June 28, 2016: Just My Ten Cents’ Worth

Perhaps it’s well that I try to stay a column or two ahead. Though I missed commenting on the Orlando tragedy immediately after it occurred, I can think before speaking. I wish some politicians would learn that running their mouths before they ascertain facts makes them sound stupid. But my own philosophy about gun control, and much else, largely takes the form of the George Santayana quote: those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And so in that spirit, and because it’s still Father’s Day month, I would recount a few interrelated stories from my old man, set back in the so-called good old days at the Royal Collieries mining camp at Offutt.

In the coal camps a holstered pistol was often simply part of a man’s dress. Many men would even wear them to work, and boys would take them to basketball games up the creek at Meade Memorial. Dad could always make my downstate cousins laugh recounting this brief exchange he witnessed at the Offutt railroad station when he was ten or twelve years old: a self-proclaimed “bad man” stalked up to the ticket window, drew a big .45 hog-leg on the station agent, and barked, “Gimme a ticket to Paintsville!” Unfazed, the agent reached under the counter, pulled out his own .45, pointed it at his customer, and replied, “Ten cents, please.” The guy paid up and walked off with his revolver and his ticket.

Truth is stranger than fiction. This really happened. But even Dad would admit that it sounded funnier in the glow of memory than it did when it actually occurred. Weekends in 1920s Offutt almost always involved bullets from every direction around that old train station, to the point that my grandparents absolutely forbade their boys to venture near it on Saturday nights. Even so, Dad witnessed homicides there as a child, and once peeked through a window to watch the mortician John A. (“One-Ear”) Jones embalm one victim, a mine boss, so the body could be shipped back to Ohio on the train. For months afterward the favorite Offutt threat involved the promise of Mr. Jones’ return to the train station to take similar care of the threatened person.Another mine supervisor and an innocent schoolteacher both caught in crossfire almost shared the same fate but for the quick actions of old Dr. F. M. Picklesimer, the company physician, who happened to be there. This was how my father grew up in the days of the free, unfettered observance of the Second Amendment, and even as late as 1951, long after Royal Collieries left Offutt, two of Dad’s boyhood neighbors shot it out on the tracks right in front of my grandparents’ home. He had to transport one of the bodies to the coroner in Paintsville in the back seat of his car. The place was truly no country for old men. Or all too often, for young ones, either.

Most of my knowledge about firearms came from Dad, that is, when he could get Mom off his back long enough to teach me anything at all. But then again maybe her fear of firearms was understandable: she grew up in Offutt too, and herself lost an older brother in a gun fight. I never became the expert shot that Dad was, but I learned to aim with both eyes open like he did, and how to care for pistols and rifles. He told me that the saddest words ever said were “I didn’t know it was loaded,” and although I never pressed him about it I suspect that maxim came from his childhood experiences as well. And he wouldn’t carry a gun anywhere he didn’t intend to shoot, because he always said that, except for a peace officer, anybody who went around packing heat all the time both looked and acted like a fool.

The Offutt in which Sweet Tater and I raised our kids was a lot less hectic, and at least somewhat more peaceful. But I think I can guess what my old man would say about Orlando, especially since, but for distance and circumstance, one of his granddaugh-ters might have been among the casualties: good God. Will people ever show any common sense? How does the well-regulated militia of the Second Amendment equate to a completely unregulated mob? Do we really want to go back to the coal-camp days I knew growing up, when gun deaths were so common even little boys thought nothing of them?

Dad never forgot his past. But remember: those who do are doomed to repeat it.


June 21, 2016: The Sacrifice of Lucinda Mills

Just recently I got word back from my preacher/teacher friend I mentioned in my previous columns about bootlegging and Elisha’s bears: “You are quite the wit, or…at least half one.” I can own up to that. It’s pretty much the kind of banter he and I expect from one another, and his conversation almost always leaves me smiling. But the smiles are wry ones, because virtually all of our stories involve humans who, although they might search with all their hearts for transcendence, always end up acting very, sometimes poignantly, human. And some of the tales I’ve managed to collect over the years are not the stuff of comedy at all, but dire tragedy. I recall one of these today, shared with me not by my preacher friend, but rather by my father, who was sixteen when the events occurred and who remembered them all too well.

