The Boy Who Loved Christmas

I guess that’s not a very creative title. Lots of people love Christmas. I’m one of them, but I’m not a boy anymore. I’m 52 years old. I still love Christmas.

At the risk of drawing the ire of my Christian friends, I’ll confess that it has little to do with the Christian aspects of the holiday. It’s not that I discount that. That’s just not the hook for me. (Feel free to post your scathing comments below. I also don’t think there is a War on Christmas. Even if there is, Christmas won.

So, here’s what I like:

THE PRESENTS

I have to be honest: I like getting gifts. Admit it–you do, too. I won’t even return bad gifts. I just keep them. Really, I don’t think there are any bad gifts, just unsuitable ones. They way I look at it, no one has to give me anything. I should appreciate the effort.

Okay, sometimes I’ll give one of my gifts to someone else, but I never “re-gift.” I’ll just say: “Hey, someone gave me this, and I can’t use it. Do you want it?” Bourbon chocolates are a good example. Those are big here in Kentucky, and I don’t like them. I never have. Every year at Christmas, I’ll get boxes of them from various sources. If you’re not familiar with this confection, just imagine fudge drenched in bourbon. It’s an alcoholic’s idea of candy. (“Chocolate’s great, but you know what would make it better? BOOZE!!“). I just give them away. Fruit cake works the same way, except I can’t find anyone who wants that crap.

While I certainly appreciate the effort, despite no gift being bad, they’re not all good, either. Clothes are rarely good presents for me.  At I’m 5’ 8” and 160 pounds, I’m the wrong size for a typical American. I am, however, the perfect size for a middle weight boxer. Think about that: MIDDLE weight. This connotes a person of medium size, does it not? Why, then, do people insist upon buying me clothes designed for men twice my size? If a “large” size fits me, what size do actual LARGE men wear? I get sweaters that hang to my knees, shirt with sleeves falling below my hands and pants in which two of me can be stuffed. Even these grotesquely ill-fitting items are greatly appreciated, though. I try my best to wear them. I’ll hang on to them for a while, hedging my bets against being stricken with gigantism or morbid obesity. At some point, I’ll donate them to charities devoted to clothing behemoths.

With these limited exceptions, I like all gifts, especially if they are gift-wrapped. Socks, neck ties, cologne, fruit, books–you name it–I like them all. No one is obligated to give me anything, so it’s a nice gesture. Sometimes, I get great gifts. One year, my brother and I got like 10 G.I. Joes. I’ll never forget that. I got a baseball glove when I was 10. I still have it, too.

I also like giving gifts to people. In fact, I might like that more than receiving them. I don’t even care if you like the gift. My wife never likes my gifts, unless it’s something she has specifically identified, and I mean specifically. I need photos, serial numbers, model numbers, sizes, colors, etc. In fact, it’s most helpful if she just buys the gift herself. One year, I used a personal shopper to pick out maternity clothes. My wife hated all of them. The fact that she wasn’t pregnant may have contributed to that, but you get my point.

Christmas also makes me want to give money to worthy causes. Well, the tax deduction also motivates me, but it’s great that Christmas comes at the end of the calendar year when a giving spirit and greed combine so nicely.

It’s said that it is better to give than receive. I’m not sure about that, but they’re both fun.

THE MUSIC

Christmas music is great, too. Deck The Halls sounds good whether sung by Pat Boone or Twisted Sister. White Christmas? Bing Crosby, Elvis, Jewel, Leon Redbone—they all can nail it. All of us sing along when we hear these. We sing along to Good King Wenceslas, even though we don’t the words. We don’t know whether there are bells on Bob’s tail or Bobtail. Regardless, we cheerily sing along.

Naturally, not all the songs are great. During three or four Christmas seasons, my youngest son played Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer over and over (and over). I’ll admit that I found it humorous the first couple of dozen times. After that, it became tedious. It’s Cold Outside is a fairly new classic, but its tacit endorsement of date rape doesn’t put me in the holiday mood.

Then there are the Christmas Carolers. I don’t see them as much as in the past, but they still roam about. Maybe they focus more on hospitals and shut-ins. That’s for the best. Honestly, carolers make me a tad uncomfortable. I just stand there and watch them. Singing along seems unnecessary, inappropriate even. Just when I think they’re done, they sing another song. When they finally do finish, there’s an awkward moment of silence. I’m never sure if I should applaud, hand them money or just shut the door. The whole scene makes me uneasy.

Otherwise, Christmas music is always good. It puts me in the Christmas spirit, even if our radio stations start playing them in October. Once Christmas is over, I don’t want to hear them. It just makes think about how far we are from next Christmas.

