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The Last Soul of Witherspoon
Life in a Kentucky Mountain Settlement School
By Alex Browning
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 Alex Browning
All rights reserved.
The Trip from Hope Road
A brilliant sheen of anticipation blanketed Hope Road on an already bright day in May, 1952, when Preacher McClure, our mission pastor from Booneville, Kentucky pulled up at our house on the head of the holler on Long Shoal in his heavy duty station wagon.
Of our location, my father often said, "Boys, this is it. We'll be all right here."
In making this statement, Dad had to be uttering more of a prayer than dealing with reality; for to my knowledge, no one has ever prospered from living at the head of our holler. What my father meant was that this could be our last stand. He had already spent most of the money he had saved from working at the Kings Powder Company in Ohio during World War II, where the work was so dangerous those employed there were not sent to fight at the front. In fact, my earliest memories as a child are of standing in front of a window in our living room every day worrying whether Dad would come home and adding to my mother's concerns by saying, "I hope he doesn't get 'bwode up'." Once there was an explosion at the plant that blew out the windows of houses in South Lebanon, which was located five miles from the powder mill. Imagine our anxiety that day.
Although he was not saying it, my father was making note that our house was as far as anyone could go up the holler. Behind us was a mountain, and there was a mountain on each of our sides. The road to our house was mostly on creek bed, which meant when the water was high we could only get out by riding a horse or walking over the hill. And sometimes the creeks did rise. Once when Dad came home from "Court Day" where he had been trading horses, he brought home a clear light fool of an unbroken horse. Somehow the horse was accidentally startled which caused him to break free from where he had been tied. When we tried to catch him, he ran right by us and straight into the raging creek. That horse has never been seen again. With further regard to what my father said, had anyone actually tried to find us, it is for sure no one could have done so by any road signs; for there were none. The road did not get its name Hope until fifty years later. I am sure my uncle Ben was being sarcastic and not idyllic when he named it.
Preacher McClure, however, knew where we lived and how to get there. And he had business on this day; for he was to take me to visit Buckhorn, about twenty-five miles away—to visit the school. If things worked out, he was also going to help me make arrangements to attend boarding school there for my high school education. Prior to this trip to Buckhorn, one of the biggest thrills of my life was to play in a softball game Preacher McClure had arranged between some of us on Long Shoal and players from Cow Creek, which was another mission church under his care as a Presbyterian minister. The game had to be scheduled at Cow Creek because where we lived there was not enough level ground for a playing field. Nor did we have bats or balls. Mr. McClure did not feel sticks and gum balls, our usual equipment, were suitable for this big time event; so he got the real stuff from somewhere. When the game ended, the final score was something like 15-2 in favor of the home team. Those of us who played still felt like winners for just getting to make the trip. We had traveled probably fifteen miles to get to the Cow Creek ball field; by far the longest most of us had been away from our homes at the time. At least it certainly was for me. Since my family had moved back to Kentucky from Ohio when I was nine years old, I had never been out of the Long Shoal Holler except to trek across the hill to Coal Branch where my Granny Bowman lived.
To be totally accurate, there was one other exception: each year all Long Shoal school children and their parents boarded a flat-bed truck for the trip to Beattyville to attend the Lee County Fair. Lizzie Fox, who believed it was sinful to not have her hair covered, suffered months of remorse following one of those trips because the wind blew her hat off and away. At Beattyville, we joined schools from all the outlying communities to march up Main Street. At the end of the march, we competed in foot races, broad and high jump, and in reading and arithmetic. One year when I did not have money for the carnival rides, I sold the ribbons I had won in the contests to one of the carnival vendors. Almost immediately when I got on the Tilt-A-Whirl, the speed of the turns threw my money out of my hand to be found no more. That annual trip had been both exciting and disappointing for me, but it was nothing compared to the nervousness I felt about the trip I was to make this day.
As a faithful follower of Preacher McClure, I had great admiration for him. But he was in many ways prone to fantastic thinking. Sometimes his ideas could be a marvel. Once, for example, in conceiving perhaps his grandest scheme, he asked members of his congregation in Booneville to bring rocks from their fields and place them in a pile at the church. For weeks then, in addition to and sometimes instead of tithing, those attending church also brought as many rocks as they could carry. When the pile of rocks reached the prescribed amount, they were used to construct a new church that stands even today as a monument to all these efforts. This plan of Preacher helped to clear fields for plowing, and additionally resulted in a building that turned out to be architecturally unique.
Other plans of Preacher McClure did not always turn out so well. One year he announced to our congregation that he was going to bring in a battery-powered movie projector to show the film King of Kings. Since there was no electricity up our way, this would be the first time many local citizens had ever seen a moving picture show. Word spread like a sage grass fire for this amazing event; and for the service the next week everybody for miles around showed up to witness their first movie.