In early 1933, with so many Americans either starving or mad with worry at its prospect, an itinerant, independent evangelist, remembered by some as Anna Skaggs and others as Mary Scalf, began preaching on Rockhouse Creek in western Martin County. She collected a cult and even ordained a prophet. This prophet, John Mills, was said to be able to change water into wine and grapevines into snakes, and although few besides his immediate family joined the cult they stirred enough ruckus eventually to attract the national media. John’s brother Leonard had been committed to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, and to free Leonard from the State’s care John determined that a human sacrifice was necessary, with the notion that God would restore the dead back to life within three days. It seems that at first Mills resolved to offer up four of his nieces, but the girls had enough sense to run away and either they or other neighbors notified the authorities. Some family accounts hold that the cult then considered sacrificing at least one infant, but after law officers arrived and removed the children—considering the worshipers’ plans, the respect the peace officers showed for Freedom of Religion is amazing, if not extreme—Lucinda Mills, mother of John, Leonard, and other cult members, offered herself up for the sacrifice saying that she was willing to give her own life to get Leonard out of the asylum.

And so on February 8, 1933 John Mills laid his mother on a makeshift altar, caressed her with a Bible for awhile, then strangled her with a log chain as he spoke in supposedly unknown tongues. Too late to stop the sacrifice, the sheriff and deputies burst back in finally—some accounts claim the family was readying the body for burning—and arrested all the worshipers. On April 11, after a period in jail in which he alternated between violent rages and catatonic fits requiring a physician to break out two of his teeth with a chisel so he could be force-fed, John Mills was found guilty of homicide and was sentenced to life in prison. Two of the cult’s other votaries were given sentences of 21 years apiece, and still more were acquitted, but all the guilty were eventually paroled. Mary Scalf or Anna Skaggs, or whatever the original instigator’s name may have been, was never named in any of the indictments and got off scot-free. And now they’re all dead, and that old common arbitrator Time has washed away most of the memory.

Lucinda Mills was my grandmother Sparks’ first cousin. I’d hoped to write a book about her sacrifice, but I was never able to figure out how without sounding sensationalistic. I’ve often wondered if Lucinda truly offered herself to get Leonard out of Eastern State, or simply to prevent John from killing her grandchildren. I’ll never know. But we’d better be careful of thinking that nothing so perversely insane could ever happen again, or on a larger scale. Remember Jim Jones. The Hale-Bopp Cult. Ervil LeBaron and Warren Jeffs. The zealots that destroyed the World Trade Center who, whether or not Franklin Graham wants to admit it, worshiped the same God that good Jews, good Christians, and good Muslims all do. The rich televangelists who exhort you to send your last savings to them as “seed money” for the so-called Prosperity Gospel. Anytime humans don’t use the single faculty that separates them from all other creatures, tragedy follows. The words an elderly cousin told me in 2001 still ring in my ears some nights, hauntingly: “We’d ‘a’ got her back if only the law hadn’t busted in on us when they did.”

June 14, 2016: A Pocketful of Father’s Day

As we near Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking more of my dad. If he had lived until last month he would have been one hundred, and loving wordplay as he did it would have tickled him that his son had started a newspaper column called “The Common Tater.” And since I have enough of my memories, and of his stories, on tap to make for many columns—and how I wish now I had asked him for even more of his recollections—I may as well start out with a brief tale, namely, the time he laughed the hardest and longest that I ever saw. Trouble was, I was the reason for it.

Dad’s temper flared quickly but departed just as fast, or even faster. He held no grudges and in my childhood, if I could stay out of his reach for even half a minute, his temper would cool his intent down from a smack to a mere scolding. But a scolding from him was something special. He’d been a drill instructor at the beginning of World War II, and without even raising his voice he could combine just the right words to make either a mischievous kid or a smart-aleck teenager feel about two inches tall. And if he thought something I’d done was ridiculous enough to laugh at—oh Lord. There’s no describing the humiliation. The prospect of that laughter kept me out of a lot of mischief.

Anyway, nobody on the two little creeks in our community had much land, but several folks tended gardens, a few had hogs, bee stands, and what not—and the main livestock, for those interested in keeping it, was the chicken, game or domestic. My grandfather and I raised both ducks and chickens for a while. So it happened one early spring—I was about nine—that circumstances made me the foster mother of a clutch of orphaned bitties that risked freezing if I kept them in the outside pen. Grandpa let me put a big old cardboard box in the back hallway next to his room, and after outfitting it with newspaper and jar lids filled with water and starter feed, I was ready to move my orphans indoors. And so, despite the fact that I knew I was doing what Dad called “picking up a lazy man’s load,” that is, carrying too much in one trip, I decided to bring all the bitties in at once, using my front pockets as well as my hands for the transit. I didn’t lose a single bitty that way either, not even in the pockets although once I emptied them, I discovered a dividend in one that I should have expected—but hadn’t. Dad came to look at the bitties just about the time I pulled out a sizable handful of the “dividend” and muttered disgustedly: “Well, them things (expletive deleted) in my pocket!”

