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.