January 3, 2017: Im-taterment

“Chuck Q., I’m fresh out of ideas for a new column,” I said to my friend Chuck Q. Farley as we lingered at the table over coffee on New Year’s Day. Our wives evidently preferred washing the dishes to listening to us. “Can you help me?”

“Well, it bein’ New Year, what about the feller that stuck the pistol down his britches and got the trigger hung in his belt buckle?” he offered.

“That happened at midnight one New Year, sure enough, but I’m not certain I should write about it. Too much like John Bobbitt. But I guess I could use that story in another column about gun control.”

“Drackler, don’t be radical, now,” urged Chuck Q. “I’m tryin’ to cure you from writin’ stuff like that. I’ve got another idear. How about the new President’s impeachment?”

I blinked my eyes a couple of times. “What?” I asked. “Chuck Q., I thought you liked him!”

“Oh, he’ll be great!” Chuck Q. enthused. “But I seen a bunch of stuff on the Internet claimin’ he ort to be impeached, and I think he should at least try it out. Could be good for him. Can’t hurt to see if it works.”

“All right. Tell me how the new President would benefit from impeachment. This, I’ve GOT to hear,” I sighed as I pushed my glasses up on my forehead and rubbed my eyes.

“Well, it’s simple, Drackler. The man’s good, but he ain’t perfect, and you gotta admit, that orange makeup looks pretty stupid.”

“Amen to that, but how—”

“Hear me out. So, let him just TRY peach makeup on instead of orange, and he might do better. First I thought he could get some of them pretty lady cosmetic stars on the home shoppin’ networks to impeach him with it, maybe on live TV like that ‘Makeover Story’ reality show except it’ll be on prime time, and them girls bein’ experts with all colors, I’m sure they’d do a great job. There’s two troubles I see, though. One, if he’s impeached, peach makeup might make him look like he’s got the yaller janders even more than he does already with that Eau de Sunkist—”

“Oh, Lord!” I groaned.

“And second, if he’s on live TV, ‘specially prime time, he’ll have to resist the temptation to reach in and grab them cosmetic ladies by their—”

“Okay, okay, I get the point! Shh! Keep your voice down!”

“So you see, that could be a real deal breaker,” he continued, unfazed. “Then I thought: why not use MALE makeup people instead, if need be? Now, I don’t know any such men except undertakers. But I guess undertakers could work on a live person’s face just as well as one of their ordinary customers, couldn’t they?”

By now I was just rolling with the flow. “Well,” I mused, “undertakers don’t get the complaints from their ordinary customers that they would from live ones. Especially live Presidents with Twitter accounts. But since undertakers are always the very last people to let you down—yeah, why not use ‘em?”

“Glad you agree, Drackler! So I’m gonna write the new President a letter. If I mail it tomorrow it should reach him before he’s swore into office. I’ll tell him that he ort to be impeached as soon as possible, and if he can’t keep his hands to hisself, then undertakers needs to work on him!”

It took me a moment to respond to that one. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor, after all. “Chuck Q.,” I finally said slowly and carefully, “If Polly Esther’s got the good sense I remember her having when we worked together, she’ll never let you mail that letter. The Secret Service could take it as a threat against the new President’s person, or even his life! You’d make the national news, and have Men in Black all up and down the holler here! And get Twittered to death besides!”

“WHAT?” he exclaimed indignantly. “All that, just for me sharin’ my good idears with the new President? I swear, people away from here can be SO stupid about things sometimes! Well… if you think it’d put me and Polly Esther and the kids in danger from them Twitter people, I won’t do it, Drackler. But I wish I could come up with a column for you, at least.”

“Don’t worry, Chuck Q.,” I replied as I wondered if the new President would ever know, or Tweet, about my secret good-faith effort in behalf of his peace of mind—as well as that of his Twitter followers. “You have.”

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December 27, 2016: New Year’s Cabbage

Within the past three months we’ve been through three sets of quasi-religious holidays with more or less pagan origins. Corn Night and Halloween were both established Celtic traditions long before the Church declared November 1 to be All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving coincides with England’s ancient harvest celebrations, and of course Christmas was the Winter Solstice festival in many ancient cultures thousands of years earlier than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ever became associated with the date. And so now, as a sort of goodbye to 2016 and a welcome to 2017, many eastern Kentucky families will be ringing in the New Year with one more time-honored custom with origins in ancient superstition: the cooking and eating of cabbage on January 1, which is supposed to assure good luck and prosperity for an observant household in the coming year. You can use plain boiled cabbage of the type you serve up with corned beef and pinto beans, sauerkraut if you prefer it to the fresh article, cabbage rolls if you want to make it a little bit fancier, even egg rolls or kimchi if you’re into Asian cuisine; as long as some form of cabbage is in your New Year’s Day meal, good luck is supposed to be there as well.

