ALL ABOARD THE NERVE GAS TRAIN!

I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky, a small town about which I’ve written before. Loyall, so the story goes, was named after an executive for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad which built its switching and maintenance yard in Loyall. I suppose that’s true, although I’ve never met anyone named Loyall nor did he leave any descendants in my hometown. Then again, it might just be a misspelling of the word “loyal.”

Loyall is in Harlan County, tucked in the southeast corner of Kentucky on the Virginia border. Bell County, to our south, is all that protects from Tennessee. As I grew older, I met many people from other small towns and visited quite a few such places, too. Loyall wasn’t much different than these other places. People knew their neighbors, went to school, gossiped about each other and did all the other things people do.

For most of my childhood, the posted population of Loyall was 1100. I have no idea if that was even close to accurate. Honestly, it didn’t seem like that many people lived there. We had one main street, one red light, a few small grocery stores, a school, a full-service gas station, barber shop, post office and an honest-to-goodness corner drugstore with a soda fountain. We even had a movie theater and drive-in restaurant. The L&N yard, though, is what dominated the town.

The Loyall Yard was built in the early 20th century to accommodate the burgeoning coal industry. It was a switching yard with multiple tracks, a turntable and mechanic’s shop. By the time I came around, the maintenance folks had all moved over to the L&N yard in Corbin, Kentucky. The Loyall Yard was still a big deal. Trains ran in and out of it day and night.

Until I was about 12 years old, I lived about 200 yards from the railroad track and a crossing. If you lived in Loyall, you got used to two sounds: 1) trains slowly moving in and out of the yard; and 2) the ringing of the crossing bell. To this day, I think I could fall asleep with a bell ringing beside my head.

In my memory, everyone in Loyall worked at the yard, although that’s not really the case. My parents didn’t work for the L&N, but my Dad’s brother Jack did. Uncle Jack told me that I could identify the old men who used work as couplers in the Yard by their missing fingers. My Dad told me to ignore that “foolishness.” Frankly, I don’t remember a bunch of finger-less old men in Loyall. I was terrified of people who had missing limbs, fingers, etc. I would remember these dudes if they had been hanging around.

We were accustomed to trains but only coal trains. When my family went on vacation, I was intrigued by trains pulling tank cars, flat cars and even the occasional passenger train. Our trains consisted of a couple engines, coal hopper cars and a caboose.

This is all a long way of saying that we knew about trains. We knew people that worked on them, engineered them and road the cabooses. Of course, we also knew the people that mined and loaded the coal that went on those trains. It would have taken a lot for a train to get our attention. The United States Army took care of that in 1970.

I was eight years old when the Nerve Gas Train came to town. That’s not a typo—it was a train loaded with freakin’ nerve gas! I remember my eighth birthday. I was at Yellowstone National Park with my family. My Aunt Norma surprised me with a cake. She also surprised me by buying every piece of junk I had begged for in every store and gift shop we visited. She gave me a bag of marbles, jacks and sundry other items. My parents gave me a baseball glove and Pete Rose bat—that was the summer I became a baseball fan. I still have that bat, but I digress.

I need to digress again. I was a worrier–yes, even at eight years old. What does an eight year old have to worry about? Lots of stuff. I hated school, so I worried about that. I was scared of storms, so I worried about those, too. I worried about being so small and skinny, even though most of my friends were, too. Oh, don’t forget people with missing fingers. I was scared of my great-grandmother because she had a glass eye. Really, it was a sort of generalized brooding which occasionally focused on specifics worries, both real and imagined. Needless to say, the thought of nerve gas train was worrisome.

How did we get a Nerve Gas Train? That’s a fine question. I’m not real sure, but I have done some cursory research, which I’m sure some Harlan County historian will quickly correct. It seems that the United States Army had a large cache of chemical weapons, including nerve gas. As we’ve learned over the years, disposing of such weaponry is not nearly as easy as making it. We know that well here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky where we maintain an enormous stockpile of such weapons in Madison County, some 120 or so miles away from Loyall.

The Bluegrass Army Depot stores such delights as sarin gas, VX and mustard gas. “VX” is shorthand for “venomous agent X,” a nerve agent. It sounds like Dr. Evil named it. I suppose it’s so deadly that no one could come up with a more appealing name. I guess the Nerve Gas Train had goodies like that on board.

In 1970, the Army came up with a plan to dispose of some of these weapons by dumping them in the Atlantic Ocean. I know–that sounds like a plan that Wile E. Coyote or a dull-witted high school sophomore would come up with, but it was a plan.  Soooo….they loaded a bunch of them on a train.

