Truman and Me (part 3) by Julian Martin

The kitchen and dining room at the farm 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 Roll 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 “boar’s nest” — a dark, mysterious, and cluttered storeroom 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 those cows 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, dragonflies) 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 bucketfull 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,” “whoa” 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.

Truman and Me (part 2) by Julian Martin

The 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 stalls 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. (Editor’s note: Without any prompting from me, Julian greatly reduced his description of this activity.  Suffice it to say, I am conflicted about the brevity here.  The longer version was quite enlightening.)

The writer as a boy.

The first “colored people” I saw were in 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, making leather breeches, 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 beehive 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.

Truman and Me (part 1) by Julian Martin

Julian is the eighth generation of his family born on Big Coal River.  He is a graduate of St. Albans High School where he was an all-conference football player. He has a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU) and worked two years in the chemical industry. After one month training to make sidewinder missiles,he joined the Peace Corps as West Virginia’s first volunteer and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, he has also worked in urban outreach, organic farming, environmental education, and conservation.  He loves his wife and several children, step-children, grandchildren and step grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  Julian’s essay Truman and Me and is a colorful reflection on his growing up experiences on his grandparents’ farm.  (He admits though, “I called it Grandma’s house and farm ever since Grandpa threw a rake at me.”)

The title of the essay comes from his special relationship with his Uncle Truman, who though truly his uncle was also only 3 years his senior, and in many ways more like a brother.

I believe that Julian is an exceptionally talented writer, and that he writes in a uniquely Appalachian “voice.”  He is not afraid to put into words his life’s encounters with things most people would prefer not to articulate: disappointment, anger, embarrassment, confusion, oh and……well, you’ll see.  Let’s just say he gave me a post script of, “You can leave this out if you think it’s best, but 97% of boys have done it and the 3% who say they haven’t are not telling the truth.”

I left it in the essay.

Julian’s writing is by no means all about the things other people don’t want to acknowledge.  His adventures with Truman are honest, fun, and entirely real.  He lets the uninitiated into the world of real boys, like Huck and Tom, and for the initiated it should be a rollicking and poignant reminder of days past.  Days when boys played army, and fought the bad guys instead of doing chores.  When they practiced getting erections and weren’t entirely sure why.  When they had so much fun they threw up, and when they realized their grandma might just be the strongest person in the family.

Welcome to the world of Julian Martin, friends.  It is my privilege to share his essay in 5 parts, with an epilogue.

Enjoy!

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, West Virginia, 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.

Carbide Camp was Magic by Jean Hanna Davis

Jean is an accomplished singer, guitar player, and sometime songwriter.  She has been performing since the age of 12, in all settings, ranging from concert halls to bars to churches to festivals.  Her family relocated to Charleston, West Virginia from New Jersey when she was 7, and as many times as she has tried to leave, something keeps pulling her back.  Jean and her family live in Princeton, West Virginia.  Her essay explores her experience moving to West Virginia from New Jersey during her early years, and the exceptional “magic” she encountered at a place called Carbide Camp.

Editor’s note:  I am grateful to Jean for revealing the secret world of Carbide Camp.  I was puzzled my entire youth about what Carbide Camp actually was, though I did know that a select number of my friends attended and it seemed to be just as described here, a magical place young people would cling to all year in great anticipation of entering its gates again in the summer.  Any place that can retrieve you as vividly as it does Jean at the end of this essay is someplace special!

Carbide Camp was Magic

My parents are from the Northeast.  Dad was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and Mom was born in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  Both graduated from Bound Brook High School, and Dad went to Kings College while Mom started working for Union Carbide as a secretary.  After Dad finished school, they married and settled in Middlesex, New Jersey.  Dad eventually started working for Union Carbide in Bound Brook.

Union Carbide was a huge chemical company with a long history in the Charleston, West Virginia, area.   It was bought by Dow Chemical Company in 2001.  Union Carbide is probably most famous for the Bhopal Disaster, which happened in Bhopal, India, in 1984.  A storage tank vent malfunctioned and spread poison gas into the atmosphere – over half a million people were injured and more than 4,000 died as a result of exposure to the gas. The same chemical was produced at the plant in Institute, West Virginia, about 9 miles from Charleston.

The area along the Kanawha River in the greater Charleston area was called The Chemical Valley.  When I was young, I remember DuPont, Monsanto, and the Union Carbide operating chemical plants, all in the Kanawha Valley. I’m sure there were more, but the names escape me.

