Picture This…

I like pictures, photographs to be exact. It’s likely a family thing. My parents had lots of photos. My mother in particular had many photos of her teenage and college years. She had even more, but her mother, enveloped in what must have been emotional or mental illness, shredded her photo albums. Still, there were a lot of photos of my mother at various stages of her life. She always looked like Mom in them, even if the image was of a younger and smaller version.

My paternal grandmother loved photos. She had many boxes full. We usually visited Granny on Sundays in the small Eastern Kentucky town of Evarts. Granny had framed photos scattered about her house in addition to the boxes. She said she would save money to have photos taken of her children whenever there was a photographer in town. Granny’s love of photos is why I have a framed photo of my father at 4 months old:

 babydad

Dad often said that this “little fellow” had no idea what a tough world he was being sent into in 1925.

Photos tell stories, of course, but often you must know a lot of background before you know the story. That is certainly true of this photo (of my favorites):

fam

As photography goes, it’s unremarkable. The lighting isn’t ideal and the color is a bit odd. My mother, for example, was quite pale. She never had that much color. Regardless, I like the people in it. The date was August 11, 1987, my 25th birthday.  It’s in my parents’ home in Loyall, Kentucky. It was my home, too, from age 12 on. That’s me, the Birthday Boy, behind the cake. On the left is my younger brother, Richard Kent Williams, born March 16, 1967. My parents are behind me–Earl Malone Williams and Anna Muriel Dye Williams. I’m not sure about the photographer, but I assume it was my future wife, Sherry.  It was important to my mother that I come home for my birthday, so I did in 1987 like every year expect 1982 when I was stranded in Lexington, Kentucky without a car. So, I guess the story is that I came home for my birthday, and we posed for a photo. It is also worth noting that birthdays were the rare occasions when my mother would pose for a photo. Otherwise, she was like pursuing J.D. Salinger for a portrait sitting.

There’s more there, of course. My Dad was 62 years old. Mom was 57. My parents shared the same birthday–January 19. From a young age, I knew that at any given time, they were five years apart in age. Dad was in remarkably good health, considering that he didn’t exercise or eat right or even ever see a doctor. Mom, on the other hand, had only recently passed her five-year anniversary of a breast cancer diagnosis. Her health had been poor, not so much because of the cancer but more from the “cure,” a toxic cocktail of chemicals which eradicated cancer cells but left her weak and unsteady. Today, I also know that Mom suffered from depression, at least that’s my unprofessional diagnosis. In this photo, I didn’t think any such thing. I thought she was just prone to spells of sadness, much like she described her own mother.

As I write this, I’m 52, but I’m not 52 in that photo. I’m 25. It’s tempting to wax nostalgic or melancholy and think about what was or what was to come. For example, almost six weeks later to the day this photo was taken, Richard was dead. As far as I know, this is the last photo of him. He’s fine in the photo. I like that. Like most people who die young, he became his death. Here, he’s just a 20-year-old posing for a birthday picture with his brother.

Here, Dad hadn’t had a heart attack, like he would two years later, radically changing his lifestyle (for the better, I should add). Mom would have her share of health woes in years to come, but not on that day. Me? I was a 25-year-old who finally finished school and was about to start a career as a lawyer. I hadn’t had the ups and downs of that career and the self-imposed stress which would help make me the exact type of person that this young man loathed–pompous, self-important and with an over-inflated view of his own significance.

I know that house well. My parents built it, and I thought it was a mansion when we moved in.  It was a classic 1970’s split-level home with four levels, but it had things I’d only imagined in my 12 years–air conditioning, for example. It had carpet all over the house, too! I still shared a room with my younger brother, but that was much better than sharing it was my younger and older brothers. After my father died in 2008, I sold the house, but I never out-grew my fascination with it.

A friend once told me that life “comes at you at the speed of light at point-blank range.”  What he meant, I think, was that things happen all the time, every day, and we just have to deal with them. It’s tempting to look at this or any other old photo and ponder all the things that were to come. I prefer to think that none of those things, good or bad, happened to those folks. They are frozen in that photo.

Sometimes, though, I do wonder about what those folks would think about what was to come. None of us would have accurately predicted the future. Unlike that young fellow in the photo, I’m the father of three sons. I didn’t even ponder such things in those days. Now, I’m the one who poses with his sons for photos:

fathersday2014

None of us in this photo knows what’s coming, either. It will surely come, of course, and we’ll deal with it. Or we won’t.