THE EXCITEMENT

If we’re honest, most of us will admit that we don’t remember a lot of details about childhood. Mostly, it’s just a highlight reel. I remember Christmas. The nerves and excitement bordered on terror. I had a friend who would stay awake all night, practically mad from excitement. He still talks about it. That’s Christmas to me. Christmas made me totally mental.

Even after I passed the Santa phase, I was still excited—maybe even more so. Without the North Pole bureaucracy, my chances of getting cool presents increased. I was a pretty good kid. Besides, I knew my parents didn’t have Santa’s unrealistic expectations regarding behavior.

I was fascinated when I realized that my parents got me all those presents. Certainly, it explained a lot. Now I knew how “Santa” figured out what I wanted. It answered my questions about the seemingly impossible logistics of covering the entire planet. Plus, I had come to realize that reindeer really could not fly. Elves, of courses, were just creepy.

But in those days of Santa, I was full-on believer for years. Sure, there was the Santa at the Sears catalog store whose red hair showed under his cheap wig. I dismissed him as one of Santa’s many “helpers.” That our chimney led straight to coal-burning furnace was no issue for me. I just assumed that Santa had the good sense to come through a window at our house.

I’ll admit that Santa also stressed me out. I worried about my behavior. Like most kids, I only focused on this as Christmas neared. I fretted that my transgressions from earlier in the year might cost me a G.I. Joe. What needless worry!

One year, I was so overcome with joy that I had to remove myself from the living room where Santa left our substantial take. I went the kitchen and promptly downed six glasses of milk to calm my nerves. Then, I vomited. Now, THAT’S excitement! I don’t puke on Christmas Day anymore. I miss that.

I’m glad to say that my own three sons picked up some of this from me. My middle son, in particular, was always so excited that he would cry when saw his gifts. Even now, as a young adult, I still see that he’s thrilled on Christmas Day. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m older now, even old some would say. I’ve passed from believing in Santa to being Santa to retiring as Santa. Regardless, I still get a thrill thinking about Christmas.

THE COMMERCIALIZATION

I’m one of the few who will admit that he likes the garish commercialization of Christmas–the advertising, the lights, the sparkle–all of it. Here’s what my house looks like:

We like to think we strike a delicate balance between festive and obnoxious.

We like to think we strike a delicate balance between festive and obnoxious.

We love it.

I like Christmas movies. I’ve seen Christmas Vacation a dozen times, at least. Elf is a new favorite. I even like Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s classic about a murderous lunatic. I am, however, one of the rare few who does not care for It’s A Wonderful Life. I find the whole thing depressing. Oh, sure, there’s the upbeat ending where George realizes everything is great. Up until that point, it’s like a barium enema–painful, uncomfortable and you just wish it would end. Just when you think it can get no worse, it does. That you ultimately get relief does little to erase the memories. I come away questioning whether George’s life is all that wonderful. Everyone else seems to love it. So, maybe it’s just me.

I know there are folks who don’t like Christmas. They tend to be vocal about it, too. I don’t care. I think I’m still the boy who loved Christmas, just older. In fact, I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling like a kid pretending to be an adult. That’s problematic in many areas of my life. In the case of Christmas, I’m okay with it.

©www.thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2014

Five Things You Don’t See Every Day

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

THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WONDERS OF DUCT TAPE

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

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

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

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

THE COAL MONUMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

COON ON THE LOG

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

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

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

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

TIRE WALKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Hometown Loyall-ty

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

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

WHERE (OR WHAT) IS LOYALL?

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

loyallmap

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

Aerial view of Loyall today.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I lived in this house until I was 12.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH HARLAN COUNTY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIVING IN REALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT BAD STUFF?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO, WHAT’S THE  DEAL?

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

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

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

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

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

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

healthfair

Your author’s odd appearance belied his spelling ability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s (roughly) how our exchange went:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The Harlan County Way

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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:

Kentucky_county_map2

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.

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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.

WE ARE BAD

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.

bloodyjohn

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 WE?

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.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE?

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.

IT’S NOT ALL GOOD

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.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

What I Know At 50

Living it up on my 50th birthday.

I’m 50 years old.  That’s just ridiculous, but it’s true.  I have no problem with being 50, mind you.  I’ve known plenty of folks who didn’t make it to 50.

50 is the first age I’ve reached that sounds old.  If you’re 50, you’ve been around the block.  Lived life. Done things.  I suppose that’s all true.

