November 29, 2016: Introducing Chuck Q. Farley

I’ve reached a milestone in my journalistic career. George Washington Harris had Sut Lovingood, Mark Twain had Mr. McWilliams, Langston Hughes had Jesse B. Simple, “Red Dog” Webster’s got Tie Rod, Jimmy Breslin has any number of people from the streets of New York City, and finally I’ve snared one myself: a valuable resource person who doesn’t mind being quoted in my column. So I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce my readers to Charles Quinlan Farley. Or Chuck Q. Farley, as he seems to prefer it for some reason.

I wouldn’t call Chuck Q. a fan so much as a worthy adversary. I like him well enough and he claims he likes me, but when I published “The Reign of King Mob” last spring he Facebook messaged me, threatening to rock my windows like Ernest T. Bass after the November election for condemning our patriotic forefathers who voted Andrew Jackson into office to set our people free. He renewed the threat after my “Pulpit Politics” series for my criticism of God’s Anointed, who he felt must never be touched. But since the election’s over, my windows are still intact, and he blocked me on Facebook, I figured I at least owed him a phone call to hear what had changed his mind. Apparently it was either the election itself, or a change of heart on his part. Or maybe both.

“Aw, Drackler,” he said, using his favorite nickname for me,“since the election turned out okay and everybody’s goin’ back to work now, you couldn’t of done no harm to it. And besides, nobody much ever reads nothin’ no way, so rockin’ your windows wouldn’t do no good. But I seen the error of my ways and got right since the last time you and me talked. So now I’m just gonna warn you about your wicked writin’ before Jesus Hisself rocks your windows for you at the Judgment, praise God!”

“Well, Mr. Farley,” I attempted to answer, “Um… would it be okay if I called you Charley?”

“No!” he snapped. “Charley Farley? That’s plumb ignorant! You persecutin’ me? I’m Chuck Q. Farley!”

“I understand, Chuck Q.,” I replied. “Just don’t ask me to repeat your name several times fast. So you say your candidate won, and now you’re going back to work?”

“Wasn’t just MY candidate, it was God’s too,” he countered. “All the preachers said so, and how could that many of ‘em be WRONG? But work… well, you see, I RESPECT work. I respect it every bit as much as I do my own dear sweet old mother. In fact, I respect both work and my mother so much that I’ve never struck either one of ‘em a lick in my entire life. But my neighbors that ain’t workin’, them that wants to work, anyhow, surely some of THEM’ll go back to work.”

“Well, Chuck Q., downstate where I work on weekends, if the new President gets his way there’ll be a lot of farm jobs open. Good hard labor too, out in the sun where you’d get lots of Vitamin D. Maybe you should ride down with me and talk to some of the farmers and get your foot in the door for early planting. Tobacco’s a nearly year-round crop. They raise horses and cattle too, and they’ll need workers.”

I could hear him snort through the phone. “FARM work? Too hard for too little! Let them people stay where they is!”

“But since your candidate won the election, and you voted for him and his program—”

“I did not!” he exclaimed. “Vote? Me? If I registered to vote I could get called up for jury duty, and I hain’t about to set on no jury, no more’n I’d join the Army!”

Then the truth came to me: he was right. With that lifelong attitude, how could he vote, sit on a jury, serve in the military,or do anything with tobacco besides smoke and chew and dip it? So I had to tip my hat to him, because he had thoroughly out-argued me. That’s when I asked him if I could use him as a resource person for my Common Tater column, and he agreed, vowing to point me back to the Strait and Narrow Path yet. He Facebook friended me again, too.For all this I thanked him.

So from now on, when I get stumped on an issue I’ll ask Chuck Q. Farley about it and share his wisdom with you. Next week I’ll tell you how I first met him. And why he calls me Drackler.

November 22, 2016: If You Don’t Talk About It… (Part Two)

Since it’s Thanksgiving week, I’ll recall a memory for which I’m thankful. Among the many gifts my father left me was a number of songs he learned in his boyhood from his maternal grandfather and uncles. I guess you could call the tunes Appalachian Folk Music, but to me in my childhood they were simply the songs Dad sometimes sang, in his memorable bass growl, when we were by ourselves. I learned the ancient Irish murder ballad “Rose Anne Lee” from him long before I ever realized that the hymn “I’m a-Gonna Die on the Battlefield” had exactly the same tune. Interestingly, that old ditty was one of the cleaner pieces in Dad’s repertoire. Another was about a man who came home one night to find a stranger’s head on his pillow, which his wife insisted was a cabbage head although the husband had never seen a cabbage with a mustache before. Then the poor soul got confused similarly about a rolling pin. And there was still another that… nope.You’ll have to wait to hear me sing it sometime in privacy. Strict privacy. I can’t even put the title in a family newspaper. Mom never could stand it, and neither can Sweet Tater. But it’s still durned funny.

