So, how did a fair-skinned boy from the hills of Tennessee wind up in sophisticated, gemütlich Vienna courting a dark-eyed Brazilian beauty? It’s a long story that begins on October 17, 1934, in a frame house just outside the city limits of Jellico, then a small coal-mining center sitting astride the Tennessee-Kentucky border in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
The big news of that week was the FBI’s hunt in Ohio for Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the notorious bank robber. He was gunned down by lawmen on October 22.
Also that year, Adolph Hitler was elected president of Germany following the death of Paul von Hindenburg, and nearer home the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. A brand new Hudson straight-8 automobile retailed for $695, a quart of milk—delivered to your door in a glass bottle—cost a dime and coffee was about 35 cents a pound.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States and had initiated a number of projects, not the least of which was the Tennessee Valley Authority, to pull the country out of the Great Depression. Construction on the first TVA dam was started in 1933. Norris Dam, across the Clinch River about 30 miles south of Jellico, would be finished in 1935. It was named after Senator George William Norris, a conservative Nebraska Republican who had led the fight to create the agency to produce low-cost power and flood control in the Tennessee Valley.
Times were hard in Jellico, as they were elsewhere, but our family for the most part didn’t fare too badly during the Depression. My father, Edgar Hudson Miller Sr., known as Hudson or by his basketball nickname, “Terrapin,” to some of his oldest friends, had been postmaster during the Hoover administration and became city engineer of Jellico after Roosevelt took office in 1933. We always had food and the necessities of life. Mother kept a fairly large garden behind our modest house that supplied us with most of our produce during the summer, and the excess was canned and eaten in the winter months. We almost always had meat, even if it was only fatback. We ate lots of potatoes—always pan-fried, southern style in lard—and pinto beans.
Ch1 Prelude to Romance
So, how did a fair-skinned boy from the hills of Tennessee wind up in sophisticated, gemütlich Vienna courting a dark-eyed Brazilian beauty? My personal story begins on October 17, 1934, in a frame house just outside the city limits of Jellico, then a small coal-mining town sitting astride the Tennessee-Kentucky border in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
The big news of that week was the FBI’s hunt in Ohio for Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the notorious bank robber. He was gunned down by lawmen on October 22.
Also that year, Adolph Hitler was elected president of Germany following the death of Paul von Hindenburg, and nearer home the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. A brand new Hudson straight-eight automobile retailed for $695, a quart of milk—delivered to your door in a glass bottle—cost a dime and coffee was about 35 cents a pound.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States and had initiated a number of projects, not the least of which was the Tennessee Valley Authority, to pull the country out of the Great Depression. Construction on the first TVA dam was started in 1933. Norris Dam, across the Clinch River about 30 miles south of Jellico, would be finished in 1935. It was named after Senator George William Norris, a conservative Nebraska Republican who had led the fight to create the agency to produce low-cost power and flood control in the Tennessee Valley.
Times were hard in Jellico, as they were elsewhere, but our family for the most part didn’t fare too badly during the Depression. My father, Edgar Hudson Miller Sr., known as Hudson or “Rosy” so some of his closest friends, had been postmaster during the Hoover administration and became city engineer of Jellico after Roosevelt took office in 1933. We always had food and the necessities of life. Mother kept a fairly large garden behind our modest house that supplied us with most of our produce during the summer, and the excess was canned and eaten in the winter months. We almost always had meat, even if it was only fatback. We ate lots of potatoes—always pan-fried, southern style in lard—and pinto beans.
Jellico was—and is—an unusual place. It was a mixture of hard-bitten coal miners and loggers, polished merchants and professional people. It produced Grace Moore, the internationally famous opera singer of the 1930s and 1940s, and Homer Rodeheaver, evangelist Billy Sunday’s song leader. Jellico native Tom Siler became a nationally known sportswriter with The Associated Press and later settled back in East Tennessee as sports editor of The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Two-time Putlizer Prize winner Don Whitehead grew up in a nearby Kentucky mining camp, but always considered Jellico his childhood home base. Many others achieved prominence in a variety of fields, from politics to academics.
The writer John Fox Jr. (1862-1919) spent some time in Jellico early in his career before settling in Southwest Virginia. He is perhaps best known for The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, a Civil War novel whose protagonist is torn between his mountain up-bringing and his bluegrass roots, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
The Jellico area was the setting for Fox’s novel A Mountain Europa. In the novel, New Yorker Clayton is returning to the mountains after a trip home. Describing the town as it appeared around 1895, Fox wrote:
The journey to the mountains was made with a heavy heart. In his absence everything seemed to have suffered a change. Jellico had never seemed so small so coarse, so wretched as when he stepped from the dusty train and saw it lying dwarfed and shapeless in the afternoon twilight. The state line bisects the straggling streets of framed-houses. On the Kentucky side an extraordinary spasm of morality had quieted into local option. Just across the way in Tennessee was a row of saloons. It was “payday” for the miners and the worst element of all the mines was drifting in to spend the following Sabbath in unchecked vice. Several rough, brawny fellows were already staggering from Tennessee into Kentucky ….
The Jellico of my youth was a far cry from the one described by John Fox. The saloons and other dins of iniquity were closed down by Prohibition, and never reopened after it was repealed. A city ordinance prohibited beer sales within a mile of the city limits. The Kentucky side, where morality apparently reigned in Fox’s time, had become the source of just about anything illegal, from booze to sex. The unincorporated area across the state line was off-limits for Jellico police, and too far away from the county seat in Williamsburg for the Whitley County sheriff to pay much attention to it. Kentucky state troopers rarely ventured that far south of Williamsburg.
Today, Jellico is reached via Interstate 75 that runs atop majestic Pine Mountain. In my youth, the main highway was U.S. 25W, the western leg of U.S. 25, which in those days ran from Port Huron, Michigan, to Statesboro, Georgia. U.S. 25 split into 25W and 25E between Corbin, Kentucky, in the north and Newport, Tennessee, in the south.
The highway was a main Midwest-South route both for semi-trailer trucks hauling goods between the two regions and tourists from the Midwestern states, heading south to Florida and the Great Smoky Mountains or north to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Canada.
The last 15 miles of the 60-mile stretch from Knoxville to Jellico on 25W was known locally as “the Narrows,” a twisting road alongside the Clear Fork River at the eastern base of Pine Mountain. The Narrows provided a challenge to drivers as well as spectacular mountain scenery for the tourists.
The Jellico of the first half of the twentieth century was a vibrant center of commerce for all of northern Campbell County, Tennessee, and southern Whitley County, Kentucky. The downtown businesses included my grandfather’s wholesale dry goods firm that sold throughout the Southeast, a wholesale hardware business, a mine supply company, a jewelry store, a music store, a bakery, grocery stores, variety stores, restaurants, clothing stores, including one run by my uncle, Kyle Miller, three drug stores, a movie theater, two furniture stores (both of which doubled as undertaking parlors), two banks, two hotels, two bus stations, a small private hospital, law offices, insurance offices and various other business offices. The air was scented with the smell of fresh roasted coffee from Cumberland Coffee Company and spices, including vanilla and lemon extract, from Elk Manufacturing Company. There was a Coca-Cola bottling plant on South Main Street, and the distinctive Coke bottles of those years with “Jellico” on the bottom would turn up in cities all over the country. A wholesale grocery business started in Jellico and flourished there for many years. A private power company’s coal-fired plant produced electricity for the region, until TVA extended its service to the area. A knitting mill, a large tannery, a foundry, and a raincoat factory as well as the nearby coal mines and lumber operations provided employment for dozens of people. The town had regular passenger rail service and a bustling train station.
Gas stations in the early years were mostly pumps at grocery stores. Jellico in the 1930s had three full-service stations, an Esso station on Fifth near the intersection of Main Street and a Texaco station at the top of the hill just outside the then city limits on 25W going toward Knoxville. The third, a Pure station on South Main Street, was owned by Mr. Smith, who sang bass in the Jellico Methodist choir. They were all pretty primitive stations by today’s standards. Right after World War II, a young man named Bixler returned from military service and used his mustering-out pay to start a more modern Gulf service center on Main Street just across from the Central Drug Store. Bixler was a vigorous man who was constantly on the go, trying to make his station a success, and he succeeded, not just with the local residents but primarily with the thousands of tourists who traveled through Jellico on U.S. 25W. A story made the rounds of town—denied vehemently by Bixler at every opportunity—that a luxury car with tags from a Midwestern state pulled into the station one day. Bixler was all over it, filling it with gas, checking the oil, wiping the windshield, checking the air pressure in the tires—the routine in those pre-self-service days—when a lady in the car asked, “Do you have a rest room?” But her accent was such that Bixler understood whiskbroom. “No, ma’am,” he replied, “but I can get the air hose and blow it out for you.”
Jellico also had a public library, a large post office, a thriving Masonic lodge, various civic clubs and churches of various denominations, including a small Catholic church, St. Boniface, just across the line in Kentucky. St. Boniface and its sister church in Newcomb, Sacred Heart, served a predominantly Italian population that had originally arrived in the area to work on the railroads. The streets were crowded with shoppers and business people during the day, and even more crowded on Saturday nights when miners, loggers and farmers came to town to take advantage of late store closings.
Businessmen gathered at the drug stores for coffee. One day a group of men were chatting on the street in front of the Central Drug Store when Jack Ellison, a native son who had recently returned home to open a dental practice, came up. Like most of the Ellisons, he was a large man. One of the men in the group, noted as a blowhard, cracked, “Jack, with hands the size of yours, I don’t see how you get them in people’s mouths!” Ellison, without missing a beat, replied, “If everybody’s mouth was as big as yours, I wouldn’t have any problem.”
‘Gem City of the Mountains’
Coal was king in Jellico. The mountains throughout the area were laced with thick seams of high-grade bituminous coal, and Jellico served as the hub for the coal business throughout the entire region. A popular coal variety, Blue Gem, was likely responsible for Jellico’s nickname as “the Gem City of the Mountains.” The coal industry spawned other major business enterprises in Jellico such as Imperial Cantrell, a welding firm that grew into a manufacturer of coal-mining equipment, and McComb Supply Co., a wholesale mining supply business. When the coal industry began to wane in the 1950s, so did Jellico’s bustling economy. Technology—mainly huge augers and strip mining techniques—made the deep mining in the rugged Cumberland Mountains less and less profitable. An auger in Pennsylvania could extract more coal in an hour than a crew of miners in a mineshaft in southern Appalachia could in a day.
Another major industry was hardwood lumber. The mountains around Jellico were covered with yellow poplar, oak, beech, elms and other varieties. The Kitchen Lumber Co., co-founded by my grandfather, Elbert S. Miller, at one time claimed to be the largest hardwood lumber company east of the Mississippi.
A town is born
Jellico-born historian David Harkness wrote that a small settlement grew up at the foot of Pine Mountain in 1795, a year before Tennessee became the sixteenth state. The first business, as often was the case in those pioneer days, was a tavern/inn. Harkness told a story of how a tavern keeper of the early 1800s, whose home was on the state line, avoided state officers by running back and forth across the state line as the need arose.