If I take a close look in the mirror, I look like I’m 50.  Gray hair, wrinkles, reading glasses.  I avoid full length mirrors. As a friend of mine once said, you know you’re old when you look better in any clothes than in no clothes at all.  50.

50 is a good age, at least so far.  At 50, I know quite a few things.  Of course, by 80 I will have experienced a lot of other things, but I may not know much about them.  After all, I’ll be 80 and may not be firing on all cylinders.

Here are the things I know:

I DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING

Most people my age know everything.  I mean every single freaking thing there is to know.  They know about politics, sports, children, religion, health–everything.  They also don’t hesitate to share their knowledge.  Me?  I don’t know all that much.  Oh, I know a lot about a few things (the law, sports, coal mining, my kids, movies, TV) and a little about a few things (religion, politics, space travel, geography, books, money, my wife and sundry other topics).  Then, there is the vast universe of things about which I know nothing useful or nothing at all (computers, foreign languages, women, art, math, photography, physics, Ayn Rand, the Spanish-American War, George Soros, Broadway, automobile repair, plumbing and many, many other things).

It wasn’t always that way.  Like all of us, I was born knowing nothing.  By the time I was in my teens, I knew everything and held onto that for several years.  In fact, my knowledge level peaked with my actually knowing more than everything, that is, knowing not only all there is to know but also knowing things that aren’t even generally known.

Chart showing the author’s knowledge level in relation to his age. Note that for a brief time in my late teens/early 20’s I exceeded the human capacity level for knowledge of all things.

I estimate that by the time I was 35, I only knew 75% of everything, having learned through fire that I did not know many things I had taken for granted.  For example, by then I had two children and was quite aware that there were many things I did not know, like how to prevent diaper rash.

My knowledge level has continually decreased to the point that I now know only half of everything.  Truthfully, that’s an exaggeration, as I am sure that I don’t know that much.  However, knowing that gives me extra credit and justifies inflating the figure to 50%.

I have some concern that this downward trend will continue.  Perhaps it will.  I am fortunate to have two teenage sons who can fill in the gaps of knowledge with all they know.

Folks my age are fond of saying “If I only knew then what I know now….”  What they really mean is “If only knew then what I think I know now….”  Here’s the deal, if you were young and were as opinionated and grouchy and self-righteous as most people my age, you’d have no friends.  Period.  Remember when you were a teenager.  If you’d had a friend who acted like a 50-year-old man, you would have beaten him with a bag of door knobs.

The best part about knowing that I don’t know everything is that I will sometimes listen to people who know about things that I don’t know anything about.  Then, I learn.

LIVING IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS

My father was fond of saying that there were no “Good Old Days.”  This was primarily because he lived a Dickensian existence of want.  Thanks to him, I lived no such childhood.  Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, albeit for different reasons.

These are the good old days for me.  I’m healthy.  I have a good job.  I like my job.  I have disposable income.  My children are healthy and seem to be fairly decent sorts.  I have a good wife. I do most of what I want to do when I want to do it.  No one tells me what time to go to bed or get up or where to go or what to do when I get there.

Hey, what about the teen years?  Don’t you want to live that again?  ARE YOU CRAZY?  I had fun as a teenager, especially college, but I wouldn’t do that again for anything.  The angst, the drama, the idiotic decisions.  Being a teenager is best left to the teens.  By the time they realize they and their friends are idiots, they’ll be my age.

Here’s something that’s cool.  I’m not far away from the age where I can hug young women and say inappropriate things and be dismissed as “sweet.”  I’m not there, yet, though.  I’m still young enough to be considered creepy and dangerous.

I’M AN ADULT

I’m an adult. I’m 50.  I can eat pork rinds for dinner if I want.  Last night, I ate a huge piece of cheesecake.  I can do that for breakfast, too.  I can stay up late (assuming I don’t naturally just fall asleep–not insubstantial risk after sundown). These are all good things.

I also have credibility.  At 50, I’m a grown man, you know.  Gray hair helps (on a man, that is).  I look like I might know a few things.  I can call people “son” or–if I’m on edge–“boy.”

Gray hair means I’m worldly and must be taken seriously

Reading glasses also lend an air of respectability.  I can take them off and gesture with them.  I can look at things and give the impression that I’m really paying attention.  I can chew on the ear piece to appear to be deep in contemplation.

Your author demonstrates how the use of a $10 pair of reading glasses creates an authoritative aura lacking in today’s youth.

Young people have none of these tools available.  Much like wearing a tie, these simple accoutrements makes life easier.  Below is an example of my foolish efforts to be taken seriously in my youth:

At age 26, your author naively believed that such things as a coonskin cap and a noisemaker would make others respect him.

