I have great memories of my youth and especially of my cousins June and Joyce Snyder of Lexington, Kentucky. They seemed to fill in for the sister that I never knew, Pauline, who died before I was born.
I have been called a "rounder," a "scoundrel," and a "sly old rascal" by some people for treating the girls like I did back then, and them getting their revenge by giving me black eyes and a busted nose and being kicked where it really hurts. I just couldn't believe that those girls didn't like to be "buttered up" and told how much they meant to me, while at the same time, I was telling that same line to other girls in Bell and Harlan Counties and a few out of state.
But, as fate would have it, I didn't cover my tracks too well, and got caught by two cousins, who I didn't know were kin to each other and they liked to beat me to a pulp and I deserved every punch they threw at me. I learned my lesson on how not to "win friends and influence people" -- it was a blessing in disguise that I got caught two-timing those girls. If I had gotten away with more, I would have left the country running scared and I would not have the family that I have today, so I look on the bright side, I'm very glad it happened that way.
Boys Will Be Boys
When I was 4 years old, we built a small wood airplane and tried to make it look like Charles Lindberg's "Spirit of St. Louis," which was real popular back in those days. That wood airplane weighed about 200 pounds, but I thought it weighed a ton.
My brothers and I got some playmates to help us get the plane up on the roof of our back porch. One of the boys was to be the pilot and the rest of us were going to take turns in flying that airplane off the porch roof. We only flew that 200 pound plane off that roof one time. The plane hit the ground like a ton of bricks and completely fell apart and almost killed the first pilot. That sure was one time I was glad the oldest boy got to go first. But I can still feel the pain in my rear-end after my mother came running out the kitchen door and caught us. I'm still sore, but alive, and I might add that ended our airplane flying days.
We had an iron water well for drinking water and another well for bathing and washing clothes and general cleaning chores around the house. My mother would wash the clothes outside in the yard in a big black iron kettle over a hot fire. Our iron water drinking well was powered by a Delco-Rama water pump that would pump the water into our house. The pump had an electrical short in it and we had put a copper penny behind the fuse so it would always work.
There was a bully we wanted to fix, so we invited him over to play with us. We 7 boys would all get together in a straight line, hold each others' hand and tell the bully to be the last boy in line. When the first boy in line touched the motor housing, the elctricity would pass through or bodies without feeling it until the last boy in line would get knocked for a loop. His being at the end of the line, he would get the full shock. The beauty part of it was that bully didn't know he was set up.
I thought I was pretty smart, even as a 4 year old, by always getting in the middle of the line. As long as the next boy or girl was touching my hand, I was safe. Lo and behold, the next boy let go of my hand and I sure did get a big jolt of electricity, and never played that game anymore.
I believe the mold was set. This incident was helpful in my becoming an electrician. At 4 years old I was so taken by the incident that I wanted to learn what made that pump act that way.
One of our neighbors had been digging and building an outhouse "privy" and we would play in the bottom of the dug out hole. One day I heard the door above open and the owner came into the privy.
We stayed real quiet and thought he would go away. You know what happened? He began to use the toilet and we boys were down below and got the full force, if you know what I mean! We never played around an outhouse again. It's a good thing there was a creek nearby. We jumped in that creek with all our clothes on -- and I didn't care to let my mother catch me wet. I would have really caught it and I had enough excitement for one day!
Telephone and Wireless
We didn't have a telephone back in those days but we visited my Aunt Edna Snyder in Lexington, Kentucky, and they had the first telephone I had ever seen. I thought it was so great to hear voices coming from that telephone -- I thought some little person was inside the crank box.
I wanted to impress my cousins June and Joyce by making a telephone system out of two #2 tin cans tied together with string, about 100 feet apart. We could talk to each other just like a telephone. We spent a lot of time talking on those can phones; those two cousins really thought I was smart and that I may become an inventor one day.
Our family was the first in Woodbine to have a crystal radio. People came from all over town to hear those voices coming out of that big black tube with a big hole in it. That's when I heard the Grand Ole Opry. We stayed all Saturday nights listening to that radio. What a great time we had.
Every summer there were traveling carnivals that came to Corbin, Kentucky, about three miles from my home. They had lots of rides and hoochy-koochie shows for people over 18 years old to see. I remember this old guy with one bad eye had been to a hoochy-koochie show, watching those women dancers doing what they do. He passed my Uncle Glen and me and said that was the first time he was able to see out of that bad eye in 10 years. What a guy, he sure was happy.
I saw my first merry-go-round and Ferris wheel when I was 5 years old. We didn't have enough money to ride them, but we would love to watch the other people enjoying themselves. Watching was free and it sure was worth the 3 mile walk to Corbin, Ky. to see the carnival.
When we came back to Woodbine we saw these people rebuilding an old barn near our homestead. We asked for some of the old lumber they couldn't use and with it we built a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. My teenage uncles, Glen, Ralph and Paul helped.
We thought we were carnival folks. We had lots of fun with those toys and the best part was it didn't cost us any money to build.
