October 25, 2016: Halloween, Part Two: Haints

I was about eleven when “The Exorcist” came out and probably fourteen or so when a censored version of it first aired on one of the three channels then available on television, and I can’t recall a movie that caused more extreme responses among young people. I knew a set of sisters who were so frightened by it that after they watched it, for two or three weeks they insisted that their mother sleep with them. One guy old enough to drive told me he could sense the devil riding shotgun beside him when he left the old Sipp Theater after the show, but one or two others, brighter than most of us, would laugh all the way through the movie and watch it again and again for the tight hugs they always got from their terrified dates. Ah, those were the days. When “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were in regular syndicated reruns on those three channels and “Night Gallery” and “Ghost Story” were still on prime time, demons and ghosts and what not—what our grandparents, and sometimes our parents too, would call “haints” after the old pronunciation of “haunts”–could be a very grave business, no pun intended, of course all the more serious at this season of the year.

I don’t know how much my old man knew about child psychology, but the stories he told me about haints when I was a little kid somehow helped me cope with my fears in a way nothing else did. Back then I didn’t know that Dad only believed in what he could see and about half of what he heard, but he sure could recall how a young boy’s mind worked. Our home was an old coal company crackerbox built in 1902, just like those of most of our neighbors, and those houses had seen dozens of tenants over the years and a lot of births and deaths. So when I’d get scared about the possibility of ghosts roaming the place, Dad would simply say not to worry: likely they were only house haints, and house haints never caused trouble. They were quiet and wanted to be left alone. It was the field haints outside that were full of mischief, the kind that would throw things at you and try to trip you up. Dad’s story about field haints may have been his plan to try to keep me indoors at night, and I guess it worked, but somehow his Linnaean classification of haints (backed up by Grandma, who believed in them a lot more literally than Dad ever did) served to make the ghosts, or at least a kid’s fears, more manageable for me. Sort of like his story, when I was even younger, of “the tater wagon a-goin’ up the road” when I’d be startled by loud thunder. And of course I eventually learned the truth about haints: to quote Dad again, hain’t none, really.

Maybe that’s the function of myth in general, to help humans cope with what they don’t understand until they’re mature enough not to need the mythical explanations any more. There’s a moral there, folks. But, that said, I must warn you that if you’re looking for skeptics about the supernatural don’t bother poking around a hospital staff. Many healthcare workers have college degrees in the applied sciences and there are individual rationalists among us, but collectively I never saw a more superstitious bunch in my life. Every patient care unit I’ve ever worked with harbors its own collection of eerie stories, my coworkers choose their words carefully to avoid jinxes, and once years ago when my union was on strike a gaggle of my college-educated professional colleagues traveled all the way to another county to ask a fortune teller when the labor dispute was going to end. The very laboratory where I now work is supposed to have a haint lurking somewhere in it, the ghost of a technologist who died in a car accident not too far from the hospital, and although some of my coworkers have sworn they’ve seen her—and we even have one instrument that’s named for her—I’ve never seen or heard so much as a peep out of her, even around midnight. If she exists at all, I feel sorry for her. How much fun can it be to have to haunt a laboratory, of all places? Maybe I’ve simply scared the poor thing off, hopefully to better haunts. Pun intended this time.

Or like Dad used to say, perhaps she’s just a quiet house haint who hain’t no harm. Happy Halloween.


October 18, 2016: Halloween, Part One: Corn Night

We’re well into autumn now, and coming up on the holidays. Some stores have had their Halloween decorations out since before Labor Day, and by now they’ve already started to put up Christmas greens. But our very first forthcoming celebration is a longstanding tradition not only in eastern Kentucky, but the Midwest also and at one time, probably throughout the rural United States. October 30 is known in some places as Mischief Night, Goosey Night, and in parts of northern Kentucky as Cabbage Night, but around here it’s always been Corn Night. And although the practice has declined a lot since I was young and perhaps even now it’s honored more in the breach than the observance, there are still kids in eastern Kentucky who “go a-cornin’” on the night before Halloween.

I admit, Corn Night and Halloween are pagan in origin, and they go back in our history and our blood, long before there was a Church, to our British and German ancestors’ harvest celebration that marked the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. In the olden days it was known among Celtic peoples as the festival of Samhain. Back in the era of the coal camps in eastern Kentucky the seasonal revelries could get very, very rough: even grownups would get into the act, blocking roads, setting fires,soaping windows, and tipping over outhouses. I personally know of one such case in which a woman was actually inside her privy when her neighbors toppled it, and later exacted retribution on them with the gift of a big batch of Ex-Lax brownies. They say revenge is like ice cream, best served cold, but at Halloween I suppose baked goods can work just as well. At least she didn’t use razor blades. But needless to say, such escapades are the reason why in most areas of the country the first of the two Samhain-based holidays is called Mischief Night (and even Hell Night in Detroit), and in fact the grounds for its being known as Cabbage Night in northern Kentucky. There, the tradition seems to have been for pranksters to toss rotten cabbages onto the porches of houses. I guess that’s better than setting a paper bag of feces alight at somebody’s front door, yelling “Fire!” and then running, but those who have to get rid of decomposed cabbage the next morning might feel differently.