Mom didn’t hear me, and I was glad. Neither did Grandpa, for which I was gladder. But Dad—I don’t know how he threw back his head while simultaneously bending double and slapping his knees without rolling around on the floor, but he did it, and the laughter that emanated up and out from his belly absolutely laid it over anything I ever heard him do either before or after. As I mentioned, ridicule was the most effective discipline he ever used on me, but that time his laughter was so utterly infectious that I just had to join in or die trying not to. Now, when Mom saw the britches she’d have to wash, SHE didn’t laugh, but although Dad got lots of mileage out of that story he always deleted the expletive that I let slip. It remained the one Mom didn’t know about.

I never quite knew what made Dad tick while he was alive, but at his funeral home viewing over Memorial Day weekend 2005—he’d lived twenty-six days past his eighty-ninth birthday, and had fussed continually since that birthday about “living too long”—many of his old co-workers remarked on his saying to them that back during the worst days of World War II he’d promised himself that if he ever got out of the South Pacific alive he’d never worry about small things again. That cleared up many a mystery about him, but he took the talent for it with him to the grave and I sure wish I could have inherited it. Still missing you, Old Man.

June 7, 2016: Standup Guy

In the summer of 1948 the citizens of the Big Sandy Valley were treated to an unusual diversion from the Dewey-Truman Presidential campaign: an undertaker fight. Now as a rule, undertakers aren’t warlike. Even if the most persuasive preacher can’t straighten you out while you’re alive, undertakers will surely straighten you out afterward, and they’re the very last folks who’ll ever let you down. Still, the fracas occurred. A local mortician named Guy Preston ran a series of newspaper advertisements almost anticipating Jessica Mitford’s controversial 1963 book “The American Way of Death,” claiming that his industry largely overcharged its clients and offering what he termed as fairer prices for funeral services. As with Mitford’s work later, the Kentucky Funeral Directors’ Association at Louisville took a dim view of these ads, so its officers ran their own paid announcements locally in retaliation: they claimed that Preston’s accusations were oversimplified and inaccurate, and ethical Kentucky undertakers who charged fairly were the rule rather than the exception. Even so, Guy had had his say, and although nowadays we might wince at his declaration that higher-priced funeral homes were run by “buzzards,” his bluntness was surely a welcome contrast to the political hay being pitched elsewhere in the country that year.

But then again, Guy Preston was long accustomed to speaking his mind whether anyone else liked it or not—and often, they didn’t. At least preachers. Years before, he himself had been an ordained minister and pastor in a local religious denomination, but he had been forced from the clergy and the church by circumstances largely beyond his control. Out from under the thumb of a restrictive religious hierarchy, though, he discovered a new voice. He founded his own newspaper of opinion that he called “Baptist Tidings,” in which he became a spokesman for religious open-mindedness long before that quality became fashionable among his former clergy brethren. His editorial pen also gave him the opportunity to skewer many of these erstwhile brethren verbally for any acts of cruelty, hypocrisy, or just plain foolishness that he observed. And since we live in a country where the separation of Church and State and freedom of the Press are both guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, there wasn’t a thing the clergy could do about him—except, perhaps, cry persecution.

One typical, and memorable, incident occurred during the darkest days of World War II. A group of mothers, who belonged to various churches and in some cases perhaps no church at all, began to meet regularly to pray for their sons fighting overseas. The leadership of one sect took offense at its mothers praying together with women of other faiths in this fashion, and so brought several “sisters” up on charges for “walking disorderly,” “departing from the Faith,” or some such accusation and threatened to expel them from the church if they didn’t stop their group praying. Sadly, we can’t say at this point whether the accusers got away with this self-righteous little act of cruelty or not. A religious hierarchy, even merely a religious community, is still an intimidating force to many people in the Southeast, and no doubt was even more so, and to more people, back then. Though Preston now had the freedom he needed to speak his mind, the poor mothers still may have been either browbeaten into submission or kicked out of the church. Perhaps there were some instances of both. But regardless, Guy defended those women with every bit of strength he could put into his pen and paper, and he did not allow their persecutors to do one bit of their dirty work under cover.

