, we had the Harlan High School GREEN Dragons. I guess there were all kinds of dragons–red, black, brown and green. The city of Harlan must have been crawling with dragons at one time. I didn’t go to Harlan High School. I went to James A. Cawood High School. We were the Trojans, named after, of course, condoms. By the way, since folks at Harlan High School always thought they were better than us county kids, I’m sure someone will offer an explanation of why being the Green Dragons is a sign of their socioeconomic and intellectual superiority. Save it. Truly, no one cares. You’re from Harlan County. The rest of the world thinks you’re a toothless hay shaker, too. But, I digress.

James A. Cawood High School. Home of the Trojans. The gym was called the ConDome but only by me.

Back to being green. I think I have to go off the grid. In other words, I have to live like an animal but without any animal skills or instincts. Either I have to make my own electricity or do without. Doing without is a non-starter. I like TV. TV requires electricity, as does the Internet.

I don’t know how to make electricity. I guess I could use solar energy, if I knew what the hell to do with it. When I was in the 7th grade, I built a solar water heater for a science project. Actually, my brother designed it. I just built it. That’s a lie, too. He built it. I watched, though. It worked, if you consider the ability to turn cold water into tepid, room temperature water “working.” Like many inventors, I remain bitter at corporate America for crushing my innovation.

Actual photo of solar water heater I invented in the 1970’s. Note lukewarm water pouring out of the pipe on the lower right side.

I could build a windmill, I suppose. Then what? How do I hook it up to my TV? Would I have to live inside it like Frankenstein’s Monster? He didn’t really live in one, but he did die in one. I have no interest in that. Would I be like Don Quixote and think it was a dragon–a GREEN dragon, no doubt? You know what windmills are good for? Killing birds. I could have plenty to eat, depending on what kind are killed. Power lines kill a hell of lot more birds AND have the added advantage of cooking them in the process. Once again, green isn’t necessarily better.

There goes my TV!

Windmills also catch on fire sometimes, which would scare the hell out of me, especially if I’m living in one (see comments RE: Frankenstein’s Monster above). The biggest problem is that the wind doesn’t blow all that much around here, and Kentucky is near the bottom of states in “wind potential.” I want my TV.

The sad fate of the typical windmill dweller.

Toilets. I like indoor plumbing and flush toilets. The TOTO Neorest 600 is on my bucket list. I’m not composting human waste. This one is non-negotiable.

The Neorest 600. Life at its best.

Cars. This is another tough one. I like cars. Not just any cars but ones with internal combustion engines. Maybe I could drive an electric car, if they didn’t cost so much. Plus, none of them look cool. I can ride a bike, but bike riders annoy me. They jam up traffic, run stop signs and generally get in the way. Plus, they’re all on the dope. No thank you, Mr. Armstrong.

Then, there’s flying.  I fly on occasion, and I’m sure that’s not green.  I assume that burning huge amounts of jet fuel isn’t eco-friendly.  We used to have green air travel.  Airships, massive floating palaces.  They were like flying ocean liners.  They also did this:

The joys of green air travel. The landings could be tough.

I’ll pass.

Maybe I should just get a green job. I’m lawyer, and it’s not all that green, I suppose. I produce massive amounts of paper which kills trees and fills landfills. I use lights and computers. I drive a car–a lot. Maybe I should just buy an old manual Royal typewriter and set up my office in my bird-slaughtering, flammable windmill. Unfortunately, this would substantially reduce the green which I value most–$$$$.

At one time, I considered setting up an eco-friendly mammogram business to provide much-needed health care screening while reducing one’s carbon footprint. It never took off. I’ve still got my cardboard box with two holes cut out in it, just in case.

If you’ve read other posts of mine, you know I work in the coal industry. If you’re green, you think I’m evil, that I hate the environment and want to control the weather. Not true. I like the environment. I just don’t like being out in it all that much. If you do, more power (coal power, of course) to you. I’m happy for you. Almost everyone I know in the coal business likes to hunt and fish or play golf. That’s being green.

Oddly, many green people are not all that green themselves. They are downright dirty. They are brown. Don’t be brown if you’re green. Bathe regularly. Really bathe, too. Don’t do something like soak in a pool of your own urine (or anyone else’s, for that matter) or roll around in composted human waste and call that bathing. If I go green, I’m still showering quite a bit.

Green folks are very sensitive. Generally speaking, they don’t like to be made sport of. They get enraged, in fact. They get red in the face (not green). They tell you that you are awful for not being green, too. It’s like a form of racism. Imagine if you organized protests demanding that everyone be white. But…but…THAT’S NOT THE SAME THING!! some greenie screams about right now. Well, no it’s not. Not even close. I just said that to make them mad. See how easy it is? I once enraged a hippie with this blog. Hippies are green. Some greenie will get hair-lipped about this post. Lighten up. Not with lights, mind you. Those take electricity.

I guess I’m not meant to be green. My kids do have a penchant for not flushing the toilet. They’re not green, either–just nasty. I recycle at work, but the Byzantine rules about what stuff goes where are so confusing that it’s just not worth it.

If you’re off the grid, I salute you. Of course, if you are, you’re probably not reading this unless you’re staring over the shoulder of someone at Starbucks. If you’re also “brown,” that person knows you’re standing there on account of the green smell.

I don’t feel too bad. The green folks I know drive cars, fly in jets and use electricity just like I do. That’s not a criticism. I understand. We need all that stuff. Kermit was right. It isn’t easy being green.

© 2012