Granny Bowman, though, was a hold-out. She felt pictures of religious figures like Jesus were idolatrous. The only picture of Christ she ever allowed in her house was a free art print she got from me when I sold her a can of Cloverine salve for twenty-five cents. I earned enough money from this work to surprise her with a New Testament in large print. Using my best sales closing techniques, I persuaded Granny that she benefited in three ways: she got a can of good salve; a beautiful art print suitable for framing; and the book she loved to read and now could without eye strain. She bought my pitch and the salve and hung the picture on her living room wall, along with the one she had of her whole family. The photograph included her, my grandfather who died before I was born, and their eleven living children. As it turned out, Granny and I were both fooled by that art print. It was a picture of Jesus with a heart on his chest. We did not know it, but art of such sort is related to the Roman Catholic faith, a religion my Granny would never have approved, although we knew practically nothing about it. Our objection would have been having priests as intermediaries to God. Granny needed no intercessor; she had her own direct line to the Almighty.
As it turned out, Granny's refusal to go to church that day did not make any difference. Preacher McClure forgot to bring the batteries for the projector. He apologized, rescheduled the event, and proceeded to deliver a substitute sermon for which he was poorly prepared, a rather common occurrence, I am sad to say. Presbyterians firmly advocate the scripture verse of Matthew 6, which says "When you pray, go into your room; and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you openly." Many of Mr. McClure's sermons might better have been delivered in that same room.
On the re-scheduled date, Preacher McClure did remember to bring the batteries. But because many sinners up our way evidently had too little faith, attendance was much lower. If Heaven holds us accountable for sins of omission, surely Preacher McClure's forgetfulness that day cost him many converts. Those who did not return for the next opportunity to see the movie probably have since suffered the fate of eternal damnation for not for converting—except for Granny, who I am sure was already "saved."
Martha Gabbard, a lady who lived over the hill from my family, kept the Long Shoal Church together on Sundays when Preacher McClure could not get there because of bad roads. Martha was familiar with both Buckhorn and Berea College where she herself had gone to school, and she had encouraged me to go to one of them. Knowing of no other schools myself, I was easily sold on her suggestion.
There had been one other opportunity a year or so earlier. Miss Violet Siebert, a summer volunteer to our church from Princeton University, had offered to adopt me when I was ten. She proposed to take me back with her to New Jersey. My parents, after listening to me go on for days about how this would help me get good schooling, finally left the decision to me. My mother suspected that when the time came for me to actually face leaving home, I might not be so eager to pack my bags. Her patience was rewarded. I told everybody I felt too responsible to my sister Mary Alice, six years younger than I, to take Miss Siebert up on her offer. In reality, I probably would have cashed Mary in for a dime. I had already exposed my true feelings when I was taken to the hospital to see her in the nursery. (She was the only child in our family not delivered at home and the only one to have a real birth certificate.) My parents, being somewhat egocentric and proud of their new addition to the family, were sure I would make the right choice; so they let me select any baby I wanted in the nursery to bring home. I complained all the way back to our house because I did not want the red head, my sister, but wanted instead the baby with the full head of black hair. Even today I am not totally sold on all the virtues pointed out to me for selecting Mary, but that road not taken with regard to going to Princeton narrowed my choices to either Buckhorn or Berea.
Martha had a lot of community power because she was the person in touch with the Maysville Presbyterian Church. For those who attended Sunday school faithfully during the year, Martha sent their names to Maysville; and parishioners there rewarded them with a gift at Christmas by drawing their names in a lottery. For most of us, this present was our biggest and best gift for Christmas. All year long, we prayed, in our secret rooms, that a rich family would draw our names in the lottery. Martha communicated with Miss Mary Wilson in Maysville about the drawing. Miss Mary knew the resources of those in her own church, and we felt she likely could be influential as to which gift providers drew our names. We were motivated not only to attend Sunday school, but also to be judged by Martha as the best behaved child up the holler. (I think Miss Mary blew it one year, however, when my present consisted only of a bag of used marbles. Afterwards, I prayed all year long for God to forgive me for whatever it was I had done wrong.) We all prayed that Martha would put in a good word for us. Although attendance might be a little spotty at other times of the year, one could be sure that the house overflowed on the Sundays nearing the Christmas season. To quote my Aunt Margaret, we all stared as if we had peas in our eyes when Martha's husband Dewey pulled up in his sled filled with Maysville gifts.