My folks weren’t superstitious about most things, so I’m not sure why they insisted on following the cabbage tradition. Maybe the fact that their parents also observed it was enough to continue it from year to year. At least that’s Sweet Tater’s rationale for maintaining it, and I suppose it’s as good as any. For whatever reason, back when I was young it was always boiled cabbage on January 1 at my folks’, and my mother used to put a dime in the pot when she cooked it, I assume to bring extra luck to whomever found the coin on his or her plate when dinner was dished up. Dad always preferred, or at least claimed to prefer, the inclusion of a rusty horseshoe instead of a dime, but Mom never was willing to serve up a meal fortified with quite that much iron. An old horseshoe was good enough to nail up over the top door post (always with the argument, too, about whether the ends should be pointing upward to catch good luck or downward to distribute it, and whether or not the ends pointing down brought bad luck instead of good) but not for the cabbage pot.

All this leaves me wondering why we even bother with our old good-luck rituals. Are they, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet phrased it, honored more in the breach than in the observance? As long as they’re not taken too literally, they don’t do any real harm, but then again they don’t often do much good either. Maybe the traditions are worth observing simply to remember something of how our ancestors thought and acted. And there are actually a few old wives’ tales, associated with the treatment of sickness at least, that make genuine medical sense. One of these is the maxim that “scorched things heal,” and in a very real way, they do. Midwives used to scorch cloths over the fire to tie off umbilical cords and to swaddle newborn babies, without ever knowing that the real healing property of scorching was that heat sterilized the articles. Another, harking back to the idea that horseshoes bring good luck, was a remedy for iron deficiency that called for dissolving the metallic scraps or “clinkers” from a blacksmith’s forge in vinegar, and then drinking the mixture as a tonic. My grandfather Sparks, who knew his way around both a blacksmith’s shop and the motor barn of a coal mine in equal measure, used to swear by that one, and in fact it did provide a simple, homemade means for the relief of anemia long before over-the-counter vitamins had ever been dreamed up. I doubt that I’ll ever get enough courage to taste that kind of concoction myself, though. To borrow another of Granddad Sparks’ sayings, I just imagine it was sour enough to make a pig squeal.

In the end, I suppose that New Year’s luck and traditions are questions I’ll just have to take up with Chuck Q. Farley the next time I talk to him. He and Polly Esther have invited me and Sweet Tater down to eat cabbage with them on New Year’s Day, and I anticipate that we’ll have a lot to discuss and even a few things simply to cuss, or at least cuss at. So Happy New Year from our houses to yours—and enjoy your cabbage.

December 20,2016: The Days Were Accomplished

Much of my life as a hospital worker, and once upon a time as a nonsalaried country preacher trying to earn a living as a hospital worker, has involved my attempts to process and understand the things I’ve experienced—to make sense out of them as they related to my own life and to life in general. Thus, writing has become a vocation for me, and I admit that between fiction and nonfiction I’ve often had to pen some pretty dark, sordid stuff: sicknesses and deaths of children and adults both, loss of faith and hope, the disastrous, childish concept of a god who looks like a thinner, taller version of Santa Claus and behaves as if he were a superhero wearing a toga rather than tights and a cape. Write what you know, they say, and a good deal of my impetus seems always to have come from faith, doubt, rural churches, and rural hospitals in equal measure. And so for Christmas, let me share an experience much in my thoughts at this season. 

We all wondered why the girl had come to our Emergency Room so early that cold morning. Her obstetrician worked at a larger hospital several miles upriver and ours was just a little place, twenty-odd patient beds and an obstetrics department that had been closed for years. As St. Luke once phrased it, there simply wasn’t any room in the inn. 

But for whatever reason, here she was in the ER, a frightened teenaged girl along with her frightened teenaged husband. And again as St. Luke phrased it, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she was going to have that baby whether or not any of us wished that she would get an ambulance to take her somewhere else—or even wait till daylight to give birth. 

If everything hadn’t been so tense it would have been the stuff of comedy. A semi-retired gynecologist lived just up the hill from the hospital. She was roused from sleep and, luckily for the reluctant, equally rudely-awakened ER physician, proved willing to bestir herself and exercise her obstetrical skills one more time. Tools and materials packed up and gone into disuse ever since our own OB department had closed were frantically sought and finally found, amid laughter, tears, collisions, curses, and prayers of both supplication and thanksgiving. The House Supervisor barked orders in a tone that would have seemed absolutely furious if we all hadn’t known it was the result of her genuine worry for the welfare of the girl. 

