Alzheimer’s Strikes by Laura J. Little

When I was in high school, my grandmother developed dementia.

Some people called it hardening of the arteries, some called it Alzheimer’s disease, and some called it senility. The name really did not matter; it was the devastating effects that were memorable.  We often remarked how merciful it was that Grandma did not know what was going on; it would have hurt her to know what was happening.  I was fourteen and was often asked to watch my grandmother for a short time so that my father could attend one of his many other responsibilities.

Alzheimer’s hurt our whole family, not just Grandma, and that was never more true than that one fall day when my grandmother slapped me.

I was not an abused child. When I was younger and Grandma was healthy, I would get an occasional swat across the bottom when I misbehaved or talked back. I got many more hugs, kisses, and thick slices of homemade bread with strawberry preserves than disciplinary smacks. I know that Grandma loved me. Grandma did not hit me.

Alzheimer’s did.

A chair belonging to the writer's grandmother

A chair belonging to the writer’s grandmother

It became obvious to my father that Grandma needed constant supervision. He hired a series of ladies to come and stay with her, but there were always gaps between when the “day lady” and the “night lady” came. Dad stopped by her house every day after work, but he had many other responsibilities, and someone needed to fill in for him when he had to be elsewhere. Often, I was the one who stayed an hour or so with Grandma so that Dad could bathe, eat dinner, or pay bills. I had one job: Make sure Grandma did not leave the house. How ironic it was that going home to her meant leaving the house that she and my grandfather built forty years before. Her mind was trapped in a much earlier time.The road that she traveled to get home was a rutted dirt road populated by horses and buggies and the occasional car that moved aside whenever the driver saw someone walking along the road. She did not recognize that it was seventy years later; by now the road was a major U.S. highway, well-traveled by cars and tractor-trailers that would not see her walking in the middle of the road until it was too late.

My usual strategy was to get her talking. I loved the stories she told about growing up. She talked about going to a now-demolished one-room schoolhouse, about her courting days, and about my Aunt Forrest, her lifelong best friend. She told of the horses they rode, the pigs they raised, and how the children hated Sundays because they had to dress up and go to church. They could not play the whole day long, but had to sit quietly and read. Sometimes they didn’t even read, they just had to sit. One day the quiet got to be too much for Grandma’s youngest sister, Edith,  so Edith mounted the brood sow, which of course headed promptly for a mud hole and dropped her off, ruining her Sunday-best clothes. My aunt got a well-deserved whipping, but Grandma laughed until the tears came. This is how we passed much of the time: Grandma insisting that she needed to go home, and me saying, “Oh, I’m having such a good time. Can’t you stay just a few more minutes?” On most days, she would agree and begin the next story. Using this kind of persuasion, I could usually keep her in the house until my father got there.

But one gloomy fall day, Grandma was more restless than usual. I was getting nervous, as she seemed so antsy, and dark was coming ever earlier; it was even more important to keep her off the road. She re-told a few stories, but every few minutes she insisted that she had to go home. By this time I knew that telling her that she was at home would do no good, so I asked her to stay a few minutes longer. She stood up and said,“No,I need to get home!” I jumped to try to get her to sit down, but she was too quick for me. As I held her arm, trying to keep her in the chair, she reached out and slapped my face with all her might. I was taller, but she had more than 80 years’ worth of hard work on the farm to build up her strength. There was nothing more I could do but call Dad to come and get her as she headed for the door. She was out the front door by the time he answered the call.

I had failed. This one simple task, keeping Grandma in her own house, and I had failed.

I hoped that Dad would get there before she got to the road. In the end, he did, but I cried that night. I cried for the hurt from the slap, but even more from the apparent victory of that hated disease. That night Alzheimer’s attacked me physically, yet I was powerless to strike back. The disease had hidden itself inside my wonderful grandmother, taking her body as a disguise. There was nothing I could attack; striking the disease that had beaten me would be striking my grandmother. If someone I thought I did not know tried to keep me against my will in a strange place when all I wanted to do was to go home, I would have fought, too. Since I could understand what her deteriorating mind must have reasoned, I could not be angry with her. I struck out at myself for failing.

That night I realized that my grandmother’s soul had died, to be replaced with this imposter.