The town was originally known as Smithburg, because the name Smith predominated among the early settlers. In 1883 it was changed to Jellico and the settlement was incorporated. James Hayden Siler in his “History of Jellico Tennessee” cites an October 12, 1912, article in the Advance Sentinel, Jellico’s weekly newspaper, which explained that Jellico was “originally incorporated for the purpose of selling whiskey here. The law at the time prohibited the sale of whiskey within four miles of a schoolhouse, except in incorporated towns.” The origin of the name is disputed, but the most likely story is that it was named for the Jellico Coal seam, which in turn is said to have gotten its name from the angelica plant that grew in the mountains. The miners called the plant “jelica” and that eventually was transcribed as Jellico. Others argue that it was the other way around: the coal seam was named because of the town, and that the original name of the town was to have been Jericho, but was misspelled in the charter documents. Since the coal seam undoubtedly predated the naming of the town, I subscribe to the first version. Siler cites references to the name Jellico (spelled variously as Jelica, Gelica, Gilico, Gillico, Gelico, and Gilco) as early as 1813, referring to Jellico Creek. However the name came about, it is unique in the world. The only other place named “Jellico” was a small settlement in northeast Tarrant County, Texas. According to a document produced by the Grapevine (Texas) Historical Society and passed on to me by my cousin Boyce “Butch” Griffith of Oak Ridge, Jellico, Texas, began as a general store “on the north side of the Keller-Grapevine road.” A settlement grew up around the store and the town in 1897 got a post office under the name “Jellico,” named after the Jellico Ranch, which had been started by early settlers from Jellico, Tennessee.
Jellico, Texas, prospered for a while with a cotton gin, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill and a syrup press, but the post office closed in 1903 and the general store went out of business in 1912. The only reminder of Jellico, Texas, today is a shopping center called Jellico Corners, built in 1984, the Grapevine document said.
In the same period, Jellico, Tennessee, experienced its greatest prosperity. The coal brought in the railroads and at one time two lines—the Louisville & Nashville and the Southern Railway—served the town, both offering passenger service with nationwide connections.
Jellico in the 1930s
The dominant physical feature coming into Jellico is Pine Mountain. The mountain runs about a hundred miles from Tennessee through Kentucky and into Southwest Virginia. Jellico sits just northwest of a gap in Pine Mountain formed by the Clearfork River.
Indian Mountain and Jellico Mountain lie to the west. To the north in Kentucky are Mount Morgan and Vanderpool Mountain.
The main part of the city lies in the flood plain of Elk Creek, which rises in Jellico Mountain and joins the Clearfork in Kentucky north of town. The city itself is built on the slopes of several hills, mainly Reservoir Hill, Heckler Knob and Branham Hill.
We lived just outside of town south of Jellico. In those pre-war days, our milk, in glass quart bottles from a local dairy, was delivered by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a black man named Scammy. Ice also was delivered to the door. Across the street was Don Wilder’s grocery, what today would be considered a convenience store. I was regularly dispatched to buy coal oil, bread and other small items. When I had a few pennies left over I would get a “penny prize”—a wrapped piece of candy that had a “prize” inside—or a box of Cracker Jacks, which also contained a small prize and cost a nickel. Soft drinks, also a nickel, were kept in a large stand filled with water and ice to keep them cold. To get one, the customer had to put his hand in the icy water and grope for his favorite soft drink. Each bottle had a distinctive shape and feel. Many of the favorite brands are still around: Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Dr. Pepper, 7-UP, Nehi, RC Cola. Don Wilder was a taciturn, reclusive man who lived with his mother in a house behind the store. The house was protected by a high fence that ran from the back of the store to the back of their property. Mrs. Wilder was a large, fearsome woman whose presence kept all kids away from their yard and garden. Alongside the grocery was a small barber shop. There were two other grocery stores about a block away, Little’s in front of my grandmother’s house, and Smiddy’s down by the high school. We also had regular visits from the “rolling store,” a large truck whose enclosed bed was jam-packed inside and out with produce, canned goods, dry goods, notions and dozens of other products. The driver would sell his products or barter for produce, poultry, home canned goods and the like from farmers. I remember that Mother always liked to get her eggs from the rolling store because the driver always guaranteed they were “the frashest aigs.”
My grandfather, Calvin Russell Baird, ran a wholesale dry goods store on Main that did business throughout the Southeast. Another major business was the McComb Supply Co., which carried mining equipment and supplies.
The town’s elite would gather at the Central Drug Store midway up Main, or at the Brown Drug Store at the corner of Main and Fifth. On Saturday nights, the streets would be packed with people, and many others would sit in their cars and watch the passing parade of people, chatting with various friends through the car window.
A fixture on Main Street was the popcorn stand of Mr. Dupuy (we pronounced it dew-pee). Mr. Dupuy usually had his cart in front of the Central Drug Store or the Little Wonder Café, but he also rolled it down to the train station to meet the incoming passenger trains that still backed into Jellico in the 1930s. His full name was James Rosecrans Dupuy, and he was born August 29, 1865, just four months after the end of the Civil War. Our house was near the Jellico Cemetery, and almost every day Mr. Dupuy would walk by on his way to visit his wife’s grave. He always had a smile and a pat on the head for any youngsters he met one the way, and usually would hand out shiny new pennies. He died September 30, 1942. His funeral at the Jellico Methodist Church was one of the first funerals I attended. I remember the surprise of the pastor and ushers as the church started filling up, mostly with children. This quiet, simple little popcorn vendor had endeared himself to hundreds of Jellico children—and before them to their parents—and dozens of people turned out to bid him farewell, packing the church to capacity.
In those pre-television years, people sat on their porches when the weather was warm. People mostly walked to where they wanted to go, and friends would come up on the porch and “sit a spell” before continuing their stroll. Air conditioning and television ended the front-porch era and, in my opinion, our country is the worse for it.
One of my favorite porch-sitters when I was a teenager was Mrs. Dinkelinker, widow of a coal operator who lived a few doors down from our house. I passed that way frequently on my way to and from town and often would stop to chat. We became great pals. Mrs. Dink, as we called her, was a crusty old lady who didn’t mince words and had an opinion on everything. Her not-so-secret vice was cigars. She would often get a big corona cigar of the finest quality and sit on her screened in back porch and puff away, hidden from prying eyes and wagging tongues. One afternoon, however, she was contentedly smoking when a nurse—undoubtedly a newcomer to Jellico—at the small hospital next door looked out and saw clouds of blue smoke billowing from the porch. She promptly called the fire department and within a few minutes the fire truck—the town had only one in those days—and eight or 10 volunteer firemen were swarming all over Mrs. Dink’s private domain. She was furious. And the story of her cigar smoking was all over town within minutes.
My first solid memories date from the Christmas of 1937 when I was three years old. My family had moved to 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 and a pocket on the left boot for a tiny pocket knife. 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.
Daddy was Jellico’s city engineer, paving streets and building sidewalks all over town. Often he could come by on the city’s 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 M!c 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.
I was born in the frame house 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) on October 17, 1934, 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 frame 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 Widner, 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, a task I approached with some glee. 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 the 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 the school when I was growing up, and I was often the target for it. Daddy had taught me to read the headlines of newspapers when I was about five years old. By the time I entered first grade, 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 matinee at the Gay Theater to see the Durango Kid in his latest adventure. Walt couldn’t go because he had to plow. When we got back Walt came along 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 him 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 which would gallop away at that point, stood still. Walt, however, kept going sailing right over the animal’s head and into the cinders and rocks below. He suffered multiple abrasions on his arms and face and was 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 plastic toy 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 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 coalmine 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 coalmines 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 by 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 home at suppertime—or at least called her 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 dismounted 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. 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.
World War II
I was 6 years old when World War II started, and I recall vividly Sunday, December 7. We had just gotten home from church when Daddy got a call from somebody telling him to turn on the radio. We went up to the bedroom where he tuned in the old Philco set he had there, and we listened mesmerized to the news account of the Japanese sneak on Pearl Harbor. Afterward, we got in the car and head for my grandparents house up on Fifth Street. Several people were there, all gathered around the large upright radio.
I don’t think I understood the full import of what was happening. But because Daddy had taught me to read by having me read the headlines in the newspaper, I was probably more aware of the war going on in Europe and Asia than most kids.
The war brought big changes to our lives. Rationing meant that meat, butter, chocolate, and many other manufactured items were in short supply. It meant drives to sell stamps and war bonds in school. It meant collecting scrap for the war effort. Daddy, who was now working for his father at the Kitchen Lumber Co., had a “B” sticker for gasoline because lumber was an essential industry. That meant he could get about eight gallons a week. Most people got an A sticker, good for only four gallons a week. About the only people in town who got C stickers were doctors—they still made house calls in those days.
Mother joined the war effort by helping people sign up for ration books at the city elementary school. Many people from the hills could not read or write and had to have somebody fill out the forms for them. She loved to tell the story of the old fellow who was answering questions about his family. She had gotten the names of his children and asked for their ages. “How’s that?” the old fellow asked. “Years,” Mother yelled. “Oh, they’ve all got pretty good sized ears,” he replied.
The war put us all into the recycling business, saving cans, rubber and other articles for the war effort. At school we bought war stamps with our spare change. If you collected enough stamps you could exchange them for a war bond.
The war really came home as young men started leaving to join the various branches of the service. Several of my cousins were among the first to go. My favorite older cousin was Tom Baird, son of Uncle Clifford. Tom joined the Marines, and I followed anxiously all of his adventures throughout the South Pacific as the Marines fought in one bloody battle after another. Tom won several medals for bravery, and was wounded a couple of times. But he survived the war.
Daddy was too old for the draft, but when the Navy created its famous Sea Bees, a play on the initials CB for Construction Battalion, he signed up. Because of his experience and qualifications, he was immediately made a chief petty officer, a carpenter’s mate. I remember the deep anguish I felt at Daddy leaving. I just wasn’t sure how we could manage without him. As it turned out, the Navy’s doctors found traces of an old lung problem and after only five months—a month short of the time needed to receive eventual G.I. benefits—Daddy was given a medical discharge and came home. He would have been a great Sea Bee, but I was thrilled when the Greyhound bus rolled into the Jellico station and I saw Daddy sitting there by the window waving to use. Even though he was in the service for only five months, Daddy had great stories to tell. He was a captivating storyteller, and people never complained when he would repeat his stories. I wish I had written them down.
In 1944, the war in Europe was going well. The Allies had invaded the continent in Normandy on June 6 and were making inroads into German-held territory. In Jellico, people waited anxiously for word of loved ones. We watched the newsreels of the fighting and wept when word came that one of Jellico’s sons had been killed or wounded. But the war came home to Jellico in a dramatic and personal way on the night of July 6, 1944. A Louisville & Nashville Railway troop train speeding through the Narrows jumped the tracks. The engine, tender and four cars plunged into the waters and boulders of the Clear Fork 50 feet below. The casualty toll was 34 killed and 75 injured, including the train’s engineer.
The train was carrying more than 1,000 soldiers to Fort Benning, Georgia. It had stopped in Corbin, Kentucky, before heading south through the mountains of Campbell County, Tennessee. An article in The LaFollette Press on August 24, 2001, reported:
The relief engineer was supposed to take over at Corbin, but he never showed up. The firsd engineer was angry about having to continue with the train.
“He was very mad and possibly under the influence of alcohol,” a rescuer said. In addition to the engineer’s condition, a steep grade before the Narrows gave trains a boost of speed. Thanks to the engineer and the grade, the train was speeding by the time it reached the Narrows’ first sharp curve.
The people of Jellico and the surrounding area mobilized immediately to help out. Dozens rushed to the scene to help with the rescue effort. Dr. Ned Watts, a prominent Jellico physician and by then our family doctor, was the first doctor on the scene and the only one for several hours, valiantly treating the wounded until help arrived.
Many of the soldiers, some wearing only their olive drab underwear, were brought into homes in Jellico to spend the rest of the night until the Army arranged transportation for them. The next day Boy Scouts went door to door collecting clothing and shoes for the survivors. We drove by the site the next day and I remember being impressed with the twisted wreckage of the engine and cars, and the rescuers still crawling over them, some with acetylene torches, trying to free the bodies still trapped in the tangled steel.