That’s how Loyall got on the path of the Nerve Gas Train. Boy, were people excited. It was in the newspaper. We talked about it at school. People said that even a small leak would likely wipe us all out. If the train wrecked? Cataclysm. We occasionally had train derailed. We even had a disastrous head-on collision near Loyall once. There was even loose talk that the Soviets would love to sabotage the train. We were quite ready in Harlan County to take the Red Scourge. There was some real potential here. People were excited.

I’m serious.  We were excited. Okay. They were excited. I was more terrified. I envisioned a train pulling flatcars loaded with Saturn rockets chock full of venomous nerve agents. For some reason, my mind’s eye saw them steaming with toxic vapors. I hadn’t been this worked up since a rumor that a busload of hippies were coming to town. (By the way, they didn’t, much to my disappointment. I always liked hippies.)

We were like the citizens of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show awaiting the arrival of the gold truck! Unlike Mayberry, though, our shipment wasn’t supposed to be secret. I don’t remember anyone holding up signs, but they should have.

gold truck

So, what happened? The train came through town. People gathered at the railroad tracks and watched. My father mocked them, of course, pointing out to me that it was just a train and no big deal. I saw it go by. No Saturn rockets. No steaming canisters of deadly gas. Not even the smallest leak. No one collapsed and died. No derailments or collisions. No Russian attacks. As far as I know, no one in the county was harmed in any way. It was just a train pulling some nondescript cars.

Here’s a link to podcast discussing the Nerve Gas Train. According to these guys, it carried sarin gas which is neutralized when it comes in contact with salt. That explains the dumping in the ocean. Apparently, there were troops on the train, ambulances and decontamination equipment. I don’t remember any of that. Sound pretty cool, though.

So what? We liked it. It was something to do. Not everyone sees a Nerve Gas Train, and I did. Or at least I think I did. Like I said, I was pretty terrified. Maybe I stayed in my room, and through the fog of time now believe I saw it. I like to think I did.

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2018

Five Things You Don’t See Every Day

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

THE NERVE GAS EXPRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WONDERS OF DUCT TAPE

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

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

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

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

THE COAL MONUMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

COON ON THE LOG

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

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

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

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

TIRE WALKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Hometown Loyall-ty

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

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

WHERE (OR WHAT) IS LOYALL?

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

loyallmap

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

Aerial view of Loyall today.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I lived in this house until I was 12.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH HARLAN COUNTY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIVING IN REALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT BAD STUFF?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO, WHAT’S THE  DEAL?

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The 1976 Loyall Spelling Bee: The Scandal That Will Not Die

Four years after the debacle of the 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball game, another scandal occurred.  Like that infamous game, it remains shrouded in controversy.  In a country wearied by Watergate, perhaps it is understandable that it didn’t capture the public’s attention.  The time has come to clear the air.

I was once quite the fine speller. This was many years ago before spell-check rendered me a virtual illiterate. Spelling was my forte. I did quite well on spelling tests, of course. I well remember the first time I missed a spelling word. It was in the 3rd grade in Mrs. Brewer’s class. I cried. I guess I should also mention that I was quite an odd child, too.

I could spell almost anything. I learned to spell “Constantinople” before I even attended school (I think it was in a Dr. Seuss book). One reason I could spell was that I was an excellent reader, far ahead of many of my peers. You might now guess that I was a child prodigy of some sort (note that it is “prodigy,” not “protegé”). Alas, I was not. I was, however, of above average intelligence and armed with some kind of 6th sense when it came to spelling.

I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High School in Loyall, Kentucky. Loyall is in Harlan County, far off the beaten path for most folks. Don’t be fooled, though–we had our share of smart kids. Just because you live in the mountains of Appalachia doesn’t mean you can’t spell.

loyall

loyall.jpg

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

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

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

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

healthfair

Your author’s odd appearance belied his spelling ability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s (roughly) how our exchange went:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Harlan County Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Hunting Big Foot

This should read “Loyall, Home of Big Foot.”

I grew up in the Golden Age of Big Foot–the 1970’s.  I also grew up in the Land of Big Foot–Harlan County, Kentucky. I realize that the proper spelling of the species is “bigfoot,” but I prefer “Big Foot,” as his proper name.  I never saw Big Foot, but he was around, lurking.

Some 40 years later, my contemporaries ponder the state of the World.  They grieve over politics and social issues.  They worry about such mundane topics as prostate health and cardiovascular disease.  I, however, still think about Big Foot.

Eastern Kentucky has always had its share of tall tales.  There was Old John Shell, reputedly living to the ripe of old age of 130.  He killed a bear with his bare hands in a creek.  Thus, that creek is now known as Greasy Creek from the grease left by the bear’s carcass.  My Papaw used tell of a headless man who roamed the woods in Island Creek in Pike County.

We now live in a new era of Big Foot.  He’s making a comeback.  The History Channel used to be devoted to subjects like war–you know, history.  Now, it has shows about Big Foot.  Big Foot is on the Science Channel, The Learning Channel and others.   He’s a star again.

