May 24, 2016: Elisha’s Bears

I’ve been thinking more about my preacher friend who, as I mentioned a couple of weeks back, once took his congregation a bit too literally—or maybe too liberally—when the members told him to get real wine for a Communion service. He’s now an educator, doing well in another state, and occasionally we still swap stories and laugh about our days as ministerial cubs back in the 1980s. The first time I ever went to preach to his flock for him, though, I don’t recall laughing. Don’t try guessing the name or location of the church; I’ll never tell. Sweet Tater knows, and that’s enough. And she won’t tell either.

I arrived during Sunday School and seated myself at the back of the adult class to listen. The elderly teacher was lecturing on I Timothy 2:9-10, which speaks of the styling of hair and the wearing of ornaments. Want a further exposition? Look it up yourself. Right now I need only say that the teacher, though speaking in the mildest of tones, took a very conservative approach to the verses, more so than I would have done even at the time and much more so than I would now. But even though I thought he was a bit hidebound I knew that my own grandparents had shared his opinion exactly. If I could respect them, I could also respect him.

Not so, apparently, for at least half the class. I don’t recall ever hearing an older individual addressed more rudely, harshly, or disrespectfully by such a large group of younger ones. Those who disagreed with the teacher acted as if he’d accused them of murder or something just as bad, and the walls echoed again and again with tearful cries of “Judge not, that ye be not judged!” and that tired, overworked old saw “The Lord knows my heart!” But through it all, the teacher responded with perfect old-time manners, returning smiles for glares and soft words for harsh. In so doing he earned not only my respect but my admiration. But he was a gentleman, and I—well, I’m just a common tater.

Finally one man dispelled the tension just a bit by telling a story about his wife’s losing her wedding ring and her beheading of every chicken he owned to search their gizzards for it. That pretty much concluded the Sunday School, after which we had what passed for a worship service and the irked, flustered congregation sat through a fairly lame sermon by an extremely spooked young preacher. My pastor friend, however, appeared to be well accustomed to such shenanigans from his flock—likely they were most all family, which is about how such things work around here—but after the service endedand the crowd dispersed I observed to him that if the kids of Bethel had acted any worse to the Prophet Elisha than that Sunday School class had treated its teacher, I’d have hated to hear the racket. (II Kings 2:23-24. You can look that’n up too, preferably before reading on.)

“You know,” my friend mused in reply, “I have trouble understanding that. The Bible says that Elisha cursed those little kids for mocking his baldness, and then two she-bears tore up forty-two of ’em for it! Would a God whose son said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven’ really use a prophet so touchy about being bald that he’d cuss a bunch of little boys and girls for teasing him about it, and then have the Lord kill ’em with bears?”

I couldn’t answer him right away, because at the time that one had me stumped too. Now I’ve come to view it as probably a memory some ancient scribe had of a cautionary tale his parents had told him as a child so he’d behave. When I was growing up my father had his own similar yarn, of a blue-nosed monster that lived in the well house and ate razor blades and broken light bulbs but preferred little kids when he could get them. Was Dad right for telling me and my cousins that story? Rest his soul, I don’t hold it against him, and it for danged sure did keep us kids away from the well pump when we were little—which, of course, was exactly what Dad intended. I can smile even now thinking about him.

Sad to say, though, I heard the text of Elisha’s bears all too often in sermons for years after this incident, first by yet another young preacher still in high school who’d been rebuked by an older one for skipping class, and in every single case afterward by similar speakers who were obviously peeved at somebody and just itching to sic the Prophet’s bears on the perceived offender.If only people would just let them durned old bears hibernate! But if I recall right, on that long-ago day my final reply to my friend was something like this: “Well, you better be glad your Sunday School teacher didn’t remember that Scripture and call out Elisha’s bears himself—or then again, maybe the bears were already sitting in his class!”