Here’s how the Press article described the scene:
Think of the absolute worst place in the world for a train wreck and you’ll have a picture of the Jellico Narrows in Campbell County. It looks like something out of a model train layout. The gorge cuts down 50 feet to the Clear Fork River, a rocky and shallow current capped in white. Limestone, peppered with trees and scrub and mud, lines the descent. A road follows the gorge up above on one side, with the train tracks on the other side. The tracks occasionally dart through tunnels or veer off away from the gorge. But where the wreck occurred, the tracks are right on top of the gorge.
The river was a jumble of twisted metal, smoke, flames, steam and bodies. When the locomotive plunged over the side of the gorge, it took with it its tender and four cars. The kitchen and baggage cars burned, and two coach cars turned over and burned at the gorge’s brink. The engineer and others died pinned underwater. Others burned to death from the steam. Some bodies were trapped under the cars, other bodies splayed out over the flat rocks. Some survivors had to cross the river barefoot and stood there shivering. Those pinned were screaming.
I also remember being impressed in hearing about the reporters who were calling from New York and Chicago trying to get information on the wreck for their newspapers. I already was an avid newspaper reader, but this was the first time I had an inkling of how the reporters got their stories.
My formal education began in Reece Templeton’s kindergarten at her home on Cumberland Avenue in 1939. There were 11 of us in the class: my cousins Lida Margaret Miller and Emma Jo Vaughan, Jimmy Bealle, Hugh Finley, Doris Ellison, Alice Ann Trammell, Dickie Davenport, Mary Mahan McCall, Billy Ballard and Madeline Lowe. Madeline and Mary Mahan left Jellico shortly after that, but the rest of us grew up there and formed the nucleus of a band of friends who have remained close despite time and geography. We got together for the first time since high school in 1981 when our graduating class of 1952 held a reunion in Knoxville. Our little group had its own special reunion. I recall a certain nervousness at re-encountering these childhood friends. Our lives had all taken such different routes since Jellico, and I wondered if we would have anything in common. We didn’t have much except our Jellico upbringing—and that was enough. The years melted away in minutes and we had reassumed our youthful personas. In 1996, we got together again, this time in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dick Davenport lives. Incredibly eight of the original 11 kindergartners were there. It’s the only kindergarten reunion that I’ve ever heard of. We’ve held several more since, but each time mourning the loss of one or more of our friends.
My cousin, Emma Jo Vaughan Salmon, wrote about that incredible 1996 kindergarten reunion, shortly after it occurred. Here’s her account:
In 1939, as Miss Reece Adams gathered her energetic 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten students for a photograph, she probably never imagined that friendships had been forged that would refuse to allow time or distance to diminish. She could not have foreseen that almost 60 years later this tight-knit group would gather once again for a photograph with all but three present. Yet, there we were, our appearances not quite the same, but the spirit and soul of our love for one another had endured for more than half a century.
Jellico, Tennessee, with a population of about 2,500, sits squarely on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The surrounding mountainous area is breathtakingly scenic and also rich with an abundance of coal. The mining industry and Jellico’s business community were dependent on one another, needing the services and income to survive. Our families, whatever their occupations, earned their livelihood closely connected to the coal industry. We as children really had no major interest in those facts. We were more interested in spending our days playing the same games and occupying our time much like all children that are raised in a small town.
Public schools did not provide a kindergarten in those days, and our parents, being the good parents that they were, had persuaded Miss Reece to do the honors. Our classroom was in a building behind the Templeton family home, and we arrived at school each day full of promise and enthusiasm. At the risk of revealing my interests, I can best remember our musical efforts, snacks, and going to the main house to use the bathroom. One of our favorite stories concerns Dick Davenport who finally got his turn and stayed forever. Miss Reece asked him what was the problem and he replied, “I can’t find it. It was here when I left home this morning.” I have no worries about repeating this story because of all the people I know, Dick has the most delightful sense of humor. As successful as he has been, he has never lost his appreciation for the pure joy of living.
In the fall of 1940, seven of the group who were of school age started the first grade. Dick and Jim Bealle were younger and started the next year. Mary Mahan McCall and Madelyn Lowe left Jellico with their families, but have managed to stay in touch with their kindergarten friends. The first graders, Alice Ann Tramell, Lida Margaret Miller, Doris Ellison, Hugh Finley, Ed Miller, Billy Ballard and myself were never separated and remained in the same class until we graduated from high school in 1952.
Little did we know that soon after we started in the second grade in 1941 that the country would be stunned by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II. Through the eyes of a child, we observed only mildly the tragedy of war. We proudly became patriotic and began collecting rubber, aluminum and tin cans in our wagons. We were aware of rationing (we missed the bubble gum, the Hershey bars and the real ice cream), participated in war bond rallies, kept a respectful silence when the war news came on the radio, and properly hated “Japs” and Hitler. We were barely touched by the seriousness of the situation and never really knew what it was all about. I do recall, however, gazing in the front window of Central Drug Store and seeing the pictures of all the young men serving in the Armed Forces. The special place for those that had died was designated by a large gold star, and at that moment, I felt a sadness that only a child can experience. I believe that there was a sense of things to come.
We grew up in the most innocent of times. Riding our bicycles on the old road to Williamsburg, where we also learned to drive, Saturday movies, swimming at Sandy Beach, (actually, a river called the Clear Fork of the Cumberland), hiking in the mountains, lazy days at Big Ridge Park, rounding up the gang and heading to Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, football and basketball games, our senior trip to Washington, and the “Friday Night Club.” Jellico had few places for us to gather, and our parents realizing our need to congregate, had opened their homes. Now, the first graders, later teen-agers, never did any serious dating. We would have considered that almost like “kissing your cousin” which would be fairly accurate because their were three sets of cousins, products of the Ellison, McComb, and Miller families. We had an unfailing loyalty to one another that transcended the usual boy-girl relationships.
Our younger classmates were always a major part of our circle of friends. Bealle later attended McCallie school in Chattanooga, but of course, he was always home in the summer. I think of him even today for his enormous capacity for friendship. Dick was just there, always up to whatever fun he could instigate. Others drifted in over the years, some younger and some older, and soon our group had grown in size. We never thought of ourselves as an exclusive group, but I do believe that our friendship was so unique in character that we had grown to expect certain behavior and perhaps we were unyielding in our assessment of others.
Sadly, Billy Ballard, the only one of our kindergarten friends to die early, lost his battle with cancer in the late 1980s. We will forever remember the radiance of his smile, his sweet and caring personality, and the kindness that was the trademark of his character. Nancy Cross and Joe Bill Brown, joining us later, have both passed away, also victims of cancer. Joe Bill was our gracious host in 1981 for a high school reunion. On that occasion, Joe Bill was aware that he was ill, but had been particularly anxious to see his friends and never hinted about his illness. Years later, Nancy had been battling cancer for months and had encouraged another reunion. Unfortunately, she did not live until that magical April 1996.
After graduation, we went in different directions. Most were off to college, but in the summer and on breaks, we could be found together eagerly catching up on the latest news. In he fall of 1952, Bob Salmon and his family moved to Jellico. His father was minister of the Methodist Church, and with me being a member and a next-door neighbor, it was almost inevitable that Bob and I began dating. We fell in love and two years later we were married. After all of those years of closeness and the short-lived romances that our old crowd had enjoyed, Bob and I were the only couple to marry. Forty-three years and four children later, we are not only married, we are best friends [Editor’s note: Bob died of cancer in 2002].
Shortly after Nancy’s death in early 1996, we began to experience an urgency to make plans for a reunion. Although we had never lost touch, it had been too many years since we were all together. We didn’t really consider going back to Jellico because we no longer had family there. Dick was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and we readily agreed to visit this beautiful city. Dick made his plans, and knowing that a woman’s touch would be helpful, Alice Ann was named Madame Chairman. Alice Ann had moved with her family to Atlanta and her husband, Glen Sage, also had died of cancer. Glen was so endearing that we felt that we had lost an old friend.
We never dreamed that we could so successfully have just about everybody present. After months of anticipation the day arrived and eight of the original kindergarten class of 11 were there. Dick had warmly welcomed us to his home, and although many of us were staying at the historic Meeting Street Inn, Dick’s fabulous townhouse on North Adger’s Wharf became the official headquarters and what a perfect place it was! Jim Bealle and his wife, Janice, who live in Atlanta were on hand. Lida, a recognized artist with an impressive list of accomplishments, flew in from California. She and her husband, Austin, with their two daughters, had lived in Raleigh for many years but had recognized what the West Coast had to offer. Ed Miller, now living in Knoxville, came with his wife, Ghislaine, a Brazilian girl he had met and married in Austria while serving in the Armed Forces. Ed has traveled the world and has had a distinguished career in journalism. Prior to our reunion, he had produced a booklet of information pertaining to those attending and it was absolutely devoured.
Doris had gone to St. Louis to teach more than 40 years ago, met the love of her life, Jerry Robinson, married and raised her family there. Jerry died much too young, and again, we felt the pain for Doris. Doris arrived in Charleston counting off the months until she could retire. Hugh Finley, who was just Finley to us, drove with his wife, Susan, from Proctor Hollow. Finley, after many years in California, had returned to the family farm just across the line in Kentucky where he had spent his childhood. He had the best of all worlds. He had his friends in Jellico and the solitude and quiet beauty of Proctor, an idyllic atmosphere for growing and learning. His calm and quiet demeanor was reassuring as we struggled to gain maturity as we were growing up. Janice Ausmus Simpson, who spends time in both Jellico and Knoxville, joined Bob and me for the trip. Janice’s eyes twinkle, and she has a smile that can light up the room. She rarely seemed distressed with any situation, but when things were not going well, she had no reluctance to say so.
Barbara McIntyre Dodson and her husband, Jim, drove from Athens, Tennessee. From Carrollton, Ohio, Roy Smith and his wife, Susie, arrived. This story would be incomplete without an explanation about Roy. Most classrooms have a student with an extraordinary brain. This same person usually is rather impressed with his or her ability, and makes certain that others know as well. Not Roy! He seemed almost unaware of his gift, and made an effort to make sure that we didn’t set him apart or treat him any differently. He was the essence of humility, relaxing company, and so easy to like. Sheffy Miller flew in from Texas where he has lived for many years, and he too, had spent several years in California. Although Sheffy had spent his high school years at Tennessee Military Institute, he was never far from our hearts. Dorothy Couk Wierwillie and her husband, George, arrived from Cincinnati, and Jo Ann Ketchersid McKinney came from Sarasota, Florida, a day later. Jo Ann, Barbara, and Dorothy had entered the picture long after the odyssey began. How difficult it must have been to enter a whole different world, to make new friends, and to feel that they belonged. Yet, each made her mark, each in a different way, and we had the delightful experience of new friends that became very dear and permanent. This speaks volumes about the ease and grace of the relationships that seemed to have a life of their own.
As we began to arrive in Charleston on that Friday in April, what a glorious day it was! The moment we caught a glimpse of a each new arrival, the love was evident on our faces. Hugs, smiles, and laughter were the order of the day, and almost instantly we picked up where we had left off so many years before. Not one awkward moment, not one pretentious minute, just old friends enjoying one another’s company. We had gone back in time to those precious days that were such an important part of our history. We knew one another so well, and had established a collective conscience that had not allowed us to stray very far from the fold. We were engulfed in a sense of belonging, being just where we wanted to be.
Dick had such a well-organized plan that we had not one worry while in Charleston. We had a private tour of this lovely city that was to become very dear to us. We dined at The Magnolias with a vocal performance by the chef, (a special birthday greeting for Bealle) and more importantly, we talked, talked, and talked. We remembered events, large and small, that were so delightful that we were almost overwhelmed with memories. We teased, we played, and we loved. At that moment, we understood the depth of our friendship and knew that whatever turns our lives might take, we were soul mates, now and forever.
