Truman and Me

I wrote this for Elizabeth Gaucher’s blog  http://essediemblog.com where it first appeared.

Truman and Me

My uncle Truman and I killed millions of German soldiers during the Second World War. One morning before my grandfather Charlie Barker went over the mountain to his job as a laborer at the DuPont plant he commanded us to hoe the sprouting field corn. I was probably eight or nine years old and Truman was three years older.

To my adult eyes that corn field is still huge and at our age almost seventy years ago it was daunting. We hoed as far as the shade of a big sycamore tree halfway down the first row. The ground was sandy from years of flooding which made it easy to dig a foxhole to fight off the Huns. We tossed dirt clod grenades and made appropriate gun noises as we defended our homeland with sticks that felt exactly like guns. Charlie seethed and ranted when he got home and saw our work for the day was a hole in the ground in the first row of corn.

For a while my Grandma and Charlie owned a general store in Ashford, three miles up Big Coal River from the homeplace at Emmons. When I was five years old, Truman and I would run into the store from playing, stick our hands into the loose candy and run like thieves. During one of those escapes Charlie threw a rake at me, at least I thought so at the time. After that I never again called him Grandpa and the farm was thereafter, “Grandma’s farm.”

Grandma said Truman and I fought like grown men, punching with our fists and rolling around on the floor and under the dining room table. Truman had a three year advantage but he was a little guy, so our fights were usually a draw. We played hard like kids do. We got hungry during one wonderful, uninhibited, wild and joyous day of fighting, wrestling, killing Nazis, running and running. We went in the house several times and scooped out dollops of peanut butter with our fingers. Like horses eating too much corn, I got foundered on the peanut butter overdose. Terrible vomiting ensued and the memory persisted of a thin mixture of stomach acid and peanut butter running out my nose. It was at least five years before I ate peanut butter again.

Big Coal River’s 1916 flood washed out saw mills upstream from the homeplace. A bonanza of chestnut, oak and hickory lumber was deposited in our bottom land and on the river bank. The near majestic old barn was built from the free lumber. It has a fine cupola for ventilation and I remember a trap door that covered the steps to the loft and another where we pitched hay down to the horse and cow stalls. There is a corn crib in the back of the first floor and there were boxes for laying hens along the hallway that separated the horse from the cow stalls. Truman and I played full court basketball in the barn loft. The metal hoops are still nailed at the ends of our court.

Truman, a neighbor boy and I experimented with masturbation in the barn loft. We discovered several other venues and made up bawdy songs about our sport. Many years later a girl friend and I enjoyed the barn loft and she broke out with something resembling poison ivy from getting laid in the hay.

The first “Colored people” I saw was a family sitting on a porch overlooking Bull Creek. Truman and I passed them as we walked up the hollow on the way to pick huckleberries near Uncle Kin’s cabin. Kin’s outside toilet was one of our venues for our harmless sexual experiments. From that cabin Kin walked to his work in the woods of cutting trees and splitting them into mine posts to sell to coal companies.

Our trust in great uncle Kin was well placed. He never told on us when we charged Red Top tobacco to his bill at the tiny store across the river. We made a corncob pipe and hid out in the barn and tried unsuccessfully to light it. Truman sent me to the house for some kerosene to put in with the tobacco—we were lucky we didn’t burn that wonderful old barn down. We tried smoking corn silk and made an unsuccessful attempt at the harsh smoke from dry sycamore leaves. We were determined to imitate our role models and smoke something.

Our farmhouse was L shaped with two massive stone chimneys and a cellar for storing potatoes, home canned meat and vegetables, jams, jellies, apple butter and preserves. A dank potato smell enveloped me when the cellar door was opened. The house had the elegant touch of a front porch and balcony which were seldom used because they were on the south side facing the sun. The family gathered on the L shaped side porch away from the sun to talk and do chores like stringing beans and leather breaches and peeling potatoes.

The bee gum was a two foot tall section of tree sitting in the yard. The bee tree was cut down and the bee hive section of the trunk sawed off and hauled to the yard where it rested on a stand with boards nailed together to form a roof. Truman and I did not go near that thing.