In the years after my 25th birthday, I wasted much of my young adulthood planning and hoping for the future, much of that little more than self-centered scheming to try to make the world suit my desires. This peculiar form of madness masqueraded as ambition. When I see these old photos, I realize how little I knew then. Then again, that 25 year old would be stoked to know about all the cool things that were to come. His view of the future sold himself short. There was a lot more growing up to do and the pains that go with it. Everything turned out pretty sweet.

In some sense, we’re still in 1987, I suppose, celebrating that birthday. At least that’s what they’re doing in the photo. That’s where I go when I look at it. I can’t claim to be the same person I was at 25, but that is me in the photo. I know, because I have the picture to prove it.

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2014

So…Where Are You From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7572

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

Brantley loves Chuck Person.

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

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

JB's sign needs straightening

JB’s sign needs straightening

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

IMG_7795JB Mus

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

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

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

Your author and Perry Como.

Your author and Perry Como.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2014

MY PERFECT POKE SALLET RECIPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring water to boil.

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

Boil poke.

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

Drain poke in colander.

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

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

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

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

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

So, there you have it. Bon apetit!

©www.thetrivialtroll.com

Here’s Something Funny: How I Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER:  What?

ME:  What’s for dinner?

HER: Huh?

ME:  DINNER!  WHAT ARE WE HAVING?

HER: Don’t yell at me!

ME:  I have to yell.  You can’t hear.

HER:  What?

ME:  YOU! ARE! DEAF!

HER:  I am not! You mumble!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2014

Five Things You Don’t See Every Day

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

THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WONDERS OF DUCT TAPE

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

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

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

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

THE COAL MONUMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

COON ON THE LOG

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

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

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

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

TIRE WALKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Fast Food Follies: A Brief Personal History

Like most, if not all, Americans, I’ve eaten quite a bit of fast food.  Several years ago, I made a concerted effort to eliminate it as a regular part of my diet, and I have done just that.  Nevertheless, I still occasionally dine at these well-known eateries, especially when traveling

I’m not one of those who condemns fast food, mind you.  I don’t even mind the pink slime that became an Internet sensation.  Hey, if it cooks up into something tasty and moderately safe to eat, I’m fine with it.  Fast food gives us consistency.  When you travel for work as I do, it’s comforting to know what you’re ordering.  A Big Mac is a Big Mac whether you order it in Hawaii or Pikeville, Kentucky.

What is fast food?  My definition is that: (1) You must order at a counter or drive thru; (2) The food must be subject to uniform preparation rules; (3) You must pay when you order; (4) the food must be served in paper bags and wrappers; and (5) the restaurant must at least strive to get your food to you quickly (i.e., while standing at the counter or sitting in the drive thru).  I except delis and sub shops from this definition for no reason other than they just don’t seem to fit.  You can come up with your own definition.  I really don’t care. After all, this is about me, not you.

Recently, I was standing in line at a Dairy Queen and pondered how much time I’ve spent waiting for food in one of these establishments.  I gave up trying to figure it out, concluding that it was just a hell of a lot.  It did, though, make me think about my long history with fast food.  It’s been a quite a trip.

RAY KROC WAS A GOOD GUY

Through most of my childhood in Harlan County, Kentucky, we didn’t have fast food.  The closest things were a couple of drive-in restaurants, but they weren’t all that fast.  We did, however, travel outside the county often.  One of the highlights of such treks was passing through Corbin, Kentucky.  Corbin had a McDonald’s.

Dad would always stop and get us something from McDonald’s.  Burgers, McNuggets, Egg McMuffins and french fries–they were fascinating taste treats.  Dad would usually send me in to get the food.  I loved it.

It was  1978, when I was 15 years old, that I had my encounter with Ray Kroc.  For the uninformed, Kroc was the founder of McDonald’s and its CEO for many, many years.  As a young baseball fan, I also knew that he was the owner of the San Diego Padres.  I used this to my advantage.

On the way to a Cincinnati Reds game, we stopped at the Corbin McDonald’s.  I was the only patron at the counter.  The workers ignored me.  They were engaged in some sort of inane banter behind the counter.  Now, you must know that, even as an adolescent, I had a bit of an overblown view of myself.  Thus, I became increasingly agitated. Finally, I said:  “Hey!  Customer here!!”  The young lady at the register gave me a look of contempt and said “Just a second” and continued talking.  Eventually, she took my order, but I was incensed.  So, I wrote Ray Kroc a letter.