Very late on Saturday night and into the wee hours of Sunday, we sat together, almost hushed by the thought that we would soon say good-bye. We were pensive, reluctant to let go, and to lighten the mood, we began to consider our next reunion. We first spoke of another reunion in five years, then four years, and it then became apparent rather quickly that many of us believed, although it was an almost unspoken fear, that we had reached an age when we could not count on another five years. Several in our group had experienced health problems, and although they were enjoying good health at the moment, who knew what the coming years would bring. After much discussion, we decided on 1998, two years away and almost not soon enough. Our spirits were somewhat lifted but many tears and emotion played out the evening.
May 1998 is fast approaching. The excitement is building as we prepare for another very special reunion. We have found three other old friends, Charles Dodge of Atlanta, Frazier Smith of Chattanooga, and Jim Hackney of Wyoming, all planning to join us. Jim has said that he would walk if necessary. That requires commitment. Do we have the same expectations as before? Absolutely! Old friends are forever and the comfort, familiarity, and warmth that we feel for one another can only exist because we share a mutual past.
Is there an explanation for our special friendship? We loved unconditionally, we learned from one another, we shared our joys and our pain, we were compassionate and caring, made few judgments and overlooked mistakes. We were supportive and sometimes counseled as only best friends can. Arguments were almost non-existent and hurt feelings passed quickly. We had an unspoken oath of loyalty and respect that survived the test of time. We understand and appreciate the rarity of our relationship that was seeded so many years ago and has endured for more than 60 years.
In 1940, six of our kindergarten group entered the first grade in Miss Dessie Ross’s class. The others were younger and had to wait another year. I remember that Mother walked me to school that first day. But thereafter, she would take me up to the corner at what was then the city limit, and I would make the rest of the trip, about half a mile, on my own. Actually, I wasn’t “on my own” because dozens of other kids from the area would also be hoofing it to school so I would always join up with a bunch of my pals for the short journey.
My elementary school days were generally pretty happy. As I mentioned before, I got into trouble a lot because I was restless, probably hyperactive, and got bored easily with the struggles of some of my classmates to read.
A downtown shooting
In spite of my frequent paddlings and other punishments for disruptive behavior in elementary school, I remember all my teachers fondly, and I think I learned a lot. My grade weren’t outstanding, probably because of my behavior, but I got by OK.
I was pretty independent as a child. When the doctor decided that I needed to have my tonsils and adenoids removed, I insisted on going to the hospital by myself, even though I was only 8 years old.
Jellico, in spite of its veneer of civility, was a pretty rough place in those years. Disgruntled coal miners would dump loads of coal in front of businesses they thought were not supporting them in a strike. Stabbings and shootings occurred in the beer joints just outside of town every weekend. One episode that stands out in memory came when I was in the eighth grade. It was the lunch hour and for some reason I had gone to town instead of eating lunch at school, as I usually did. I had just about reached Blankenship’s store on South Main when I heard shots and saw a man fly across the sidewalk. I learned later that the two men, Alonzo Cox and McKinley Blankenship, had been in an argument, apparently over some sort of love triangle. As I recall, the shooter claimed he fired in self-defense. The men, according to witnesses quoted in press accounts at the time, scuffled, then Cox pulled a pistol and fire four times, three of the bullets hitting Blankenship and killing him almost instantly. A woman bystander also was slightly injured by a stray bullet.
Sheriff Rose Kitts was quoted in an AP story published in the Knoxville Journal as saying, “Cox told me Blankenship started the fight and threatened to kill him.” Blankenship, described as a former Elk Valley merchant, had just had lunch with his brother, H.D. Blankenship, owner of a small dry goods, when the shooting occurred.
The press accounts didn’t mention it, but people in Jellico who recall the shooting say that Blankenship was not armed. Cox hired one of the state’s top defense attorneys, Ray Jenkins, the Knoxville lawyer who eventually won national fame in the McCarthy-Army hearings a decade later, and was acquitted. Prosecuting for the state were Howard Baker Sr., the attorney general and later long-time congressman, and the incumbent 2nd District U.S. representative, John Jennings. Baker was the father of Howard Henry Baker Jr., the former senator and chief of staff for President Reagan. The shooting occurred on September 25, 1946, a Wednesday. The not guilty verdict was returned on Friday, December 20, 1946: speedy Campbell County justice. It was interesting to note in the news stories that one of the many eye-witnesses to the shooting was Aunt Susie Nobles, my Grandfather Baird’s sister. She had an apartment just over one of the stores near where the shooting took place. A news story said she had just arrived from Knoxville, no doubt riding in her chauffeur-driven maroon 1939 Buick.
I was asked, along with numerous other eye-witnesses, to come to the preliminary hearing before a justice of the peace at the City Jail. Daddy went along with me, but I was never asked to testify. The matter was dispatched speedily, with Cox being bound over to the grand jury under $10,000 bond.
Don’t call me ‘four-eyes’
In the beginning, my biggest problems came on the playground at recess and after school on the way home.
I started wearing glasses at age 2, and although they weren’t the rose-tinted kind they colored my entire childhood. Back in the 1930s, not many kids of any age wore glasses. Those who did, thanks in large measure I uspect to Hollywood, were considered sissies or eggheads. Kids are cruel to each other in general, but in those days in a mining town in the hills of East Tennessee, they were particularly unfeeling and insensitive to the feelings of their mates.
Whoever came up with the kids’ bromide “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” didn’t know what he — or she — was talking about, and certainly didn’t wear glasses!
I don’t recall any major problems until I started to school. It wasn’t long before some older kids started razzing me, calling me “specs” and “four-eyes.” And I instinctively knew I had to “defend my honor.”
A typical encounter went something like this:
“Four-eyes! Four-eyes! Sissy, sissy four-eyes!
“If you weren’t hiding behind them sissy glasses, I’d whup your ass!”
I would jerk the glasses off and say, “They’re not on now. What’re ya gonna do about it?”
Whereupon the bully would do what he said: whip my ass.
To make matters worse, I was a skinny kid, small for my age plus the fact that I started school when I was 5, a year ahead of most others. My nose was bloodied many, many times. Years later, I had to have an operation to repair a deviated septum, undoubtedly caused by those early childhood poundings.
Even though I rarely won the fights, after a while the bullies started leaving me alone. Bullies succeed only when the bullied person doesn’t stand up against them—win or lose. They count on you running away so they can give you the horselaugh. If you take the dare and stand and fight, the bully can’t win even if he beats you up. It’s not a real victory because he picked on somebody smaller. And if he loses, he is the one humiliated forever for letting somebody smaller and weaker beat him. So the best thing to do with a bully is to take the dare and suffer your licks. Eventually the bullies tire of the sport.
I also had a problem with the name “Eddie.” I’m not sure why. It’s a perfectly good name, and many Eddies have worn it with honor. But again, I equated it somehow with sissyness, something to be avoided in place like Jellico at all costs. I had seen guys get that sissy label, and their lives were miserable ever after, or else they flaunted it, perhaps eventually becoming homosexual. I don’t know about the latter because I didn’t even know what homosexual meant until I went to college.
Next to “sissy” in the pejorative labels was “mama’s boy” or “sister boy,” which meant roughly the same thing. To avoid such labels, a kid had to divorce himself as much as possible from his mother — at least in public.
I remember one guy in high school who tried mightily to overcome the “mama’s boy” image, but he couldn’t do it. He went out for football. In the locker room, he was being taunted mercilessly. Finally, he stood up and tried to defend himself in the battle of words. A big fullback type pushed him across the room and he crashed into the lockers. Pulling himself up, he yelled at his tormenter, “You old doo-doo butt!” Of course, he was labeled thereafter as “doo-doo.”
My parents noticed early on that my eyes were crossed. Janice Ausmus, the daughter of a local physician and his wife, had a similar problem. Janice was about five months younger than I. We were the only two kids in our peer group who wore glasses, and I always secretly envied Janice because I thought that because she was a girl she avoided the teasing and taunting that I got. Many years later we talked about this, and she said that she too got her share of teasing and ribbing. She would get angry, but as a girl she just had to take it. At least a boy could lash out and have the satisfaction of letting his tormentors know he wouldn’t sit still for it. Janice was being treated by a Knoxville ophthalmologist, Dr. Robert S. Leach, and my parents took me to see him as well. He recommended glasses even though I was but 2 years old. I was a lively youngster and my parents feared that I wouldn’t keep the glasses on, throwing them off to get stepped on or otherwise broken. They were wrong. Mother said that from the minute I put on that first pair of glasses I never wanted to take them off, such was the difference in my vision.
Years later, we would experience something similar with our fourth child, Richard. Ghislaine grew increasingly concerned about Richard when he was 5 years old because, of all things, he had little or interest in television. And, he would hang back when the others were playing. I thought he was just a shy kid who was interested in better things than TV. A number of other things happened, including serious night tremors, leading us to take him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said he was a very sensitive little boy, but found nothing really wrong with him. Then, one day Ghislaine went into the living room where Edgar was avidly watching a kids’ program on TV. Richard was lying down, sucking the two middle fingers of his left hand, paying no attention to the antics on the TV screen. When a clown appeared on the screen, Ghislaine asked him what it was. “It’s a frog,” he replied. That was the first real tip-off that he had a vision problem. After eye examinations, it was determined that he did indeed have a problem and glasses were prescribed. We got his first pair and arrived home in Bowie, Maryland, just after dark. A piston-driven airplane was flying over as we got out of the car. Richard looked up and cried, “What’s that, Daddy?” “It’s a plane,” I said. He had, of course, heard planes in the air, but this was the first time he had seen the lights of a plane. Then he discovered the stars that were beginning to fill the night sky. He had never seen stars before. The glasses immediately changed Richard’s personality. Instead of hanging back, he was now in the middle of everything, including the roughhouses and fights.
In my case, since I had never known anything else, my glasses became as much a part of me as my nose or my limbs. I put them on first thing in the morning and took them off only when I bathed, went to bed or cast them aside for a fight. They would get bent and scratched. Nose pads would come off. But I don’t remember ever breaking a lens. Once, while playing with my cousin Emma Jo in the fishpond in her backyard I took my glasses off for some reason. When it was time to go, we started searching for them, eventually finding them buried in the mud, dirty but intact.
When I would arrive home from school dirty and bloodied from my frequent scuffles, Mother would often accuse me of liking to fight. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I think I desperately wished that I could just go on and ignore the taunts, as Mother said I should. But somehow my quixotic sense of honor would not let me do it.
As tough as it was to take the ribbing from my peers, I was stung even more when adults unthinkingly made cracks about my glasses. I couldn’t fight them, but I could usually let them know that I didn’t appreciate it.
Another aspect of my eye problems that I didn’t realize until it was far too late was that I had no depth perception. In those days, I guess they didn’t check for depth perception, because I learned I didn’t have it only years later in the 1970s during a routine eye exam at a clinic where they did such tests. That explained why I was never good at sports using balls. If I hit a baseball or caught a football, it was blind luck. I was terrible even at ping-pong.
Daddy was an avid golfer and often took me with him when he went to the golf course in LaFollette. I would pick up some extra change by caddying while I was there. But try as I would, I could rarely hit the golf ball. I would swing above it or chop up a huge divot. One day I was at the course and got a great job caddying for a guy who just wanted to hit practice shots. My job was to wait until he had hit all his balls, then go out and collect them. I was picking up the balls when he found another and hit it. He saw it was heading toward me and yelled. I don’t know if he yelled the traditional “fore” or just “look out.” Whatever it was, instead of ducking I turned around to see what he was yelling about. As I did, the golf ball hit me squarely in the eye—or I should say, in the lens of my glasses. The glass was thick it didn’t break—it knocked the lens out which sliced open my cheek. It caused a huge stir, and it ended any pretensions I had for the sport of golf.