When I go to Starbucks or a restaurant, pretty young women call me “honey” and “sweetie.”  Okay, it’s a little patronizing, but I like it.  Recently, a comely lass at the gym asked me how old I was and whether I used a trainer.  “I still got it,” I thought and responded:  “I’m 49, but I don’t use a trainer.”  She said: “Oh, I just wondered.  My dad is 45 and wants to get in shape.”  Oh well.

Mostly, it’s all good.  People call me “Sir” and “Mister.”  Some of my kids’ friends’ parents even call me “Mister.”  I don’t correct them. I like it.

KIDS ARE GOOD

Most people my age have children, or so it seems.  I’m glad I have children.  They’ve been fun and only occasionally have I wanted to kill them.

When I was young, I didn’t know if having kids would be important or not.  Then, I had one.  Man, oh, man, was it important!  I changed many, many diapers.  I got thrown up on–not to mention other bodily discharges.   I was fascinated.  Still am.

I’ve blogged about kids before, so I won’t wear you out with that again.  My point:  I’m glad I have kids, and they’ve kept me young.  At 50, I have a ten-year old son.  That’s very cool.

DON’T DISCOUNT LUCK

No one likes give credit to luck.  But, like Ignatius P. Reilly bemoaning  in A Confederacy of Dunces, “Oh, Fortuna…”, we will give luck all the blame.  I’ve found luck to be a valuable asset.

Like most people, my ego whispers in my ear telling me that I deserve all the good things but none of the bad.  I deserve the good, of course, because I’ve earned it, by God.  The bad stuff is caused by everyone else or just plain old bad luck.

Branch Rickey said that “Luck is the residue of design.”  I don’t know what the hell that means.  Another Baseball Hall of Famer, Grover Cleveland Alexander said: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”  I know what that means, and I agree with it.

Grover Cleveland Alexander was a wise–and hard living–man. He looked like this at 40. Maybe he’d run out of luck.

I’ve had more than my share of good luck.  I’ve been married 24 years.  I’d love to take credit for that, but luck plays a role.  I’m lucky she married me and lucky she puts up with me.  I’m lucky to be alive.  I’ve done a stuff that could have killed me, but it didn’t.  Luck.

I’ve had bad luck, too, like everyone else.  I quit saying “Why me?” a long time ago.  Now, I say “Why not me?”  Luck cuts both ways, but I’m glad I’ve had more good than bad.

LIGHTEN UP

I’m not that important.  Seriously.  Neither are you.  Sorry, but it’s true.  If you’re lucky (that word again!), your family and maybe a few friends think you’re important.  Maybe your dog, too.  That’s about it.

What about work?  If you think you’re important in your job, try this:  Quit.  I did that one day.  Just quit a job I’d had for 18 years.  They were fine with it.  If you quit, some people will want you to stay, some will be glad to see you go and all of them will forget about you in a few weeks.

Of course, it’s possible that you actually are really important in your job.  Maybe you’re the best there is.  If you are, I’m willing to bet you monumentally suck at something very important in your life.  Back off your job and take a look at some of those other things.

You could also just die–the ultimate test of your importance.  The downside is that you may not be able to see what happens next.  Here’s what happens.  A handful of people are really upset, a few are concerned and most don’t give a damn.  That’s it.

Life isn’t a long, slow trudge to the grave.  At least it shouldn’t be.  Work, politics, religion, taxes, injustice–all those things will survive after I’m long gone.  Lighten up.

Once I lightened up (and it took years to do), I learned my final, most important lesson.

LIFE IS GOOD

When Leon Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico, he famously penned in his journal “Life is beautiful.”  He wrote this knowing that assassins were after him and would soon succeed in their quest.  And they did.  I used to think Trotsky was a nut.  He wasn’t.

Life is beautiful.  Not only that, it’s good, too.  It took me a long time–too long–to believe that.  Why is life good?  Here’s why:

  • Laughing
  • Things that smell good
  • Little kids
  • Kissing
  • Sports
  • Books
  • Movies
  • The Internet
  • Naps
  • Food
  • Friends
  • Microwave Ovens
  • Television
  • The beach

We all enjoy at least some of these.  If you don’t, you’re missing out, and it would suck to be you.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

A Touch Of Evel (Knievel)

THE EVEL ONE

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

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

Good or bad, there was only one Evel Knievel

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

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

He would do this a lot, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME FOR ME TO FLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACKYARD EVEL

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

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

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

Artist’s rendering of ramp design

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

The Schwinn Lemon Peeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your author still bears the scar of his backyard folly

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

 ©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012