from the upcoming book about Southwestern Virginia
Old Days with Old Friends
By Charlie Coleman of Abingdon, Virginia
I grew up on Belcher's Fork of Harman, in Buchanan County Virginia. In the very early years of my life, Belcher's Fork was unpaved and we lived some two miles from the Harman Elementary school, which consisted of two wooden buildings with no indoor plumbing, and heated by wood fired, pot-bellied stoves.
In my first year of school, since Belcher's Fork was unpaved, there was no school bus service. The county contracted Byrd Blankenship to transport the kids in the bed of a truck, with a canvas cover and wooden benches. On one occasion, the truck hit a pothole and a bench collapsed. Several kids, including me, suffered skinned legs and barked shins. There were no lawsuits.
In my second school year the county leased the downstairs floor of a two-story house owned by Charles Burkes, removed the partitions, and we had your typical one-room schoolhouse with seven grades, one teacher, Mrs. Hale, and the Burkes family living upstairs.
There was a hole in the ceiling of the schoolroom, which would be the floor of the upstairs living quarters. The hole was about 16 by 16 inches where a chimney had been removed. Everett Blankenship's seat was unfortunately directly under the hole. The Burkes' preschooler son Junior thought it would be amusing to drop a cat through the hole. He was right; when that cat landed on Everett's back with claws extended, it took Mrs. Hale a half hour to quieten the kids down.
By my third school year, Belcher's Fork had been paved and we had our first school bus. The twentieth century had arrived. We went back to the afore-mentioned Harman Elementary School.
Winter came and we had a pretty good snowfall, and us kids were having a wonderful time skating on the snow and ice. Unfortunately the school principal Mrs. Harman had imposed a ban on skating, partly out of fear of injury, but also the fact that the activity made the ground even more slippery.
As previously mentioned the school had no indoor plumbing and the whole school shared HIS and HERS outhouses located upon a little hill between the two school buildings. The call of nature hit my brother Johnnie, and he went up to the outhouse to answer the call. He came out and started down the snow and ice-covered bank, and the law of physics took over. He came sliding down the hill, finally busting his bottom on the ground. As luck would have it, our teacher Mrs. Baker happened to see him as he was coming down the hill and she enforced the no skating rule. We had a good time kidding him about getting his butt busted twice for the same fall. Corporal punishment was very legal and widely applied in those days. If you were on the receiving end, you would probably have called it Capital Punishment.
My second cousin and good friend Gene Owens was the source of a lot of amusement in my younger days. He had a slight speaking impediment, which made him even more amusing. One of our favorite pastimes was climbing a Golden Delicious apple tree located near his house, and gorging ourselves on the succulent fruit. About ten feet up the tree, two branches were growing straight out of the trunk about six inches apart. Gene lay down on the branches lengthwise and was very comfortably enjoying the fruit. Gene's mother came out on the porch and yelled "Carl Gene." Gene temporarily forgot where he was, and turned over to answer. He hit the ground flat on his back knocking the breath out of him for a minute. He managed to raise himself up on an elbow and answer an almost inaudible "Whut."
Another time several of us boys were playing a game called Follow the Leader, and at this point in the game, Gene was the leader. We had had a lot of rain and the creek was swollen almost to the point of overflowing its banks. It was probably five or six feet wide, and Gene had in mind to jump over it with the rest of us following. Just as he made the jump, my brother Noah gave him a slight push. Needless to say, he landed in the middle of the creek and was washed 30 or 40 feet downstream before he was able to get out.
Naturally, Gene was furious; you might say he was madder than a "wet hen" and bent on vengeance. Looking for a weapon, he picked up a wooden fence rail roughly ten feet long and went after Noah. With Gene carrying that fence rail, Noah could easily outpace him at a slow trot, so Gene was unable to catch him. Noah carefully avoided Gene for the next few days not knowing what Gene might do when he was not encumbered by such a heavy weapon. After three or four days, Gene came to me and said, "Tell Noah that I'm not mad at him anymore."
One of the very silly things we enjoyed doing in the summer was digging up a yellow jackets nest and putting it in a large tin pail. We would invert the pail on a board and punch holes for the insects to come and go. To add to our amusement, we would place kernels of corn on the top of it and wait for an unsuspecting chicken to start pecking on the can and being attacked by the bees.
One day we were digging out a particularly nasty hive and they attacked Gene with vengeance. Gene made a mad dash for a nearby water hole and jumped in. The water was only about four feet deep and there he was, just his head sticking out of the water with the yellow jackets swarming around it. The chickens would have enjoyed that sight. He kept ducking his head under water until the attack subsided. A soggy and very subdued Gene crawled out of the water and announced, "They got me on the wip."
Gene was noted for carrying a lot of junk in his pockets such as odd colored rocks, bottle caps, and crawdad pinchers. One morning while waiting for the school bus, Gene said, "I'm going to clean out my pockets." He reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful, and threw it over the bank into the weeds. As soon as the debris left his hand, he cried out, "My wunch money!" One fall morning while waiting for the school bus, he picked up about a half dozen or so wooly worms and put them in his shirt pocket. The ride to school was uneventful, but as soon as he stepped off the bus, he tripped and fell, landing, of course, on that pocket. He spent the day explaining that yucky stain on his shirt.
Our telephone system was pretty primitive by today's standards. The whole community of a dozen families or so was on a party line. It was pretty common for an inquisitive person to pick up the receiver and listen to another's conversation. My future wife Susie's father was in that category. One day my nephew Randy was talking to his girlfriend and was heard to say, "Hang up the phone Dolphus. I know it's you because you are the only neighbor with a cuckoo clock."
The coal companies had strip-mined the top of the mountain, leaving enormous depressions, which filled with water. This created swimming holes that were enjoyed by kids for a ten-mile radius. We spent many a hot summer day in the water holes, sometimes camping out overnight, and enjoying a moonlight swim.
One particularity long cold winter day along about January, another good friend Thurman Blankenship and I were suffering from "terminal cabin fever." We made a pact that we were going swimming on the first day of spring regardless of the weather. Naturally, when the Vernal equinox finally rolled around, the temperature was about thirty degrees. Thurman and I looked at each other, each hoping the other would call it off, but neither would.
So there we were, bundled up like two young arctic hunters trudging to the top of that mountain. We arrived at the water hole to find the perimeter edged with ice and an ominous fog lying on the water. Unswayed by the possibility of pneumonia, we stripped down to our Fruit of the Looms and jumped in the water. The speed by which we crossed that pond and returned to the starting point would have earned us Olympic gold medals. In case you are worried, neither of us suffered any ill effects. Ironically, Thurman and his father David died in a swimming accident, tangled in some old abandoned fishing line; Thurman was 16.
Byrd Blankenship owned the property adjoining ours and one summer he sold some timber. The neighborhood kids were very interested in the activities of the lumberjacks. It was the first time any of us had ever seen a chain saw. They used horses to pull the logs out of the forest and employed me to take the horses to a pasture when they were not using them. I enjoyed the job as well as the dollar they gave me.
One day I was taking a horse to pasture and Byrd's son Larry wanted to ride with me. We were riding bareback with me in front, Larry hanging on behind. We were on a little cattle path alongside the creek, and the edge of the trail broke off under the horse's weight. The horse stumbled and started to fall. Larry fell off and landed on his side in the nearly dry creek bed. I jumped off and landed on my feet, unfortunately one of my feet landed on the side of Larry's face. He got up and I asked if he was hurt. He worked his jaw a few times and replied, "I can still chew."