Growing up

My first solid memories date from the Christmas of 1937 when I was 3 years old. My family had moved into a big brick house on the south side of Fifth Avenue, half a block from Main Street, the house my Uncle Kyle Miller and his family later lived in for many years. That Christmas I got my first pair of real leather boots. They had red flannel tops that folded down just below the knees and a pocket on the left boot for a tiny pocket knife. I never would have given my boys a knife at age 3, but the theory back then, at least in the hills, was that the earlier  you learned how to handle a knife—or a gun, for that matter—the safer it would be. Knives and guns were a normal part of a boy’s life in Jellico in those days.

My parents—actually my mother—ran a tourist home in the house, and I have vague memories of the guests who stopped, particularly one fellow who rushed in and asked Mother if she had a room. She did, but before she could even tell him the price, he yelled, “I’ll take it! Where’s the bathroom.” She pointed to the top of the steps, and he raced up two or three steps at a time. The tourist home—what would probably be called a “bed and breakfast” these days—was a bustling business and the rooms were filled almost every night. Another fellow came in drinking from a bottle, which Mother mistook for beer. Later she told Daddy that the man came in “drinking a bottle of Zup.” I guess 7-Up was relatively new in those days.

Daddy was Jellico’s city engineer, paving streets and building sidewalks all over town. Often he could come by on the city road grader and stop to pick me up. I felt very important sitting up there on what for me was a gigantic machine.

We soon moved back to the house in which I had been born just outside the city limits at the south end of town. Daddy and his brother, Kyle, had exchanged houses for that period. According to my brother Mac Miller, the downtown house was owned by our grandfather, E.S. Miller. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect we moved into the Fifth Street house to satisfy a requirement that the city engineer had to live within the city limits.

We had moved from the house I was born in on South Main Street at the corner of what is now Ash Street (probably so named because in the early days it was an old railroad bed and was covered with ashes and cinders rather than rocks or pavement). My birth came on a Wednesday, about 6 o’clock in the afternoon. According to Mother’s account of the event, she went into labor about the same time as a woman who lived nearby, a Mrs. Dobson. Dr. G.B. Brown, the family physician to both, kept running back and forth between the two houses to see which child would emerge first. Donald Gene Dobson apparently beat me by a few minutes.

I entered the world in the downstairs bedroom in a four-poster bed whose frame I still have. In addition to Dr. Brown, Mother was attended by a midwife, Mrs. Hale. According to her, when Mrs. Hale took me to be washed off at the kitchen sink, I shot a stream of pee into her face, a story Mother used to indicate that I had been a problem child from the minute I was born.

The house on South Main was a wooden structure with a retrofitted bathroom featuring a huge, claw-footed tub. It had a huge kitchen with a coal range. Up until 1941, we had an icebox, but at Christmas that year we got a General Electric refrigerator, probably one of the last until after the end of World War II. Shortly after we moved back into the house, Mother also got an electric stove, but Daddy refused to let her hook it up, feeling it was an extravagance. Mother waited until Daddy was out of town and called in an electrician to hook up the stove, an ungainly looking appliance on four spindly legs with the oven on the right side of the three burners. “I just figured that what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him,” she once recalled. But when he got home, I met him at the door, took his hand and led him straight to the kitchen to show him what she had done. I was just a toddler.

One emergency that I don’t remember but which Mother often talked about, occurred just after I started to walk. A cup of coal oil was kept near the coal range to help get the fire stated quickly. I walked in one day, picked up the cup and drank it down. The quick thinking of our “hired lady,” Miss Josephine Widener, saved my life. She saw what had happened, grabbed me and poked her fingers down my throat to induce vomiting.

As I grew older, I had to take on various chores around the house. The main chores included bringing buckets of coal to fuel the kitchen range and, in the winter, the huge Warm Morning heater that stood in the hallway as our version of central heating. At one point when Daddy had decided to raise some hogs, I had the unpleasant and smelly task of “slopping the hogs.” Another major chore was feeding the chickens and cleaning the chicken house from time to time, a job I thoroughly detested. When a hen was required for the dinner table, I got the job of killing it. My methods varied. Sometimes I would wring off the head and watch the headless chicken flop around the yard until it finally died. But most often I would put the poor creature’s body under a bushel basket and chop off its protruding head with an axe. That kept it from flopping around spewing blood everywhere. I felt no remorse at my role as fowl executioner, and thoroughly enjoyed the resulting fried chicken.

Mother’s vegetable garden was lined with hollyhocks and sunflowers. Sometimes she would press me into service for hoeing or other garden chores, but I avoided that duty whenever I could.