Guy Preston died in 1952 and his newspaper, his ads, and the turmoil of a world war are all long past. Faded collections of “Baptist Tidings” still exist in the trunks and attics of a few local homes, and when I’m shown such treasure troves of community history I always encourage their donation to a public library for posterity’s sake. I’m not sure I’ve ever convinced anybody to donate them, though. Some of the present owners of these collections may still be afraid of offending somebody either in their family or their church. “Baptist Tidings” was eagerly read by a lot of people in its day, but one still hears the occasional disparaging joke or story about Guy Preston, claiming that he had “the big head” and that he thought he was better than everyone else around him. But that’s pretty much standard fare for anybody who stands outside the majority or the mainstream in a small rural community, and anyone with backbone enough to take an independent stance on any issue had better be ready for such accusations to come and go. Many of the predictions Guy made in his newspaper have come to pass, not because he had any prophetic gift—he’d have scorned that idea himself—but because he wrote with plain old common sense and a firm idea of the consequences of right and wrong. And in a day and age when so many politicians are trying to combine Church and State all over again for the sake of votes, oh Lord! We need voices like Guy Preston’s more than ever.

June 1, 2016: The Reign of King Mob

Once upon a time in this great land of ours, the Common People felt that the Government ignored their voices. Hailing mainly from the states of the West of that day, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, and brand-new Missouri, these Common Men sent Congressmen to Washington, but their State Legislatures chose their Senators for them and most had grown up in a United States that, so far, had elected Presidents only from Virginia and Massachusetts. Wealth, position, and the East Coast seemed to hold unfair sway, and a just and truly representative Government seemed very remote.

But then a Savior came into view! In 1824 Andrew Jackson, horse racer, cock fighter, Indian killer, commander at the Battle of New Orleans, and now Tennessee Senator, was nominated by his State Legislature for President in the manner things were done back then. But politics quashed his initial hopes. He didn’t get enough electoral votes to win the Presidency, and when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives his rival, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, struck a deal with another rival, John Quincy Adams, to give his electoral votes to Adams in exchange for a cabinet post. For some reason the Kentuckian just didn’t trust Jackson, and after Adams thus won the Presidency the Common Man’s prospects for a voice in Government looked even bleaker than before.

Yet soon the Common Man could take heart! Jackson and his followers created their own brand-new political party, which then nominated Jackson again in 1828 and proceeded to storm the country! Though he was an immensely rich planter and slave owner, Jackson pointedly identified himself with the frontier soldiers who had served under his military command, and in fact Samuel Woodworth’s “The Hunters of Kentucky,” extolling the American Army’s bravery at New Orleans, became his campaign theme song. And so in spite of a scandal uncovered by the snobbish, elitist Press that he had married his wife Rachel before she had secured a divorce from her first husband, with ballyhoo and hyperbole Andrew Jackson led his new political party, and his Common Men, to victory in the fall of 1828.

And the Nation was saved! So happy were the Common Men that thousands of them descended on Washington for the inauguration, and a grateful new President invited the entire street crowd into the White House for a reception. The Common Men, now assured that they had a voice in Government, trashed the Executive Mansion completely. The house staff managed to salvage what little furniture, china, and drapery they could by luring the crowd outside with tubs of spiked punch. Jackson’s critics gloomily forecast that the White House punch party was only the beginning of the Reign of King Mob.

Okay, now let’s omit the exclamation points. Jackson was no classical scholar, but he had extensive legal and military experience and he learned quickly from his Inauguration Day fiasco. Instead of being ruled by King Mob, for the most part he ruled King Mob and made King Mob like it. While he urged public participation in government, promoting suffrage for all white males at least, his administration actually increased Presidential power over Congress, and one biographer notes that he strained the concept of Democracy about as far as it would go and still remain workable. Historians still argue whether his financial policies led to the Panic of 1837 and the five-year depression that followed it, but Americans now mostly remember the Jackson Era fondly—excepting of course the Indian Removal Act of 1830. As one of my old high school teachers said, Jackson hated Indians with a purple passion, and a brief gold rush in Georgia gave him an excuse to compel Congress eventually to drive most of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and other tribes across the Mississippi—making the United States the White Man’s Country and resulting in more Indian deaths, and certainly more deaths of women and children, than the General had ever effected on the battlefield. One supposes that if a river was wide enough a wall wasn’t needed. And Jackson could shove the blame for the entire process off his own shoulders onto the so-called Manifest Destiny of—you guessed it—the Common Man. Or King Mob; take your pick with names.

Do I do justice here to Andrew Jackson? In a brief column such as this I simply cannot, either for good points or bad, and he had a lot of both. Either way, he was a man of his times and not ours. And one of the biggest ironies in American history is that Jackson’s political party eventually exchanged ideologies largely with the main descendant branch of the party that Henry Clay founded originally to oppose it. But I would voice one question for our own day: if King Mob ever elects another President, will that President then rule King Mob, or be ruled BY King Mob? Or will the Party of both President and Mob rule both President AND Mob? Whenever it may be, I suspect that King Mob’s next reign will be just as cruel, unfair, shortsighted, and dangerous as any other time in our history that His Majesty has ever governed.