Festival of the Poke

Poke in its natural state.

It’s that time of year in Harlan County, Kentucky. Time for the Poke Sallet Festival. It’s been many years since I attended the Festival, but I have many memories of it.

“What is poke?” you ask. It’s a weed. It grows out in the woods. It doesn’t look like anything you’d eat. It also doesn’t taste like anything you’d eat. Legend has it that folks would go into the woods, pick it and put it in bags. Bags of course were–and still are–called “pokes.” You cook it down–often boiled–and slop it onto a plate. A green onion and cornbread usually completes the presentation.

The foul weed prepared for eating.

I’ll admit that I’ve only eaten poke a couple of times. It’s foul. It smells bad when it cooks and on your plate. I think it is served with an onion to give the diner something to kill the taste. It’s kinda like kale, only more pungent and weedier tasting. Like all greens, it also has a violent laxative effect when eaten in large quantities.

I don’t know what in the world “sallet” is, except a mispronounced word.  Sallet isn’t any easier to say than “salad,” but I guess that doesn’t matter, does it?  Besides, poke isn’t eaten in a salad, as far as I know.  It’s just cooked down into a slimy, nauseating mess.

Why am I writing about poke? Because I enjoyed the Festival when I was a kid. For several years, my father was the chairman of the Poke Sallet Festival. I was a little kid, and that impressed me. Dad seemed like a big deal. I liked that.

I don’t know why Harlan County chooses to honor poke. Seems like every Kentucky county has a festival for something. I guess Harlan wanted something, too. Coal was probably too obvious a choice.  We don’t have much else.

There are a lot of things from childhood that I don’t remember well. But I remember the Poke Sallet Festival.  What do I remember?

Gladys Hoskins: She was the long time boss of the Harlan Chamber of Commerce and lived across the street from us. I don’t know if she was Chairperson or President or what, but she was the boss. She and Dad worked every year to bring it all together. I can still see Mrs. Hoskins smoking a cigarette and–always–dressed to the nines.

Stone Mountain Park: It might have been Stone Creek, but it’s where the Festival was held when I was a kid. It was somewhere up around Smith. It was a couple of shelters but pretty nice–or I thought so. Eventually, things moved to downtown Harlan which makes more sense. Plus, there’s slightly less chance of getting killed in town.

The Red, White and Blue Band: There was always music at the festival. One year, The RWBB played. Never heard of them? They were, as Dad said, “a bunch of hippies.” It was the late 1960’s/1970’s early and that’s what they were, I guess. Actually, they were from Clover Fork in Harlan County. The lead singer was Merle English, one of my Mom’s students at Evarts High School.  Someone told me they played Acid Rock. An old man said they looked like “dope fiends.”  I loved them. I’m pretty sure no one else did. As you might imagine, the bands were usually country or bluegrass.  Years later, English became Max English and a successful lounge singer.  True story.

Jimmy Skidmore: Jimmy liked to dance. He danced to whatever the band played. He could dance the hell out of any song. No partner required. He was a nice guy and had a helluva good time. I’m sure today’s more politically correct world would frown on this. That’s a shame. He had fun and everyone enjoyed it.

Alfred: I don’t his last name, but he could sing. He also didn’t have front teeth, leaving him with prominent fang-like canines. But, like I said, he could sing. He would usually sing Six Days on the Road or Okie From Muskogee.He would belt them out. Good stuff.

The Governor: Governors Louie Nunn and Wendell Ford would come to the festival. Ford was great. He would eat poke, shake hands and pose for pictures with everybody. Nunn was good, too. One time they presented Nunn with a portrait painted by a local artist. It was pretty good, but for some reason Louie’s face was painted with a scowl. When it was unveiled, his reaction was roughly the same look. Even as a small child, I knew it was funny. Dad laughed himself silly.