That night I mourned my grandmother for the first time, but not for the last.

Laura Little holds a doctoral degree in Education and is the Director of Instructional Technology at Bridgemont Community and Technical College in Montgomery, West Virginia. She has over ten years of experience in higher education with public universities, private colleges, and the for-profit sector. She explores the common threads of these different settings on her blog, The Real Doctor Laura. This essay is the first to be a true Essays on Childhood submission covering adult reflections on a childhood marked by Alzheimer’s disease. Look for her poignant work in the Essays on Childhood project again in 2013.

Memory and Loss: A New Kind of Essay

At the end of September I celebrated the Alzheimer’s Day of Action by pledging to use memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease to guide the 2013 Essays on Childhood project. You can read some of the ideas I had on this post, “How Esse Diem Purples.”

Within an hour of posting my musings, I had three complete essays from writers for the project.

These essays are not drafts, or ideas for essays; they arrived in my in-box as fully formed works. Each them moved me to tears, and continue to do so on every subsequent reading. At first I was concerned that I can’t use them in the Essays on Childhood project because they break a defining rule of EOC: All essays must be written about experiences before age 18. The essays I received are written about adult experiences, but with an interesting twist. The writing illuminates the unique pain an adult feels when caring for an older relative whose mental capacity is ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. The unnatural degree to which the adult caregiver much switch roles with a parent or grandparent is striking. I feel as if I’ve seen something intimate and private that maybe I did not have the right to see.

And yet . . .

And yet, these writers ask us to see it. They need us to see it. Their words reflect that people they love are slowly slipping away. These are parents and grandparents to whom a debt of gratitude can never be repaid, but the desire to repay it increases exponentially as the writers witness their loved ones’ suffering. A grieving process begins before death, and one senses that even death cannot close the wounds from this kind of protracted loss.

These essays are challenging because they ask us to share something we may not want to share. In the end, I believe what they really do is give us an opportunity as members of the human family to open our hearts and minds to one another. We have a chance to better understand how families everywhere are facing a complicated situation with no easy answers.

This week, my posts will feature the follow writers:

Tuesday: Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

Wednesday: The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

Thursday: Committed to Memory by Katy Brown

I hope you will read and share these stories, and perhaps consider writing your own essay. I have created a special essay category called Essays on Memory and Loss, and ideally a collection of these kinds of stories will become valuable education and advocacy tools for organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association.

Thank you!

Image credit: The Epoch Times

Essays on Childhood: Pick a Little Talk a Little by Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree has been telling stories ever since she understood the power of the Show & Tell stool in kindergarten. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she parlayed that magic into a 35-year career of bending them this way and that. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh. The mother of two grown children and two very precocious granddogs, she has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. These days she blogs about the magic of daily life on her blog, Write Much.

Pick a Little Talk a Little | by Susan Byrum Rountree

My father was an amateur magician. With a sleight of hand, he used to pull coins from the ears of grandchildren, use his nimble fingers to shuffle a deck of cards into a magic trick. He could separate inseparable rings.

He was a busy man when I was growing up. One of only three doctors in my hometown, he was up and out early, and though he most always was home for supper, often in the middle of it, the phone would ring, or people would show up at the back door, and he was gone again. My mother, brother, sister and I shared him all those years, waiting at home as he delivered babies (12 in 24 hours once), treated hearts — both broken and diseased — mended bones and emotions, nurtured families as they took root, grew old, died.

Susan on her mother’s lap

I’m child #3, so my alone time with Daddy was limited when I was little. I remember him teaching me to bait a proper hook with a blood worm while the waves of the Atlantic lapped at my feet. A walk in the woods one day (with my brother and sister), I think because my brother was working on a merit badge. A day he came home from work to sew up a tiny injured rabbit my sister found in the yard. And a day he pitched the softball to me in the back yard so I wouldn’t embarrass myself during recess. (It didn’t work.)

But one of the many things Daddy shared with me in those times when he was home was a love for banjo music. We watched the Arthur Smith Show and Hee Haw and Porter Wagoner, Daddy tapping his size 13 wing tips against the ottoman as I clapped along.

Daddy loved Earl Scruggs. Somehow back then I felt like Earl and Lester Flatt were neighbors, they came so often into our family room. I’d watch as their fingers flew, coaxing sweet music out of those strings, and it was pure joy.

