Here’s Something Funny: How I Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER:  What?

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER: Huh?


HER: Don’t yell at me!

ME:  I have to yell.  You can’t hear.

HER:  What?


HER:  I am not! You mumble!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2014

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.


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


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

© 2013

The Harlan County Way


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


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

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

The qualifications for Eastern Kentucky status include:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Your author proudly claims his heritage.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Harlan Countians can be found everywhere. Who are we?

  • The Stalwarts

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Outlanders

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

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

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

  • The Pretenders

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

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

  • The Loathers

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2013

Friend of Coal

I like coal.  I like the coal industry.  I like the people in the coal industry, all the way from the belt muckers to the CEOs.  Full disclosure requires that I tell you that I work in the coal industry myself.  So did my father.  My grandfathers and other relatives were coal miners.  I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, the heart of the Kentucky coal fields.  So, if you think I’m biased, I probably am.

I’m not going to wear you out with numbers.  I could fill this post with statistics about electrical generation and steel production, cheap utility rates and job statistics.  If you support coal, you’ll cheer.  If you’re a coal hater (and there are plenty), you’ll just cluck your tongue and talk about how the miners are too ignorant to know what’s best for them or you’ll quote other numbers about how much greater the cost is than the benefit.  My purpose is not to persuade you to embrace the industry anymore than I would think I could make you change religions in a 2,000 word blog post.  That is beyond my powers of persuasion.

This is simply to say my piece about an industry that is bruised, battered and under constant attack.  I’m neither defensive about, nor ashamed of, the coal industry.  Here’s why:


I like coal miners.  They’re good folks to deal with and fun to be around.  They’re irreverent and funny.  They’re also admirable.  They work difficult jobs under tough working conditions.  Nevertheless, they take great pride in what they do and most really enjoy their work.  Don’t get me wrong–they view it as work, hard work in fact.

Imagine going underground 2 or 3 miles to go to work in a honeycombed, man-made cave.  When you arrive at your work site, the area is dark, and you don’t have enough room to stand up.  Add to that close confines with powerful, mechanized equipment.  It’s tough work, no doubt.

Yes, the hours are long and the conditions are tough, but this isn’t the 1930’s.  Miners are paid well, whether they are in unions or not.  Coal mines are safer now than ever before, although they are not without risks.  Whether you’re a farmer, truck driver, fisherman or a miner, any time human beings work in close proximity to powerful equipment, there are dangers.  The nature of my job brings me into situations where they are mine accidents.  I get to see the pain and grief up close with serious accidents.  If you believe that no one cares, you’re wrong.

It’s always in vogue to patronize so-called blue-collar workers as being the back bone of America or the salt of the Earth or some such other hollow praise.  Miners are like everyone else.  Some aren’t so good at what they do or don’t work hard.  That’s human nature.  On the whole, however, miners impress me with not only their work ethic but their skill in doing their jobs.

Whatever your job, imagine being expected to know the details of hundreds of government regulations.  Everyone in your workplace from the custodian to the CEO is expected to know these rules.  Everyday, someone from the government walks around your office making sure that you comply with these rules.  Everything from lack of hand soap in the restroom to life-threatening dangers will be examined.  Every misstep will cost your employer money.  The pressures are daunting.  This is part of the daily grind of a coal miner, too.

If your image of a miner is walking to work with a pick and shovel, you’re behind the times.  They don’t get paid by the ton anymore, either.  They’re not being randomly attacked by company thugs.  If you want to know what those days were like, read Harlan Miners Speak compiled by something called “The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners” in 1932.  Like any industry, today’s coal business bears little resemblance to the world of 80 years ago.

Nevertheless, these are hard jobs.  Yet, these men–and women, too–gladly go to work every day.  They are glad to have their jobs.  They don’t take them for granted, either.  Like I said, it’s admirable.  I like these folks.


I also like Eastern Kentucky.  Now, maybe that’s because I grew up there.  Like most small town people who left home, I’ve grown more fond of my home town over the years.  We may see the end of mining in my lifetime.  That will be a sad day for my people.