Millions of flies were drawn to the horse and cow droppings just outside the picket fence that separated the house from surrounding pasture. Screen doors with un-patched holes let hundreds of those millions of flies inside the house. Their swarming presence turned a table cloth black that had been white and that covered leftovers from the previous meal. It is a wonder, that with flies as carriers, no one in our family caught polio.

The kitchen and dining room were closed off from the rest of the house for winter living. Heat came from an open-grate coal fire in the dining room and from a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. Charlie and his brother, great-uncle Kin, dug coal from an outcropping up Thomas Branch holler (that’s what I still call a hollow) to fuel the dining room fire. In cold months Truman and I bathed in a galvanized wash tub sitting near the kitchen cook stove. In warm weather we washed in Big Coal River.

On winter evenings we enjoyed the voice of Uncle Kin singing hymns as he rocked in the warmth of the dining room fireplace–Bringing in the Sheaves and When the Role Is Called Up Yonder were my favorites.

There was no overnight heat in the farmhouse. Electric lines had not reached our area of Big Coal River. At bedtime Charlie, Uncle Kin or Grandma “banked” the dining room fire with ashes to keep air away from the coals. In the morning it was easy to rekindle a fire with hot embers in the grate. Grandma told me that Isaac and Spicy Barker, our progenitors and the first Barkers in Boone County, kept a stump burning in the summer to have a source for starting a fire in the cook stove.

As the fire was being banked and by the light of a kerosene lantern Truman and I hurried out of the two heated rooms, across the cold living room floor, past the white enameled slop jar and upstairs to bed. If we had to pee or “goo-goo” at night it was either outside to the toilet or the slop jar under the stairs, I can still smell that foul thing. In the outside toilet, Sears Roebuck catalogs provided the necessary finishing touches.

On cold winter nights, Truman and I shared a feather tick under a mountain of homemade quilts. It was deliciously scary when the wind banged the big sycamore tree limbs against the house. Ghosts and strange creatures lurked in the “bore’s nest”–a dark, mysterious and cluttered store room of dusty pictures, old clothes, trunks, broken furniture and a coat tree with a hat on top. Flashes of lightening or a full moon turned the coat tree into a creature looking in at us huddled close together under our quilts.

From late spring through early fall mornings after Grandma milked the cows, Truman and I herded them up Thomas Branch to graze for the day. Uncle Kin leased that holler for a dollar a month from ARMCO steel. As we followed the cows we chewed on birch bark, threw rocks in the creek, ate blackberries and watched snake doctors (aka dragon flies) glide over still pools of water. At the end of the day we found the hurting-to-be-milked cows waiting for us at the holler gate.

We carried drinking water by the bucket full to the house from a dug well down the hill near the collapsing remains of the first house built on the farm. Water for other uses was caught in barrels from roof downspouts. By August it was so dry that Charlie hooked up horses Frank and Barney to a sled with empty fifty gallon water barrels aboard. Besides “gee” and “haw” Frank and Barney seemed to understand the meaning of “get up there”, “woe” and “easy there”.

Truman and I rode the horses as they dragged the sled and empty barrels on the road to a ford in the river where Charlie poured buckets of water into the barrels. Going back with one hundred gallons of water was not easy for the horses–their veins bulged as they pulled the heavy water on the uphill grades. To reduce the load on the horses, Truman and I walked on the way back.

Fall butchering was a Druid carnival. The bladder from the hog was cut loose and thrown to Truman and me. We put a hollow stick in the urethra, blew the bladder up like a balloon and tied it off. We kicked it all over the hillside pasture, fell down, got up laughing and ran after our “pigskin”.

We rode the snow down the hill behind the house on sleds that were old pieces of metal roofing. One summer we camped out in a shelter we built of boxes holding up that metal roofing. A pregnant cat crawled in with us and aborted her kittens in slimy looking bags—we were stunned and ignorant of what was happening.

The bottom land was, in addition to being our camping and recreation area, a cow and horse pasture where we invented the game of Frisbee. Cow’s semi-liquid poops dried hard in thin disc shapes and were perfect for tossing.