Daddy had a banjo, too, and every now and then he and I would sneak away into the living room while my siblings were bent over homework, and I would sit beside him on the dressed up sofa — my feet not yet touching the floor — and he would play for me. I’d watch as those same magical fingers that shuffled the cards and stitched up that rabbit plucked the stiff wire strings until Bill Bailey filled up the whole room. Joy again, to have Daddy all to myself, for him to be singing just to me.

My kindergarten class performed a play when I was five. It had something to do with Valentine’s Day, and I played the role of “a girl.” In the picture, I stand next to a boy wearing a cowboy hat and a sly grin as big as the waxing moon. I don’t remember a thing about the play except one of the boys played Pinocchio, and that I wore a pink dress my grandmother had made and white cotton gloves. I hated that I had to stand next to the boy with the grin, who sang the theme song to the “Beverly Hillbillies” because he told our teacher Earl Scruggs was his cousin.

Susan’s kindergarten class

When I learned that Earl, the sweet man who used to visit with us often and played his five-fingered magic had died, I remembered that boy, and my Daddy playing for me, and how much banjo music meant to me once upon a time.

Wouldn’t you know that the brother of that boy is a Facebook acquaintance? So the news hound in me couldn’t resist asking if the story was true.

Not true, exactly, he wrote to me. But his uncle played in a band with the father of Bluegrass when Earl and Lester Flatt performed live for the radio. And wouldn’t you know? He and his sly brother, along about the time of our kindergarten play, sometimes sat on the stage with Earl and Lester when they performed. If I imagined them as neighbors, to be sure to a five-year-old, sitting on stage with the performers meant you were kin.

I’ve thought a lot about my banjo memories since then and have even played a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown as I worked. Though I thought my father’s banjo long gone to history, come to find out that my brother has been keeping it safe for awhile, and two years ago gave it back to Daddy, all cleaned up and ready for picking again.

“Get him to play you a song,” my brother told me.

Well, I just believe I will.

What would this world be like, if every single one of us took the time to coax our gifts out and into the world —  like the unassuming Earl, or Daddy with his magic for healing, with medicine or music? Small gestures can become great magic, when shuffled with the right hands.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

In a Man’s Voice: Happy Again by Douglas Imbrogno

Douglas Imbrogno is an exceptionally creative man, someone who can tell a story both in words and in pictures.

His essay here tells of a pivotal dynamic in his childhood, and of the night his emerging adult identity intersected his parents’ stormy marriage.

Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

Please watch the first 25 seconds of this video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ta3jFvl3gU, and then take some time to read Doug’s essay. He does here so well what I believe many writers want to do: Engage, tell, and reflect without expecting to understand or catalog.

Sometimes the telling is enough.

Happy Again | by Douglas Imbrogno

Tommy Helms ranges into the pocket at second base. He dives, nabs the ball then pops onto his knees, scooping it to Darrell Chaney. The shortstop foot-taps second base then whipcracks the ball to first base, inches above the head of an onrushing Dodger. A picture-perfect double play. The Dodgers are done for and the win at Dodger Stadium vaults the Cincinnati Reds back into first place in the National League West.

Then, several things happen at once.

In the time it takes radio waves to travel 2,400 miles across the better part of America, a triumphant fist punches upward from beneath a blanket decorated with trains in a Cincinnati bedroom. My 13-year-old fist. The punch upsets the applecart of my bed in the musty basement bedroom of our house at 707 Waycross Road. My G.E. transistor radio tumbles onto the floor. It is past 1:30 a.m. on a school night and I should be sleeping, but true-blue adolescent Reds fans sneer at the three-hour time difference between here and L.A. The radio crackles to life down on the blue throw rug beside the bed: “And this,” says Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall, signing off with a signature line that recalls his own pitching days, “is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.”

Thump! Upstairs a door slams open. Light footsteps can be heard tramping downward from the third floor, then again, down a short flight to the family room above my head. Moments later, heavier footfalls trod the same path. My mother. With my father following. “Leave me alone!” I hear, muffled through the ceiling. My mother. “What! What is it?” I hear my dad say, in a furious strangled whisper. I grab the radio off the floor, retreat back into the cove of my covers.

