Eddie Gillenwater


Another excerpt from book The Soviet Union and Lincoln County USA to be published in a couple of months:

Eddie’s grandson, a high school student of mine, met me in the hall at Duval and told me with sadness, “Grandpa Eddie died yesterday.” Eddie was running his rabbit dogs when he collapsed with a heart attack. I searched for someone to share my sadness, but the other teachers didn’t know him like I did. I went into the assistant principal’s office and broke down telling him of Eddie’s death.

I wrote a letter to the Lincoln Journal:

Dear Editor:

There have been a few saints in my life, people who have influenced me deeply. Being saints didn’t mean they were perfect. Being saints meant they understood human nature and listened when you talked and shared their ideas and feelings with you.

My football coach, Sammy LeRose, is one of the saints of my life. He was a wonder of a coach. He never raised his voice, never cussed and never showed disgust for his players. He was kind. My great uncle Kin Barker was another. Kin was a logger on Bull Creek before logging tore up the earth much like a strip-mine.

Grandma Ethyl Atkins Barker is another of the saints who have smiled into my life. Kin and Grandma have died, but I remember them every day. Now another saint has died but not passed away, for I will keep him fresh in people’s memories.

Eddie Gillenwater died the other day doing one of the things he liked best. He died in the woods hunting rabbits. Eddie went fast and he gave up the spirit out where the ginseng grows and where his dogs ran.

Eddie was amazing. He built my kitchen cabinets when he was seventy years old. He left a beautiful table, a rocking chair and two stools in my house. I write this on the table he built.

Eddie was at Pearl Harbor. He looked up and saw planes shooting at him. I expected a heroic tale about Pearl Harbor. Eddie told me that he ran down a hill to escape the bullets and tried to get inside a drainage culvert. But he could only get his head in– the rest of him didn’t fit. So there he was with his rear end as a target for the Japanese air force. Eddie would rather tell a funny story than make himself look good.

He was a paratrooper and told me that he made one combat jump. I think his jump was in New Guinea. Once again I expected to hear about the brave soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Not so, Eddie landed in the courtyard of an unarmed Japanese hospital. He said that within twenty minutes he was on the third floor balcony flirting with the Japanese nurses.

Eddie read about every major American novel and many minor ones. He was a friend, an intellectual, a woodworker and a musician. He raised Beagles, dug ‘sang and smoked a pipe. As a young man he could shoot a dime out of the air with a 22 rifle.

Eddie was most of all a philosopher and he left me with my favorite quote about the stress of modern life. Eddie said, “Prosperity isn’t worth the price you have to pay.”

I loved Eddie Gillenwater and if it weren’t for my grandma Barker and great uncle Kin and Sammy LeRose I’d say he was in a class by himself.

Rest in peace, Eddie, and thanks for all the great memories.

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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