When I was 7 years old, Dad had the opportunity to transfer to Charleston.  He was supposed to be there for several years and move on to “bigger & better things.”  I was in second grade, my sister in Kindergarten.  I remember how sad I was to leave my very best friend, Jennifer Johnson.  We swore to write and to visit, but we never did.

Our extended family was appalled by the idea that we were moving to Appalachia.   “I’ve heard that they don’t have electricity there.”  “You’re going to have to use an outhouse.  They don’t have indoor plumbing.”  We had cassette tapes of all of us, singing along in the most exaggerated HeeHaw accents, to “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.”  There were lots of “Yee-HAWs” on those tapes.  I even remember references to “black-eyed peas and chitlins.”  I’m sure my uncles had no idea what that even was, but they associated it with the South, and West Virginia was SOUTHERN to them.

As far as they were concerned, we were moving to a backward wasteland.  As a second grader, that changed how I felt about moving.  From that time on, whenever I was asked about college or where I wanted to live when I grew up, my answer was always, “Anywhere but West Virginia.”

We moved to Charleston in January.  Coming from New Jersey, I was overwhelmed by the land. Jersey was FLAT.  These were MOUNTAINS in Charleston.  My house was on a mountain.  We had to go over the mountain to get anywhere.  My new friends told me that these were most definitely NOT mountains, but mere hills.  I didn’t believe them.

Carbide Camp mess hall, aka "The Castle"

The highlight of the year was Carbide Camp.  Union Carbide had camps for their employees’ children on Blue Creek in Clay County, near Clendenin.  Camp Carlisle was for the girls and Camp Camelot was for the boys.

It always seemed to me that most Carbiders were transplanted from the Northeast –Bound Brook and Danbury, Connecticut, places that my dad traveled regularly.  We came together for a two-week session each summer, and it was magic.  As a kid who relocated to West Virginia at the age of seven, with parents whose idea of camping was a weekend at a Holiday Inn, these were exotic weeks, filled with music, friends, and fun.

We’d start talking about it in the spring.  “Which session did you sign up for?”  “Can you change it?  I’m going 2nd session & I really wanted us to go together this year!”  “Will you be old enough this time to do the horseback overnights?”  “Did you get a new trunk?  Sorry I fell through the top last year.”  “I wonder if Merge-Cindy-Karen-Sam will be my counselor this year?”

Then came the planning. The clothing with name tags meticulously sewn in each piece; the bandanas for your head (to keep the ticks off); one pair of jeans for horseback riding; flip-flops and sneakers (called “tennis shoes” in West Virginia), and rain ponchos and swimsuits and towels and shampoo and underwear and on and on and on.

When your trunk would just close, you knew you were ready.

We would meet in the parking lot of the Tech Center, a great, sprawling piece of property where most of our parents’ offices were located.  Parents and kids who were going and kids who weren’t going and kids who had already been but wanted to say goodbye to their friends all gathered.  There was always crying.  Kids crying from fear if it was their first year and frustration if their siblings got to go and they didn’t, always last minute dashes to the bathroom, and slightly controlled chaos abounded.  Parents yelling out the ever-embarassing, “Don’t forget to change your underwear!”  “Brush your teeth!”  “Use the bug spray!”  “Don’t forget to write!”

We were transported by old school buses, at least that’s how I remember it.  One bus was loaded with luggage.  Kids were loaded onto other buses and away we went.  The buses would take us as far as they could.  We walked the last bit.  I remember it seemed like forever that we walked, with more than 200 campers and teenagers and adults, walking a dirt and rock road, jumping in puddles if it had just rained, sometimes walking in the rain.  We sang songs (I’m Carlise born & Carlisle bred, and when I die I’ll be *clap* Carlisle dead!), introduced ourselves to new kids, cheered up the scared and the homesick, talked about archery and riflery and horseback riding and lanyards and skinny dipping and overnight trips and Vespers and campfires.  We fanned the flames of boy-girl competition and romance on those long walks to the camps.  We would pass the boys’ camp – Camelot – and they would go get settled.  We girls would continue past the pool and on to our place –Carlisle.

That walk marked the true beginning of Carbide Camp.  We left the world behind and we were on our way to our own private place in the woods.  We revisited old friendships and started new ones.  We were an exclusive club, and you had to be connected to Union Carbide to join.  We were special because we got to be there.

