Truman and Me (part 5) by Julian Martin

We moved to Detroit after Dad’s eye was put out in a coal mine accident.

In his new job, Dad cut deep into his thigh with a sander, and 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, a word for female genitalia, 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 tears, sobbing. I have enjoyed a lifetime of reading which is testimony that I survived the stresses of second grade.

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 and 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 it 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.

(Editor’s note: Visit the Daily Kosand many other “Google-able” websites for more on Blair Mountain and its significance in the history of West Virginia and labor relations in the United States.)

“The Battle of Blair Mt. in Logan County was referred to as a civil war and depicted as fully 10,000 men – and some estimates to twice that number – were involved as the two armies began exchanging shots along a ten-mile front. George Washington had fewer soldiers at the Battle of Trenton, the engagement which changed the course of the American Revolution.

On Sept. 4, 1921, with more than 6,000 federal soldiers assisted by 20 airplanes ……the miners eventually surrendered when faced with the alternative of fighting against U.S. troops. Hundreds of men were indicted by a Logan County Grand Jury on charges of treason and murder.” (pp71-72, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide, by Allen H. Loughry II)

More historic railroad images from St. Albans and other communities available at WVRails.net.

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.