Actually, I never considered wearing glasses a handicap. In fact, it did have some advantages. The main one was that I frequently got out of school to go for eye exams in Knoxville. To me, Knoxville was wonderful exotic place with all sorts of things that Jellico didn’t have. I hated the exam itself, which usually involved having drops put in my eyes. But afterward, I would tail along while Mother shopped. She would let me have some side excursions into the toy sections at the 10-cent store, as we called it, or at Miller’s department store. Compared to the variety of toys at today’s stores like Toys ‘R Us, they stores had little to offer, but I was delighted with whatever they had. If I had not put up too much of a fuss over the eye drops, Mother would usually buy me a small toy—a plastic car or airplane or a toy soldier.
On those trips, I refused to hold Mother’s hand. Again, I thought it was sissy. She wasn’t about to let me roam free on the busy streets of Knoxville, so the compromise was that I would hold on her dress tail. I likewise refused to go into the ladies’ room with her on the sissyness grounds. I would wait patiently in the corridor outside until she came out. One day as I was waiting, a woman wearing a light blue dress similar to the one Mother had on came waltzing out of the restroom. Without looking up, I promptly grabbled the hem of the garment. “Well, hello there, Specs,” the strange woman cackled. I was humiliated. I let go of the dress and ran, hiding around the corner until the correct blue dress with my mother in it came out of the restroom. I still recall that as one of my most embarrassing moments.
Downtown Knoxville was a wonderland for a little boy. In addition to the variety stores and their year-round toy displays, there was Miller’s department store, a wonderland in itself. I particularly liked the book department, where I could browse happily while Mother shopped for clothes somewhere else. I was particularly into the Hardy Boys mysteries and read every one that was published during that period. Even when I didn’t get a toy, I always got a new book when I went to Knoxville.
For lunch on those trips to Knoxville we usually would go to the S&W Cafeteria. In later years I dubbed it the “Stand and Wait” Cafeteria because of the inevitable long line. The S&W on Gay Street was a meeting place for Knoxville’s downtown elite as well as visitors from all over. White-coated waiters carried trays for the patrons. A woman at the Wurlitzer Organ played the popular songs of the day. And of course the smells were delicious.
Mother’s favorite newspaper columnist was the News-Sentinel’s Bert Vincent. She would save his column to read after she went to bed at night. One day we were waiting in line at the S&W when Bert came in, standing immediately behind us. Never shy about talking to strangers, I asked him if he was indeed Bert Vincent. When he admitted he was, I piped up loud enough for everybody around to hear, “My mother takes you to bed with her every night.” Mother pretended to be embarrassed, but it didn’t stop her from having a chat with her favorite writer.
We always parked the car in Pryor Brown’s enclosed garage on Church Street. In those days just about everything was fueled by coal and if you left you car outside in Knoxville it would have a sheen of soot on it when you returned. From Pryor Brown’s it was a short walk to either the Tennessee Optical Co. or Clancy Optical Co., depending on which was in favor with Mother at the time. It was a slightly longer walk over to the Medical Arts Building where Dr. Leach had his office (he later moved to a house on Cumberland where the Duncan Federal Building now stands). After getting the business with my eyes out of the way, we would head for Gay Street, with Miller’s being the center of activity. The Miller’s shoe department was the rendezvous point when I was with Mother. If Daddy was along, the meeting place was the lobby of the Farragut Hotel. I also loved the Farragut with its big easy chairs, its bellmen and the hustle and bustle of a major downtown hotel. It was the ultimate in sophistication to my Jellico mind. Daddy didn’t particularly like standing in the S&W line so when he was along we often would eat in the Farragut Coffee Shop, the apex of elegance to me then.
A major treat of those visits to Knoxville was the chance to attend a movie at the Tennessee Theatre. It was air-conditioned, which meant that it was an oasis of coolness on a hot summer day. But it was the huge screen and the first-run movies at the Tennessee that made it so special. Even the sound was better. Daddy loved the movies, so when he was along we almost always found time for a picture.
Later on as I approached adolescence, I was allowed to go off on my own as long as I made the rendezvous point at the appointed time. I would wander about the downtown, visiting all kinds of stores and shops. After I got my pony, a favorite and inevitable stop was a saddle shop on Jackson Avenue. I loved the smell of the leather and the oils they used. I rarely bought anything because I never used a saddle when I rode Dan—but that’s another story.
Sometimes we would visit friends in Sequoyah Hills before starting the return trip to Jellico. I loved driving by those huge houses with their vast well-manicured lawns and massive trees. I dreamed of someday living in one of those white-pillared mansions.
When I was a teenager, I sometimes visited my cousin, Wilma and her husband, Jay Barlow, who lived on McCalla. They operated a little restaurant on Magnolia called “Tick, Tock, It’s Time to Eat.” It was near Chilhowee Park where I would spend many happy hours. Other days I would catch the streetcar and ride to town. Sometimes I would just keep transferring to other lines to see where they went.
Had it not been for my eye troubles, I wouldn’t have had that exposure to Knoxville and that far outweighed, I think even then, the burden of having to fight the taunting bullies in the schoolyard.
The effort to avoid a “sissy” label went beyond just defending my right to wear glasses. It meant that I had to try to play football, softball, basketball and other sports even though I was terrible at them. I would have preferred to do other things, but even if you were the last one chosen when sides were being picked, you still had to make the effort.
Daddy loved to hunt. I never cared much for it, but to please him and to show that I was a “real boy,” I went along enthusiastically. I got my first shotgun when I was about 12. It was a single-shot, full-choke, 20-guage Browning. We hunted every Saturday that season, but, to Daddy’s increasing disappointment, I never hit a bird. Finally, on the last day of the season, we flushed a covey of quail. I raised my shotgun and fired. To my surprise, I hit the bird I was aiming at, but instead of fluttering to the ground as the birds the other hunters hit, mine just disintegrated in mid-air. Daddy watched in amazement. We found only some bloody feathers. He later checked out the “pattern,” the distribution of shot, and found that at 200 yards the pattern of my shotgun was so tight that it was like shooting a rifle. No wonder I hadn’t hit any birds. The next season, I got a brand-new Remington pump gun with a modified choke. I had far greater luck, although I was never what you would consider a good shot. Again, the problem eventually would be traced back to my eye problem. I am right-handed, but my right eye, even though it was no longer crossed, was “lazy.” That meant that it didn’t move in tandem with the left one. As long as I was using both eyes, I had no problem. But if I closed my left eye and used only my right—to aim a shotgun, for example, my eye would drift. I discovered just how big a problem this was in the Army. We were on the rifle range qualifying in the M-1, then the standard infantry weapon. I happened to be in the last position on the left-hand side of the firing line. I fired off my rounds and got “Maggie’s drawers”—the red flag signifying a complete miss—on a every shot. But afterward, the firing officer in the pits called up to ask the officer on the firing line who was shooting on the target immediately to my left. Since no soldier was firing at that target, it should have been intact. My eye had drifted to the left and I had sent my bullets into the wrong target. My lieutenant, who wanted his company to get high marks on the range, got the firing officers to agree to count my pattern, even though it was on the wrong target. Thus, I earned a marksman’s medal.
In retrospect, neither of my parents was very supportive in my seemingly unending battle against sissyness. Mother constantly reminded me, particularly when I was smaller, that she had hoped for a girl the second time around. She used to dress me up in girl’s clothes and paint my fingernails and toenails, and had me help her in the kitchen doing “girl’s things.” She encouraged me to play with dolls and paper dolls. I think I even enjoyed some of those things. I remember one Christmas that Emma Jo and I were taken by our mothers to a big building on South Main that was being used as a toy warehouse. We were told we could each pick out one toy. Emma Jo, of course, chose a beautiful doll, and convinced me to take a matching doll with a white silk dress. Mother kept the doll until long after I left home, and eventually gave it to my niece, Mickey.
Mother also was overly protective of me, a trait that lasted all her life. As a child she had suffered terribly from asthma and avoided any direct contact whenever possible with the elements. Anytime she went out in the cold, she was thoroughly bundled up. Riding in the car even on the hottest days she didn’t want the window open to allow the wind to blow directly on her. She tried to instill these same fears in me. I got the impression that getting cold was tantamount to getting a cold. I think I finally got over that fear one night when Sheffy and I had gone ’coon hunting one bitterly cold winter night with Daddy, Uncle Kyle and a group of men. We must have been 6 or 7 years old at the time. At one point the dogs apparently had a raccoon treed and the men took off running to see. I was behind everybody else and when I ran across a frozen creek, the ice broke and I fell in. The water wasn’t deep but I was soaked through. I got up and kept going. Later we sat around a campfire and I gradually dried off. I didn’t get a cold and had no other ill effects from my soaking in the icy water. That convinced me that Mother was wrong, and I never paid much mind to her strictures again.
Daddy would constantly taunt me that I was “throwing like a girl,” or “running like a girl.” This did little to bolster my self-esteem or my masculine image. He kept pushing me into things he thought boys should be doing—hunting, fishing, playing baseball, working on construction jobs. Some of them I liked; others I didn’t. But I didn’t really have much choice. Hunting wasn’t my favorite pastime, for instance, but I did enjoy it more than fishing, which I decided early on was a crashing bore. I particularly liked the hunting when we did it on horseback in southern Georgia where we sometimes went when the Tennessee season ended. Daddy eventually gave up on trying to make me follow his footsteps as a baseball player.
Last to be chosen
Still, I loved sports, particularly football, and I tried them all. In softball, I was always the last one chosen when we would “choose up” sides. Football was a little better, because I would play with my glasses on and could manage pretty well. Even though I weighed only around 100 pounds and was nearly blind without my glasses, I went out for football my junior year. Of course on the high school team, I had to take off my glasses. I couldn’t play in the backfield because I couldn’t see, so Coach Webb Lindsay made me a guard, a pretty ridiculous position for somebody as small as I was. Actually, things went pretty well during the first part of the season. I faithfully went to practice, going through the drills with the other guys. I usually didn’t see much action even in the practice scrimmages, must less on the playing field. I did get into a game briefly one night when Jellico was far ahead of a team from Kentucky. Later in the season, we traveled to Jefferson City to face a team that I believe went on to win the state championship. By the fourth quarter, Jefferson City was leading about 60-0. Our players had taken a beating and several had been sidelined with injuries. When our star guard, Dickie Davenport, came limping off the field, Lindsay looked around his dwindling subs and spotted me. “Ed, get in there!” he cried. The last thing in the world I wanted was to go into that mayhem, but I dutifully ran onto the field.
On the first play, I was mousetrapped. The opposing guard, instead of blocking me, just stepped aside and let me go charging through. The only problem was that by the time I realized what was going on, the runner had gone through the hole I had left open in the line. On the next play, the runner just ran over the top of me. I kept looking at the sideline hoping Lindsay would pull me out. But he didn’t. I kept trying. Somehow I survived and even began to hold my own against the heavier Jefferson City linemen, actually making a few tackles. I was tremendously relieved when the game finally ended. I took off my uniform in the locker room, knowing full well that my brief football career was over. I hadn’t counted on actually having to play!
I think my biggest disappointment in sports was in not being able to play tennis. The parents of Jim Bealle, one of my kindergarten friends, built him a tennis court on a vacant lot next to their Fifth Street home. It became the center of our existence during the summer, attracting not just the boys but also the girls, in whom we were taking a greater interest. I tried, but it was obvious from the beginning that I especially could not play tennis. I would swing before the ball got to me or after it had passed, much to the amusement and laughter of my friends. So for the most part I avoided the tennis court that summer and felt separated from my friends.