Steve Lyon: He was Mrs. Hoskins’s son-in-law. He was a hippie–or at least I thought he was. He had LONG hair and a beard. In case you haven’t noticed, I was a bit fascinated by hippies. By “a bit,” I mean a lot. We didn’t have hippies in Harlan, but I’d seen them when we went on vacation. Steve was definitely a hippie. Anyway, he was also a musician. A pretty good one, too. He played at the Festival one year. He played the electric organ and sang a song about throwing his mother down the stairs. Even my Dad was impressed. Much like the Red, White and Blue Band, he wasn’t the audience’s idea of entertainment, but he was good.

Virgil Q. Wacks:  Virgil Q came to the Festival to film highlights for his weekly show Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time. His show was part advertising, part travelogue.  He filmed around Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.  He used an old-fashioned, windup camera with no sound.  He would narrate the film on his show.  His trademark was the extreme close up where he would zoom in on his subject until the picture blurred out. He would also refer to most people as “smiling” and “genial,” regardless of how unfriendly or even dangerous looking his subject was. Virgil Q always excited the crowd, because you knew you might be on television.  It’s hard to describe Virgil Q’s show, but we loved it. Any time I hear the old song Happy Days Are Here Again, I think of Virgil Q.  By the way, I don’t hear that song all that often.

The Melting Pot:  The Festival was a true Harlan County melting pot.  People from all over the county came to it:  Loyall, Harlan, Wallins, Evarts, Cumberland, Benham, Lynch, Chevrolet, Cawood, Cranks, Smith, Punkin Center, Ages, Verda, Lejunior, Lenarue, Catrons Creek, Pathfork, River Ridge, Holmes Mill, Baxter, Keith–every town, community, camp and holler was represented.  Harlan County is sparsely populated but 50 miles wide.  You can live your whole life in the county and never see some parts of it.  The Festival was where everyone gathered.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been to the Festival.  By then, it was already firmly established in downtown Harlan. The poke dinners were served at Jay’s Restaurant.  I took a friend of mine with me.  He was running for some office and wanted to go to Harlan to meet people.  This was during the last gasps of the United Mine Workers Union in Harlan, and the UMW was out in force.  A lot of union folks were dressed in camouflage and fatigues like some militia.  My most notable encounter was with local character and raconteur, Rubber Duck.  I introduced him to my friend, whereupon The Duck said:  “Buddy, can you believe  I got run over by truck?”  My friend looked at The Duck’s scarred up face and said:  “Well, yeah…I can believe it.”  The Duck responded:  “It takes more than a truck to kill The Duck!”  That’s about all I remember, but, man oh man, did that make me laugh.

Back to the poke.  I don’t recommend it.  I think it’s something people ate back when there wasn’t much food.  You’d find something growing and eat it.  If it didn’t kill you, it was food.  My Dad said he used to eat mush, which he described as “not fit to eat, but that’s all we had.”  Poke is like that.  Now, I know people who eat poke and claim to like it.  Maybe they do.  I’ve known people who ate souse and other vile foods and claimed to like them, too.

I’m sure poke has all sorts of nutritional value–antioxidants and whatnot.  I’ve heard people say that it can cure various ailments.  That may well be true.  If you say it is, I really have neither the knowledge nor the energy to argue with you about it.  I still don’t like it.  Nevertheless, it makes for a helluva festival.  Corbin, Kentucky has a Nibroc Festival, which is just “Corbin” spelled backwards.  I guess Harlan could have the Nalrah Festival, but that sounds like some Middle Eastern deal.  Poke it is and should forever remain.

Based on the photos I see of the modern Poke Sallet Festival, it doesn’t resemble the one of my youth.  There are bands with real stages and sound equipment.  Sometimes, all we had was a guy with a banjo.  Honestly, it’s probably much more entertaining now.  Plus, you don’t have to drive all the way out to Smith.  It looks like there are multiple venues for entertainment, too.  Of course, there’s still the poke, but I bet you can get lots of other stuff to eat now, too.  Progress is a good thing.