The author's dueling parents in better days from a photo taken eight months after he was born.

“You think sex is something …” I don’t hear what he says after that. I don’t want to hear. Please, I really don’t. But the house is made of plywood and plaster. It rests in one of the fast-built subdivisions north of the city, at the edge of the country where the cornfields start. There’s not much you don’t hear when someone shouts the next floor up. Or cries. No, my mother isn’t crying. She’s weeping. I doubt I knew the distinction back then, though now I do.

Through my basement window, which I keep open on all but the coldest nights, I can hear cows lowing on quiet nights as their exclamations carry from the hilltop farm a mile away. I hear overnight trains hoot-hooting through the valley on their way somewhere else. On nights like these, which are all too common, I dream I might hop a train like the hobos do.

Be gone.

Far gone.

This time, the shouting, the weeping, it just won’t stop. Fierce words from my father. He doesn’t hit her, I know that. He never has. He never will, though I hardly know that this night. Nor has he ever hit us, the six of us kids. We will later come to know how his own Italian father beat on him and his brother. Finally, my dad escaped, decamping to the Merchant Marines, floating off at age 17, across the waves of Lake Erie and Lake Superior. Free at last. It would take me decades, with the usual succession of therapists, to grant my father this award of fatherhood: He stopped the forward progress of physical beating in the family line. Right in our family. He stopped it.

But words, the rageful, out-of-control, spitting words frustrated fathers and anguished mothers fling at each other, these are a kind of transmuted violence. Not for nothing do we say the words he spoke ‘cut like a knife.’

I curl in a tight fetal ball beneath my covers. We curl like this – the thought comes to me four decades later – because of an unwilled body memory, an abiding recollection of what it was like when we felt utterly safe. Before we are born, that is, with a shout and a cry into a world that is anything but.

The volume upstairs rises. What is happening? Is he going to do something to her? Why can’t they be quiet? I have to stop this. Shouldn’t I do something? Aren’t I responsible for doing something? I am 13. In olden times, boys at 13 worked farms. They shot dinner. They banged a drum in civil wars. They stood up and they did things. I can’t take it anymore. Can’t take the shouting. The terrible pain in the voices, in my mother’s cowering voice, which sounds like a cornered animal. I fling off the covers, sending a hundred black locomotives flying into the dark.

I stand up. My feet miss the bunched-up area rug, hit the cold concrete floor. I shake my head as if to clear it of marbles. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But my feet seem to want to stride across the bedroom. They take me up the five or six basement steps. I see my right hand, as if seen in a movie, reach for the brass basement door handle. Twist it. The door opens. I round the corner into the family room, the sofa against the wall to the right, the TV on the left where we all watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” together each Sunday. Much later, I’ll note the ironic resonance in this scene unfolding in the ‘family room.’ The lights are off, but it’s a moon-filled night. A pale, milky aura pours through the room’s glass doors, which open onto the backyard where a tall weeping willow dominates. In summer, my brother and I can earn a quarter from my dad for rounding up the scores of thin dead branches it routinely drops.

My mother sits scrunched in a corner of the sofa, hugging herself. My father is on one knee on the carpet in front of her. As if proposing. Is his arm raised in the air? Or is he just gesticulating in his pained raged? My feet again, with a life of their own, advance me into the room. I now stand six feet from this tableau. I am probably standing there in a white t-shirt, pajama bottoms. Their voices die off. An eternity takes place between the second my parents’ eyes unlock from one another and my mother’s head turns. Turns, like a rusty gate. Towards me. My voice is talking. What will it say?

“I can’t believe,” I utter in a breathy gulp, “two people would treat each other like this.”

My arms. Where are they — at my side? Akimbo, on my hips? I don’t recall. And were those my exact words? Something like it. What I recall most clearly is the next moment. A kind of a cry, but not a cry, rises from my mother’s mouth. It’s a grieving sound beyond the ability of language to translate into vowels and consonants. Not a wail, not a moan. Something in between which drew from both.