And so in the wee hours of that icy morning, the baby was safely “caught.” We were all prepared for the worst: stillbirth, breach birth, apnea, placenta praevia, placental abruption, umbilical cord around the throat, spina bifida, all the horrible things we knew that could occur; but the child was as healthy as a little colt, and was kicking almost as hard. The ER looked literally as if a tornado had passed directly through it, and the young father, dazed and seemingly wobblier on his legs even than the newborn, had to beg half a dozen smiling, cooing nurses for a brief turn at holding his own baby girl. 

No one on duty that morning would have considered such a case, in the abstract, as being anything less than a nightmare come true. But in reality, that emergency delivery put every one of us in a good, even joyous, mood. 

There are a couple of stories in the Bible about shepherds and wise men journeying to a stable outside an inn to visit a newborn. I admit, I’ve seen much in my occupation that would challenge the claim that either of those tales is relevant to life as it is today. And even on the assumption, or the faith, or the trust, or the hope, or the whatever, that the stories ARE relevant, Scripture doesn’t mention a single thing about any stable hands running around to help Mary and Joseph with the baby or anything else. But a happy birth still lets me catch a tiny glimpse of the Divine and makes me want to meditate on the old stories. And I’d like to think that a few stable hands WERE there in Bethlehem to wipe the brow of another, long-ago teenaged mother sweating and crying in the cold, each angling for a chance to hold and rock the baby and smiling with joy that a new life was born into the world. The divinity of birth is one of the things that keeps us hospital folk going, after all. 

Merry Christmas.

December 13, 2016: A Modest Proposal

I’ve been hearing a lot locally since the Presidential election about flag burning. It’s certainly a hot-button issue with emotions running high on at least one side, but I can’t help being somewhat perplexed. Eastern Kentucky seems to me to be one of the least likely places in the world where one might witness the burning of an American flag. The only regional tale I’ve ever heard of such, and it’s apocryphal at best, comes from nearly one hundred years ago when a small group of Communists were supposed to have attempted a rally not long after the end of World War I at some mountain county seat or other. After the local citizens’ response to their flag fire the Communists were apparently very glad to get out of the hills with their skins. In short, even though we are now told that a certain former KGB officer is actually the United States’ bestest buddy ever, and for the time being people are apparently swallowing the notion hook, line, and sinker, flag burning is still something that just ain’t done in eastern Kentucky. For which I’m very glad. It’s not only in poor taste, it’s stupid.

But admittedly,whether it’s right or wrong,the main reason that the act is so easy to condemn around here may be that flag burners are completely safe to hate, since almost none of us have brothers or sisters or cousins or any other kinfolk guilty of the practice. I guess the religious equivalent in terms of community consensus would be something like the issues of gayness versus divorce and remarriage. Gays are decidedly in the minority and therefore currently very easy to condemn, whereas divorce has become accepted a lot like the television set once was—when enough people got one, at least within the families of ministers, the churches pretty much quit quoting Scripture about it and preaching against it. And so the flag-burning issue remains alive and agitated locally, not least because our President-elect has recently “tweeted” the proposition that flag burners ought either to lose their citizenship or be jailed—while our state’s own Senior Senator, Mitch McConnell, vocally upholds the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that flag burning is an issue of Freedom of Speech and therefore a legitimate form of political protest. I won’t attempt to step in between the two on the issue. For the President-elect’s idea to be enacted, current Federal law would have to be changed, and if you don’t like McConnell’s opinion on the matter I suggest that you vote against him next time he runs, or for that matter, vote FOR him if you agree with him. What I’d like to leave with you is the idea that there’s a much better and more legitimate form of political protest available than the incineration of the Stars and Stripes. That is, at least as long as you don’t live in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi or Louisiana.

Simply put, why burn the American flag when you can light up a Confederate battle flag instead? Though “the Stars and Bars” is widely touted as some sort of beloved historical symbol, and in fact a great many of my own ancestors no doubt felt affection for it back when they fought under it, the Confederate flag isn’t the official emblem of any legitimate nation. However much the Civil War is romanticized now, all the Secessionist banner ever really stood for was organized rebellion, spearheaded by a rich planter class leading a great many simple, well-meaning small farmers gulled by the planters’ empty promises (like my forefathers were), against the lawful government of the United States. And I suspect that, even now, the Confederate flag remains a more potent symbol of everything worthy of protest against the wrongs and injustices of the American nation than the Stars and Stripes ever could be. In the five states listed above,the burning of a Confederate flag is illegal, but even in those the anti-burn law would be even more difficult to enforce than any similar prohibition against the destruction of the Stars and Stripes. That’s not to say, though, that a Confederate flag-burner wouldn’t run the same risk in, say, a rural Georgia or Florida panhandle county seat that the Communists once did with our own hill people over our true flag.