There a lot of things I don’t remember about my childhood–birthdays, school events, holidays.  I remember a lot about the Poke Sallet Festival, so it must have been pretty good–all except the poke part, I guess.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Love and the Color TV

Your author pictured in the middle being forced to watch black and white TV. I can’t even look directly at it. December 1962.

“This is the happiest day of my life.”  Thus I spoke one day in 1967.  I was 4 years old and talking to a television salesman.  Why was I so happy?  My family had just purchased its first color television.  Color TV, my friends.  It was that simple.  I had seen Batman and Get Smart with their tantalizing “In Color” graphics at the bottom.  Until that day, I could only dream of what that really meant.  Lost in Space, too was in color, as were many other TV shows.  Even at 4 years old, I knew that a life-changing event was unfolding.

My first color TV. No, it wasn’t crooked. That’s the photo–I think.

I think the TV was an RCA.  Could have been a Philco or Zenith.  Of course, it had a round screen.  No remote control, either.  The only remote control I had ever seen was on an episode of Dennis the Menace.  It was roughly the size of a brick.  No, our new TV had a dial.  That was okay, because I liked to sit so close to it that I could just reach up and turn the channels as needed.  My mother told me that sitting close to the TV would cause me to die of radiation poisoning, but I was willing to risk it.  (As a side note, she said standing beside the TV would give one a mega-dose of deadly radiation waves.  I never bothered to find out if any of that was true. After all, you couldn’t see the screen).

TVs used to be complex.  They were called TV “sets,” for some reason.  If you removed the back, the cabinet was full of vacuum tubes of every size imaginable.  Those tubes held all the magic, especially the big one–the picture tube.  I was never allowed behind the TV.  My mother made it clear that to venture to the back of the TV was almost sure to result in sudden and fatal electrocution injuries.  I did, however, have occasion to watch the TV repairman work on it.

Oh, yes, there were TV repairmen.  They would come to your house and work on the TV.  They carried large cases full of vacuum tubes.  Once, I mistook the Jewel Tea Man for Mr. Simms, the TV repairman.  I furiously castigated him for being so late to fix the TV.  I think I was 6 years old at the time.  I was serious about the TV.

TVs used to be full of these. They held all the magic.

Remember vertical and horizontal “hold” dials?  If you do, you’re as old as I am.  For the uniformed, these were tuning knobs you could use to adjust the picture if the screen image began rolling or zig zagging. “DON’T TOUCH THOSE DIALS.”  If you messed up the picture, you might never get it right again.

TV was dangerous in those days, too.  If you broke the picture tube, the TV would explode, killing everyone in the house.  “DON’T HIT THE SCREEN WITH ANYTHING.”  There was the poor boy who–for reasons that remained obscure–kissed the screen and died immediately.  My mom never said whether he was related to the boy who died under similar circumstances kissing a toaster, but it seems likely.  Perhaps my unbridled love of the TV made mom concerned that I would get carried away with passion.  At least I understood the toaster story, given that I liked to stare at my reflection in it like a small Narcissus.

TV stations used to go off the air at midnight, some at 11:30.  They’d usually sign off with The Star Spangled Banner.  You’d just have white noise or maybe a test pattern until 6:00 a.m.

Black and White Test Pattern. What this was supposed to test or why it had an Indian on it are beyond me.

I don’t know the purpose of the test pattern, but someone used it to test something every night.  The old TVs were powered by the magic of the cathode ray:

Diagram showing the basic set up of a TV picture tube.

To this day, I don’t understand any of this.  To me, here is how it works:

Your author’s basic understanding of television technology.

We all know the power of television.  Dress up any troglodyte and put him on TV enough, and–PRESTO!–he’ll be elected to public office.  Have you ever been on TV?  Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re just a little better person than you were before?  People will say:  “Hey!  I saw you on TV!”  You could be on TV eating a live squirrel and people would still think:  “Hmmm.  There’s something different about him, now.”  The first time I was on TV, I was probably 8 years old.  It was the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival Parade.  My brother and I were riding in a convertible.  I think it was John L. Belcher’s car.  If not, it should have been.  It was the kind of car John L would have driven.