The coal haters will tell you I’m wrong.  The poor, ignorant mountain people don’t that they’re better off without coal.  Coal is bad and is to blame for all the woes known to the mountains.  Bad schools, bad roads, bad health. Bad coal.  These folks will tell you that if we can just preserve the beauty of the mountains, everyone will be okay.  Goodbye coal.  Hello, Utopia.

Reality, of course, won’t be like that.  When coal is gone, the people will follow.  The industrial base will be gone.  The mountains don’t support farmers or any other industry.  While the Federal Government has spent billions providing aid to the poor, the infrastructure, such as it is, has been ignored.  Money which could have provided modern highways, sewers and water systems, instead  went to fight the War on Poverty.  If there had, in fact, been such a war, Poverty would have won in a blood bath.  Now, we have a drug problem in the mountains that rivals anything in the inner cities.  The answer, of course, is less income, a lower tax base and decreased population.  If anyone proposed that solution for America’s inner cities, he or she would be accused of genocide.

So, the mountains will be pristine.  Perhaps, the former residents can visit from time to time.  But, if anyone believes that life will be grand and everyone will just move on to something better, it won’t happen.  Try to find a job in Eastern Kentucky paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year.  Miners make that kind of money.  For families that have struggled, that can change lives.

I take great umbrage at people who imply that Eastern Kentucky is hell hole.  Small towns there are like small towns anywhere else.  Everyone knows your business.  Life is slow.  It’s easy for some people and a dead-end for others.

The coal fields should be in charge of their own future. Eastern Kentuckians are not simple-minded children who need to be told what is best for them.  Every coal company I know, regardless of ownership, employs people from its area.  Local people who have pride in what they do.  They aren’t ashamed of it and don’t need to be told they’re wrong.  Leave them alone.


We have a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky–The Lexington Herald-Leader.  It’s owned by The McClatchy Company, which is based in Sacramento, California.  Over the past few years, the Herald has laid off employees in Lexington and basically run the paper like its number one priority is to make a profit.  Rarely a week passes without the Herald running some ill-tempered screed about “King Coal,” decrying its absentee owners and that the industry is profit-driven. These are often accompanied by sophomoric editorial cartoons as humorous as a truck load of dead babies.  If the Herald’s editorial board and absentee owners see the irony, they certainly never acknowledge it.  For our paper, there is no greater villain than King Coal.  Every political or legal defeat for the coal industry is trumpeted like the polio vaccine.  One wonders if newspapers in the Detroit area react with glee when there is bad news for the automobile industry.

Coal loses the PR war and increasingly the political war, too.  I dare not bore you with the details of all the wrong-headed regulatory pressure brought to bear on coal over the last few years.  Suffice to say that President Obama has followed through on his promise to bankrupt anyone who wants to burn coal.  While the President may be subject to legitimate criticism for not following through on campaign promises, this is one that he has embraced with a vengeance.  When he hasn’t been able to get the legislation he wants, his appointed policy wonks simply decree the changes.  For example, his ill-conceived “Cap and Trade” law was never passed.  Incredibly, this law–designed to end coal consumption–was actually supported  by Kentucky Congressmen.  Not to be undone by this defeat, the Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated regulations with the same goal in mind–the end of coal consumption in the United States.

All this redoubles my support of coal.  Nothing gets my back up like fighting the power.  Something or someone has to be willing to stand between the government and private citizens.  Make no mistake–coal companies are made up of people.  CEOs, attorneys, accountants, superintendents, foremen, scoop operators, miner men, roof bolters, electricians and belt muckers.  Believe it or not, these are people.  When a coal mine closes–which is happening more and more frequently–lives are affected. Some are devastated.

As matters now stands, our government has decided–through appointed bureaucrats–that power plants must reduce certain emissions within the next few years.  These bureaucrats know that coal-fired plants cannot meet these requirements.  The plan is to take coal out of the market.  This isn’t okay with me.

