By Robin Yocum
Skyhorse Publishing Copyright © 2012 Robin Yocum
All rights reserved.
It was never easy being the class dirty neck, the derisive term used for those of us unfortunate enough to have grown up along Red Dog Road, a dead-end strip of gravel and mud buried deep in the bowels of Appalachian Ohio. I accepted my social status early in life. After all, it doesn't take long for a kid to realize that he's the outcast. A few days in school are all it takes, really. The exclusion is obvious and painful.
My classmates didn't accept my offers to come over and play. Parents ordered their kids inside whenever I showed up in their yard. I was never invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. When party invitations were passed out in class, I pretended not to notice, or care, when the little white envelopes were placed on desks all around mine. Usually, my classmates were considerate enough to at least pretend that I didn't exist. The exception was Margaret Burrell, an invidious little brat with an untamed mane of black hair that hung around her head like a hoop skirt, a pronounced underbite, and a lisp, who in the second grade waved a handful of invitations in front of my face and said, "I'm having a theventh birthday party, Jimmy Lee, and we're gonna have ithe cream, and cake, and gameths, and pony rideths, and you ... ain't ... invited." She shoved her nose in the air, spun on a heel and strode off, confident in her superiority. It was not unusual treatment. When I was paired with someone for a science project or square dancing in gym class, they would shy away, trying to create distance between us, as though the mere touch of my skin might cause the onset of poverty and body odor.
In our society, you can no longer ostracize the black kid, or the fat kid, or the mentally retarded kid, but in Vinton County, it is still perfectly acceptable to ostracize the ones who are poor, white, and dirty. That was me. Like my brothers, who walked out of Red Dog Hollow before me, I quietly accepted my role as class dirty neck with no small amount of anger and frustration.
When you are the outcast — white trash — your mistakes are more pronounced and open to ridicule. Or, worse — laughter. Such was the case with the erection I threw every morning in Miss Singletary's first-period, junior English class.
This cyclical eruption was purely the product of adolescent, hormonal rampages that I was no more able to control than man can control the tides. I would think about dinosaurs or football, envision myself as a tortured prisoner of war, or review multiplication tables in my head. Nothing worked. Every day, precisely at eight forty-five, exploding like a damn party favor in my shorts, I sprouted a pulsating erection that stretched the crotch of my denims and left me mortified.
Across the aisle, Lindsey Morgan would stare at my lap with rapt attention, as though it were the season finale of her favorite television show. If I looked her way, she would avert her eyes and choke back laugher. Occasionally, if my erection was especially pronounced, she would tap the shoulder of Abigail Winsetter, who would pretend to drop a pencil to steal a glance at my crotch before bursting into uncontrollable giggles.
"Something you would like to share with the rest of the class, Miss Winsetter?" Miss Singletary would ask on each such occasion.
"No, ma'am, sorry," she would eke out, her face turning crimson and the vein in her temple pulsing like a freeway warning light as she vainly fought off the laughter.
I failed two six-week periods of junior English primarily because it is impossible for a seventeen-year-old to focus during such eruptions. When the bell rang at nine-thirty, I would get up holding a notebook over the protrusion and make three quick laps up the stairs, through the second-floor corridor, and back down, working off the erection before American history.
I knew, of course, that Lindsey was telling all her friends about my problem and they were having a grand laugh at my expense. It was just one more thing that Lindsey and her clique of uppity friends had to laugh about. Even by the modest standards of Vinton County, Lindsey's family had money. She also had friends and nice clothes, a smooth complexion, and straight teeth. My family had no money, and I had none of the accoutrements. This made me a pariah in her eyes. It wasn't that Lindsey was openly mean to me. It was simply the way she looked at me, as though my presence in her world was merely for her amusement.
Lindsey's father owned the Vinton Timber Company, a sawmill where my dad worked as a chain offbearer. By all accounts, Mr. Morgan was a benevolent man and a good employer. My dad was a perpetually unhappy soul with the disposition of a chained dog, and there wasn't much about life that suited him, particularly his job at the sawmill and Mr. Morgan. During his many drunken tirades at the Double Eagle Bar — a redneck place where the toilets never worked and pool cues were more often used as weapons than instruments of sport — my dad called Mr. Morgan everything but a white man and told anyone who would listen that Mr. Morgan locked the door to his office every afternoon and got head from his secretary, a plump divorcee named Nettie McCoy, who had hair the color of a pumpkin and a mole the size of a dime above one corner of her mouth. I don't know if the story was true or not, but I desperately wanted to repeat it to Lindsey just to see her get hurt, but I never did.
My name is James Leland Hickam, and I was born with a surname that was synonymous for trouble throughout southeastern Ohio. I hail from a heathen mix of thieves, moonshiners, drunkards, and general anti-socials that for decades have clung to both the hard-scrabble hills and the iron bars of every jail cell in the region. My ancestors came to this country from Wales in the 1880s and into Ohio from Kentucky just after the turn of the century. I am not privy to why they emigrated from England or migrated from Kentucky, but given the particular pride Hickam males take in their ornery nature, I can only imagine that my kin crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River just slightly ahead of angry, torch-carrying mobs.