I first became familiar with Big Foot’s cousin, The Abominable Snowman.  The Abominable, of course, was one of the stars of the classic Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  He terrified me, even after Hermey sadistically pulled all his teeth.

I learned of the real Abominable through a magazine article–it might have been in Boy’s Life.  Someone had made plaster casts of his foot prints. They were huge!  He had to be real.

It was around that time that I first heard of Big Foot.  He might be known as Sasquatch elsewhere, but in Harlan County, he was–and will always remain–Big Foot.  Harlan County had Big Foot.

To be precise, Loyall had Big Foot.  Loyall is where I grew up.  It was–and is now–a small town.  For years, the sign into town said “Population 1100.”  I guess that was right.  I don’t know how long Loyall has been there, but I’d guess since 1911, the year the first trainload of coal was shipped out of Harlan County.

Loyall is a railroad town, home of a railroad yard.  Originally, it was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  Today, it’s CSX.  The “Yard” is huge, full of old relics and buildings which haven’t been used in decades, but it still runs trains.  It seems like most folks in Loyall worked for the railroad.  My uncle Jack was the Trainmaster at the Yard.  He made sure the trains ran on time–literally.

The Loyall Yard, many years ago. It looks pretty much the same today.

I lived most of my childhood in Rio Vista, a subdivision of sorts just outside Loyall.  It was 5 blocks of houses and a nice, quiet place to live.  Nice neighbors, you slept with your doors unlocked, etc–typical small town USA.  The only downside was that we lived right by the railroad tracks–as did most folks in Loyall.  Even today, I’m sure I could sleep soundly right by a train track.

Just outside Loyall is a mammoth cemetery, Resthaven.  That’s where my parents and younger brother–and many others–are interred.  Near the cemetery was a curved railroad bridge, which I was told was the first curved railroad bridge in the country.  I doubt that, but I like to think it’s true. So, Loyall was pretty ordinary.  Our biggest claim to fame was being saluted once on Hee Haw.

Even though Loyall was ordinary, it had its mysteries.  For example, there was Good Neighbor Road.  For the most part, it was just a little road at the foot of Park Hill lined with houses.  After about a half mile, the road ran out and turned into dirt.  People lived on that stretch, too, but I don’t know who they were.  Their dogs were vicious and would chase you like a pack of wolves.  Past those few homes was the sewer plant.  Past that was a big old house full of people.  We didn’t know them or what they were about.  A friend of mine and I used to go into the woods above that house and look at it with binoculars.  It looked like the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  We never saw anything interesting going on, but it was still creepy.  We knew they were up to no good.  My knew those folks and said they were alright.  I’m sure he was wrong about that.

Then, there was Old Loyall which really was no different from “new” Loyall except that’s where the Yard was located, and I guess it was older.  It’s also where City Hall and the fire department were–and still are–located. But, on the other side of the Yard was a strange stretch of road running behind the Yard.  In the back of the yard were a couple of old school buses with stove pipes in the windows.  People lived in those buses.  At least, I think they were people.

Our biggest mystery was Long Hollow.  It is above Park Hill, where I moved at age 12.  We lived–literally–on the side of the mountain.  The city of Harlan was on the other side of the mountain.  On our side of the mountain was a holler (“hollow” for you city folks).  That was Long Hollow, land of mystery.  To get to it, you had to hike straight through the woods above our house, maybe 500 feet.  Then, you hit the old mine road which you could follow for about a mile.  When it ran out, you just hiked.  Long Hollow was shaded, cool and more than a little eerie.  This is where Big Foot resided.

When I say I lived on the side of the mountain, I mean it.

I think my friend Norman first made me aware of Big Foot.  Norman was a font of information, some true and some false.  He knew of Big Foot, because Big Foot lived up above his house, deep in the woods.  Deep in Long Hollow, the mysterious cove well back in the mountain.

An aerial shot of Loyall showing Big Foot’s last known whereabouts.

It was probably in the 3rd or 4th grade that Norman described the great beast to me.  Big Foot had “the eyes of man; the nose of a bear; the ears of a man; the mouth of a bear; the hands of a man; the feet of a bear.”  Whew.  That’s one scary-sounding abomination.  Even at that young age, I could recognize exaggeration or outright lying, but it was an entertaining tale.

Norman and I saw the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek at the Margie Grand Theater in Harlan.  It was sort of a mock-documentary about the Boggy Creek Monster, kind of a poor man’s Big Foot.  This film had production values that would embarrass a pornographer, but it terrified me.  If Big Foot was anything like the Boggy Creek Monster, we were in trouble.