But we’re not in those states. We’re in Kentucky, and there’s no Confederacy any more. Only the United States. May we always remember that, especially since, only four short years ago, people from many Southern states, including several thousand in this one, were actually petitioning once again to secede.

December 6, 2016: Early Times & Toenails

Last week I promised I’d tell you how I met my journalistic guide and counselor, Chuck Q. Farley. I didn’t call him by that name at first, though. We were both a lot younger then, and that night I could identify him only by his Intensive Care Unit armband, “FARLEY, CHARLES QUINLAN, ICU 812.” He was a direct admit from the Emergency Room, having been discovered passed out drunk face-down in mud somewhere and almost frozen to death, and he had more dirt in his eyes than I thought was even possible. (A note here: I got Chuck Q.’s permission to tell this, as well as that of Dr. Skinnerbach, the physician on call that night. Both agreed, Chuck Q. because his wife thought his example might do some good if made public, and Dr. Skinnerbach because he’d completely forgotten the case and was interested.) And of course I was summoned to draw blood. I introduced myself; then and for years after, I addressed Chuck Q. only as Mr. Farley, and he called me—well, never mind what he called all of us, especially the nurse trying to clean him up after Dr. Skinnerbach rinsed the dirt out of his eyes with a squirt bottle of warmed sterile saline.

“Be careful, Mr. Farley,” I whispered as the nurse momentarily left the ICU cubicle. “One time a guy in here kicked her, and she took revenge by cleaning under his toenails with the sharp point of a great big pair of scissors. Went to the quick and brought out stuff that hadn’t seen daylight in years. I watched it happen.”

He paled and curled up his toes tightly. “Thanks, buddy,” he whispered, and abruptly became all honey, pie, and charm to the returning nurse. Then he addressed me again. “You a vampire?” he chuckled.

That joke was funny the first time I heard it. Not so much the million since. “No, sir,” I replied, straight-faced, “I’m a tick, and my wife and kids are mosquitoes.” He laughed, but refused to let me draw any blood.

“Buddy, I got blood tests done just yesterday at the doctor’s, and I don’t think I need no more this soon,” he explained. That was enough for me, so I turned to leave. It was his right to refuse a venipuncture. But then the nurse tried to coax him into it.

“Hold on a minute, John,” she ordered. “Mr. Farley,” she begged, “we need to know how much alcohol you have in your blood.”

“Honey—err, Nurse, Ma’am, I don’t mean you no disrespect, but I can tell you that. They’s a fifth of Early Times in there. Or maybe Seagram’s Seven. I forget. Just leave my toenails alone, okay?” He looked at her worriedly.

“Toenails?” she asked, her eyes darting suspiciously towards me. “What about toenails?” I gave her a scatophagic grin. She glared back at me.

Dr. Skinnerbach entered the cubicle, evidently having overheard our conversation. “Mr. Farley,” he said politely, with the bare hint of German accent that still clings to his excellent English, “Besides caring for your eyes, I must know your blood alcohol level.”

“I done told her, Doc, they’s a FIFTH in there!”

“But…but…,” the good doctor sought for an explanation, “I still need to ascertain the concentration. Otherwise, if we give you anything for pain or anxiety tonight, it might knock you completely out!”

Chuck Q. looked aggrieved. “But that’s what I WANT!” he wailed plaintively. I bit my lip to suppress a smile. You have to admire honesty wherever you find it.

The nurse started to offer a comment. “Dr. Skinnerbach—” she began.

Chuck Q. did a violent double-take and stared at her in abject terror. “No, no, not that!” he howled as he sowbugged himself into a fetal position. “Go ahead, Count Drackler, draw the blood,” he sobbed,holding out one arm, “but PLEASE don’t nobody do that! Nor jam nothin’ up nowhere afterwards! And for God’s sake leave my toenails alone too!”

The nurse scowled at me again, and Dr. Skinnerbach just looked puzzled. I did manage, however, to collect a sample of Chuck Q.’s blood, and he even complimented me on my technique. After he recovered he asked the nurse out on a date, she agreed, and they wound up getting married and moving downriver a few miles. Her name’s Polly Esther, by the way, and although she never could make Chuck Q. work, she did persuade him to quit drinking and to keep his toenails nice and clean for her. Both worthy ideas, if he knows what’s good for him.

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.