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.

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