Virgil Q. Wacks filmed the parade for his TV show, Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time.  If you’re not familiar with Virgil Q, I can’t describe his show.  It was a kind of an advertising/travelogue program.  He filmed us in the car and there we were–on TV.  His film collection is archived at East Tennessee State University where we live forever.

There were many disadvantages to growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, but TV wasn’t one of them.  We had cable.  That’s right–cable TV in the 1960’s  It was the only way to get a TV signal in the mountains.  (As a side note, I am the owner of 1 share of Harlan Community Television, Inc., the longtime local cable company).  In those days, TV channels ranged from 2 through 13, with the little understood UHF channel to boot.  We had signals on all the channels on the dial:  Lexington, Kingsport, Knoxville,  Asheville.  We might have been Ground Zero in the War on Poverty, but by God we won the TV War before it even started.

I loved that color TV.  Eventually, the dial (or channel changer, as I called it)  fell off.  As most families did, we replaced it with a pair of pliers until it could be located, a minor inconvenience.  Sometimes, I would lie on my back and watch the TV upside down just for the hell of it.

I spent many hours in front of that TV. Yes, Batman was in color.  Spectacular color, too.  By the end of the ’60’s, everything was in color! When I was around 8, I started watching sports on that TV.  Hey, kids:  There used to be one Major League Baseball game a week on TV.  It was called, fittingly enough, The Game of the Week.  It came 0n Saturdays, and I always watched.  There was also an NBA Game of the Week.  My earliest sports memory is Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers vs. Lew Alcindor and the Bucks.   You rarely saw some athletes at all.  The only time you’d see some players would All-Star games or playoffs.  The NFL, being ahead of its time, always had a couple of games on Sundays.

I am part of the TV Generation.  I knew the TV schedule every night of the week.  When I was 3 years old, I surprised my parents by counting to 100 one night.  When my mother asked where I learned that, I could only reply:  “From the TV.”  I was told–and still am–that TV will rot my brain.  Perhaps it has.  I know the lyrics to the theme for Gilligan’s Island, yet I will sometimes forget my children’s birth dates.

One of the calling cards of the intellectual is the refrain that “I don’t watch television.”  I’m not an intellectual, and I do watch TV.  Always have, always will.  I watch sports on TV.  I watch movies on TV.  I watch sitcoms and true crime and reality shows.  I’ll watch anything for a few minutes.  I’ll watch Toddlers & Tiaras just to get outraged.  I’ll watch shows about 900 pound people.  I’ll watch reruns of King of Queens just to marvel at how it could have been on the air for years.  It’s as funny as a truck load of dead babies, but I’ll watch it.  I’ll watch the news, the weather, the History Channel.  I’ll watch Road House for 500th time.  I may know more about the Beverly Hillbillies than any person alive, and I’m proud of it.  TV series, miniseries, short films, previews, reviews–everything.

That first color TV didn’t stay around all that long.  Within a few years, my father enjoyed some financial success, and we had TVs everywhere.  We even got a remote control Zenith.  We had a TV in our bedroom (technically, it was my brother’s).  We had a TV in the kitchen, too. The old TV was relegated to the basement where we continued to use it, but it was now like an old horse put out to pasture.  Like a horse, it sat in that basement for many years after it quit working entirely.

Now, I have monstrous TVs.  46 inch, 60 inch, plasma, LCD, high def–you name it.  Hundreds and hundreds of channels–all at my finger tips.  I not only have a remote control, I have a pillow which doubles as a universal remote. None of them, though, ever thrilled me like the first one.  I’ve loved them all, but none of them–none–ever made me declare that it was the best day of my life.

One day, there may some disaster which destroys society and forces us to start over.  The first thing I’ll do is try to figure out how to build a TV.  TVs–like ships and airplanes–work on some kind of magic, I’m sure.  So, I don’t where I’d start, but I’d get right on it.

Oh, and it would have to be a color TV.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012