My third chore when I was big enough was mowing the lawn. I hated this one more than any other. We had a manual mower that was old and hard to push. The backyard had just enough slope to make it tough going. And the narrow yard next to Ash Street had banks that were almost perpendicular.

A huge weeping willow stood between the chicken house and the garden. It was the source of the keen switches my mother preferred when correcting me for some misdeed, a frequent occurrence. I hated that old tree, but I doubt that the frequent switchings were much of a deterrent. My daddy never spanked me, at least that I recall. Mother frequently threatened that she would have Daddy take his razor strop to me when he got home. One night when I had done something especially egregious, she carried out her threat and demanded that Daddy take the strop to me. He took me into the bathroom and locked the door. He slowly took down his strop and flexed it a couple of times in his hands. I was already crying loudly in anticipation. All of a sudden, he drew back and swung the strop in the air, bringing it down with a crash not on my rear but on the side of the bathtub. Even so, I yelled even louder. He whopped the side of the tub a couple more times before Mother was pounding on the door yelling, “Hudson, stop! That’s enough!” That “spanking” remained our secret for a long time.

Corporal punishment was still used in school when I was growing up, and I was often the target for it. Daddy had taught me to read the headlines of newspapers before I was about 5 years old. By the time I entered first grade at age 5, I was probably reading at about a fifth- or sixth-grade level. I would always read my textbooks before the term started. Consequently, I grew restless as some of the other students plodded with great difficulty word by word through the readings. My restlessness would turn into talking or some mischief that would inevitably earn me a trip to the “cloakroom.” All the teachers in Jellico Elementary School had paddles for such occasions. The one who took me to the cloakroom most often was the fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald, a tall, white-haired woman with a perpetually stern expression on her face. Still, she is one of the teachers I remember most fondly, mainly because of her skill at making geography so interesting. I think it was there that my desire to see exotic places was born, and perhaps led to my later wanderlust.

Jellico’s South End was more rural than urban. Many of my neighborhood playmates were farm boys whose chores included plowing and taking care of animals. One of these boys was Walt Baker. One Saturday afternoon most of our gang went to the Saturday matinée at the Gay Theater to see the Durango Kid in his latest oater adventure. Walt couldn’t go because he had to plow. When we got back to Southend, Walt was coming down the hill with his mule, his plowing finished. We were all excited talking about how Durango would run out of a building and jump over the rear of his horse into the saddle and go galloping off ahead of the bad guys.

“Why that ain’t nothing,” Walt asserted. “I can do that.”

To prove it, we stood the mule at the foot of a little alley next to our house. The upward slope of the alley would give Walt a little lift when he tried to jump over the mule’s rear. Walt went up the alley and took a good run at the mule. He hit the mule’s rump. The mule, unlike Durango’s horse, didn’t gallop away but stood still. Walt, however, kept going, sailing right over the animal’s head and into the cinders and rocks below. His arms and face were skinned and he had to be treated by my mother with soapy water and iodine.

In those Depression years of the 1930s and even later in the war years of the 1940s, toys were scarce. I amassed over the years a nice collection of little plastic cowboys, a few soldiers, some airplanes and many little cars and trucks, which were my passion. For Christmas when I was about 5 or 6, I got—over my mother’s vociferous objections that I would put somebody’s eye out—a Daisy air rifle. I never blinded anybody and I don’t recall ever hitting a bird that I aimed at. I also grew expert at making toys out of blocks of wood collected from the Kitchen Lumber Co. sawmills. Empty sardine cans made great boats to sail in the many streams and puddles in the area. An iron wheel, scavenged from a scrap pile near a coal mine or a logging camp, and a bent wire made a great toy for rolling as you ran barefooted down the road. Every boy had a slingshot, some of them elaborately carved with the mandatory pocketknives we all carried. I used my slingshot mainly to shoot rocks at birds, especially crows that would eat the ripe cherries off my grandmother’s tree. The birds were never in much danger, but it did help scare them off. Another wooden toy was the “rubber gun.” We would take a slab of wood and carve it roughly into the shape of a rifle, making several notches on the top side. We would cut up an old inner tube to make huge rubber bands. These would be slipped over the front of the gun and pulled taught into the notches. We often would have huge rubber gun battles, as we fought World War II in my backyard and around the neighborhood. Another device used more sparingly because of the danger was the carbide bomb. Carbide was readily available because many of our parents worked in or had some connection with the coal mines and consequently kept carbide on hand to fuel the lamps miners wore on their helmets. Carbide, mixed with water, produces acetylene gas. We would put carbide in the bottom of a paint can or another container with a lid, punch a hole for a newspaper wick, set the wick on fire and run. Usually the can would explode, throwing the lid high in the air. My mother frowned on carbide bombs, warning that somebody was going to lose a finger or an eye. But I don’t recall anybody ever getting hurt.