Then, I swivel on my heels. Am gone, back down the blackened stairs. Back into my redoubt, which on train-haunted nights full of the moo of cows can be a real sanctuary. Not this night. I grab the flung-off blanket, rebuild a hidden cave of covers. Crawl in. I huddle there. Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

These many years later, I am aware that given the littered landscape of shocking memoirs of household terror and abuse, my story is small potatoes. Kids with deranged, unstable, unloving, physically and sexually aggressive fathers or suicidal mothers – their lacerating wounds are the big leagues of lifetime anguish.

My remaining wounds are mostly cauterized. I know both my parents deeply loved us. Plus, I was granted the grace of telling them both directly, several times, I loved them and hearing the same back at me. Yet there is another story I have been trying to write of how I think my entanglement in their troubled relationship – and it went far beyond that night – helped upend my own life later on. The result was self-violence, bloodshed, a trauma that also rippled through the household. Those days are behind me. Yet in a sort of symbiotic blowback, I terrorized them both – back at you, mom and dad! – via my own emotional breakdowns years after those interminable fighting nights on Waycross Road.

My mother died first, after an excruciating bout with Alzheimers (is there any other kind?). My father, a man who did not make close friendships in life, was truly left behind, bereft and alone, but for us kids and a rare visit from a brother or sister. Despite the fact that they hailed from two different planets, if not galaxies, my father loved my mother, loved her beyond the words he was never good at formulating. She was – and this is no exaggeration – his all. He had trouble sleeping in their marital bed after she died. On my visits from West Virginia to Cincinnati, I would arrive to find him snoring on the sofa in the TV room of the big house to which they later moved, John Wayne astride his horse on the blathering screen.  “I saw your mother in this room,” he said one time. “I saw her just as clear as day, standing right there.” He pointed to the spot. He often slept in that room, we think, in hopes of seeing her again.

But the house was too big for him to keep up. I had come to help him find an apartment at a retirement home.  One day, we checked out a place called The Seasons. The place seemed empty of staff, so I poked around. A doorway bore the sign ‘Driving Range.’ When I looked inside the room was full of mops, rags and Spic’n’Span. “This is too much,” he said, as we inspected a showcase, two-bedroom apartment on the third floor. “All I need is an efficiency apartment.” Later, over a lunch of chicken fajitas for him and a halibut sandwich for me, he said something that reminded me of how lonely he was in the world.

“Soon enough,” he says, putting down his cup of unsweetened black coffee, like he always drank it, “I’ll be joining your mother.”

A pause. A rueful, sad smile.

“Then, I’ll be happy again.”

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Truman and Me (epilogue) by Julian Martin

The big old wonderful house burned to the ground. Uncle 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.

This was me shortly after hitchhiking home from San Francisco in 1971.

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. During that one summer with Grandma, my girlfriend  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 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 even included one of our cousins who stole her pain pills.

Some of Grandma and Charlie's progeny. Uncle Truman is in the back row beside Grandma who is beside Charlie. My mother is next to Charlie and Dad is holding the baseball bat. That is the Kanawha River in the background.

Uncle Truman in front of the barn, spoofing us, pretending to be a farmer.

Our home place is now under siege. Bull Creek is devoid of people, hardwood trees, ginseng, yellow root, and most other native plant and animal species. It is empty. The mountains above it have been strip mined along with my memories of Uncle Kin’s cabin and huckleberry picking. Ashford Ridge running from Ashford to Bull Creek has been scalped by 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.

Ashford Ridge, decaptitated

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, who 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.  My hope is that my stories and my family history will keep that truth-telling alive in future generations.

Strip mining on Bull Creek

All photo credits: Julian Martin

See A Better West Virginia for more on Blair Mountain and the history of coal mining and labor relations.

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 4) by Julian Martin

(Editor’s note: Biology. Physics. Chemistry. — farm style.  Very boyhood, intense, funny, and gross.  The image of Grandma with the fightin’ groundhog is absolutely classic.  You can’t make this stuff up.)

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. Cows’ semi-liquid poops dried hard in thin disc shapes and were perfect for tossing.

We learned to swim in the 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, that sound waves travel faster in liquids than in gases, and still faster in solids, and that 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 groundhog.

Grandma picked up a piece of wood and knocked the groundhog 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 eyeball-to-eyeball 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 groundhog to the house where she finished clubbing it to death, skinned and gutted it, and cooked it for dinner.