But, what of renewable energy, windmills and solar and the like?  I have nothing against renewable energy.  Nothing.  Bring it into the market now.  Today.  Create all the “green” jobs possible.  Bring them to Eastern Kentucky.  Today.  If the market responds to these alternatives, there will be a place for them.  The United States produces 4,500 BILLION kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.  There is plenty of room in the marketplace.

The problem, and it’s a big one, is that there is no market for these alternatives.  This, I believe, is the reason that Obama wants coal driven from the market.  Get the cheapest, best fuel OUT of the way, and there will be room for less efficient, less marketable alternatives.

I rarely expound on my political views, mostly because it’s a personal matter, but also because I don’t think my  opinion will change yours.  As I said, that’s not the point of this post.  I will say that I will not ever support any politician whose idea of good energy policy is put my friends out of business.  I will fight the power.  As Captain Ahab famously said:

To the last, I grapple with thee.  From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.

Of course, things didn’t turn out well for Ahab, and they may not for me.  But they’ll know there was a fight.


In the 1970’s, my father worked in the coal industry as an environmental consultant for surface mines.  People said then that there was 20 years of coal left.  When I started practicing law 25 years ago, there was 10 years of coal left.  Ten years ago, there was 10 years of coal left.  Naysayers say that now there is 10 years of coal left.  The future, its seems, follows its own course.

Long ago, I gave up predicting the future.  I don’t know what will happen.  I do know that the path we’re on isn’t good for Kentucky or the rest of the country, for that matter.  Utility rates will increase, resulting in more government money spent to subsidize green energy or just to help people pay their bills.  Countries that use coal–China and India to name just two–will have the advantage over us.  Americans are the ones who can lead the way in continuing to improve clean coal technology.  If we leave the market, we’ll be counting on the Chinese to take the lead.  They are decades behind us in coal mining technology.  There is no reason to think they will quickly embrace cutting-edge environmental technology, either.

A friend of mine and I joke that we are stagecoach salesman.  Our grandchildren will look in wonder as we tell them about this burning rock.  Of course, we don’t really believe that (most days at least).  I’m an optimist at heart.  I hold out hope that adults will enter the room at some point and realize that we can burn coal and improve our technology to minimize environmental impact.  We’ve done it in the past.

In the meantime, I’ll fight the fight.  Others will, too.  Oh, and now you know why my blog is called the Coal Troll.

© 2012

Grandma and the Cat Litter Beatdown

This is another largely true story.  This is my Mothers Day story, because it involves someone’s mother.

I knew all the folks involved, so  I guess I believe every word of it.  Like any event I write about it, I hope it’s true.  If not, it is certainly based on a true story, and that’s good enough for me.  I’m not using names in this story, because those involved may not appreciate it.  I hope it doesn’t make the reading too awkward.

I had two or three close friends most of my childhood.  Like most kids, my friends would come and go with the school year, people moving, etc.  I had one friend who was a constant . He lived a few blocks from me, and we spent most of our free time together.

Despite what you’ve seen or heard, Eastern Kentucky is not just shacks and run down trailers.  There are nice little neighborhoods in almost every town.  I lived in one of those.  So did my friend.

My friend lived at the end of a street in a garage apartment next door to his grandmother.  Grandma lived alone in a small but nice house.  That is to say that Grandma lived alone until my friend’s cousins moved in with her.  The cousins were teenagers, probably 15 and 17.  They had moved from “up North.”  Typically, up North meant Michigan or Ohio, where the people talked funny.  The cousins talked funny, too.

The cousins were odd lads.  They didn’t go school.  I never found out what happened–if anything–to their parents.  The cousins just arrived one day.  They delivered the morning newspaper for a while.  When people stopped getting their papers, Dick Russell, owner of a the store where the papers were picked up in the morning, spied on them one morning.  When the papers were dropped in front of his store,  Mr. Russell watched the cousins take the bundle and toss it in the river.  When they didn’t throw them in the river, they dragged the papers along the ground crying as they made their rounds.  Like I said, odd.