May 17, 2016: Blow George

Blow george. There’s no other term quite like it, but in eastern Kentucky, no other term that will do for its purpose. It means a person full of hot air, a braggart who’s long on professing and short on possessing—what people in other regions of the United States might call a “gasbag,” a “windbag,” a “blowhard,” a “blatherskite” (Mark Twain’s personal favorite) or a “bull thrower,” the first word of this latter term also lending itself to verbiage a little too strong for newsprint. “Blow george” could apply to almost anyone with a strong ego coupled with the gift of gab, be it a fisherman whose prize trout just keeps getting bigger and bigger with each recounting of its catch, or, say (just for the sake of argument), a newspaper columnist. So with so many other colorful, vivid words to choose from, how did the people of eastern Kentucky wind up with “blow george” as an expression?

The same way our conversation got itself flavored with so many other distinctive terms—the coal mines. The ventilation fans installed in the first mines ever opened in this area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were patterned after the design of the British mining engineer George Atkinson, himself a bit of an egoist who proudly titled his creation—you guessed it—the blow george. The apparatus was also known as the “windy king” in some areas, a great description itself for a braggart, but that term never caught on in Appalachia. A blow george could be operated by a steam engine connected to its crank by a piston, but in this area the enormous fans were far more often hand-cranked by very young miners (I’m talking ten- and eleven-year-olds here, since there were no Child Labor Laws at the time). A crew of six boys might spell each other out, by twos or threes, for ten or twelve hours a day, often five and a half or six days a week. And no doubt after a long hard shift of cranking a blow george to expel the rotten-egg-stinking black-powder smoke produced when coal was “shot,” many an overworked child came to hate the fan, its distinctive title, and the hydrogen sulfide odor associated with its use, with an antipathy one had to “be there” to share. I can almost hear the term popping up practically automatically in the earliest coal camps, from the lips of boys and young men with backs and arms sore from a long day of thankless labor, listening to someone brag: “Good Lord, listen at that (expletive deleted) blow george go on and on!”

And yet when it comes to politics, eastern Kentuckians absolutely adore blow georges—not the mining apparatus, but the sort of people the term is used to describe. For many years before radio and television, political speeches and debates were first-class entertainment, and our most successful politicians were often also our most colorful. Perhaps with reality television, history is cycling back round. At least until after the Second World War, when a sizable bloc of voting veterans whose years of listening to the orders of blow-george military officers made for a modest change in political sentiment, throughout Kentucky and most of the rest of the South a candidate practically had to be a blow george to succeed. Though Carl Perkins pretty much qualified for the name too he didn’t really count, because the fact he was a veteran got him elected the first time. He did most of his own blow-georging after that very first general election against Johnson County’s own Howes Meade, though admittedly not without a lot of results both positive and negative over the years. The key, of course, was getting elected, and then keeping most of the people happy, or making them think that they were happy, at least a third or half the time, then getting ready for another blow-george campaign.Often, though, a blow george can go too far: in the 1930s Governor “Happy” Chandler’s blow-george personal attack on Senator and later Vice President Alben Barkley earned Chandler the opprobrium of his entire political party, including President Roosevelt, and actually forced him out of politics for a brief while. And while this incident caused one of the strongest Democrats I ever knew, my maternal grandfather, to vote Republican against Chandler every chance he got, Happy’s blow-george style actually got him elected Governor again in the 1950s and even let him alter Kentucky’s political landscape once more, in the 1960s—when Henry Ward beat him out for a Democratic nomination and he threw his support to Louie Nunn in retaliation, ushering in the era when West Virginia had Moore and Kentucky had Nunn. Want to be a Southern politician? It still pays to take a lesson from the blow george. Maybe two or three or four.

Which leaves us with the questions: how much has the blow george factor influenced the presidential campaigns of last fall and winter and this spring, how much effect will it have on the season of political conventions this summer, and what on earth might it do to us this fall? Lord knows enough people are weighing in already, but even the commonest of Common Taters has eyes.

May 10, 2016: My Career as a Bootlegger

I doubt that I have to define this term for anybody locally yet, but I wonder if younger people can appreciate the word “bootlegger” like us older folk. Until perhaps the mid-1980s, bootlegging was a cottage industry locally. I watched my first-ever police liquor raid from the community schoolyard. Later I remember getting a crush on an  older girl who “ran block” for one bootlegger, the main reason for my infatuation being that she could out-drive every lawman in the county who tried to catch her. In their day, bootleggers were both loved and maligned, but when we compare them with our modern illegal substance dealers, somehow they seem pretty tame.