We learned to swim in Big Coal River which winds along the edge of our farm. Grandma, who couldn’t swim, was our life guard. Truman yelled, “Did you hear that?” He was knocking two pieces of coal together under the water. No I didn’t hear it. “Go under and listen.” It was magical! The loud knocking noise seemed to be inside my ears.

Our physics lesson continued on the railroad track—we put our ears against the rail and listened to an approaching train before we could hear it through the air. As the train approached we put pennies on the track and got them back thin and flattened. We noticed that in cold weather the spaces between the rails were much farther apart than in the hot sun of summer when they almost touched. A few years later science teachers taught me what I had already learned by experiment–sound waves travel faster in liquids than in gases, still faster in solids and metals expand on heating and contract when cold.

Aw, Grandma. I see her herding and milking the cows, churning the milk into butter and stirring hot, thick, satin brown apple butter in a large copper pot over a wood fire. She stirred the apple butter with a long handled wood paddle with holes to allow the liquid to pass through. To pick berries she dressed up in a garb that covered every part of her body. Her face barely peeked out of an Arab looking head wrap through a swarm of gnats trying to get at her blood. Picking berries was slow, hot and miserable for me, but grandma could go all morning picking two water buckets full of berries without giving in to the heat and bugs.

On one of our berry picking forays up Thomas Branch, the dogs treed a ground hog. Grandma picked up a piece of wood and knocked the ground hog from the limb it was clinging to. Thinking it was dead, she picked it up by the tail and we started toward home. The animal wasn’t dead! It was “playing possum”. The dogs barked at it but stayed a safe distance from the snarling, vicious growl. I was looking eye ball to eye ball at an animal that had every survival alarm turned on, ready to fight for its very life. Grandma didn’t pay any attention to the life and death noises as she carried the ground hog to the house where she finished clubbing it to death, skinned and gutted it and cooked it for dinner.

We moved to Detroit After Dad’s eye was put out in a coal mine accident. In his new job he cut deep into his thigh with a sander–that sent us back to West Virginia. I did half a year of kindergarten in Detroit but when we got back to Emmons I started in mid-year of the first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Morris, lived on the next farm about a mile up Big Coal River. She came by on my first day and walked the mile with me to the Emmons Grade School After the first day I walked with Aunt Julia and Uncle Truman. Julia was in the sixth grade and Truman was in the fourth.

Lacking electricity like the rest of the area, our one room Emmons Grade School was heated with coal in a pot-bellied stove, water came from a well and there was an outside toilet. I was new and shy which was not lost on at least one of the older boys. Out on the playground during recess, he said something to me about pussy in front of the other kids. I was embarrassed because I knew I was being made fun of but I didn’t know what he was talking about. Uncle Truman pulled me away from the embarrassment.

I was sent to the blackboard on the other side of the room where Aunt Julia was sitting—she whispered the answers that I was supposed to put on the board. I didn’t feel connected to the city children characters in our reading books. “Run Jim run” and “See Jim run” didn’t inspire or connect with me. Jim and his sister Judy wore nice clothes and their parents were always dressed up. They were a bland family. Jim and Judy’s dad in a suit coming home from a day at the office looked nothing like my dad when he came home from a coal mine or a construction job.

I didn’t learn to read in the first grade and neither did the other two first graders. Not being able to read caused me lots of trouble when, a month into my second grade year, we moved to St. Albans. I was called on to read from the same book we had at Emmons. I remembered parts that Mrs. Morris had read to us and brazenly recited them as I pretended to read. But I was looking at the wrong page. My first and only F was in second grade reading. It was a traumatic time. My mother tried to teach me to read using a switch. It is hard to learn to read through sobbing tears. I have enjoyed a lifetime of reading which is testimony that I survived that second grade trauma.

Somewhere between ages eight and ten I started going to the farm by myself. I was never afraid on those solo bus and train trips from our home in St. Albans to the farm. It never occurred to me that there was any danger, and there wasn’t. I walked four blocks through Ordnance Park over to route 60 and for a nickel caught the Interurban bus to downtown St. Albans. I walked the few blocks from the bus station to the train station, bought a ticket and climbed on the train that went up Big Coal River.