But the way Corn Night got its particular name around here actually speaks more of charity and goodwill than mischief. Samhain—and later, All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween after the Church decided that November 1 and 2 were All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, respectively—was always regarded in folk culture as a so-called “liminal” time, when for some reason the barriers between the Other World and this one could be breached more easily. This accounted for the belief in the presence of ghosts, goblins, fairies, and what not around the end of October, and along with it both the donning of costumes and the increase of mischief: people simply acted out their time-honored legends and, mostly with tongue in cheek, blamed the damage they did on the supernatural beings that were supposed to be out in force. But the source of the term Corn Night, the practice of tossing seed corn on the front porches of your neighbors, was different. According to the principles of old, the grain was actually an offering to the Otherworldly beings, a request to them to help themselves to the corn and leave the house in peace. Thus the presence of corn at your door was in fact both a friendly prank and an indication of respect, a sign that your neighbors and their children wished you well. Whether it’s a pagan pre-Christian tradition or not, a goodwill gesture is never a bad idea.

Soon we’ll once again hear the annual dire proclamations about the so-called “war on Christmas” from the same forces who like to remind us that Corn Night and Halloween are sinful because they’re pagan. How ironic: at one time in this country, the Puritan colonies of New England regarded Christmas itself as heathen, based more on the ancient Roman Saturnalia and German Yuletide festivals than on the birth of Jesus, and they’d lock up and fine anyone they found celebrating the day publicly. But I doubt we need to worry about the disappearance of any of our customary holidays any time soon. Maybe the issue simply depends on what side of the outhouse door one is on when it’s tipped over. Stay safe on Corn Night, all.

October 11, 2016: The Gospel Fiddler

It’s a lot easier to be a church member than it used to be. Besides all the obvious luxuries—electric light and heat, indoor restrooms rather than spider-infested privies, thermos jugs or water fountains instead of wooden buckets and gourd dippers everybody had to share, and what not—there’s a lot less anxiety to it. Back in the early days of settled eastern Kentucky there were only two denominations, Methodist and Baptist, and both could give their members a hard way to go. The idea of privacy was almost nonexistent. If you were a Methodist, the circuit rider expected to see you in “class” meeting, confessing your own particular sins before all your neighbors, outlining how you’d combated them, and promising to be a better person next time he visited. And Baptist churches used to have so-called Ruling Elders, whose job it was to examine yours and your family’s conduct and report you to the church for “walking disorderly”as he saw fit. I’m not sure why the Baptists quit ordaining Ruling Elders. The office didn’t inspire any affection, so maybe after Ruling Elders had torn up enough churches people recognized they were more harmful than beneficial. But whichever sect you attended, you better never get caught humming or singing any other tune than a hymn. And to dance to fiddle music—oh, Lord! The early central Kentucky Baptist preacher John Taylor wrote in 1822 that a good fiddler was the devil’s right-hand man, and whenever any neighbors started hosting reels and square dances at their homes he just knew that Satan had set up camp right at his front door. After all, the devil himself was a fiddle player too; Charlie Daniels said so, and wrote a hit song about the old mountain tale in 1979.

No doubt many eastern Kentucky churches of old agreed completely with John Taylor, but strangely, that wasn’t always the case in the territory that became Johnson and Martin Counties. One of the best known and best-loved frontier preachers between Tug River and the head of Paint Creek was the Paintsville pioneer Henry Dixon, who was not only a skilled fiddler but used his violin to gather crowds together for worship. According to the tales handed down locally, he’d attract listeners with several sprightly fiddle airs, then pray and preach, and finish up by sawing out a few more tunes—perhaps inducing his flock to sit through what could be a lengthy sermon for the sake of the music. At one time or another the old exhorter’s pastorates included a place of worship on Rockcastle Creek in present Martin County, the churches now known as Old Union and Concord in Johnson, and another on the Open Fork of Paint Creek across the Morgan County line. And Dixon fiddled and preached between them all, and under his leadership the Rockcastle Church even acquired an old-fashioned bellowed pipe organ and had it transported up Tug River by flatboat. Agree with him or not, he was truly a man ahead of his time musically.