My friend was always regaling me in stories of his cousins’ antics.  The cousins were several years older than us, but we took great delight in terrorizing them.  Once, we told one of them that we had put grass and sticks in the gas tank of his car.  Oh, did he get mad.  The joke was almost on us as he lit his cigarette lighter to get a better look in the tank.  Our screams of terror made him drop the lighter.  Again, odd birds they were.

One of the cousins, in particular, was a bit of a thorn in the side of his uncle (my friend’s father).  Now, I don’t know if he actually did anything to merit this or if the Uncle was just generally disagreeable.  Regardless, it was a bit of ritual for the Uncle to castigate the Cousin when got home from work.  Usually, this centered around the Cousin being lazy and good-for-nothin’.  I witnessed this several times myself.  Normally, it started with the Uncle getting out  of his truck and greeting the Cousin with something like, “What in the hell have you been doing all day?  Pick up this stuff up out of the yard!”

So it went one fateful afternoon.  There was a driveway leading from the street to the garage on the left side of Grandma’s house.  The drive was about 75 feet long.  The Uncle parked his truck right in front of the garage.  He got out of the truck and slammed the door.  He immediately spotted the Cousin reclined at the bottom of a tree enjoying a cigarette.  “What the hell are you doing? Clean all this up!”  The Cousin had been working on some type of project requiring the dis-assembly of various small engines.  Apparently, he had lost interest or direction during the project and abandoned it.  The Cousin only responded that he was “working on it.”

This did not sit well with the Uncle, who glared but said nothing.  The Cousin–perhaps emboldened by the silence–yelled “You can’t tell me what to do!!”  The Uncle would have no more of his insolence.  A great shouting match ensued with each hurling threats and invectives toward the other.  Finally, the Uncle removed his glasses and headed toward the Cousin.  It appeared that the Cousin was about to get taught a bit of a lesson.

The Cousin hopped to his feet and looked about for anything with which to defend himself.  There were no weapons to be found, only random engine parts.  What would he do?  Then, he spotted Pedro, the family cat.  In a move which can only be described as a combination of madness, desperation and admirable creativity, he scooped up Pedro with one hand.

There was a bucket beside the tree.  I know this is true, because I had seen that bucket many times.  It was like a big paint bucket or maybe a drywall bucket.  It was full of water.

Often, heroic acts are performed not because the person is brave or fearless but because the person is in a situation where only a daring act can spare him.  Such was the case here, I believe.  By the time Pedro was in the Cousin’s grasp, the Uncle was mere 10 feet or so away and closing quickly.  The Cousin spotted the bucket, and without any apparent thought, dunked Pedro into the stagnant water.  In one motion, the Cousin pulled Pedro from the water and threw him at his would-be attacker.

By all accounts, Pedro hit the Uncle in the chest, claws out, tearing into his shirt.  This did nothing to stop the Uncle’s advance.  The Uncle wrenched Pedro from his shirt and tossed him on the ground.  The Cousin, though, had made a run for the back door of Grandma’s house.  He was not quick enough, and the Uncle cut him off.  The Cousin now ran to the other side of the truck.  The combatants were on opposite sides of truck.  Each move by the Uncle was met with a counter move in the opposite direction by the Cousin.

Grandma, being advanced in years and hard of hearing, had missed most of the action; however, she now emerged from the backdoor.  (As an aside, in all the years I knew my friend, I only saw her once or twice.  I had images of Norman Bates’s mother in her rocker.)  She tottered down the three or four steps to see what was happening.

The Cousin was in again dire straights, trying to keep himself on the opposite side of the truck from his uncle but the Uncle was relentless.  Underneath the steps which went up to the garage apartment were several bags of cat litter.  The Cousin grabbed one and ran from behind the truck. Here came his uncle. Like an Olympic hammer thrower, the Cousin twisted sideways with the bag at arms’ length.  He then swung forward with a mighty heavy toward his uncle, letting the bag fly.