Two weeks later (for most of us, anyway; some were lucky and got to stay for more than one session), after retracing the long walk back to the main road, singing songs and fanning those romances and competitions again, we were delivered back to the parking lot at the Tech Center.  Our parents were happy to see us and we were genuinely happy to see them!  We were truly and utterly exhausted.  We said our sad, dramatic goodbyes to friends who we would not see until the next summer, and shared a deeper connection with those that we would see in the neighborhood and at school in the fall.  We exchanged phone numbers and addresses and promised to write and call and stay in touch, and most of the time we did.

We left with a sense of accomplishment as well.  We performed in talent shows and skits.  We tried new things and tested our limits.  We earned riflery and archery awards. I made it to Jr. Marksman with the rifles (22s), and was the second highest score in Archery.  I got the Silver Arrow award that year, and I recently came across that arrow at my parents’ house.

Holding that arrow in hand, I was there:   At the archery range, bow in hand, targets tacked onto hay bales.  I am wearing red denim bell bottoms with a button fly, a “Sweet Honesty” t-shirt, a pair of red Chucks on my feet, and a red bandana on my head.  My hair hangs almost to my waist.  I can smell the horse corral behind me.  The sun beats down on me as I set the notch into the bow string.

I am powerful.

I lift the bow and take aim, drawing the string back and back – breathe-hold-release – bull’s eye.

All these years later, Carbide Camp is still magic.

For the Love of Marriage by Lisa Lewis Smith

The writer's parents on their wedding day

My parents just celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.  They have provided a good and sound model for my brothers and me.  A large part of the success of their marriage and our family closeness should be attributed to Lewisburg, and to our time at Smithover and the Greenbrier River.  Our numerous canoe trips,  picnics, and family car travels (during  which we put millions of miles under our belts) all knit us together. My parents devoted their time and energy to the meaningful things in life, and showed their children the true value of family and making memories for a lifetime.

The writer's parents, Thanksgiving 2011 in Lewisburg.

 

Lewisburg represents the simple life for me.  It represents not having to show anyone up and investing in the important things:  breathing fresh air, admiring sunsets with your children, soaking up starlit evenings, eating with pleasure and gratitude.  It represents committing to living life to the fullest, and to falling in love with as much as you possibly can.

Our wedding in late August of 2004 took place on this land that my dad always referred to as “sacred.”  That evening, all the things that were precious to me growing up merged together into one memorable occasion:  family, food, and music in the great outdoors.  The moon was full.  The stars were bright. Cousins Fred, Lew, and Will picked away at some of my favorite tunes.  My childhood was over, but my values for life were set.

Lewisburg and Smithover became a special place for me early on.

The magnificent fields, woods, and waters were the vital playgrounds of my youth.

It is a place that continues to transform me, continues to teach peace and harmony, and continues to bring calmness during restless times.

It is my sanctuary.

Through this exceptional place, I have learned how to take great pleasure in the fundamentals of a meaningful life.

I am forever grateful.

The writer and her husband on their wedding day in Lewisburg, West Virginia

For the Love of Music by Lisa Lewis Smith

Following our dinner with my dad’s family, once we force that last piece of pumpkin pie into our bellies, we hang around comatose (if we can find a place on one of the couches).  We ache and moan, and then we push ourselves down the road to the Prichard’s place (now called the Carter Farm)…just a short waddle down the way…to see more family, more cousins, and listen to some incredible bluegrass music.

Family music time with the cousins

I experienced the power of music, the way it works on the mind and heart, early on in life.  Although my brothers and I received the shallow end of the gene pool when it came to musical ability, my second cousins are very talented musicians.  Because of their capacity to perform so well on stringed instruments, we were all exposed to some mighty fine live music in our childhood.  (Don’t get me wrong… my dad sometimes took to the ukulele and was witnessed on numerous occasions performing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “If You Don’t Like Peaches Baby, Quit Shaking My Tree”…I do not want to take away from his style and enthusiasm. The Prichard boys, on the other hand, they were the real thing!)

It was, and still is, a family affair. Cousin Fred Prichard picked the banjo, his brother Lew is brilliant on the mandolin (My dad always said “best mandolin player in Rockbridge County”), their daddy Fred Sr. entertained on the piano.  Cousin Will joined in on guitar or stand up bass.