Moving to town
We had lived through my early childhood with the high school in our back door. But when it was time for me to enter high school we moved. The day we moved, I came home from school as usual to find the house in the South End empty. I can still recall the terrible emptiness in my own heart as I wandered through the barren rooms. Except for the barely remembered brief stay in the tourist home downtown, that house had been the center of my world. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and I was frightened at the prospect of all this change. I felt rootless, adrift, and in a sense that’s what we were.
Daddy planned to build a house on a lot he had bought on Fifth Street on the other end of town. He had the plans drawn and had already begun digging the basement. But the South End house sold more quickly than he thought, leaving us without a place to go.
We moved temporarily into what was then called the Humphrey Hotel. Daddy had arranged for us to live in a two-room suite in the front of the hotel. Hotel living turned out to be an adventure in which I got to know people from all over. I was never bashful about talking to strangers so I spent a lot of time in the lobby hearing the stories of the travelers stopping over in Jellico. I also picked up some change helping Duke Greenlee carry up guests’ bags.
As the summer drug on, construction on the house on Fifth Street came to a halt. There was nothing there except a hole in the ground. I never really knew what happened, but it became increasingly clear that the house would never get built—and it didn’t. The hotel, with no air conditioning, was hot and cramped for a boy who had been used to spending the summers in the yard and roaming freely over the town. Tempers became short as Mother also chaffed under the crowded conditions.
As the summer drew to an end, we moved into the huge residence of Mama Miller, my paternal grandmother. My grandfather, TiTi, had died in 1944, and she had continued to live in the big house alone. Mama Miller was a difficult person, and trying to live in the same house with her was a challenge for all of us. We stayed there through the winter, and the next spring Daddy announced that he had bought the pretty little stone house across the street.
The teen years
The advent of adolescence was not easy for me. I was always a skinny kid, but as I grew taller I attained a new gawkiness that made me feel awkward and ugly. My nose protruded, my new Adam’s apple bulged, my ears flapped, my feet grew bit out of proportion to the rest of my body. And I had the inevitable acne that plagues adolescents.
Still, life went on. In high school, the noisy, hyperactive little boy turned into a quiet, somewhat sullen teen. I didn’t do particularly well in high school, eventually graduating in the middle of my class of 60 people with a C average. At the same time, I discovered the library, and I read voraciously. I discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, James Finimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and others. I read these books instead of doing my assigned homework, which explained in part my low grades.
I drifted along in high school with a pretty low opinion of myself. I had great dreams, but little hope of realizing them. In my senior year, a teacher finally recognized some little spark of writing talent in me, and that perhaps changed the course of my life. Miss Margaret Vermillion, our English teacher, asked us to write a short story. At that point, I was totally immersed in Edgar Allan Poe. I came up with a story about a man who was trying to learn the secret of life beyond the grave. He was wealthy and paid dying people huge sums of money to tell him what they saw as they were passing over. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally finds one man who is able to keep talking as he passes into the afterlife. The wealthy man listens as the dying man whispers in his ear. When the man is finally gone, the rich man stands up, his eyes wide in horror, his hair having turned completely white. He is unable to speak. That was the end of the story. “But what did he hear?” Miss Vermillion asked me. “I don’t know,” I replied. “If I did, perhaps my hair would be white, and I would be speechless also.” She praised my writing and had me read the story to the class.
I had many friends in those years, but my closest pal was probably Charles Dodge. Charles, though a year older, and I shared many of the same dreams. We would talk for hours about what we wanted to do when we grew up, or about the relative merits of the sports stars of the day. Charles Dodge’s father was head of the Bureau of Mines office in Jellico, and the family had moved there from Pennsylvania where Charles was born. They were staunch Methodists and our friendship was further solidified through work together in the Methodist Youth Fellowship. It was Charles who later influenced me to go to the Army Language School, something he had done after high school. He went on to become a Certified Public Accountant and had a successful career as an executive in one of the largest national accounting firms.
Mostly we dreamed of leaving Jellico to find fame and fortune in the world beyond. I often would sit on the hill overlooking U.S. 25W, watching the endless string of tractor-trailer trucks hauling goods in both directions and wonder where they were going and what it was like there. I even thought I’d like to be a truck driver to get to spend all that time on the road in different places. I also dreamed of some day becoming rich and famous—I’m not sure how I planned to do that—and coming back to Jellico in my sky blue Cadillac convertible. I never got the Cadillac, but I finally did realize another part of my dream: to live in a large house with white columns in front.
Learning to drive
A highlight of those early teen years was learning to drive. Throughout the war, Daddy had driven a green 1941 Ford sedan, but by VJ Day in 1945, it was on its last legs. Most of the roads Daddy drove on were gravel and dirt, and he punished his cars terribly going between logging sites and visiting coal mines. But cars remained a rate commodity with only a few new models trickling into Jellico in the months after the war. Daddy also needed trucks for the logging operation, which after the death of his father in 1944 he now headed as general manager of the Kitchen Lumber Co. A war surplus auction in Ohio proved to be the answer. Daddy not only bought enough trucks to restock the lumber company, he also got a brand-new Jeep, still in its original crate. I was only 14 when Daddy, at my repeated pleading, started letting me drive the Jeep, at first on the private logging roads in the hills around Laurel Branch, site of the main logging operation in those years. It was precarious driving at best on roads that were little more than trails cut into the side of the mountain. And when we would meet a logging truck coming the other way, the Jeep had to back up to the nearest wide spot to let the truck pass. I got pretty good at handling the Jeep, but my debut at town driving was less than auspicious. There was a family gathering one evening at Mama Miller’s house. As we were leaving, I begged Daddy to let me drive home. He finally agreed, and I jumped in the driver’s seat. With the whole family watching—especially my cousins Sheffy, Lida Margaret and Emma Jo—I inadvertently let the clutch out too quickly, making the little Jeep jump up and down like a wounded frog. It sputtered and leaped, but finally I got it under control and drove off, to the peals of laughter from the assembled family members. Then, as now, you had to be 18 to get a regular driver’s license, but that didn’t stop me from driving all over the countryside in that Jeep. Looking back at some of the antics—trying to make it jump like the Jeeps in the wartime newsreels, for instance—I wonder that I didn’t wreck it and kill myself. Usually, kids of my generation rushed to get their licenses as soon as they turned 18. I didn’t hurry. I was driving anyway. In those days, we had to go to Jacksboro to get the license and it wasn’t until Emma Jo turned 18 in January that I went with her and Uncle Hugh to get my license.
With a song in my heart
Although I wasn’t any good at sports, I found I had a natural talent for music, particularly for singing. As a child I had been in many performances singing soprano. At home one of our favorite pastimes was to gather around the piano and sing while Mother, who had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory, played all the old tunes from the 1930s and ’40s. When Mac was home, he would join in as well. Daddy, however, was content to sit and read his newspaper or book, ignoring us as best he could. Daddy was definitely not musical. He liked stirring marches with a strong martial beat, but little else. Mother had a beautiful soprano voice. Some people said she could have gone as far as Grace Moore had she chosen to try. While at Cincinnati, she was invited to join the Redpath Chautauqua, a group that traveled from town to town around the country giving lectures and musical performances in a huge tent. In its early days in the 19th century, the movement featured such lecturers as Susan B. Anthony, P. T. Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher, James G. Blaine, Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Jennings Bryan was perhaps the most famous lecturer, continuing on the Redpath circuit from the late 1800s to the 1920s. When Mother told her father she was considering joining the group for its summer tour in 1924, he immediately yanked her out of the conservatory and brought her home to Jellico. She wouldn’t return, and that ended any dreams she might have had of a career as a professional musician.
I learned read music long before I had a formal music lesson. When I was little, I would often sit in the back of the church during choir practice on Wednesday nights. And a little later, I used to go to the Colored Baptist Church up on the hill behind the old Grace Moore home and listen to the choir there. The black singers were much more relaxed than the folks over at the Methodist Church and always would ask me to “come on up and sing with us.” I did that several times. After my voice changed, I was invited to sing in the Methodist choir. I made my solo debut in a little program in the church basement one night. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I sang a twangy country song called “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
Daddy was essentially tone deaf, so he didn’t participate other than as a listener. Most nights after supper, Mother would sit down at the piano and start playing her favorite old songs. We would sing together, and anybody else who was there could join in.
I joined the choir at the Methodist Church as soon as my voice changed. I also took piano lessons on and off over the years from Mrs. Theo Lower, who also sang and played the piano at church. Mrs. Lower was a tall, attractive woman whose clothes and demeanor were a little flamboyant for staid Jellico. I started piano lessons early on, but they always were interrupted for one reason or another. I became a good sight reader, but mastering fingering and technique eluded me, perhaps because of a failure to practice adequately. My dream was to play the violin, but, alas, there was no violin teacher in Jellico. When I was about 10 years old—shortly after World War II ended—a man came to town and, reminiscent of Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” was putting together a band for the high school. He offered to teach youngsters such as myself how to play any band instrument. Since bands do not have violins, I decided on the trumpet. On a trip to Knoxville Mother took me to Clark Music Company where we purchased a used but still glittering cornet, picked because it was cheaper than a real trumpet.
I had one lesson on the cornet. The day I was coming for my second lesson, I encountered police cars and an ambulance outside the teacher’s house. The man had killed himself! I’m sure he had more serious reasons to take his own life than just facing the challenge of giving me another cornet lesson, but it ended my incipient efforts to learn the instrument and Jellico never had a band—at least in those years.
My brother Mac was an accomplished clarinetist and played in the University of Tennessee “Pride of the Southland” marching band.
My introduction to classical music was almost a fluke. We listened to radio programs, but I had never really paid that much attention. One day I was looking at a newfangled record player in a downtown store run by one of my Baird cousins. It was a 45 rpm with an automatic changer. Jellico was not a good test market for new products in those days, and the player with its stubby centerpole gathered dust on the shelf. I had a job sweeping up in the store after school, and I came across the player on a back shelf. I asked my boss about it.
“Do you want to buy it?” he asked. “I’ll make you a special price.”
I don’t remember what he asked, but it wasn’t much and within my limited means. When he offered to throw in the 20 or 30 45 rpm records he had in stock, we closed the deal.
The colorful vinyl records were an eclectic selection, ranging from green country and western to red RCA classics. Among the latter was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. I fell in love with it and played it over and over, hearing each time things I had not heard before. As I listened, I imagined the fjords and ice-covered mountains of Norway. From there, my appreciation of serious music flourished and spread to many other composers and works, but I still have a special affinity to the Grieg piano concerto.
Singing and appearing on the stage remained my first love, however. I took voice lessons with Mrs. Lower after my voice changed from soprano to a high baritone. I had participated in several little plays throughout elementary and high school. Mrs. Lower also arranged for her students to sing at various functions at the high school. It was here that I came into my own. I was terrible at sports and a mediocre student, but on the stage I excelled. I found my niche. Mrs. Lower also entered me in a countywide music contest at one point. I sang “On the Road to Mandalay,” a bombastic tour de force that was much too heavy and demanding for my young voice, and placed third—an accomplishment tempered only by the fact that only two three of us competed.
Mrs. Lower had a reputation of being a heavy drinker. Often lessons would be canceled without explanation. Or she simply would not come to the door. Sometimes she would give the lesson in a highly inebriated state in which she would be barely coherent. Once she greeted me in a frilly blue nightgown and negligee. During the lesson she kept asking me to feel her chest to see how she breathed, each time placing my hand a little lower on her breasts. I was very embarrassed, and couldn’t wait to get out of there. That was my last voice lesson.
