From the book about Southern West Virginia, Company Script Cards and Battery Radios

Experiments in Science

Submitted by Roy P. Hendrix of Beckley, WV

Born 1939


      I was born in 1939 in a small house on Devil’s Fork Creek at Amigo, West Virginia. Our house was located about two and a half miles from the intersection of West Virginia Route 16 and Amigo-Egeria Road. The road was at the front of the house, and Devil’s Fork Creek ran through the backyard. We had a footbridge across the creek, and our water came from a spring that was across the creek and downstream from the house.

      My father worked for the coalmines at Tams. My father was a truck driver. He drove a truck and hauled the slate that was removed from the coal to a slate dump that was near the mine site.

      There were no electric or telephone lines available to our house, so we cooked and heated with coal or wood in a kitchen cook stove and a Warm Morning stove in the living room. We had a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. We used kerosene lamps for light. Our toilet was an outside pit toilet, and we bathed in the kitchen in a round galvanized number two-sized tub.

      We lived on a rented farm of about two acres. We had a cow, chickens, a garden, and raised pigs for meat. Our chickens were kept in a chicken coop. It was a small wooden building with boxes full of hay for the hens to lay their eggs in. My mother would send me with a bucket to gather the eggs. I always tried to do that chore when the chickens were outside eating. I was scared to go inside for the eggs when the big red rooster was in the coop. He didn’t like me. He really absolutely didn’t like me. If he was inside the coop, he would attack me as soon as I stepped inside the door. He would fly up in my face, squawking, flapping his wings on the side of my head, and scratching my face with his feet. It finally got so bad that my father decided to fix the problem. He caught the rooster and had me hold him with his neck over the chopping block, and he chopped his head off with an axe. Then we plucked his feathers, and my mom cooked him for dinner. We got another rooster, and that one actually liked me.

      The Warm Morning heating stove had a base with a leg at each corner that supported the stove. There was a gap of approximately five inches between the bottom of the stove and the floor. In 1942, my younger brother, about one year old, was crawling around on the floor. Something he was playing with rolled under the heating stove. He stuck his head under the stove so he could reach his toy, and his head became stuck. Try as she would, my mother couldn’t extract his head from under the stove. He became stuck about mid-afternoon and had to lie there like that until my father came home from work at about six o’clock that evening. My father was strong enough to tilt the stove and allow my mother to get my brother’s head out from under the stove.

      When I was four years old, one of our neighbors came to our house when he was so intoxicated that he could barely stand up. He was standing in the yard, and my mother and I were on the front porch. That made the top of his head about even with mine. He wouldn’t stop pestering my mother, trying to coax her into having sex with him and calling her names. I told him, “Mister, you’d better leave my mother alone!” He said, “Little man, why don’t you make me?” I hit him in his left eye as hard as I could. He staggered back and said, “Ouch! That hurt!” and left. The next day, he came back when he was sober. His left eye was black! He apologized to my mom, and then he said, “Little man, you pack quite a punch!”

      I started school in 1944 when I was five years old. The school was a one room building in the town of Amigo. I had to ride the “bus” to school. The bus was a pickup truck with a wooden cover built on the bed of the truck. There was a bench down each side of the bed where students sat during their ride to and from school. There was no heat in that covered area.

      My main memory of that school involved a recess during the fall of 1944. I had run and played during the entire recess. As we lined up to return to the classroom, I grabbed the dipper and dipped a swallow of water from the bucket to quench my thirst. Just as I swallowed the water, one of the teachers hit me on my butt with a piece of wire cable and said, “No drinking while you are in line.” I hadn’t been told about that rule, and I was very upset. Not only did the wire cable leave a big welt, I was extremely embarrassed, because I tried very hard to be mannerly and obedient.

      During that winter, I developed pneumonia. My recovery was slow, and I missed six weeks of school. Even though I passed all my subjects, I had to repeat the first grade because of the time I missed.

      Another memory of 1945 during my recovery from pneumonia was seeing an Army vehicle coming up the road toward our house. My mother started crying when she saw the vehicle. When they turned off the road into our driveway, my mother collapsed on the sofa, sobbing uncontrollably. Two men in military uniforms got out of the vehicle. I answered the door when they knocked, and they came in and introduced themselves. Then they told my mother that her youngest brother had been killed in action in Germany. They stayed with my mother until she stopped crying enough to be able to care for me and my brothers again.