We had holidays like everyone else in those days. On Decoration Day we would clean up around loved one's gravesites. This usually was followed by group singing and to reward us for doing a good job for cleaning up and putting flowers on the graves, we would have "dinner on the ground."
We ate our meals outside in a holding area and sit on the ground. That was the good life. Good singing and best of all, real good food.
On 4th of July we had ice cream, cake, soda pop, watermelon and plenty of speeches by local politicians. We waved the flag. We were in glory land. No fireworks though. And looking back now it seems odd that we had fireworks at Christmas. I never knew why, but fireworks would start about a week before Christmas and last after New Year's. I guess folks celebrated the birth of Christ that way.
To me Christmas was just another day. We didn't give or get any gifts like they get today. We never had a Christmas tree either. We did get to set off carbide and dynamite though. We would put a big spoon full of carbide in a coffee can with the lid closed on it, punch a small hole in the bottom of the can, pour in a little water on the carbide to form a gas, put our foot on the can and light a match to where we had punched the hole, and the next thing we heard was "Boom." That lid flew at least 60 feet. It's a wonder we hadn't killed ourselves or someone else.
Usually we'd use a cap to set off the dynamite. The caps looked like firecrackers with 2 wires that connect to a battery to get a spark. We would normally do this sort of thing up in the mountains, away from people's homes so we wouldn't do any damage to them. The explosion could be heard for miles around those hollows. We would get the explosives from the coal company and they didn't care as long as no one got hurt.
Halloween was much different then too. We always looked forward to Halloween so we could get into mischief one day a year without getting spanked. I didn't know what the phrase "trick or treat" meant -- we usually played tricks on people, especially old sour pusses who had mistreated us the past year.
My favorite trick was soaping windows. I would get some lye soap and rub it on any car or house window where I could find people at home. They usually didn't mind too much; it saved them money on cleaning their windows.
The big thing to do on Halloween was to turn over an outhouse. Usually it belonged to someone who had wronged you the past year. That got their attention too. I recall this one old guy was a mean old man who had words with just about everyone in my age group.
We -- I mean they -- picked up that mean old man's outhouse one Halloween night and they out it on top of his garage and he couldn't get no one to help get it down.
In the fall of the year we would have a "stir off" where we would grind up sugar cane and cook it in a big vat and make sorghum molasses. I always looked forward to that time of year. We popped popcorn over an open fire and made popcorn balls by pouring molasses over the corn. Yum, yum, yum. Talk about living the good life. We thought we had died and gone to heaven!
We all pitched in and helped do the jobs at the "stir off" and when our chores were done, the local string band played music ad we danced all night long. The string band usually had a jug of moonshine with them to settle their nerves. They said they played much better with a sip now and then.
One of the band members said it was soda pop and gave me some to drink. It sure was smooth as silk and it went down real good until it hit the bottom of my stomach. I thought dynamite got mixed up with the moonshine. I got high as a Georgia pine that night and led the band and called the square dances all night!
My folks knew I was acting strange and knew something wasn't right. Here's a 6 year old boy acting that way. They smelled my breath and I was in trouble. I am glad that when they wore me out, I didn't feel the whipping too much because I was feeling no pain, but I still get sore in behind today even thinking about that spanking. I never drank no more moon shine, never!!
One of my favorite meals was polk salad with deviled boiled eggs, vinegar on top, with pinto beans, corn bread, a big slab of fat back bacon, lots of onions and about a half gallon of fresh buttermilk. You talk about dying and going to heaven…brother this was really living in glory land and I still have a craving for that kind of down home cooking.
My grandma Laura Brittain taught us early on that if you ate an onion every day, you would never catch a cold. I still believe that story.
We had another game we played with marbles and each boy would carry a tobacco sack full of marbles with him all of the time. We would draw a big circle on the ground, about 8 feet across and each one would put 3 marbles in the center of the circle and the boy who would shoot out the most marbles with his "tole" would get to keep all the marbles.
Some boys had steel balls as their "tole" and could really break the marbles in the middle, knocking the marbles out of the circle. Some folks referred to the game as "pee jibs."
One of my favorite pastimes was hitching a free ride on a jolt wagon. I'd hop on the long tongue of the wagon and I had been pretty lucky up to this one day. The man driving the team of mules had a big long black snake whip he used to make the mules move along better and faster.
He threw that end of the whip up in the air to get the mules to go faster, and as the long whip came back toward me, it caught me in the shoulder and I'll tell you, that hurt. He wasn't trying to hit me, he didn't even see me behind him. I never stole a ride on a jolt wagon anymore.
Our family was the first in Woodbine to have a crystal radio. We had people coming from all over to hear those voices coming out of that big black tube with a big hole in it. That's when I heard the Grand Ole Opry and we stayed up seems like all Saturday nights listening to that radio. What a great time we had, we really enjoyed life to the fullest.