I suppose you could say that our stalwart ancestors sought pleasure and amusement humbly, in a time and place that offered very little of either. But ribald music was only one evidence of their quest, and modern-day local historical investigation often finds itself checked by a heavy dose of our already cussed-and-discussed Appalachian maxim “if you don’t talk about it, it never happened.” Many of Dad’s humorous songs centered around women outwitting men sexually, but real life was very much the man’s world—and largely still is. Doing genealogical research I’ve found at least four male ancestors who hired “housekeepers” to assist ailing or invalid wives, started siring children on their new employees, and then married their “hired girls” after their wives passed away. And this all occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an era not only when people were supposed to be more godly and religious overall than they are in our own supposedly degenerate times, but when adultery was actually a legal offense, punishable by fine if not imprisonment! Add illegitimate births, shotgun weddings,sufferers from so-called “bad diseases,” and one great-great aunt, a minister’s wife, who died “trying to keep from having children” (I never dared ask what that meant), and I’ve got one interesting family tree.

Though males enjoyed their dalliances, females often didn’t have that luxury. Poor women frequently had to assume the “housekeeper” role simply to avoid starvation. One of my ancestors was the orphaned teenaged sister of the son-in-law of an old Revolutionary veteran. I suppose her brother and sister-in-law got her the caretaker’s job with the ex-militiaman, but I wonder what they must have thought over the next thirty-odd years as she bore him child after child—a couple before his wife’s death and six or eight afterward. She finally married the old soldier after their children were grown, when she was fifty and he was eighty-four. Another instance was that of a destitute widow with a baby to feed; my great-great-great grandfather gave her five more after the two moved in with him and his wife. Still one more case was a girl driven from her parents’ home for bringing the “shame” of an illegitimate grandchild on them, but who found another of my male ancestors to be more forgiving. And we can’t forget the sad plight of the first wives, who were probably in ill health and in any case were unable to oppose the new household arrangements foisted upon them by their lusty husbands. I guess they all learned to get along someway, although I can’t imagine how. And then there was my poor great-great aunt…

I can hear my mother and grandparents now: “John, must you write about this? Our people are respectable!” But any family tree has as much honor and distinction in it as dishonor, and after the latest Presidential campaign it’s become obvious that both “honor” and “dishonor” are actually pretty nebulous terms in most people’s minds. The only way we can ever really understand the present is to accept the past as it was, and that means being honest about both beauty marks and warts. It’s better to seek the truth wherever you may find it, and if a little music helps the search, just hum along with the ballad about the man who lost his… err, never mind.

November 15, 2016: If You Don’t Talk About It… (Part One)

As I’ve hinted often in this column, my favorite hobby is local historical/genealogical research. My most frequent partner-in-crime in this effort is a lovely lady to whom I’m related east-Kentucky fashion, several different ways between only a few families, from the Left Fork of Two Mile originally but now living downstate. I just got back from the County Library, having tried to run down some information for her from microfilms of our local papers about a suicide that occurred in this county eighty-nine years ago. As I might have expected, I learned nothing whatsoever from the community news media. The two issues of the newspaper immediately after the date of the tragedy contained a number of remarkable articles including one about an individual who fell from a twelve-story building in New York City, and another claiming the Garden of Eden had been in America (this was the Roaring Twenties, after all, the Reagan Era on steroids)—but left a complete blank for a fifty-eight year-old farm wife, mother, and grandmother who, in a day and age when the United States was supposed to be God’s Own Nation and Kentucky was where He was best worshiped, one early autumn morning decided that life just wasn’t worth living anymore and ended her own by drowning. And now, as with the legendary Inconnue de la Seine, we’ll never know her griefs or her motivation.

In modern Appalachia suicides are often written off conveniently and complacently as mentally ill and therefore probably not responsible for their actions, but years ago nearly everyone considered them as damned eternally. Back then too, a good many churches and ministers around here were known for a bit of self-righteous depravity called “preaching a man (or woman) into hell” at funeral services, much like the priest in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” did with Ophelia. This deplorable practice is, thankfully, almost nonexistent now—but because the Church has historically taught that suicides must either be hell-bound or unhinged, mostly the former, should this despondent grandmother’s neighbors and kin have thus consigned her very memory to oblivion too, an idea seemingly scarier to most people even than hell is, and the possible lack of an afterlife more terrifying than the possible absence of a God? All that my downstate friend and I could do was shake our heads and recall a proverb that both of us had learned almost from the time we were able to talk, and which had been repeatedly drummed (literally) into us growing up: IF YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, IT NEVER HAPPENED.

