Be Fun and Offensive with My Family Lexicon

I recently had the dubious honor of listening to a self-important gas-bag blow about the poor grammar of my native Eastern Kentuckians.   While much of what he said is true, one could persuasively argue that it is more a dialectic question than one of grammar.  I’m not a linguist, so that’s beyond my analytical ability.  It did get me thinking, though, about how we all speak and how it is influenced by our surroundings.  For example, my mother railed against poor grammar, although I was not particularly receptive, peppering my language with my fair share of “ain’ts” and double-negatives.  (Whenever I hear a double-negative, I hear my mother’s voice:  “If you ‘don’t have no’ you really have some.”).  I realized that my family had its own language, which may not have been well-understood outside our small circle.

My father was the font of most of our peculiar dialect–a combination of sayings, words and colloquialisms. Here are some of the terms and sayings I learned growing up (and as an adult) which my family used liberally.

CRYIN’ RUBE:  Dad had a cousin named Ruby who, by all accounts, cried at the slightest provocation.  Thus, she was known as “Cryin’ Rube.” This pejorative was reserved for times when one of us kids cried for no good reason.  “Be quiet, Cryin’ Rube” or “Don’t be a Cryin’ Rube” would be Dad’s frequent response.  I’ve said it to my kids, but they don’t get it.

H.G.:  HG was another of Dad’s cousins.  One summer in the 1930’s, HG stayed with Dad’s family.  He was, as Dad said, a “muscle head.” (see definition below).  Dad described him as a “goofy-looking boy.” One day, HG was dancing on the front porch swinging a curtain rod around like a sword.  While dancing, HG inadvertently stuck the curtain rod into an empty light socket.  He was blown off his feet.  If I did something really stupid, Dad might refer to me as HG.  To be HG meant you exercised poor judgment or were just generally annoying.

MUSCLE HEAD:  We didn’t coin this term, but Dad used it often.  Essentially, it means that rather than having functioning brain matter, your skull is full of useless muscle.  This was often shortened to simple “muscle,” as in “Listen here, muscle….”

THE ROUNDTABLE:  The roundtable is where you sit when you have arrived.  You only get a seat if you are qualified (see Portfolio below).  “You are now at the roundtable” was perhaps Dad’s highest praise.  Impostors or wastrels need not even consider approaching the roundtable.  It’s invitation only.

PORTFOLIO:  Your portfolio is a list of your accomplishments, qualifications and general worthiness.  To be “without portfolio” was Dad’s way of saying that you just don’t measure up.  There is no room for you at the Roundtable.  In his later years, Dad was fond of saying (and saying and saying…) “I am my portfolio.  My portfolio is I.”  Outside immediately family, I doubt that was well understood.  My brother and I knew he meant that he would stand on his own accomplishments.  We knew this because he also said “I will stand on my portfolio.”  What really taught us was we call The Parable of the Washer Woman.  It went something like this:

If you are invited to the Roundtable, you will be judged on your portfolio.  If the washer woman approaches the Roundtable, they will review her portfolio, too.  “Let’s see, here, hmmm.  What are your accomplishments?  You are a WASHER WOMAN!  OUT!”  She is without portfolio.  If you have portfolio, you will get your seat, but you will earn your place.”

At this point, I should note that my father had no prejudice against washer women.  He was simply emphasizing that not everyone could sit at the Roundtable.  The titular washer woman lacked portfolio; thus, for her own good, she need not approach the Roundtable.  My brother and I understood.  Oddly, the first time my brother heard this, he thought it was a true story and was horrified by the treatment of the poor washer woman.  Don’t let that cause you to question my brother’s portfolio.  He has portfolio.  Dad said so.

HORSE FACE CUMPTON:  It would help if you had known my maternal grandparents, which is unlikely.  They were the finest of people but almost like a comedian team.  Papaw had a penchant for long, detailed stories which Mammaw constantly interrupted with irrelevant comments and questions.  Here is where Horse Face arose:

Papaw:  “When I worked in the mines at Benham, I worked with this fellow…”

Mammaw:  “Ireland (pronounced “Arlen”), who was he?”

Papaw:  “Muriel (pronounced “Merle”), you didn’t know him.  Anyway…”

Mammaw:  “What was his name, Ireland?”

Papaw:  “You didn’t know him, Muriel.  Back to  my story.  This fellow…”

Mammaw:  “I knew everyone at Benham, Ireland.”

Papaw:  “MURIEL, HE WAS A MAN NAMED HORSE FACE CUMPTON!!  THERE!!”