The Uncle ducked.  Grandma, again being advanced in years, did not.  The cat litter bag caught her right in the old bread basket.  I was told that you could hear the air come out of her on contact.  Doubled over, she folded in half and hit the ground.

Say what one will, the Cousin loved his Grandma and was horrified.   He ran toward her, screaming “GRANDMA!”  This was a mistake.  The Uncle caught him with a really nice punch right in the middle of his face, breaking his glasses in two.  He fell to the ground and cried quite a bit.

Oh, Grandma.  She was okay.  Just had the wind knocked out of her.  Surprisingly, there were no broken bones or internal injuries.  She didn’t even go to the hospital.  Pedro was fine, too, although I’m sure he was traumatized by the whole experience.  I’m pleased to say the both Grandma and Pedro lived several more years after this. As far as I know, Pedro was never again used as a weapon and Grandma was never again violently assaulted.

Over the years, I came to realize that the cousins were alright.  They weren’t even all that odd.  Just a bit different. 

So, I guess that’s the end.  I don’t really have an interesting way to end the story.  The late, great Michael O’Donoghue once  noted that poor writers don’t know how to end their stories.  When stumped, he suggested this sentence: Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck.

 Since my story is set in Eastern Kentucky, here is the ending:

Suddenly, everyone was run over by a coal truck.  The end.

© 2012

March of Folly


This story may well be true.  It also may be completely false.  In all likelihood, it’s partially true; thus, I consider it to be based on a true story.  This gives me literary license to fill in blanks and outright fabricate portions of it.

This is based upon a story I’ve heard twice–from two different sources.  One was a person I know well and trust.  The other was someone I barely know.  The essential facts were the same, but there were differences in time, location and other minor details.  It could be that the whole thing was made up.  I don’t know.  But I do know that I like the story, so I’m going to tell it.

As with my other blogs, I’ve changed the names of those involved.  So, if you have a relative called June Bug, that’s not who I’m talking about it.  One name I didn’t change is “Lonzo.”  Lonzo is a shortened version of Alonzo and is a fairly common name in Eastern Kentucky.  In fact, growing up, I knew several people named Lonzo.  Once I left Eastern Kentucky, I never met anyone else by that name.  It’s a good mountain name and fits the character in this story.  The story would lose something if I changed it.

Much of the dialogue is mine.  Some was recounted to me in the story.  Other parts, I made up trying to fit it with the characters involved.

Finally, do not interpret this tale as glorifying or promoting animal abuse.  That’s not what it’s about, although there is a tragic accident at the heart of the story.  I know a lot of folks who like animals more than they do people.  I’m fine with that.  BUT, if you suffer some sort of trauma and go mental reading this, please do not direct your bile toward your author.  I am merely your narrator.  Thank you.


Purdy was a mule or probably a mule.  He could have been a donkey or jackass for all I know, but they called him a mule.  “They” were the Harringtons, which was pronounced “Hairnton.”  There were three Harrington boys:  Lonzo, Terry (pronounced “Turry”) and Junior (also known as June or June Bug).  They lived with their daddy, AC.  No one knew AC’s full name (if he had one), although June Bug was in all likelihood named after them.  The boys had a mother, but no one knew where she was.  Rumor was that she just left them, but some folks said there was an incident with her being hit with a shovel.  It doesn’t really matter.  She was gone, and it was just Daddy and the boys.

They lived on the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River in what most people would call a shack.  The house was down off the highway on the other side of the river.  They had about a half-acre of land connected to the highway by a bridge.  The bridge was one of those homemade bridges you see in the mountains.  It consisted of a couple of I-beams with wood laid across for the driving surface.  It spanned from creek bank to creek bank and was supported at each end by cinder blocks.

The house itself was three rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.  The front room was sort of a sitting area with a TV.  The kitchen was in the back toward the left.  The two bedrooms were in the back to the right.  Daddy had his own room.  June Bug and Terry shared a room, and Lonzo slept on the couch in the front room.