As an aside, the atmosphere of the Margie Grand made the film all the scarier.  The Margie Grand was an old theater–really old.  Plaster hung in big chunks from the ceiling.  The balcony sagged dangerously overhead.  The only time I was ever in there when the balcony was open, some kid peed off it–on to the audience below.  That’s a special effect George Lucas never thought of.  It had an old stage in front of the screen.  Norman and I would throw popcorn on the stage and watch the rats run out to eat it.  It added a certain grimy creepiness to anything you watched.  Years later, I watched The Legend of Boggy Creek on TV.  It wouldn’t frighten a preschooler.  But, at the Margie Grand, you half-expected the Boggy Creek Monster to be selling tickets.

We hunted for Big Foot.  Imagine, two small 10-year-old kids, heading into the woods, with knives on our belts seeking a beast which would tear us limb from limb.  We would stab him to death if it came to it. We were ready to take him on.

We walked the mining road, occasionally stopping to play with the old equipment.  Hey, we might have been Big Foot Hunters, but we were still kids.  An old dump truck was pretty cool.  Sometimes we encountered feral dogs or “wild” dogs as we called them.  Skinny, mangy and growling–they were damn scary.  I don’t care what kind of dog-lover you are, these mutts would scare the hell out of you. Sometimes, we’d go inside the portals of the old coal mines, an action far more dangerous than Big Foot.

I made several treks into Long Hollow to look for Big Foot.  I never found him.  Oh, occasionally, I saw his footprints or heard him off in the distance.  But, I never had the chance to take him on with my knife, which, incidentally, my cousin brought to me straight from Vietnam.

Some 40 years later, I still have my Big Foot hunting knife.

Even though we never saw Big Foot, people still had some fun with him.  I knew a kid who was obsessed with, and terrified by, Big Foot.  His father sawed huge feet out of plywood, strapped them to his feet and stomped around in their yard when it snowed.  He made tracks right up to his son’s bedroom window.  The kid didn’t sleep for weeks.  That’s a good way to assure years of therapy.

A friend of mine and I once took another kid in the woods to show him where we “saw” Big Foot.  We had another kid waiting to jump out and scare him.  Of course, we had no Big Foot costume nor were any us 9 or 10 feet tall.  Our ersatz Big Foot leaped from behind a tree screaming his best Big Foot scream and whacking a tree with a stick.  It sounded kind of like “YOWWWWWYAAHHH!!”  He had improvised his own Big Foot costume by combining a football helmet with a green Army poncho.  Strangely, it worked and our poor dupe ran screaming out of the woods.

Mostly, Big Foot disappointed me.  Honestly, I never saw him.  I also never saw any footprints.  I tried hard to imagine that I did.  I had seen the eponymous Big Foot film (known as the Patterson Film to us Big Foot-philes).  That’s what I wanted to see, but I didn’t.

Truthfully, I’ve always been a bit of a coward.  If I had really believed he existed, I probably wouldn’t have set foot in those woods.  Nevertheless, it was fun to think about it.  It still is.

Eventually, Big Foot became like the Wallins Creek Panther.  I heard for years that there was a panther in Wallins.  A HUGE panther.  After awhile, I realized that if that many people had seen it, someone would have killed it.  Big Foot–being gargantuan–couldn’t have hidden that long. Say what you will about Harlan County, but our people won’t hesitate to kill something.

Gradually, Big Foot left my consciousness.  He became a thing of memories, like 10 cent cokes and baseball cards.  When I visited my parents, I would sometimes look up toward Long Hollow and think about hiking around.  Mostly, though, I thought about how my parents must have been crazy to allow an 10-year-old to wander off into the woods.  I wouldn’t allow my kids to walk to the corner at that age.

One night, my sons and I watched an atrocious film called Yeti on the SciFi Channel.  Yeti (or Yetti) is another name for the Abominable Snowman.  This Yeti was a maniac, able to leap 40 feet in the air and cover 100 yards in a single bound.  He slaughters most of the football team from “State University” whose plane crashed on his mountain.  Eventually, the Yeti falls off a cliff.  Of course, we find out in the final frame that there were two Yetis, setting the stage for a sequel.  It did, though, bring back my memories of Big Foot.

I’m not sure what has caused the rest of the world’s renewed interest in Big Foot.  Maybe he’s just making a comeback like zombies have done in last few years.  I hope no one captures him.  Capturing is for wusses.  Stab him to death.  That was my plan.

One thing that has always puzzled me is whether there are multiple bigfoots (bigfeet?).  I mean, there have to be, right?  They re-produce, I guess.  Or maybe Big Foot is 130 years old like Old John Shell.  That might make more sense.

So, there you have it.  An actual Big Foot hunter right in your midst.  Oh, by the way, the men’s room at the Margie Grand had its toilet at the bottom of a long flight of stairs.  You had to stand on the steps to pee.  Weird.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Richard Nixon and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This poster adorned my wall as a kid.

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

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

Family_004

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

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

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

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

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

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012