Mrs. Lower wasn’t the only Jellico matron to greet me clad in suggestive clothing. Once when I was delivering groceries for a local market a very proper socialite wearing only a very sheer pale pink slip admitted me to her kitchen. On another occasion, the attractive mother of a friend invited me into her bedroom to continue talking while she changed clothes. It could be these women just didn’t realize that the sap was already rising through the loins of a teenager. Or perhaps they were being deliberately provocative to see where it would lead. Although stimulated, I was too frightened to try anything. So I was not introduced to sex by any love-starved small-town matron.
Rich musical heritage
Jellico had an unusual musical heritage for a little southern Appalachian coal-mining town. It was best known as the home of Grace Moore, a popular Metropolitan Opera diva who appeared in several Hollywood movies, including at least one hit, “One Night of Love.” Known as the “Tennessee Nightingale,” she also made a name for herself in Broadway musicals and was much in demand as a concert singer.
Grace Moore was born in Slabtown, a little Cocke County community near Del Rio, on December 5, 1898. Her father, who accepted a position with my Grandfather Baird’s whole dry goods business, moved the family to Jellico when she was a small child. Despite her strict Baptist upbringing, Grace was considered something of a maverick in Jellico, a role she relished in her delightful autobiography, “You’re Only Human Once.” Grace got her early singing experience at Jellico’s First Baptist Church. She went on to study at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville then at the Wilson-Green music school in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her early success came in musicals on Broadway, and in 1928 she debuted at the Metropolitan as “Mimi” in “La Boheme.”
Grace became a national sensation: an opera star who popularity soared to heights that would only be surpassed in a later generation by the likes of Elvis Presley. Her career was cut tragically short at its peak when she died in a plane crash on a flight from Copenhagen to Stockholm. She was buried in the Moore family plot in a Chattanooga cemetery.
Grace Moore wasn’t the only famous musician nurtured by Jellico. Homer Rodeheaver became nationally known as song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday’s revivals on the “sawdust trail” in teens and ’20s of the 20th century. Like Grace Moore, Rodeheaver was born elsewhere—in Ohio—but moved to Jellico as a small child with his family. He learned the trombone and played in the 4th Tennessee Regimental Band during the Spanish-American War. In 1909, he joined Billy Sunday as vocal soloist and song leader in Sunday’s series of national gospel crusades. He has been described as “the George Beverly Shea of his day,” referring to Billy Graham’s popular song leader of the latter half of the century. Unlike Shea, Rodeheaver also led the congregational singing with his trombone and the crusade’s 2,500-voice mixed chorus.
“He had a talent for leading audiences in the song services before Billy Sunday’s sermons, his genial and informal manner getting even the most shy and retiring to participate,” country music historian Robert R. Olson wrote in an article on the Internet (http://www.garlic.com/~tgracyk/rodeheaver.htm). “By all accounts a jovial man whose sincerity was infectious, he was affectionately known to associates as ‘Rody.’ He worked with Sunday for 20 years, until 1929, and wrote a book titled ‘My Twenty Years With Billy Sunday.’ Sunday was the leading gospel evangelist in this century’s early decades and was important to the cause of prohibition.”
After his years with Billy Sunday, Rodeheaver started a religious music publishing business and recording studio in Winona Lake, Indiana. The Winona Lake facility also offered summer courses for Bible students and aspiring religious song leaders. Rodeheaver died at Winona Lake on December 18, 1955, at age 75. His gospel publishing company continued for about 20 years after his death, being bought out by the Word Publishing Co. Today his copyrighted songs are shown as by The Rodeheaver Co., a Division Of Word, Inc.
I never met Grace Moore, and I met Homer Rodeheaver only once, during one of his infrequent visits to Jellico in the early 1950s before I graduated from high school. He heard me sing and offered me a chance to come and attend a summer music workshop at his Winona Lake facility. I didn’t go, but I kept the little gospel song book he autographed and gave me, “Good News in Song.” In it, he wrote, Col. 3:16 and “Aug. 3, two weeks” the date of the workshop. The verse from Colossians reads: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” I don’t know why I didn’t jump at the chance to attend Rodeheaver’s workshop. It may have been that my interest in those days was more toward country music
‘Because of You’
Music won me my first steady girlfriend. Mrs. Lower understood that to make music appealing to the majority of the student body at JHS she had to present popular music. Early in my senior year, I stood before the assembly of students and teachers in the gymnasium and sang “Because of You,” a Tony Bennett ballad that had hit the top of the charts that year. As I crooned, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart, Because of you my romance had its start … ,” I had, I believe for the first time, that realization that the audience was totally captivated. It was heady stuff, the stuff that makes performers go back again and again. When I finished the last verse, “I only live for your love and your kiss; it’s paradise to be near you like this; because of you my life is now worthwhile, and I can smile because of you.” The applause was spontaneous and prolonged. Suddenly, I was almost as popular as the football and basketball players, and I basked in my newfound acceptance.
Shortly after that performance, I was reading in the library during the lunch hour when one of my female classmates came over to tell me that one student in particular had been captivated by my song. “Phyllis Llewellyn really likes you,” she said. Phyllis, a sophomore, was one of the most beautiful girls in high school, in my opinion. She had curly dark brown hair and big brown eyes. I had noticed her many times, but in my shyness with girls in general had never dared approach her. “She’s on the balcony in the gym right now,” my friend told me. “Why don’t you go talk to her?” I did and thus began my first true romance. Up to that point, I had never had any luck with girls. I dated some of the girls in our crowd, and took Barbara McIntyre to the junior-senior banquet in our junior year. I had dated a few girls from outside our group as well, but nothing ever clicked. In fact, my dates rarely progressed as far as a goodnight kiss. But with Phyllis it was different. She accepted me for who I was. We quickly progressed to “going steady.” I even gave her my class ring.
Phyllis’s father, Morgan Llewellyn, was the owner of Llewellyn’s furniture store and funeral parlor. One winter night, her parents had gone to bed, and we were sitting in her living room. Mr. Llewellyn got a telephone call asking him to come and pick up a body in a rural area outside of Jellico. “Ed, would you come along with me?” he asked. “That way I won’t have to get somebody else out at this time of night.” I immediately agreed, hoping to make points with my girlfriend’s father. We got into the hearse and drove to a little cabin on Indian Mountain. I helped get the body on the gurney and loaded into the hearse. The funeral parlor was in the upper two floors of the furniture store building on South Main Street. Mr. Llewellyn backed the hearse up to the loading dock in the rear of the store and we rolled it inside and onto a freight elevator. The elevator was one of those old-fashioned elevators that had an open grill that pulled down in front and was started and stopped by yanking on a cable. Mr. Llewellyn had turned the lights on downstairs and on the floors above, but there was no light in the elevator cage itself. As the elevator creaked its way up to the third floor, the corpse on the gurney suddenly groaned. I was already a bit uneasy being so close to a dead body in the gloom of the elevator, but when that loud noise came from under the sheet covering the corpse, I almost messed my pants. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but it was enough to make Mr. Llellewyn, normally a rather dour man, start laughing. “Don’t worry,” he explained, “it’s just gas escaping from the body. He’s still dead.” Knowing how things went in Jellico, I fully expected this to become one of those almost folkloric stories that would haunt me for years to come, getting me laughed at wherever I went and costing me the brief popularity I had won with my singing. It didn’t happen. As far as I know, Mr. Llellewyn never told anybody about the incident, not even his own family.
A visit to the Nation’s Capital
I was totally in love with Phyllis throughout that school year. But, I was not so smitten that I would forego the senior class trip to Washington for her. I had been working and saving my money for more than a year for that trip. Daddy had made it clear that if I wanted to go, I would have to pay my own way. (I was a bit chagrined when I discovered by accident later that Daddy was paying the way of a classmate. But when I confronted him with it, he pointed out that the boy in question came from a poor farm family and that all the money he could earn went directly into the family coffers to buy necessities, while I, on the other hand, had free room and board and got to keep all the money I could earn in my part-time jobs. When I looked at it that way, I was ashamed of my initial reaction and proud of my dad for what he was doing to make it possible for this guy to make the trip.)
We were the first class from JHS to undertake such a bold excursion. Now high school classes fly halfway around the world, but in those days going to D.C. on a bus was a very big deal. The trip was a success from the outset. About 40 of us went, and I don’t recall any untoward incidents. We all behaved ourselves and did what our chaperones told us.
I was truly awed at seeing Washington’s monuments and famous buildings. We toured the White House and the Capitol. A former Jellicoan I had been friends with was in the Army serving at the White House on the communications staff. I called him up, and, letting me use one of his old I.D. cards, he took me on a private tour of the White House’s most secret places, including the White House communications center. It was heady stuff for a mountain boy.
During the trip, I often paired off with Doris Ellison, one of our kindergarten group. I thought nothing of it, because Doris and I had been friends since we could walk and there had never been any romantic interest between us. As innocent as our companionship in Washington was, word had reached Phyllis about it even before our bus rolled back into Jellico. Apparently she had even gotten some ribbing from her father. After all, Doris’s father was his direct competitor in the furniture store and funeral home business. Billy Ballard, another of our kindergarten group, was a year behind me in school and had not gone on the Washington trip. He stayed home and pursued Phyllis relentlessly. When we returned, Phyllis quickly dumped me for Billy. My first romance had become my first heartbreak.
Working for a living
I got my first paid job when I was 11, subcontracting a newspaper route for my cousin, Sheffy Miller. Sheffy was the budding entrepreneur in the family, and as soon as he turned 12 he obtained a paper route for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He was good at it, and the district manager talked him into adding a second route to it. He farmed the second route out to me, even though I didn’t meet the paper’s requirement that carriers be at least 12 years old. The News-Sentinel was an afternoon newspaper in those days, so we picked up our bundles at the bus station after school. As soon as I turned 12, I got my own route and later on added a Knoxville Journal route as well for a time. I carried papers until I was about 16.
The problem with carrying papers in Jellico is that most of the houses are on hillsides. That meant a lot of up and down walking lugging that heavy newspaper sack. On most routes, the hills were too steep to successfully use a bicycle. Thus, after I got a pony when I was 13 in the summer of 1949, I rode my paper route. Unfortunately, my customers were not too thrilled. Several of them complained to the News-Sentinel, requesting that I be told to either forego the pony or clean up after it. I returned to “shank’s mare” to deliver the papers, because it would have been more trouble than it was worth to try to clean up after him.
In those days, a paperboy was a small, independent businessman. You contracted with the newspaper to deliver the papers. You collected from the customers and paid the district manager, keeping a small margin of profit from each customer. If the customer didn’t pay, too bad; you still owed the district manager. As a carrier, you quickly learned that you couldn’t let people slide. Thursday was collection day. You tried to collect as you delivered, but inevitably you had to go back after you completed the route, making it a long day. You had to turn the money in on Friday, so that meant you either made up any difference or you got out and hit the deadbeats again Friday morning (a difficult task during the school year). I learned that you were more likely to get stiffed by the well-off people as you were the poor. Some wealthier customers were very cavalier about paying such a trifle. “Come back tomorrow; I don’t have any change now,” you would be told. I remember one elderly black man on my route. He lived in a modest house on Hill Avenue. On Thursday afternoon, he would usually be waiting at the door with his 35 cents in hand.