We made a cable ride from an old rope we had found, by taking one end of the rope up in a tree and using an old discarded water bucket pulley to glide down the rope to a smaller tree about 70 feet away. Unfortunately, we had our rope over the black iron wash kettle and my mother was beginning to start a fire under the wash kettle. I was the first to try it out. You guessed it -- that rope broke and I landed right smack in that was kettle. Thank God it hadn't got boiling hot yet, I would have been scalded to death for sure. That was all of that. I got wet and got a good spanking to boot!
We had a garden to grow our vegetables and a milk cow for our milk and butter. I can see my grandma Brittain churning the buttermilk with that wooden dasher, and when it was churned, she would scoop the butter off the top of the milk and put it in the cistern to keep. Then she would pour the buttermilk into jars and put them in the cistern to keep cold. You have never lived until unless you have had corn bread, a big onion, fat back and buttermilk, yum, yum, nothing but hog heaven.
I learned early on never to milk a cow by being bare-footed. I was milking old Bossie one day and that cow stepped on one of my feet and mashed my foot into the mushy barnyard ground, seems like about a foot. If there hadn't been cow manure for my foot to go down in, my foot would have been broken. To top it all off, the barn yard rooster attacked me and dug those sharp spurs into my legs. I still have the scars to show for that day, but we had roasted rooster for supper that night.
The most horrible and gruesome act of violence was when one of our neighbors would kill his cows for meat to eat. He would take a sledge hammer and hit those poor cows right between the eyes until they fell over dead. I thought that was the most inhuman act of violence I had ever seen.
We boys would choose sides and 4 boys would be on one side of a road, and 4 of us would be on the opposite side of the road. When cars or open buggy's came toward us, we'd try to throw rocks through the open windows of the cars and buggy, to hit the boys across the road.
I threw a couple of rocks through the open windows of a car and hit one of the boys. I thought I was getting really good until the next car came toward us. I didn't know the driver had the windows up. You guessed it, I hit that window and the glass broke in a million pieces.
That driver told my mother and he returned that night to see my father. I knew better than to lie; I owned up to all the charges, my dad paid the man for the window and I told the man it was an accident. That seemed to please the man, but my dad was so mad he threatened to give me away to the gypsies if I got into anymore trouble. And my rear end is still sore from a good old fashioned spanking.
I stayed out of trouble for a while after that little episode. I sure did not want to be given away; I didn't think I was all that bad. I meant no harm to anybody, it just seemed to come out that way. I really enjoyed life!
School Days in Woodbine
I entered grade school at Woodbine about 1934 and I really liked the school. My next move was to learn to play hookey at an early age. We lived close to the school and we kids would come home for lunch, then went back to school that afternoon. One day after eating lunch at home, I started back to school, but then my mind wandered and I spent the whole afternoon playing with my toy cars on a hillside near the school.
An older girl came by and asked why I wasn't in school and I said that I knew more than the teacher and didn't see any use going to school anymore. She told my mother and, boy, did I get another spanking. It was a long time before I played hookey again.
We moved to Williamsburg, Ky., about 15 miles from Woodbine, so my dad could be closer to his job at Ford Motor Company. Times were still hard and we were still in the depression, but we never missed a meal. My mother always said that our clothes may have patches but that her boys were clean and there wasn't no excuse for being dirty as long as we had plenty of soap and water.
We lived across the street from Cumberland College. The two things I remember about that town was that every January 1st some man would swim across the Cumberland River no matter how cold it was or he had to break the ice to do it. He did it every year. Even as a 6 year old, I didn't think that guy was wrapped too tight.
The other thing I remember was while I was in school we had a fire drill and had to vacate the building. The bell rang and all of the students left the school building and we assembled outside about 100 yards from the building.
All at once, one of the students started running back to the school to get his lunch because he didn't want it to get burned up. A teacher caught him though and had to convince him that there wasn't really a fire.
My dad heard about a hillside cave and he wanted us to see it first hand. We drove as far as we could on an old dirt road, and had to go the rest of the way on foot for about 2 miles before we came to the cave overlooking the Cumberland River.
We made it up the hill and smoke was coming out of the mouth of the cave, and to my surprise, there was an old man living in that cave, cooking stew over an open fire. I had never seen a person who looked so ragged, his clothes were filthy and his beard and hair almost touched the ground. He invited us in and I was a little weary about going into that cave.
My dad told him who we were and that we were just looking over the countryside. The man said he was a hermit and that he had lost everything in the market crash of 1929, and he was doing the best he could to survive. He was very polite and he must have had a decent education, his speech was so much better than mine. Of course, back in those days, there were so many people who had lost their home and business due to that stock market crash.
It seems that people would pull together more because everybody was in the same boat and we were all poor. But we did hold our heads up high and wish and hope for better days ahead.
We lived in Williamsburg a short time when in 1936 my dad was offered an electrician job with The Pioneer Coal Co. at Kettle island, Ky., in Bell County, about 35 miles up the road from Harlan, and 7 miles from Pineville. It was surrounded by more mountains than I had ever seen. I was 8 years old.
I hated moving away from Whitley County because that was where most of our kin-folk lived. My grandpahad passed on before I was born and I can only remember seeing my grandma once when my father died in 1956. My grandpa Brittain died before I was born, so I never knew him either.