None of these folks had jobs, of course.  Daddy had worked in the coal mines at some point in the distant past.  Lonzo had been in the Army for two years before he was unceremoniously discharged for some disciplinary reason.  Terry and June Bug pretty much did nothing.  Between Daddy’s disability check and Social Security, they got by.

Daddy had one possession that he valued–Purdy.  As I said, Purdy was a mule.  They also had a few chickens and, from time to time, a hog.  But Purdy was a constant having been around for many years.  At one time, he was used to plow Daddy’s small garden, but he had foundered at some point and didn’t do much of anything now.  Daddy didn’t have much use for his offspring, but he loved old Purdy or at least really liked him.


Daddy made fairly frequent runs to town for various things, picking up a check, buying groceries, etc.  It was a Saturday in October, and Daddy left in the morning.

The boys rarely went anywhere.  They mostly sat around and drank.  Lonzo was the oldest by two years.  Then came Terry, and two years after him, June Bug.  Lonzo would have been considered the brains of the group, but that’s only because of his ill-fated stint in the Army.  He was about 6 feet tall and wiry thin (we called it “squirrelly-built”) with long, greasy black hair pushed straight back behind his ears.  He had that hard, flinty look that only people in Appalachia have.  Terry and June Bug could have been twins.  Both were short with beer bellies and a penchant for going shirtless most of the time. They had fat, red faces and bushy blonde hair.  There were substantial paternity questions regarding Lonzo, but no one ever asked.

The boys also rarely got out of bed very early, and this Saturday was no different.  Lonzo rolled over on the couch when he heard a commotion outside at around 11:00.  He got up, lit a cigarette and walked out on the porch just as June Bug was running from the back of the house toward the creek with a coil of rope under his arm.  Terry came running from the other side of the house.

“Hey!  What the hell’s goin’ on?”  Alonzo inquired.  Terry stopped, breathless of course, and said “Looky yonder!”  He nodded his head toward the creek.  In the middle of the creek, still as a statue, stood Purdy with water up to his belly.  “I’ll be flat damned,” Lonzo muttered. “How in the hell did that happen?”

Terry responded:  “Don’t know.  June just seen him out the winder.  Just froze up right there.”

“Well, what are you boys doin’?”  Lonzo asked.  Terry said, “June’s made a lassoo and’s gonna lassoo him!”  Lonzo rubbed his beard stubble and took a long drag off his smoke.  “I reckon that might work.”  Terry headed down to the creek with Lonzo right behind.

By the time they covered the 100 yards or so to the creek bank, June Bug had already fashioned a crude lariat with a slip knot.  He was unfurling the rope.  “I’m gonna lassoo his ass and haul him in.”  He twirled the rope as he had seen cowboys in movies do and tossed it toward Purdy. He missed.  He tried again.  He missed again.  Over and over he tried, but with no lucky.  Finally, Lonzo lost patience and said “Gimme that damn rope!”  He, too, tried and tried with no luck.  It should be noted that Purdy stood a good 40 feet from the bank, and the rope was no more than 30 feet long.  This bit of immutable physics was lost on the boys.

They all sat down on the bank and stared at Purdy.  “What do we now, Lonzo?”  Terry asked.  Lonzo responded:  “Hell fire, I don’t know.  All I know is that we better get that damn mule outta the creek before the old man gets back.  He’ll raise nine kinds of hell.”

“You reckon he’s sleepin’?” June Bug asked.

“The damn mule?  Hell, no.  He’s standing up” said Lonzo.

“He’s sleeps standin’.  I seen him do it.”  June Bug said.

Lonzo turned at looked at June Bug.  “Is that what you do with yoreself?  Stand around watchin’ a damn mule sleep?  I don’t know if he’s asleep, but I do know he’s in that damn creek, and, by God, we gotta get him out.”

Terry then observed, “He got hisself in there.  I figger he’ll find his way out.”