My namesake and grandfather was an expert car thief and career moonshiner who died in prison when I was in elementary school and of whom I have only a faint memory. He had a thicket of gray chest hair that sprouted over the top of his T-shirt, walked on the cuffs of his pants, and smelled of liquor and dirt and testosterone. Years before my birth, he lost an eye in a still explosion and wore a black patch over the empty socket. When my mother wasn't around, he would flip the patch upward and treat me to a peek at the void, which was rank and dark and sunken, rimmed with a yellow, pustulant discharge that both repulsed and intrigued me to where I never passed up the opportunity to look.
I was barely six years old the day the sheriff's deputies and agents from the state department of liquor control led my grandfather away in handcuffs. He had spent the morning at his still, which was tucked into a ravine and hidden deep in the woods behind our home. I was playing in a dirt patch near the porch when I heard the clinking of glass and looked up to see him walking out of the tree line pushing an old wheelbarrow that he had lined with a quilt and loaded full of quart canning jars of moonshine. That's when an armada of sheriff's cars charged up our hillside and liquor-control agents swarmed out of the weeds, materializing like locusts on the wind. The wheelbarrow tipped and quart jars exploded on the craggy hillside as Grandpa Hickam turned and made a futile attempt to escape. He had taken only about four steps before he was tackled and mauled by a half-dozen law officers. As they led him to a waiting cruiser, his pants falling down to mid crotch, Grandpa's eye patch dangled like a necklace and a trickle of blood ran down his forehead, snaked around the open socket and disappeared into a three-day growth of beard. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.
In the years to follow, none of the Hickam males fared much better than my grandpa. My dad was a wiry, banty rooster of a man who never in his life walked away or backed down from a fight. While he delivered plenty of beatings, he earned as many in return, evidenced by a needle nose that pointed off toward Cincinnati and a patchwork of white scars that danced across his jaw. Nick Hickam liked to drink, shoot off his mouth, and attempt to prove his worth as a man by picking fights with men twice his size, usually with predictable results. Every deputy and police officer in Vinton County knew my dad and had laced him upside the head with a blackjack at least once. He had more public intoxication and disorderly conduct arrests than anyone in the county, and Nick Hickam was never one to go peaceably.
My oldest brother Edgel was eleven years my senior and serving a stretch in the Mansfield State Reformatory after being convicted of burglary and arson. The middle boy, Virgil, who was four years younger than Edgel, shared my father's penchant for alcohol and worked for Barker Brothers & Sons Amusements, traveling the South and Midwest setting up and tearing down rides at street festivals and county fairs. My male role models consisted of a moonshiner, a belligerent drunk, a convict, and a carnie. I also had an assortment of ne'er-do-well uncles and cousins occupying prisons and halfway houses around the state. These were the Hickams of Vinton County, Ohio.
Physically, I took after my mother, a squat, thick-chested woman of Dutch descent who worked the breakfast and lunch shifts at Hap's Truck Stop on U.S. 50 near Prattsville and whom everyone knew as Sis, though her real name was Mildred. Mom was no stranger to hard work, having grown up working on her family dirt farm in Scioto County. She had strong forearms and a pair of thick hands that could hold four breakfast platters at once. Two afternoons a week she drove over to the county seat of McArthur and cleaned houses for a couple of elderly women who couldn't get around very well and the wife of a county commissioner who claimed to be allergic to dust, though Mom said the only thing she was allergic to was work. I think Mom knew she made a mistake of titanic proportions when she married in with the Hickams, but she seemed resigned to her fate. Mom had a pretty face, eyes the color of a Carolina sky, and a sweet temperament, and when a trucker who had taken a shining to her asked why she stayed with a man who liked to drink and brawl and occasionally rake the side of her face with a backhand, she shrugged and said, "I'll be the first to admit that being married to Nick Hickam is not all sunshine and kittens, but when he's not in jail he goes to work regular, and that's more than you can say about a lot of the men who live on Red Dog Road."
Red Dog Road followed Salt Lick Creek for a half mile into the hills until it buried itself into the township dump, which was nothing more than a gash of scarred earth left behind by a long-forgotten strip mining company. There was no trash pickup for much of Vinton County and thus there was a constant parade of pickup trucks kicking up dust and heading past our place to dump trash and dead appliances and motor oil and God-only-knows-what-else into a rat-infested pit that reeked on hot days and was surely leaching chemicals into our wells. Before he went off to prison, Edgel took great sport in going out to the dump to shoot rats with Dad's .22-caliber rifle, usually to the great annoyance of Chic McDonald, who scavenged the dump for scrap metal and still-good items that he could drag back to his perpetual yard sale.