But I do not mean to romanticize the “good old days.” Yesteryear’s old-time country physicians, so overwhelmed by cases of then-unknown depressive disorders and other mental conditions in addition to all the physical ailments that they had to treat, often gave out so-called “nerve tonic” indiscriminately simply to cope with their patient workloads. They look good compared to today’s dealers too, but the old doctors’ free-handedness with narcotics probably sowed the seeds of our modern addiction disaster more than the bootleggers ever did. Growing up, I can remember both neighbors and family members who’d  never let a drop of whiskey pass their lips literally throw conniptions when they ran out of “nerve medicine” and couldn’t get a refill quick enough. Sadly, the phrase “all things in moderation” has never had much of a fan club around these parts, but one memory of a wry old joke still remains as true as it ever was: any time a local-option election for liquor sales was held, preachers and bootleggers would always vote exactly the same way.

Which brings me to my own career as a bootlegger, which occurred not before but immediately after Paintsville “went wet.” Things had just started to calm down after weeks of hot rhetoric from pulpit and paper, with both sermons and letters to the editor having prophesied drunks passed out on every corner and strip joints lining Main Street if the option passed. None of this occurred either then or after, of course, but at the time resentment locally between “wets” and “drys” was still mighty fresh and hot. And so about this time I met one of the latter, a preacher whom I’d known and worked with for several years, in a local market that had just begun to stock alcoholic beverages. I’ll call him Brother Drye—no reflection on the quality of his sermons, but rather of his views on alcohol.

“Look at that,” Brother Drye observed to me disgustedly as he pointed to the store’s new liquor aisle. “Anybody who works here that calls himself a Christian should quit his job. If I could find one ‘dry’ store in town, I wouldn’t be here either!”

“That’s how the vote went,” I replied, trying to be soothing. “Don’t hold it against the workers.”

“Well, it’s not right,” he retorted. “You know, I’d love to buy one of those little hip flasks to take into the pulpit with me and use it to preach about how bad liquor is. But I don’t dare, because somebody’d see me and say I bought it for myself.”

“Shoot, I’ll go get one of those for you. Wait here,” I offered, never asking how he knew they had hip flasks in stock unless he’d seen them. Maybe he’d heard it secondhand from a sinner.

He looked horrified. “Don’t you know what people will say if they see you in that aisle?” he asked incredulously.

“Maybe ‘Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’?” I returned.

“They might!”

“And do you remember the fellow it was first said about?” I rejoined. (In case you don’t have your concordance handy, it was Jesus, in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34.)

“I know,” he conceded with a sigh. “But they might say something else bad.”

Anyway: I finally brazenly walked down the Aisle of Wickedness, bootlegged the hip flask for Brother Drye, paid for it myself because he was afraid to take it through the checkout line too, and then delivered it to him in the parking lot. Of course I let him have the flask at cost, taking no profit, but during the exchange he hunkered down so suspiciously next to his vehicle that any passing lawman who saw us would have had all the probable cause he needed to ask us what we were doing. Still, I do hope that Brother Drye  got his money’s worth from that shiny little bootleg trophy, no dry run-of-the-mill discourse but a fiery sermon with not a dry eye in the church house either. And although this incident doesn’t compare with the trouble another preacher friend of mine got into years ago for buying Communion wine from a bootlegger (his congregation wanted him to send a sinner to get it instead), the old Common Tater still likes to rib Brother Drye about it whenever we see each other. After all, a merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones, and that’s Bible too (Proverbs 17:22). Of course, “all things in moderation” isn’t a Bible phrase, but I still keep hoping it’ll eventually catch on.