I had a written quite a few fans letters to baseball players.  So, I knew that a letter addressed to “San Diego Padres, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California” would get to Ray.  I wrote him and told him of the vile treatment I received.  I typed the letter, so as not to indicate that I was a sullen teenager.  It was heartfelt and my indignation dripped from it.

What I didn’t expect was that he would read it.  He did, and he wrote back:

IMG

Ray was none too pleased with the laggards in Corbin.

As you can see, he wasn’t happy. As Ray promised, I also got a letter from a Regional Manager for McDonald’s.  He said that he had heard from Mr. Kroc and offered his apologies (and gift certificates).  The manager of the restaurant wrote me too (with gift certificates, of course).  I felt like kind of big deal.  It took us a long time to use all those gift certificates.

Ray Kroc was a generous man, leaving millions to charity when he died.  He was pretty cool, too.

GOD SAVE THE (BURGER) QUEEN

To the best of my recollection, Harlan County’s first fast food restaurant was Burger Queen.  That’s not a typo– Queen, not King.  Its logo looked like this:

burgerqueen

As you might expect, they sold burgers.  They were thin little meat patties mashed between a tasteless bun.  They were exceptionally salty, too.  BQ also sold mediocre fried chicken.  The Cherry Sprites, by contrast, were excellent.  We loved the place.

(Okay, I know you Harlan Countians out there will point out that we had a Kentucky Fried Chicken first, but I just can’t count that.  I don’t know why–maybe it’s the lack of burgers).

For you young folks, fast food restaurants used keep piles of burgers under heat lamps–no microwave ovens.  If you wanted anything non-standard, you had to wait.  I am well-known for my aversion to condiments–mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, etc.  These befoul burgers and are unacceptable.  BQ struggled with this concept.  I always ordered two plain cheeseburgers, and they rarely got it straight.

One day, I met a couple of friends at BQ.  I ordered my burgers and took them to the table.  I unwrapped them, and-of course–they were smeared with ketchup, mustard and pickles–all the crap which would trigger my gag reflex.

My disgust showed immediately, drawing the attention of another patron, a rather rough-looking fellow with long, greasy hair.  He walked to our table and asked:  “Did they f–k up your order, buddy?”  I said “Yeah, they were supposed to be plain.”  My new friend advised:  “Look here, take them damn burgers up there and stomp on ’em right in front of that bitch! I’ll do it for you, by God!”  Despite the appeal, I declined his suggestion.  I did get a couple of new burgers, though.

That’s my Burger Queen story.  It’s not much of a story, but that’s it.  Burger Queen became Druther’s (slogan–“I’d Ruther Go to Druther’s“), but it was pretty much the same food.  Druther’s died out, except for one left in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  I know.  I saw it in the summer of 2012:

Druthers_IMG2008

I asked a local about it, and he said it was the last one.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to think so.

FAST BUT NOT FRIENDLY

When I was in high school, Harlan experienced a bit of a fast food revolution.  Kentucky Fried Chicken and Druthers were joined by Wendy’s.  Pizza Hut also came on board, sort of a fast food pizza palace.  My friends and I made use of Druther’s, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s as hangouts–sometimes in the parking lot but often inside.  Three or four of us would order Cokes and we’d sit there for hours (maybe it just seemed like hours).  We weren’t really good customers, and we weren’t always welcome.  A tale from Wendy’s illustrates the point.

Late one night, two friends and I were sitting at a table in Wendy’s, nursing our colas.  I was pouring salt into a pile on the table while we discussed the news of the day.  At some point, I asked if perhaps we should order something else in order to justify our presence.  One of my cohorts remarked:  “Hey, we bought Cokes.  They can’t make us leave.”  One of the employees at the business end of push broom heard this remark and said:  “Then, you can sweep up this f—ing mess, you mother——s!”  We took this as a subtle cue to leave, only to discover that we were locked in! While we fumbled with the lock, our former hostess hurled more invectives our way. One of my companions, in an ill-conceived effort to defuse the situation, said:  “Look, bitch, why don’t you just fly away on that f—ing broom?!?!” The end result was that we were banned from Wendy’s.  It has been over 30 years, and I have never set foot in that establishment since.  As far as I know, the ban did not extend to all Wendy’s.  I’m please to say that I have been to many others over the years without incident.