This was the last straw for Lonzo.  “This right here is what’s wrong with you fellers.  Quitters.  I ain’t no quitter.  I’m gettin’ that bastard outta there!”


After being chastised by Lonzo, the boys just stared at Purdy for a few minutes.  Then, Lonzo saw the answer and stood straight up.  “By God, I’ll ride his ass out.”

Terry said:  “How you gonna do that?  Wade out there?”

Lonzo snapped:  “Hell, no!  I ain’t freezin’ my ass off in that damn creek!  I’m gonna shimmy over the side of the bridge and jump on him.  Once I’m on his back, I’ll just ride him out! Let’s go!”

All three got up and headed to the bridge.  When they got to the middle of the bridge, Lonzo looked down and determined that he could, in fact, hang down and drop right on Purdy’s back.  Even if he missed, the drop wasn’t that far, maybe 10 feet at most.  If he landed in the water, he wouldn’t be in it very long anyway.

Lonzo sat down in the middle of the bridge with his feet hanging over.  “You boys lower me down.  I’ll grab aholt of that beam.”  So, the boys did just that. With Terry taking one arm and June Bug the other, they lowered Lonzo over the side.

Lonzo was facing the wrong direction.  He could grab the beam and hang down, but he would be facing away from Purdy.  Riding a mule was likely to be difficult under the best of conditions.  Facing the wrong direction, it might be impossible.

Once he was lowered into postion, Lonzo swung his right hand under to hold both sides of the beam.  Now, he was sideways.  Then, he saw it.  A length of cable ran the entire length of the bridge just inside the beam.  This was perfect.  He grabbed the cable with his right hand and swung his left hand over.  Now, he had a perfect grip and faced the proper direction.  He was perfectly positioned.

Hanging down from the cable, Lonzo was about 10 feet from the water and maybe seven feet from Purdy’s back.  He started to swing back and forth on the cable to get proper momentum for his leap.  After three or four swings, he was ready.  One last swing forward and he let go.

Falling through the air is a funny thing.  Usually, you don’t have time to think about it.  You just fall.  Sometimes, though, you have a moment to consider what’s happening.  I imagine this might have happened with Lonzo.  He may have seen Purdy hurtling toward him, instead of he himself falling to Earth.   At that moment–and just for a split second–he might have realized that this plan was not, in fact, well-conceived.

Ah, but the plan worked–sort of.  Lonzo landed square on Purdy’s back.  There were two sounds:  First, the loud, unmistakable sound of a mule’s back breaking.  Second, Lonzo emitted a long, mournful scream which could only accompany a shattered testicle.

Purdy folded up like a lawn chair pinning Lonzo.  Lonzo, still wailing, slowly slid sideways until he dropped into the water, which was as cold as he feared.  The cold water, though, shocked Lonzo into full consciousness and he stood straight up, only to be doubled over again in pain.  He repeated this cycle as he struggled to the creek bank.  From their vantage point on the bridge, Terry and June Bug thought he looked like one of those toy birds that dips its head up and down like it’s sipping water.  Lonzo made it to the bank and collapsed, doubled over in agony.

The rest of the story is uneventful.  A watery grave for Purdy, a trip to the hospital for Lonzo.  Terry and June Bug did have to get Purdy out of the creek, and they got to use their “lassoo.”  Daddy was mad, as expected, but he got over it.  Lonzo lost a testicle.


So, there you have it.  This could have happened.  I knew people who would have done such things.  I hate to think of a mule dying under those circumstances, but life’s not fair.

Oh, what about the title of this blog?  A close friend of mine was so taken by this story when I first told it to him years ago that he wanted us to develop a screenplay based upon it.  He titled our project March of Folly.   I see Adrien Brody as Lonzo, maybe.  Robert Duvall as Daddy.

Sadly, the thought of stretching this out to even a 90 minute film is daunting.  I haven’t given up hope, but we really need to get on it.  Hollywood awaits.