May 3, 2016: Welcome to the Tater Patch

Good day. My name’s John, but for any and all practical purposes here within the sheets of Around Paintsville you may refer to me simply as the Common Tater. I’ve always been interested in reading and keeping up with newspaper columnists of the Kentucky variety, the favorites of my youth being Allen Trout and Joe Creason of the Louisville Courier-Journal—both of whom, incidentally, were themselves inspired by Henry Arrowood, a Johnson County writer who made good in the same periodical. I doubt that I’ll ever attain the accomplishments of these three men, but it still feels worth trying, and perhaps I can have a little fun along the way.

Why “The Common Tater”? Well, why not? When the idea of writing a column for Around Paintsville was first suggested to me I thought about calling myself “The Mouth of Muddy Branch” in honor of the creek where I did most of my growing up, but another local writer whom I admire greatly sort of has the Muddy Branch franchise, and he’s earned it entirely. Then I thought of “The Mouth of Greasy Creek” for the community where my wife—let’s call her Sweet Tater—and I raised our two Tater Tots, but it’s only right that Henry Arrowood should keep the laurels for the Boons Camp and Williamsport and Offutt communities. He had no less than three preacher brothers, and thus a lot of stories to tell. “The Mouth of Miller’s Creek,” one watercourse over from Greasy where I went a-courtin’ one time—well, let’s just say that one’s Sweet Tater’s purview. Then I considered “The Mouth of Burnt Cabin,” the little branch just down the hill from where I presently reside, but after all the highway construction of the past century who really knows where or what Burnt Cabin Branch is anymore? In most people’s minds nowadays it’s “that little bitty creek across on the other side of Starfire Hill that runs along 321 and 1428,” and it’s been shifted so many times to accommodate asphalt there’s no way to tell where its original bed was. Sort of like Town Branch in Lexington, or, for that matter, the Fleet River in London. You can’t stop progress, though sometimes, at least in some aspects, you’d like to.

So I had to think of something else. Larry Webster’s already got the copyright for “Red Dog,” so unless I wanted to call myself “Red Horse” after the chewing tobacco “The Common Tater” was about all I had left. Still, as common a tater as I might be, I’ve come to realize that being a common tater isn’t really so bad. The real harm in this world is done not so much by the common taters as it is by the specked taters. Everybody around here knows that specks signal the beginnings of rot on a tater, and the specked taters of this world are those who go through life complacently, simply trying to skate all the way, never speaking out in any form to improve the lot of their neighbors or make any real difference in the world around them and passing out of life as if they’d never even been in it in the first place. What’s the point, if you can’t make a positive difference? And that’s the common tater’s duty—to try to get the specked taters to scrape the specks off themselves, use their eyes (and yes, even a specked tater has them), and maybe—just maybe—do a little growing, even when the specked taters might accuse a common tater of throwing verbal fertilizer at them.

Again, good day and welcome. In this common tater patch I’ll try to feature a little local history and political science along the way, though of a nonpartisan form and with the gentle reminder that, regardless of ideology, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; a bit of philosophy, albeit not of the long-haired complicated variety; a touch of religion, but not very much of the organized type because I’ve always believed that it’s better for us to have questions that can never be answered than answers that can never be questioned; and throughout, hopefully, some amusement. I’d like to think that you could find something in this tater patch, sooner or later, that you’d want to dig up and take home with you. So it’s past April already, and nearly Vine Day. Time to get this tater patch out.

April 26,2016: Preview in Around Paintsville


John Sparks was born in Paintsville back in the day and has lived most of his life in the communities of Thealka, Pikeville, Offutt, and Hager Hill. He graduated from Pikeville College more years ago than he cares to remember, and has worked at various healthcare facilities both in this area and in the Bluegrass. Besides this, he’s proven to be an inveterate scribbler, having managed to find time to write three nonfiction works in the history and biography genre, one historical novella, and a passel of short stories that have only recently been published in a collection. He brings to his new column for Around Paintsville, which he has titled “The Common Tater” because it was the best thing he could think of at the spur of the moment, the longtime experiences of a hospital worker, former minister and pastor, nonfiction and fiction writer, husband, and proud father of two daughters who have had a great deal much more success academically than their old man ever has–and are better looking, to boot.