      In the early summer of 1945, when I was six years old, my mother had me watch my two younger brothers while she was doing laundry. Doing laundry consisted of bringing water in the house from the creek, heating it on the cooking stove, and then fixing wash water in one galvanized tub and rinse water in another tub. The clothes were washed by sloshing them in soapy water, and then rubbing them on a ribbed board called a washboard. When they were clean, they were rinsed in the other tub of water. Then they had to be wrung out by hand and hung on a clothesline to dry. My mother was hanging a load of clothes to dry, and I was playing with my younger brothers when suddenly the youngest one, who was two years old, got too close to the creek bank and fell into the creek. He fell into a pool of water that was about five feet deep. I screamed for my mother and at the same time our dog, Dan, jumped into the water and grabbed my brother’s shirt. He started swimming toward the side of the creek, pulling my brother with him. My mother and I ran down to the edge of the creek and pulled my brother to safety. I will never forget that dog’s quick action and bravery. I am fairly certain his quick action kept my brother from drowning.

      Late in the summer of 1945, we moved from the farm at Amigo to the coal camp at Tams. The house at Tams had electricity and running water. We still had an outside pit toilet and still had to take our baths in the kitchen in the round galvanized number two tub.

      Sometime during that summer of 1945, my father taught me to make a “carbide cannon.” The early miners used carbide lamps that produced light by burning a gas generated in the base of the lamp. The gas was generated by dripping water from a reservoir on top of the lamp onto granules of a chemical called carbide. Carbide was cheap and plentiful. The carbide cannon was made by using a nail to punch a hole in the bottom of a cocoa or similar metal can, dropping a few granules of carbide in the can, spitting on the carbide, and then putting the cap tightly on the can. Then you would place the can on its side with the top angled up and the nail hole in the bottom accessible, strike a match and hold it to the nail hole, and BOOM!, the lid would fly out about twenty to thirty yards. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that the chemical reaction of water on carbide produced acetylene gas, the same gas that is used for welding.

      We stayed in Tams until the fall of 1951. Six weeks into my seventh grade class, we moved to Hines in Greenbrier County, and I enrolled in Rupert High School. During my senior year, one of my favorite classes was chemistry. I had a free period, and the Chemistry teacher, Cleo Walkup, would let me and one of my classmates work on experiments in the school lab. We had learned how to make black powder, and my classmate and I decide to make a firecracker. We rolled some of our black powder in newspaper and then lit the end of the newspaper. We expected the newspaper to burn up to the powder, which we expected to explode like a firecracker. However, the flame appeared to have gone out. At that time, a chemical called carbon tetra-chloride was used in fire extinguishers. We didn’t have a fire extinguisher in the lab, but we did have a chemical called carbon bisulfide. We had learned that carbon bisulfide would dissolve the metal white phosphors. You could then pour the solution on a surface, and the carbon bisulfide would evaporate. When white phosphorus is exposed to air, it will ignite.

      My friend and I decided that the carbon bisulfide solution would extinguish any remaining spark, and the remaining white phosphorus would rekindle the fire after we were a safe distance away. We dissolved some white phosphorus in a beaker full of carbon bisulfide, and I poured some of the end of our firecracker. As soon as I started pouring the liquid, flames roared up into the beaker. It startled me, and I jumped back. In the process, I splashed the carbon bisulfide solution on my right shirtsleeve. My shirtsleeve was burning, and it was causing intense pain in my arm. I jerked my shirt off and then used it to beat out the flames where I had splashed the solution on the wooden lab floor. Once we had the fire completely out, I had my friend go get the lab teacher.

      I spent a couple of days in the hospital with a burn on the upper part of my right arm. Part of the damage was done by the white phosphorus, because as it burned it formed phosphoric acid on my skin. The acid burn was worse than the burn from the heat of the fire. After I returned to school, I looked up carbon bisulfide and discovered that it is as flammable as gasoline. In addition to a scar that I carry today, I ruined the chances of any other students gaining access to the school lab when there were no teachers present.

      I graduated from Rupert High school as Salutatorian in the class of 1957. In 1959, I was hired by The National Bank of Washington in Washington, D.C. In 1963, I was selected to help them implement an automation program using some of the first commercial computers used in banking in the Mid-Atlantic region. In 2015, I still love science. 

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