Mammaw:  “Horse Face Cumpton?  Hmmm.  That name rings a bell.”

Maybe that’s not funny to you, but you didn’t know Mammaw, did you?  She was the same person who once asked a lady with the last name of Pigg if she was related to the Hogg family in Letcher County.

Anytime that I’m interrupted trying to tell a story, I feel the urge to yell “HORSE FACE CUMPTON!”  Sometimes, I do, and no one understands.

UNEMPLOYABLE:  We all know this word, but few of us use it as a noun.  Dad did, as in “He is an unemployable.”  Dad put great stock in people having jobs and, more importantly, being willing and able to have a job.  Likewise, he considered helping get someone a job to be the greatest kindness one can offer.  He referred to some folks as “unemployables.”  I have adopted this as part of my vocabulary.  One word of caution, be careful about when you use it. People don’t like being called that.

One night I called Dad and asked what he’d been doing.  He said “I just returned from speaking to a group of unemployables.”  I still hope that he didn’t really call them that during his talk.

LOWEST OF TRASH:  I’ve written before about my mother’s use of this term.  It’s bad enough to compare a human to refuse but adding to that the “lowest” of such human garbage is harsh indeed.  Unfortunately, sometimes that’s all that applies.

BANK SHOES:  No, these aren’t worn by bankers.  These are shoes fit only for wearing on a river bank.

STREAK OF THE CREEK:  Dad’s way of saying that you might be too backward to make it in the modern world.  “It’s hard to wash off a streak of the creek.”

SIMPLETON:  Again, not an original but so frequently used that it became part of my vocabulary.  It’s similar to “wastrel,” a word no one uses anymore.  Dad used it.  So do I.

KNUCKLEHEAD:  No doubt, this came from our family love for the Three Stooges.  Can be used interchangeably with “loggerhead” or “numbskull.”

DAFT:  Like wastrel, this fell out of favor a couple of hundred years ago, but we liked it.

THUMBS:  A pejorative term used for a clumsy person, as in “Be careful there, Thumbs!”  “Ox” or “Oxy” can also be used.

HORSEY:  A rather unattractive woman, usually large.  “She’s a big horsey woman.”  I try to avoid this one.  It just doesn’t go over well.

THIS ISN’T A HIGH SCHOOL DEBATE:  Another one of Dad’s which he adopted late in his life.  Translation:  Regardless of how inane or plain wrong what I am saying may be, do not take exception to anything I say, boy.  Ever.

HUMMAQUEER:  My brothers and I and our cousin were riding in a car with Mom on a drive in Utah.  We were discussing someone and Mom wanted to ask this question:  Is he a homosexual?  Now, bear in mind that this was several decades ago before “gay” was in common usage in our part of the world.  Also, I doubt Mom had ever said the word “homosexual.”  In fact, it’s unlikely that she had ever said “sexual” in mixed company.  To her credit, she wanted to prove she was “with it.”  Here is how the question was actually asked:

Do you think he’s one of those, uh, you know, uh…humma…humma…uh…hummaqueers?

You may be offended by this.  If so, my mother has been dead for many years now and likely wouldn’t have cared about your opinion anyway.  Of course, if that does offend you, then you certainly will be offended by the question my cousin asked her:  “Is that anything like a fagsexual?”

Political correctness and common decency prevent the use of hummaqueer these days.  That’s a good thing, but I still think it sometimes.

THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE:  Another cousin of mine was a rambunctious child.  After a long car ride, he leapt from the car, grabbed my Mammaw’s cat and threw it up on the roof of my grandparents’ house.  As he was being scolded, he shouted:  “THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE!”  This always comes to mind whenever I do something inexplicable and don’t have a good excuse.  For example, I once kicked in my son’s bedroom door and immediately thought, well, you get the picture.

This is just a partial list.  There were, too, the requisite cautionary tales and the tales of woe (walking to school, no new clothes, no Christmas presents, eating mush, etc.) all parents tell.  I’m sure your family has its own distinct vocabulary.  Think for a moment about the names you gave your grandparents–Grandpa, Pappy, MeeMaw, Moo Moo, Granny, etc..  Consider, too, the various humorous family terms for bodily functions and genitalia.  You can easily make your own Family Thesaurus and Dictionary.  If you’re foreign, you can even do a bi-lingual version.  Try it.  You’ll have fun.

Now, back to the Roundtable.