Although I spent most of my time in the South End near my home, the entire town was my playground as I was growing up. I had the freedom to roam wherever I wanted as long as I showed up at supper time—or at least called the home telephone number, 391, to let Mother know where I was. The reason my parents didn’t worry, I suspect, was because everybody in town knew everybody else. If a kid got in trouble, any adult would gladly help out. And if you needed to find somebody quickly, all you needed to do was pick up the telephone and asked the operator—we called her “Central.” More often than not, she could find the person you were looking for. Mother used to tell that when I was still a toddler, I picked up the phone—actually, you had to crank it, then pick it up—and asked, “Central, do you know where my mother is?” She recognized my voice and immediately replied, “She made a call from the Central Drug Store a few minutes ago; let me see if she’s still there.” She was. Not everybody had telephones in those days, and most people who did were on a party line. It was something of a status symbol to have a single line number, as we did.

Downtown was easy walking distance from our house—less than a mile. But free transportation was always available in the form of passing mule-drawn coal wagons coming down Branham Hill headed for town. The drivers never seemed to mind the youngsters who would hop up on the board at the back for a ride. Of course, it blackened the seat of your pants, but nobody in Jellico in those years minded a little coal dust. As I grew older and bolder, I also would sometime hop a ride on a slow-moving freight train pulling into the Jellico terminal.

The story of a bicycle

Like every young lad, I dreamed of owning my own bicycle. That would solve my transportation problems once and for all. During the war, the only bikes available were the hated “Victory Bikes.” They had thin tires—much like today’s racing bikes—and a thin frame devoid of any frills such as fenders. I would gladly have accepted one of those monstrosities, but Daddy would never spring for one. It wasn’t until Christmas of 1945, just months after the war ended that “real” bicycles began to reappear. Frank Queener’s Western Auto Store got the first one in Jellico. It was a beautiful maroon and white Western Flyer. I was helping out at the store over the Christmas holiday, and I got the job of putting it together to put it on display. I wanted that bike more than anything, but Daddy wouldn’t even talk to me about it. I went to work one afternoon just before Christmas and the bicycle was gone. I was crushed as an 11-year-old can be. Mr. Queener was evasive when I asked him who bought it. Well, I thought, some guy is going to have a great Christmas.

As usual, we opened our presents on Christmas Eve. I got the usual assortment of underwear, shirts and socks along with some fruit and candy in my Christmas stocking. I was bitterly disappointed at once again not getting a bike. Our house was heated by a huge Warm Morning stove that sat in the central hallway. To get the maximum benefit from the stove, we kept the living and dining rooms closed off in the winter time, unless we were having guests. During the day, the bedrooms would be closed, but at night just before we went to bed, the bedroom doors would be opened to allow the heat to warm them as well. When I came down Christmas morning, the living room, where the Christmas tree stood, was closed off and obviously cold. So I didn’t even go in there. After breakfast, Daddy, with a twinkle in his eye, asked me if I had checked under the Christmas tree. I sprang from the table and rang into the living room. There stood the maroon and white Western Flyer.

The bike got some hard wear over the next couple of years. Wrecks on the unpaved roads around our house had taken their toll, and the once gleaming surface was now scratched and scarred. Uncle Clyde Baird, a sign painter by trade, offered to paint it for me. Uncle Clyde was a perfectionist so before he started, he completely dismantled the bike so that he could paint under the fenders and other hard to reach spots as well as the obvious surface areas. When he finished, as was his custom, he painted his initials under the rear fender. My bike was just like new. Not long after it was repainted, however, it was stolen. I was crushed. The bike had become almost a living part of me. I went everywhere on it. One summer afternoon I spotted a bike that looked suspiciously like mine, except that it was painted black. The boy riding it was heading up Branham Hill out past Grandma Baird’s house and the cemetery. I followed him, at a distance of course, until he came to a large house about a half-mile from my own house. He parked the bike on the front porch and went inside. I waited for a few minutes until I was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back out again. Then I ran over to the porch and looked under the fender of the crudely painted bike. As I suspected, the thief had not bothered to paint under the fenders, and there was the bright red paint Uncle Clyde had used and his initials. Armed with that information, I raced back to town and informed Chief of Police Drew Roberts of my discovery. He accompanied me back to the house where the bike was still standing on the porch. He arrested the young thief, and discovered a lot more stolen contraband inside and around the house. I later had to go to Jacksboro to testify before the Grand Jury. I was supposed to go back to testify in his trial, but he wound up pleading guilty and got a year and a day in jail. I don’t remember his name, and I never heard what happened to him after he got out of jail. I don’t think he came back to Jellico.

Next: World War II

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