Today, I occasionally encounter unfriendly workers.  You know them, too, I’m sure.  They blankly stare at you with what my father called a “hang-dog” look on their faces.  They mutely take your order, perhaps muttering a disingenuous “welcome” after you thank them.  I try not to be offended.  They don’t like their jobs and no civility on my part will change that.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

The old military acronym KISS or “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” applies to dealing with fast food establishments. My aversion to condiments makes this difficult for me.  For example, here’s a recent exchange with a McDonald’s employee:

HER:  Can I help you?

ME:  Two Angus Snack Wraps.  No onion or sauce please.

HER:  Do you want cheese?

ME:  Well, yes.  No onion and no sauce, though.

HER:  Do you want lettuce?

ME:  Yes, yes.  Lettuce is fine. No onion.  No sauce.

Here’s what I got:  Two Snack Wraps with no cheese but onions.  I blame myself.  I threw off the order of the fast food system.  It isn’t designed for gadflies like me.

Another thing is that I’m confident that they spit on special orders.  I try to keep it simple.  If there is something festooned with all manner of objectionable toppings, I just avoid it.

TAKING THE FAST OUT OF FAST FOOD

One obvious advantage of fast food is the fast part.  We knowingly trade careful food preparation for speed and uniformity.  We want our food quickly–at least I do.

Here’s a suggestion for everyone.  If you and–say–5 of your family members walk up to the counter, take note if there is a lone person behind you.  Allow that person and his simple, one-person order to go ahead of you.  Think of it as the fast food equivalent of playing through in golf.  Likewise, if you are a lone patron but are placing an order for scads of other people, be considerate of those behind you. Many of us are impatient and explosively violent when our patience is taxed.

Another suggestion is to have your act together when you order.  If you need to ponder the menu and consult others before ordering, YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ORDER! Get the Hell out of the way!  I just can’t stress this point enough.  It’s a fast food restaurant.  The menu should be well-known to you.  There are even pictures of all the food on the wall, for God’s sake.  It can’t be all that confusing.  Your family members should also get their heads out of their…well, you get it.  If you must have a family meeting at the register, you should be at home eating together in order to become more familiar with your family’s eating habits.

The restaurants themselves can help us, too.  How about having more than one person working at the register?  I fully understand why only one person can take orders at the drive-thru.  When only person takes orders inside, this happens:

mcdonalds

Your author is tormented by one register plus a confused family placing order.  Note the obvious disgust of the arthritic biker in front of me.

If our society is to continue to function, this kind of thing can’t be allowed. I’m confident that the Roman Empire’s decay began over something like this.

CONVENIENCE

Convenience is the great calling card of fast food.  Believe it or not, there was a time when you could drive great distances in America without finding decent food–unless you were lucky enough to encounter a Stuckey’s.  Now, we have fast food at almost every Interstate exit and in most towns of any size.

The restaurants also have restrooms, and most of them are reasonably clean.  If one must make a–[ahem]–major transaction, cleanliness is paramount.  There are no condom machines in them, either.  I have never been comfortable with the public condom machine.  What kind of person uses those?  Worse yet, I don’t want to be confined in a men’s room with one of those folks.  I have nightmares of washing my hands when I glance some demented drifter in the mirror opening a condom.  While we have many fine truck stops in our great land, the combination of condom machines and showers just makes me uncomfortable for obvious reasons.

You are also fairly safe to nap in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.  What?  You don’t do that?  Well, you should.  Napping at a rest area or truck stop is just an invitation to a serial killer.

THE FUTURE

Despite pleas from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama, I suspect that fast food is here to stay.  I’m fine with that.  Technological advances will likely make the food faster and better for our children and grandchildren.  I envision a day when lobster tails, deadly blow fish and prime beef will be served to me by pimply faced teenagers and ex-cons.  I also hope that someone will perfect my idea of the “reverse” microwave oven which freezes hot things in seconds.  I’m not sure how they’d use it, but I’m sure someone will figure it out.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to indulge my weakness for Dairy Queen’s Reese’s Cup Blizzard and McDonald’s French fries.

Remember, too, that a lot of folks working behind the counter don’t like their jobs. Someday, robots will take our orders.  Until then, teenagers and part-time workers will have to do. Be courteous, unless of course they’ve made you wait too long.  After all, it is fast food.

©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.

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