©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

Richard Nixon and Me

I was an odd child.  I readily admit that.  I could deny it, of course.  My parents are dead, and they were the ones who remembered my childhood best–better even than I do.  My older brother would remember, too–he remembers everything.  But, he’s far too classy to regale the world with tales of my odd behavior.

One odd thing was that I liked Richard Nixon.  I did.  I was only 6 when he was elected President, and 11 when he resigned.  My Dad despised him, even though Dad voted for him. Dad said Nixon was “the kind of man who would do anything.  Anything.  You can tell by looking at him.”  Nevertheless, I liked Nixon.  Maybe that’s why.

As I said, I was an odd little feller.  I spent a lot of time concerned about things that 1st graders ignored.  The Vietnam War, for instance.  I would watch the news and be horrified.  We needed to win the war.  It worried me.

I worried about the POWs.   One year in our Christmas parade in Loyall, Santa gave out POW/MIA badges.  I got a bunch of them.  As aside, Santa actually threw them from the back of a fire truck.  If they hit your head, they hurt like hell, but it was worth it.

I also paid a lot of attention to politics.  Again, odd.  In 1972, I knew George McGovern was pretty much a Communist and that Nixon would beat him.  I didn’t like Communists.  I knew they were bad.  I used to worry about Communists, too.  They could be anywhere. Everywhere.

Democrats used to have a telethon to raise money (quaint, huh?).  I watched the telethon.  I picked up the phone and called in.  I told them I would give $10 if Hubert Humphrey said my name on TV.   He did.  I then told my parents they owed Hubert Humphrey $10.  My narcissistic desire to hear my name notwithstanding, I supported Nixon.

Of course, Nixon won.  He was going to end the war.  I liked that.  I imagined some sort of Hiroshima-type finale.  After all, this was Nixon.  Before we could get to that, though, we had Watergate.  You either know what Watergate is or you don’t.  I’m not going to explain.  If you don’t know what it is, just know that it’s the reason that all political scandals now end in GATE.

As you can imagine, I was heavily into Watergate.  I watched the Senate hearings.  Read about it in the paper.  John Dean, Howard Hunt, Gordon Liddy, et al., rivaled my baseball heroes for my time.  I learned about the CREEP, the Dirty Tricks Squad, Rosemary Woods, Martha Mitchell and on and on.  One thing I knew for sure, Nixon was neck-deep in it.  It would tug your heart-strings if I told you that it broke my heart. It didn’t.  It was Nixon.  It was to be expected.

As another aside, I could do a killer Nixon impression and Sam Earvin, too.  Really spot on for an 11-year-old.  I had been perfecting my Nixon since I was 6, so it should have been good.  I could also draw a picture of Nixon.  Understand, now, I am not artistic, but I practiced until I could draw a pretty fair likeness.

I wrote Nixon a letter, kind of a “keep your chin up” missive.  I imagined him reading it to Pat after dinner.  Little did I know that he was so odd himself that he greeted Pat at dinner with “Hi.  How are you doing?”  I doubt they sat around reading fan mail.  I got a letter back from some staffer thanking me for the letter.  I’m sure it helped.  I’d like to think it did.

It was around the time of Watergate that my school was selling posters for a fundraiser.  Some kids bought posters of singers or athletes.  I bought this one:

This poster adorned my wall as a kid.

By this time, my parents were thoroughly disgusted by Nixon, but Dad liked the poster.  He thought it was funny.  My  Papaw loved Nixon and the poster.

Once, when we were visiting my grandparents in Salt Lake City, we went to hear Nixon give a speech.  Papaw was part of the security detail at Temple Square.  He stood right behind Nixon during the speech.  I was impressed.

Family_004

Trust me on this. Nixon is in there somewhere–with my Papaw.

I watched Nixon announce his resignation and his sad parting speech the next day.  His upper lip poured sweat.  He called his mother a saint.  It was sad. I felt bad for him, even though I sensed that he had brought it on himself.

I moved on from old Tricky Dick.  I’ve never really cared much for politicians since.  Mind you, I’m not disillusioned.  Nixon was what I thought he was.  That probably says more about me than it does him.

Nixon’s first public appearance after his resignation was actually close to my home in Harlan County, Kentucky.  He came to the dedication of a library–or something–in Leslie County.  I thought about going over there, but I was a teenager then.  Other things to do, I suppose.  Dad said he wouldn’t walk across the street to see Nixon.

I kind of liked seeing Nixon become something of an elder statesman in his old age.  Oh, I’m sure he would have still done something tricky if he had a chance.  At least I’d like to think he would have.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports Illustrated, July 1985

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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