One year in particular I was specially rewarded. When I opened my gift, inside the package was a View Master. My excitement was little flattened, however, when I showed my gift to Granny. As she looked through the stereo-optic lenses and saw actors in costume, she kept muttering, "Just sinful!" Granny continued to look at all of the stories, however; and once or twice when I had been outside and came back inside from the cold, I found her going through all the pictures again. I figured Granny was looking for more evidence to convict the actors and sentence them to hell. Granny was an absolute expert in judging; and to her credit, she always stood by her rulings. Once she berated her niece Hazel Combs for hanging out discolored towels on the fence to dry. Granny's own towels were hospital white because she boiled them in clean well water before she scrubbed them with home-made lye-soap on her washboard. When word got back to Hazel that Granny had condemned her for this, she asked Granny about it. "Well, I sure said it," Granny told her. That ended the conversation, but it did not end Hazel's frequent visits to borrow salt or something else she might be out of on any particular day.
Martha had even more status on Long Shoal because her son Russell was also my fifth-grade teacher. Perhaps more to make his own life easier than due to meeting the needs of the exceptional talent facing him in the classroom, Mr. Gabbard decided to double promote three of us from the fifth grade to the sixth grade. He did not double promote Vina Stacy because when he sent her to the chalk board to solve some arithmetic problems, Mr. Gabbard's required examination for advancement, Vina could not carry across place value columns. Vina felt the examination was biased and staged a protest by refusing to come to school any more that year. (She also had not attended much before the test.) Either way, Mr. Gabbard was relieved of preparing any lessons for fifth-graders that year.
Mr. Gabbard's teaching did not exactly inspire, but it did provoke. One day in history class, he kept referring to the "Decoration of Independence."
"That cannot be right!" I exclaimed in my best legal terms, "That word clearly has an 'l' in it."
"If you are right, then how would you pronounce it?" Mr. Gabbard asked.
Well, I had not counted on this. But to support my argument, I proceeded to incorrectly attack the word phonetically. I slowly pronounced the word "Dee ... clare ... a ... shun."
Believe it or not, Mr. Gabbard accepted my version; and all day long all of us referred to the famous document as such.
When I shared this incident with Granny in the evening, she immediately set me straight. She also questioned Mr. Gabbard's credentials for being in the classroom and almost for even being in the world. Granny, more often than not, was generally right about things; but she was a little quick in her judgments in my opinion. On this one, even though she might be right, there was no way I was going to let Mr. Gabbard know of her opinion. That Christmas gift meant too much for me to cross him or his mother. So our sixth grade class, including the advanced pupils, continued through the whole history unit with no correction of the pronunciation for the "Dee ... clare ... a ... shun" of Independence.
The real reason for me easily to agree to Martha's suggestion to look into Buckhorn and Berea was my going to Lee County High School would hardly have been possible. A few others had done it, but none in the last seven years. For me to do so would have meant leaving home each morning at about 4:00 A.M., walking several miles to catch the bus, and then not getting back home until 7:00 P.M. in the evening—far too late for getting in wood for the fire and water from the spring. A boarding school made a lot more sense. I was twelve years old at the time and in the eighth grade thanks to my double promotion. For those of us finishing the eighth grade that meant four of the five of us in class were saying goodbye to formal education of any kind. This level after all was considered to be enough book learning for most people in our area. By this age it was considered more important to get on with work to support the family than involve oneself with useless, formal education.
My parents, however, supported my going on to school. I think my father was actually secretly proud of me. From his perspective, he likely also felt I would not be much good for anything else. To him, it might also have been an easier resolution to a bigger problem between us. My father was a good man, an honest man except when horse-trading, and a very hard-working man. He had two major character flaws, one not of his making but from his own fate of having been a physically abused child; and the other from something only he could have done anything about: alcohol. When he got drunk, which was periodic, the alcohol often did not mix with his childhood abuse. I have seen him kill cats, dogs, and even a mule while in his delirious state. While doing so, he cursed his phantom father. He shot my mother in the face as a follow-up to the celebration of World War II, which brought a new meaning to me to the expression of "All wars are local." And once on an occasion when I asked him for twenty cents to get vinegar for my mother to make pickles, he responded angrily by beating the celebration of World War II, which brought a new meaning to me to the expression of "All wars are local." And once on an occasion when I asked him for twenty cents to get vinegar for my mother to make pickles, he responded angrily by beating me with a mop—just for asking. He then followed that up by taking a shot at me with the old sixteen gage shotgun. I escaped by slithering along the creek bed on my stomach. I left home for a long time after that to live with Granny, where I knew he would never show up drunk. Granny had that kind of respect, even from Irish drunkards
Excerpted from The Last Soul of Witherspoon by Alex Browning. Copyright © 2013 by Alex Browning. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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