Something akin to the theory of relativity fascinated me as I sat on the train before leaving the station. A train headed for Huntington sat beside my train that was headed in the opposite direction. One of the trains moved but for a moment I couldn’t tell which train it was. Did my train move or the other one? It was more magic. One of the trains stopped and a few seconds later the illusion was repeated.

“Do not flush while the train is in the station”, warned the sign above the commode. I found out why when I did flush—all of what I had just done went straight down onto the area between the tracks. It was fun to hold the flush handle down and watch the wooden ties and rock ballast fly by. After that discovery I paid closer attention to the space between the tracks whenever I walked there.

I was in a safe community cocoon. There were always other people waiting for the bus and the kind train conductor knew Charlie and Grandma and made sure I got off at Gripp which is across the river from the farm. The conductor enjoyed calling Gripp “suitcase” to see if I would laugh. From the train at “suitcase” I walked on a winding path through a corn field to the river’s edge and yelled for someone to set me across the river.

Charlie often put me to work just as soon as I got out of the boat and to the top of the river bank. Once it was bugging potatoes. Truman and I made a game of it. We knocked the potato bugs into a can and turned leaves over to find their yellow egg clusters and squashed the eggs between two pieces of wood. At the end of bugging for the day we took our catch to the house and put them in a metal pie plate on top of the hot cook stove. We watched the bugs dance and fry–we had no feelings for potato bugs.

Grandma and Charlie told me about the heroes of the coal mine wars. It was word of mouth history. I remember sitting at the dinner table and Charlie saying, “When they killed Sid Hatfield that was the last straw.” Grandma said that a woman they called “Mother” came to talk to the miners—she was speaking of Mother Jones, the famous labor organizer. United Mine Worker heroes Sid Hatfield, Bill Blizzard, Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Cesco Estep, Mother Jones and the Battle of Blair Mountain were never mentioned in my twelve years of West Virginia public school education.

Despite the fact that we are on opposite ends of politics and religion, Truman and I are still friends. He spends half of his time in Florida and the other half at the farm. It is great fun when we get together and reminisce. At this writing he is 78 and I am 75.

Epilogue

          The big old wonderful house burned to the ground. Kin died while I was a student at West Virginia University and Charlie died a few years later when I was in San Francisco being mistaken for what Time Magazine designated as a “hippie”. I hitchhiked home from San Francisco via Canada and made it to Grandma’s one day after she spent her first night ever alone.

Grandma and I lived together for a year. She helped me tame my mule, taught me family history, gardening and the names and uses of wild plants. By example she taught kindness. I gleaned all the family history I could. I put new tar paper on the leaking cupola roof and replaced the rotting boards in the hay loft and cleared out the decades of manure that was causing rot in the big foundation logs. For the one summer with Grandma, me, my girlfriend who raised hogs and two so-called hippies from Iowa raised an organic garden with 1500 tomato plants. A blight made sure we didn’t get rich on tomatoes.

Grandma died and I sobbed as I testified at graveside that she was special, that without reservation she loved us all. She was our saint, our rock. Grandma Ethyl Atkins Barker and Uncle Kin Barker were saints who smiled into our lives. They both unconditionally loved us all and for Grandma that included one of our cousins who stole her pain pills.

Our home place is now under siege. Bull Creek is empty of people, hardwood trees, ginseng, yellow root, and most other native plant and animal species. The mountains above it have been strip mined along with my memories of Kin’s cabin and huckleberry picking. Ashford ridge running from Ashford to Bull Creek is scalped for mountain top removal strip mining. Behind our homeplace and just over the mountain on Fork Creek, mountain top removal strip mining is closing in on us.

A distant cousin sold the mountain across the river from our homeplace to a coal company. It is probably too much hope to expect that it won’t be destroyed like Ashford Ridge and Bull Creek. When Truman and I are gone I hope the heirs love the homeplace like we do and resist the coal companies when they come with offers of money in exchange for Grandma’s farm. I hope they follow the example of our progenitor Isaac Barker when he told the man buying up mineral rights on Coal River: “You are Skinner by name and skinner by trade but you will not skin old Isaac Barker.” Isaac spoke truth to power and refused to sell his mineral rights.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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