You rarely see anything written about Appalachia that isn’t nostalgic. The Good Old Days, simpler times, country living, family closeness, what not: we’ve idealized ourselves almost beyond recognition, Waltonized our culture you might even say, and outsiders have often swallowed the deception hook, line, and sinker. If you don’t believe me, read the early novels of Janice Holt Giles and then check out Diane Watkins Stuart’s biography of her to see how differently she expressed herself in private after she moved to Kentucky. I’m not saying that our culture doesn’t have qualities to admire and even emulate, but after having grown up in, out of, and then back into eastern Kentucky I know for a fact that the age-old mountain attitude of silence and cover-up for inconvenient truths as vital to a family’s or a community’s well-being isn’t one of them. It’s been used to hide sexual assaults, abuses, and scandals, depression and other mental disorders short of full-blown insanity that couldn’t be concealed, addictions, overdoses, church politics and dissensions, and a host of other things that many of us natives have at one time or another been reminded by the back of an older hand across our young mouths never to dare bring up again. And about all it’s succeeded in doing is to foster some very unhealthy coping mechanisms and a weird sense of humor in abuse survivors, which can often serve only to perpetuate the creed of mum’s-the-word. Not to mention suicides, which are swept under the rug with the same complacent attitudes and platitudes again and again. Want to see eastern Kentucky improve? How about from the ground up, forsaking all the nostalgia long enough to try to accept ourselves honestly as humans, with all of the both good and bad that the effort entails?

I’ll have something a little more upbeat in Part Two. If today’s column has made you uneasy in any way, I guess you’ll simply have to remain silent and pretend that I never wrote it. Remember: IF YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT…

November 8, 2016: The Shoulders of Giants

It’s Election Day, so let me try to be inspirational—that is to say, completely nonpolitical.

Recently a reader asked me where I came up with ideas for my column. Perhaps I did her a disservice by replying with my stock answer: “Aw, I just hear things here and there, and then it turns out I’ve been too lazy to forget ‘em.” She laughed, and the rejoinder seemed to satisfy her. Yet, even though there may be a lot of truth in the quip, I must admit that it wasn’t quite original. I cribbed it from one of my favorite newspaper columnists of years gone by, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Joe Creason, who was himself very much a Common Tater at heart if not in name.

All this leads up to a great big tip of the hat to all of the writers that inspired, and still inspire, me. One of the cardinal rules all writers know is that if you’re going to write, first you have to read, and you can’t help but be influenced by what you see and absorb. And I’ve had the good fortune to have read and studied some fine Kentucky columnists in my time, some of whom I mentioned in my first Common Tater article. Besides “Joe Creason’s Kentucky” there was Allen Trout and his “Greetings from Old Kentucky,”the Frankfort editor Samuel Craig Van Curon with “Agree or Not, I Say What I Think” (I love that title, though I observe it myself a lot more on Facebook than I do in this milieu), and John Ed Pearce, whose columns needed no titles; his name on the byline was enough. And then, of course, there’s the inimitable Red Dog, Larry Webster, who after thirty-odd years can still make almost the whole of eastern Kentucky mad—oftentimes simply because he makes them think. Plus a good many others, some of whom are still writing and whose publishers might not want their names mentioned in competing papers. Thus I know that, whatever new subjects and ideas I might introduce as the Common Tater, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

But there is one local writer whom I’ve not yet mentioned, and I should have, because of all the columnists I’ve followed I think I miss her articles the most: Billie Edyth Ward of Boons Camp in Johnson County, whose “Back Then” feature was popular reading material throughout Johnson and Martin Counties in the 1980s into the early 1990s. Miss Ward was a career elementary school teacher, but after her retirement she worked just as hard on local historical and genealogical research as she had in her classroom. Like me, she believed that genealogy wasn’t very interesting unless you had at least a few historical, human anecdotes to go along with the dry names on your pedigree chart, and in “Back Then” she spent a lot of time sharing such accounts with her eastern Kentucky neighbors. Our past as a people came alive in “Back Then,” from traditional customs of midwifing all the way to the rites associated with the burial of the dead, with a lot of strong, not always good or nice, but often amusing personalities all along the road between—to which most of we Greasy Creek descendants were kin half a dozen different ways. “Back Then,” to borrow her title, it was no different on any major watercourse in this county or most others surrounding it: only a few families settled on any of them, and after two or three generations all these clans were related from so many interweaving directions we can’t genuinely say we have family trees so much as we have family wreaths.