Bluegrass to me represents the core values of family.  The stories told reflect both happy and troubled times. When I went to college in South Carolina, I sometimes babysat for a young family.  The daddy went to Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia, and coincidentally was roommates with my cousin Will Carter.  He told me about his trip to Lewisburg once, his first to West Virginia, with Will to meet his family.  He remembers driving into a beautiful piece of property, open and lovely in the spring green, and as they pulled in closer to the Prichard house, a young man, not much older than he and Will, was standing naked….buck naked…in the open field. It was Cousin Fred playing his banjo.  What a memory of his first visit to the mountain state.  I smiled and, although a little uncomfortable, I was thrilled to hear that story of my extraordinary Cousin Fred, as I was hundreds of miles away from home.  He is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind character with a remarkable sense of humor.

To this day, music transforms me. It promotes clarity, peace and tranquility in my life.  It evokes feelings of joy and happiness.  It soothes my mind and soul. The joys and sorrows of life expressed through music is a healthy and healing avenue to deal with life issues.  Music has a magical effect on the mind.  It can be almost supernatural in the way it transforms you from one mood to another.

The feeling of warmth

I remember early teenage years…sitting in an old cabin in the woods on Smithover, listening to Fred and Lew picking away, and sipping on some scotch that was being passed around the room.  The feeling of warmth was three-fold:  the fire, the whiskey, and the music.  It was a memory that I will never forget.  I was in a familiar place with familiar people, but having an experience really of a lifetime.  It was my family and my music that I loved.  It was the place that I loved.  I felt safe and ever so grateful to be part of it.

Tomorrow:  For the Love of Marriage

For the Love of Food by Lisa Lewis Smith

“Beside myself”…that was Buzz Kill Terri’s (BKT – that is what we so affectionately called her) reaction to our eating itinerary at the WV State Fair.

It was lengthy: London broil sandwich to the crab cakes to the gyro to funnel cake to the strawberry shortcake (I am certainly leaving something out).  We had a plan, a line of attack.  We ate with purpose and gusto. I knew BKT was not right for my brother.  But, now looking back, maybe she was right about one thing (and one thing only!), and that was  our eating habits.

We Smiths…we do like to do ourselves in with food.

Smith cousins know how to eat!

Consistent overeating is our way of life.  We are eating enthusiasts.  We have been known to leave one meal and immediately begin discussion on our next. As Geneen Roth presents in Women, Food, and God, we are permitters.  We enjoy “glazy-dazy eating, uninterrupted by restriction.”  Permitters “merge with chaos.”  We are the “fat and jolly” Smiths, appearing to be having fun all the time, and we are, most of the time.  Sometimes it might be a little bit of denial, some escape from our daily pressures.  I have found myself eating half of a chocolate French silk pie when things are not going my way.

Roth describes permitters as those that eat as if there is not enough to go around.  They want to store up for the winter.  I am trying, now at midlife, to be some kind of a version of an athlete, and realizing how hard it is when you eat “like a Smith.”  I have recently launched a discovery process into my outlook on food and life.

The writer's son meets a WV State Fair pig in Lewisburg

I eat fast and I used to take my plate of food away with me if I had to step away to answer the phone or grab a glass of milk.  No way was I leaving it for those other eating maniacs to devour.  You eat fast because those same maniacs might just take hold your plate when they are done with theirs.  It was all about survival of the fittest.

Thanksgivings in Lewisburg:  I have missed only one in my entire life.  It is my favorite holiday without a doubt, a moment of joy just before the hectic Christmas frenzy that I have grown to dread more with every passing year.

Most people have not experienced a Thanksgiving like the one we have at Smithover!  One year we had close to fifty people (my dad and all his siblings, their spouses, and my 15 first cousins, plus some “outsiders”).  And we are all…male, female, big and small… BIG eaters!   We all talk loud and none of us listen.  Boyfriends or girlfriends often joined us, but there was always a whisper… “Do you think he’ll make it back next year?”  “I don’t think she has the temperament for THIS crowd.”  “Did you see his face when he walked in?”  “Take a look at her plate…who diets around here?”

It was rare for an “outsider” to make it to a second Smithover Thanksgiving.  The noise factor alone could run someone off, not to mention the huge amount of food consumption…the seconds and thirds…keep your hands in close and your plate even closer!

Though in China on Thanksgiving Day, the writer's brother still sustains the family honor!

Tomorrow:  For the Love of Music