© 2012

An Homage to Next of Kin

Have you seen the 1989 film Next of Kin?  If you have, I don’t expect a public acknowledgement.  Just softly say to yourself  “Yes, I have seen Next of Kin.  Please blog about it.”  I have, in fact, seen NOK, several times in fact.  Understand that this is not a movie review.  NOK is unreviewable with its wild cast of characters, Byzantine plot and acting that borders on hysteria.  Yes, I love this movie.  Allow me to explain why.

NOK stars, in no particular order:  Patrick Swayze, Adam Baldwin, Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Liam Neeson, Ben Stiller and Michael J. freakin’-Pollard.  I’m not making this up.  There may not be a more diverse cast in the history of cinema.  Pollard alone makes it worth watching.  You know him–he’s the weird dude with the scrunched up face in Bonnie and Clyde.

Here’s the plot.  Swayze (at his the peak of his Swayzeness) is a Chicago cop from Eastern Kentucky (Hazard, I think).  Neeson and Paxton are his brothers.  Paxton loses his job in the coal mines and moves to Chicago.  He somehow crosses the Chicago mob headed by the guy who played the one-armed man in The Fugitive.  Paxton gets murdered, and Swayze sets out to find the killer.  Neeson, portraying “Briar,” heads to Chicago to exact Mountain Justice.  He is disgusted by Swayze’s unwillingness to join in the blood feud.  He moves into a sleazy hotel run by Pollard who twitches and shrugs through all his scenes like he’s mainlining Thorazine.  Briar speaks with an accent which can only be described as “brain-damaged,” but I have to give him credit for trying.  I’m sure it’s difficult to go from an Irish brogue to Eastern Kentuckian.  Not since Edward G. Robinson played an Egyptian in The Ten Commandments has there been such a bizarre casting choice.

Anyway, Ben Stiller is the nephew of the head of the Mob (One-Armed Guy).  Ben gets himself brutally murdered.  Meanwhile, Briar is trying to find Bill Paxton’s killers, while Swayze is trying to stop him from being a vigilante.  Helen Hunt is Swayze’s wife and teaches the cello.  She frets a lot. There’s a lot of violence and other stuff.  Briar is also murdered after being framed for killing Ben Stiller.  Unbeknownst to the Mob, Briar has left instructions with Michael J. Pollard to call his relatives in Kentucky if something happens to him.  Swayze then quits the police force to join in the blood feud.  The Kentuckians show up in a bunch of trucks and a school bus.  A battle takes place between the mountain men and the mob in a cemetery. Swayze goes off on the Mob with a crossbow. The mob is wiped out with some of them even being killed by a huge collection of deadly snakes on the school bus.  Then the movie just kind of ends–happily, I guess, expect for Liam Neeson, Bill Paxton and Ben Stiller–and the Mob.

Why do I love this piece of cinematic tripe?  Maybe it’s Liam Neeson, at what was surely the low point of his career, portraying an Appalachian backwoodsman. How did he establish a successful career after this? Then again, Helen Hunt won an Oscar after NOK.  Perhaps it’s Ben Stiller in a decidedly non-comedic role playing a mobster. He also went on to great success.  It could just be Swayze, beating and killing people when the dude was only about 5′ 7″, 145 pounds.  Michael J. Pollard might have been the key.  I envision the casting director saying:  “What’s the name of the weird cat in Bonnie and Clyde?  Wonder where he is these days?”  He was probably working the hoot owl shift at a convenience store.  Hell, he may have actually been working at that sleazy hotel.

Ok.  I don’t know why I like NOK, but I do.  I like to think that somewhere in Eastern Kentucky there is a family that would load up and head to Chicago and wipe out the Mob.  That Michael J. Pollard works at a sleazy hotel somewhere.  That Helen Hunt teaches the cello.  That Ben Stiller is in the Mob.  That Swayze is still alive and implausibly kicking ass somewhere right now.  I don’t know.  Maybe I just have no taste.

© 2012