Miss Ward’s gone, and sadly, so are most of the living memories of “Back Then.” We live in a world now in which younger people can hardly comprehend how we ever got along without microwave ovens and smart phones, let alone mere one-, two-, and three-channel television cable services. And while we don’t, and cannot, know exactly what the future holds, I often wonder how many of the crafts and skills Miss Ward described so well in “Back Then” that future generations—and perhaps even our own—will one day have to re-learn simply in order to survive.

If this should happen, I hope we can resurrect and maintain the dry wit of Allen Trout and Joe Creason, the incisive, sardonic humor of Red Dog, and the political acumen of Samuel Craig Van Curon and John Ed Pearce too. We’ll all need to stand on the shoulders of giants then.

November 1, 2016: Shoutin’ on the Hills of Glory

Folks don’t seem to be as openly emotional in church quite the way they used to be when I was a kid. I know, the practice of “rejoicing” has always been frowned upon by many town churches and at least one country denomination I could name, but for the most part it’s been an accepted facet of religious worship around here ever since the first white settlers came in. I don’t think that the present lack’s caused by any extra or worse “sin,” as some preachers I know have been accustomed to speculate. Sin’s always been a favored hobby everywhere. The angriest sermon I ever heard preached on that particular subject came from a man who later got into trouble enough to make Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker blush—or maybe to feel sorry for him instead. Customs, habits, and fashions simply change over time, and that’s all there is to it. So as best as I can figure, the more or less fashionable method of “rejoicing” nowadays is to close your eyes, tilt your head upward, look as pious as you’re able, and wave one arm back and forth over your head—or perhaps on an extra special Sunday, both arms although I get the impression that’s a minority habit. Too many elbows can quench the Spirit, I imagine.

Even so, this whole modern demonstration can be performed quietly, without the main facet I remember from my youth: shouting. Sometimes that shouting could get loud, its accompanying physical actions could get extremely physical, and there’s a sort of hilarious charm about the old-time way of doing things that mere eye-closing, arm-waving, head-tilting, and pious expressions just can’t compete with. I more or less grew up under the preaching of Don Fraley on Boyd Branch, and when Preacher Don got excited and you happened to be sitting in or anywhere near the pulpit, you didn’t merely get your face slapped; he’d play virtual tetherball with your head or, if you happened to be like Zacchaeus, short of stature, he’d do crack-the-whip with your entire little bitty self. In spite of Preacher Don’s example, though, a younger exhorter (the same kid who wanted to sic Elisha’s bears on an older colleague for criticizing his skipping school) once tried some of the same antics on me and I must confess it didn’t work out quite so well for him. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but age hath its privileges. Youth doesn’t-eth.

Physical demonstrations weren’t limited to the preachers, of course. One old fellow I recall in particular would waltz you all the way from the back of the church to the front if he got happy enough, and one time he became so enthusiastic during a foot washing that he accidentally punched a woman right in the kidney, requiring her family to rush her from the church house to the emergency room. And this was only one of many such folks I’ve known. But the most dramatic case of this sort I ever saw was a neighbor who, for some reason, became determined to walk the backs of the pews during a shouting time. Now, if you’ve never seen that done, it’s a sight to behold, and although I never felt any urge to try it myself I imagine that any practitioner of the pew-walking art must strike some sort of balance—no pun intended—between foot coordination, hand clapping, shouting, and any other accompanying expressions of joy he or she might attempt. Thus pew-walkers were held in very high esteem in some quarters, perhaps for a similar reason I once heard a deacon admiringly describe one of his favorite preachers: “When you hear him start to cluckin’ like a hen, you know the Spirit’s just all over him.” In other words, when somebody climbed up on a pew back, you knew…well, you get the idea.

And so sure enough, one very happy Sunday night during a time of general rejoicing my old neighbor began to carry out his resolution. Climbing onto the back of the last pew on the left side of the church, he balanced precariously, then stepped to the next, then the next, and began to clap his hands above his head. His expression was rapt, as if he could see beyond the veil of this life through to the glory world, and then suddenly his feet slipped. One leg went down on one side of a pew, one on the other, the point of impact was directly in the middle…

And THEN he started shouting.Those were the days.