The houses that lined Red Dog Road were paint-starved and frail, looking as though a strong wind would splinter them across the hillside. More often than not, the roofs were corrugated steel and turned into sieves during a heavy rain. Wringer washers stood by the front doors, outhouses were not uncommon, and running water came from wells laden with iron oxide that stained sinks and tubs and toilet bowls a bright orange. Children, barefoot and dirty, played with mangy dogs in dusty yards strewn with trash and rusting cars.
Beauty was rarely a part of my youth. The exception was the visits to my grandfather Joachim's farm in Scioto County. Papaw Joachim died when I was in the fourth grade, and when he was breathing, like almost everyone else in Appalachian Ohio, he didn't get along with my father, so my trips to the farm were few. But the beauty remains engrained in my memory. It was a magnificent piece of land that ran from a bluff nearly to the Ohio River, where the morning fog rolled off the shoals and snaked around the tobacco plants on its uphill creep toward the white farmhouse, which stood in stark contrast to the dense green of its surroundings. The Silver Queen corn he raised was so nourished by the unctuous soil that it towered along his lane and created a cavern of green that by the end of July could only be penetrated by the noonday sun. The stone outcroppings in the pasture above his home stretched into a plateau lush with trees and full of deer and rabbits. It was like much of southern Ohio in its beauty. There was, of course, the exception to this natural splendor, such as the godforsaken stretch of Vinton County land on which we lived.
Our house was built into a steep, rutted slope on the tallest hill lining Red Dog Road on land so rocky and thin with soil that honey locust trees and foxtails struggled for footing, and copperheads sunned themselves on the exposed stone. The hills were once like those in Scioto County, lush with dense groves of oak, shagbark hickory, buckeye, eastern cottonwood, black walnut, and beech trees. But in the 1920s, the hills along Red Dog Road were timbered out, the tree trunks cut to ground level. The erosion that followed swept away the topsoil and left precipitous, moonscape slopes of rock and clay. The sun baked the surface and created dust as fine as talcum powder that swirled in the slightest breeze, often creating mini twisters that skittered over the rocks and covered your teeth and nostrils with a fine, brown film.
A quarter mile beneath our house stretched the abandoned Hudson Mining Company's No. 2 mine. It had been more than three decades since the mine closed, yet its spider web of shafts continued to collapse upon themselves with such force that our windows and water pipes rattled with each implosion. The natural resources above and below the ground had been stripped away, and it was unsuitable for farming. It was worthless, and thus the only property my family could afford. In 1961, my dad paid twenty-three hundred dollars for the dilapidated mining company house — a two-story, brown, asphalt-shingled home with a metal roof and a slight list to the west. The window trim and porch were painted an industrial gray, which blistered and shed with each passing summer until it had the parched feel of driftwood. The wooden gutters were full of dirt and maple saplings sprouted from them each spring, sometimes growing nearly a foot high before performing a death bow when the gutter could no long support the roots.
The only access to our house was a dirt drive gouged by years of runoffs that made a treacherous descent from below our front porch to Red Dog Road. The rusting corpses of every two hundred dollar car my dad had bought in the previous fourteen years lined the drive; saplings and thistles pushed up through engine blocks, and vacated trunks provided refuge for families of raccoons and possums. Each year, the junkyard grew and the drive became steeper and more dangerous as the spring rains washed away another layer of clay, pushing stones and mud flows across Red Dog Road and into the Salt Lick Creek.
Across Red Dog Road from our house was the man-made mountain of red dog — a "gob pile," in miner parlance — from which our road got its name. For dozens of years, before going out of business in the early sixties, the Hudson Mining Company dumped its red dog on the marshy plains that served as the headwaters of Salt Lick Creek. Long before I was born, Salt Lick Creek was a cool, clear-running stream that made a shaded trek through a canopy of poplars, oaks, and weeping willows. Trout and crawfish and freshwater clams thrived in waters that traversed eastern Vinton and Athens counties, emptying into the Hocking River two miles north of its confluence with the Ohio. The gob piles were full of sulfuric acid and eroded iron. As rain water seeped through the red dog, it collected its contents and carried them to the Salt Lick Creek, turning the pristine stream into an ecological nightmare. The runoff from the mountain of red dog caused the stream's waters to run orange, killing off the fish and plants. The massive roots of the willows drank in the poison and slumped into the waters. The mud flats and stones and tree trunks near the waters all became stained in dirty, muted orange. As a young boy, I watched dump trucks haul loads of smoldering ash up the hill. When they dumped the still-hot loads, plumes of white smoke seeped out of the hill, giving it the ominous look of a volcano primed to erupt. Even so, local boys still took sheets of cardboard or food trays and slid down its slopes of red dog like volcanic bobsledders, sucking red dust into their lungs and leaving their teeth covered with a powdery, red scum. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Essay by Robin Yocum. Copyright © 2012 Robin Yocum. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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