This isn’t to say that Henry Dixon didn’t endure his share of troubles. About 1826 an Ohio revivalist named Cleland came up the Big Sandy to Old Union to preach, boarding with Henry, his wife Joyce, and their family, and this visiting man of God wound up leaving three so-called “ruined girls” behind him, one of whom was Henry’s daughter. Henry traveled north to confront the girls’ seducer but wound up having to preach on Sunday at the 1826 session of the Ohio Baptist Association instead. For some reason he never caught up with Cleland, for which the revivalist probably should have been very thankful. But in any case, the good old preacher never held his grandson’s parentage against him, raising the boy with his own children and letting him wear the Dixon name with pride.

Dixon died in 1854 at the age of eighty, and it’s said that on his deathbed he called for his fiddle one last time and slowly played a hymn before passing on to a place of sweeter music. With all due respect to John Taylor, Henry Dixon was in no sense the devil’s right-hand man. He was good to his parishioners and neighbors, and in that sense I’d like to think of him as the right-hand man to the angels instead. And who knows? Maybe Taylor’s arguing about music with the old Gospel fiddler somewhere in eternity yet, as he reels off a lively tune—perhaps in duet with King David on the harp, and as the angels dance on the head of a pin.

October 4, 2016: The Rubaiyat of Joe and Kelly

When I noted a couple of weeks ago that in years of working with both Christians and Muslims I’d only witnessed one open but friendly religious disagreement between the two faiths, I didn’t mean I never knew ABOUT any other such quarrels. And there were a very few Muslims in eastern Kentucky well before the 1980s. From what I’ve heard,though, in the old days the most memorable conflicts locally occurred between only two men: my great-uncle Joe Meade, the town dentist of Inez many years ago, and a merchant in the same place, a Syrian pack-peddler or “drummer” who’d finally settled down to run a dry-goods store and who went by the name of Kelly Useem. Now, I don’t know much about Kelly Useem except that he was probably the sole Muslim in Martin County at that time, but Uncle Joe was—well, he was Uncle Joe. He kept an office in Inez but also carried a foot-operated dentist’s drill to house calls, and when working on a patient he’d place two straight chairs back-to-back, have his patient sit in one, put his right foot up in the other, and use his right knee as a cushion for the patient’s head as he drilled or yanked with all the skill the University of Louisville had given him between 1898 and 1902. He’d often drop by to ask my grandmother and my mother to boil his dental instruments, and on almost all these occasions he’d have a cache of pulled teeth with him, many of them, Dad swore, with more than a little gum tissue still clinging to them. I was too young to remember the teeth, although I doubt Dad and Mom would have let me look at them in the first place, but I don’t think the old fellow ever charged much.I’m pretty sure that if a man offered to pay him in whiskey, or a woman by other means of barter, it was just fine with him. I inherited a typescript collection of poems he wrote, his Scrabble board, a pack of his cards, and his dice, and I’ll always remember him by all four—plus a passel of stories.

Uncle Joe, bless his heart, undoubtedly agreed more with his fellow poet Omar Khayyam than he did either Jesus or Muhammad, but for Kelly Useem if no one else he became a Christian apologist, more than likely simply for the sake of the argument. When he wasn’t in his office or out on a call, like as not you’d find him at Kelly Useem’s store, the two quarreling over the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. And in spite of the disagreement, I suspect both combatants enjoyed the fight and either would have been disappointed if the other had given it up.

They did get into trouble together at least once, though. Drinking with Uncle Joe was always a risky proposition. One time he and another friend got drunk together and he pulled all the friend’s teeth. That strained the friendship—as well as the poor guy’s food, afterward.But it so happened when I was a small boy, and Uncle Joe was well past eighty,that Kelly Useem got hold of a large saddle of mutton and whether or not Kelly observed his religion’s ban on alcohol, both he and Uncle Joe ate themselves completely sick on mutton and Uncle Joe got dog-drunk besides. He managed to hitchhike from Inez to Williamsport, where he stumbled into the house of his youngest sister, my great-aunt Mae, and began to curse that mutton with a proficiency that rivaled his persuasive skill as a spiritual apologist to Kelly. As she’d done many times, Aunt Mae put him to bed until he sobered up. After he dried out he came to our house, from whence he visited a Paintsville physician and returned to us to take his cure. Don’t ask. It involved a lot of mineral oil, in more than one place. When I reflect on how moody my mother often was, I try to remember that it was she who had to clean up after him that time, at my grandparents’ insistence. And this was only one of his mishaps.

Uncle Joe’s and Kelly Useem’s long-gone day seems a time of innocence to us now, but it probably appears more pleasant through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia than it really was. It would be nice, though, to see those who differ religiously get along as well as those two did, perhaps over a mutton dinner—but maybe with a little moderation, and minus the whiskey.