I also learned a lot about dogs. I had had a dog for as long as I could remember and Daddy raised birddogs. Everybody I knew had dogs, from mutts to purebred hunting dogs. But on a paper route, dogs become more sinister. You come by everyday hurling a missile into their territory. Mostly, dogs would bark awhile then calm down. But there was one dog with which I developed a truly adversarial relationship. It was a huge (or so it seemed to me) Chinese Chow with a red coat and blue lips that belonged to Miss Daisy Peace, the Latin/English teacher at the high school who lived in a modest little bungalow about a block off of Fifth Street. The first day I carried the papers up to her house the chow bounded off the porch and ran toward me when I entered the yard. He never barked or made a sound, and before I could get out of the way he jumped on me with all four feet, knocking me over. Fortunately, some people were on the porch and ran out to pull the dog off of me before he bit me. After that, Miss Peace promised to keep the dog pinned up at delivery time, but I still approached the house with trepidation. Sometimes, I would be walking along the street blocks from her house and the dog would come up behind me, again not barking or making a sound. I would hear his big paws clicking on the sidewalk. I would pull out the large pocketknife I always carried and turn and face him down. After a few seconds of standoff, he would turn and go away. I still don’t like Chows.
When we were younger, Sheffy and I would also raise a little money by collecting all the empty boxes from the behind the stores along Main Street. We would carry them up to Maurice Zauber’s raincoat factory where Mr. Zauber himself would come out and negotiate their purchase, as if this were a main part of his job. He usually paid a nickel apiece for the better large boxes.
In the summer, I would often set up a lemonade stand in front of our house. But my biggest money-making venture was selling books. All of us were inveterate readers and so we collected piles of books. I was very big into comic books, but I never thought of collecting them. During the war years, paper, like everything else, was scarce, and so books, particularly comic books, became harder to come by. In Jellico, the only place to buy comic books was at the Smith Drug Store on South Main or the Central Drug on Main. I made a deal with Mr. Smith, my friend Roy’s father, to hold the new comic books for me when the came in. The Central Drug Store, a much bigger operation, wouldn’t make such a deal, but I learned when the book usually were delivered and contrived to be there when they were put on the shelf, grabbing the ones I wanted before others saw them. The same was true with another popular literary form of the day, the Big-Little Books. These books were about 3×4 inches by perhaps two inches thick. They were filled with drawings but were not precisely comic books. One added feature in most of them was an animated section at the top of each page. You could flip the pages and see the characters move! Whenever I had a good collection of these books, plus a number of Daddy’s cast off western stories and other assorted magazines collected at my grandmother’s house, I would have a book sale at the corner of our lot. Since Daddy and Mother had originally paid for the books, I realized 100 percent profit. For books that were in big demand, I could sometimes get two or three times what they had originally cost, another lesson in supply-and-demand economics. Books were the one thing that my parents never stinted upon. While the budget for toys was extremely limited, I was allowed to buy just about any book that I wanted. Books also were frequent presents, particularly from my dad. When I got older, I got into various boys’ adventure series, tops of which was the Hardy Boys. I also liked the Nancy Drew mysteries but to avoid the “sissy” label I couldn’t afford to own them. So I worked out a deal with Betty Lou Slemmons, the daughter of a prominent doctor in town, to trade my Hardy Boys for her Nancy Drew books. The only place to buy such books was in Knoxville, mainly in the book department at Miller’s Department Store. I still remember the thrill of going there and finding a brand new Hardy Boys mystery.
In the summer of 1947, when I was 12 years old, Daddy put me to work in the logwoods. I performed many chores, from breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer to carrying water for the timber cutters. My main job was helping an old man skid logs with a team of horses. We would take the team to trees that had been cut. I would drive a spike into the log and hook it to a chain to pull it to the sawmill. Logs at that time were mostly being skidded by tractors, which could haul six or eight at a time much more efficiently that a team of horses driven by an old man and young boy. But I suspect it was Daddy’s way of giving work to the old man and getting some use out of the horses.
Daddy always found a job for me in the summer. The toughest was the summer of 1952 after I had graduated from high school. I worked for a contractor building an addition to the Jellico Hospital. I was on my own, working a man’s shift. On one particularly hot day, I was carrying “mud”—mortar—for the bricklayers. I would go up to the cement mixer at street level, fill up two buckets and carry them down into the basement hole where I would set them up on the scaffold for the masons. They had to have plenty of fresh mortar so we mud carriers had to practically run back and forth with the heavy buckets. By mid-afternoon, the heat was insupportable. I noticed that I had quit sweating, and I was feeling dizzy, but I didn’t stop. I remember lifting up a bucket onto the scaffold. The next thing I remember was waking up on a cot inside the adjacent hospital. I had passed out and the bucket of mud had fallen back on top of me, covering me with the fresh mortar.
That same summer, Daddy had received a train carload of bricks for the hospital project. The car had to be unloaded that night, so he took a crew including me down to the sidetrack behind Lay & Miller Co. We worked late into the night, tossing brick by brick down a line until all the bricks were transferred from the rail car to a waiting truck. Another crew unloaded the truck at the construction site. I went through three or four pairs of gloves that night. We finished around midnight, as bone tired as I think I’ve ever been. And, for course, I had to be back on the job at 7 the next morning.
The previous summer I had worked equally as hard, but with less structure. Daddy was developing a subdivision in Knoxville and for the first part of the summer after school was out, we drove every morning to North Knoxville where we cut brush and cleared the property. The parcel is east of Chilhowee Drive adjacent to Holston Hills. He called it Sunset Hills.
Later that summer, I worked on a “farm” Daddy was trying to create in the hills around Laurel Branch, one of the old logging sites 11 miles south of Jellico off of U.S. 25W. I also drove a truck some for Lay & Miller, helped Don Willoughby in his grocery store, stocking and delivering groceries, and, best of all, I drove a gasoline truck for my Uncle Hugh Vaughan for a month while his regular driver, Banner Todd, was having hemorrhoid surgery.
Somehow, there was always time during those summers of hard work for trips to Sandy Beach, where I had learned to swim in the coal dust-polluted waters of the Clear Fork, hitchhiking excursions to LaFollette and Knoxville, camping expeditions to Big Ridge State Park, hikes up the side of Pine Mountain, and other activities.
I even went to a Boy Scout camp on Norris Lake the summer after I was 12 (1947). Unfortunately, I was severely bitten by chiggers around my private parts during the first couple of days. I suffered mightily. By Wednesday night, my penis and testicles had swelled to more than double their normal size, and I consulted a camp counselor. Instead of taking me seriously, he made a joke out of it, telling everybody in camp about my affliction, which brought jeers and derision from my fellow Scouts. The next morning I packed my bag and left the camp, telling no one. I walked out to the highway to the nearby hamlet of Andersonville and caught a ride as far as U.S. 441. From there, I got a ride into Lake City on U.S. 25W, and from there I caught another ride into LaFollette. In LaFollette, I stopped by the office of a lawyer who was a friend of Daddy’s. He called Daddy, who sent Mac to LaFollette to get me. I went to a doctor, but there was little that could be done about chigger bites. I still got some ribbing from my brother, Mac. That ended me with the Scouts. I didn’t want anything else to do with the organization after that.
I worked on construction again in the summer of 1954, helping build the Third Creek sewage plant in Knoxville. The work wasn’t as rigorous because I was assigned as the helper to a surveyor. He wasn’t too keen on working up a sweat that hot summer so we spent a lot of time sitting in the shade, drinking ice water.
If Daddy’s idea was to get me to like working in construction and to study civil engineering, it backfired, because working in those jobs made me desperate for a job in the city where I would wear a suit and a tie.
Social life in Jellico in those years depended strictly on what we could make of it. There was no television, no clubs, no soccer leagues no Little League, not even a high school band. We had the Gay Theater on Main Street that played five or six films a week, including the Saturday double feature. But they were all second-run films that had been out for weeks or months before they got to us. The adults had parties, garden clubs, sewing clubs, and the like. And there were the inevitable church socials and pot-luck dinners. Kids played games. During the day we played sports—softball, touch football, and later on even tennis. We also played cowboys and Indians,
Our little group from kindergarten remained together throughout elementary school, with several newcomers added to our number. The others included my cousin Sheffy Miller, a year older than his sister, Lida Margaret, who was my age, JoAnne Ketchersid, whose father was a pharmacist at the Central Drug Store, Janice Ausmus, whose father was a doctor, Nancy Cross, who lived across the street when we moved to Fifth Street, Wayne McMillan, who lived at the top of the hill above our Fifth Street house, and a few others.
As we approached the teen years, the girls got together and decided to organize a party. With the cooperation of our parents, the party would be on Friday night. Thus was born the Friday Night Club and a series of weekly parties that would bind us even closer together. The parties rotated from home to home and grew in sophistication as we grew in age. But it is that first party that sticks out in my mind. My “date” would be Doris Ellison, daughter of Ray and Lucille Ellison. Doris was quite a bit bigger than I, both taller and heavier. At the appointed hour that rainy Friday night, Uncle Hugh Vaughan drove me to the imposing Ellison house atop a hill off of Cumberland Avenue. I went to the door to collect Doris. Her entire family was gathered to see her off. Feeling very big and important dressed up in our party finery, we bid the Ellison family farewell and started down the steps. The steps were made of stone that had been worn slick over the years. When I hit the top step, my feet slipped out from under me. Doris, without missing a beat, reached over and grabbed me by the nap of the neck and set me back up on my feet so that we could continue our way. She saved me from a bruising fall, but she didn’t prevent the bruises to my ego.
After we could drive, dating consisted of driving 15 miles to Williamsburg, Kentucky, to see a first-run movie, or just driving around in the car hoping that the girl would agree to park and neck. The old highway to Williamsburg was the favorite locale for the latter.
The first time I got to use the family car—a green, 1950 Ford four-door sedan—on a date was for the junior-senior banquet when I was a junior. Emma Jo was dating Charles Dodge. Barbara McIntyre, who lived in Pruden about 20 miles away, was spending the night with her and became my date for the event. I think the three of us sang at the banquet. I was very proud to be driving Daddy’s green 1950 Ford sedan. After the banquet, we drove around a little while, then drove to Emma Jo’s house—the old Moore family home—and parked. We sat there talking into the night, hardly noticing that it had started to snow. Suddenly I saw Daddy walking down the street. It was after midnight and snowing heavily, so I knew he wasn’t out for a late-night stroll. I jumped out of the car, fearing a dressing down for being out so late, but Daddy brushed on by saying he was going downtown to get cigarettes. Where he expected to get cigarettes at that time of night, I don’t know. We took the girls to the door, I drove Charles home and circled back to pick up Daddy. He acted as if nothing had happened, but I know he was worried that we were out running around on the snow-covered streets.
The animal kingdom
All my young life I was surrounded by animals. We kept chickens and hogs and occasionally a cow. Just about everybody around us kept animals of various sorts, from milk cows to mules. We had no need of petting zoos. Animals were everywhere. Often a loose cow would stray into our yard tempted by the tender green grass of our lawn. I would be dispatched to drive her away, not always an easy task. When all else failed, Mother would get a pan of boiling water and throw it on the heifer’s back, sending her scooting with a bellow.
My first dog was Tiny, a mixed breed female terrier. Dogs weren’t “fixed” in those days, at least not in Jellico, and so the big problem with Tiny was that she was constantly producing litters of puppies. We tried to keep her locked up when she was in heat, but I would always take pity on her and let her out. And of course right away some male dog would be humping her. Still, we kept her for several years until she finally died giving birth to yet another litter of puppies. I sat up with her that night and held her as death approached. It was a sad moment. But I can see now that in the grander picture I was learning about life, reproduction and death.
Tiny was replaced by a succession of mutts, all male and all eventually killed by automobiles. But she is the only one whose name I can recall.
I’ve mentioned my pony. After my grandfather Miller, TiTi, died, Daddy took over as general manager of the business TiTi and a Kentuckian named Kitchen had founded. During World War II, the Kitchen Lumber Co., over my daddy’s often vociferous objections, had employed a policy of clear-cutting to get the timber out for the war effort as swiftly as possible. Daddy argued with TiTi that the young growth some be spared so that new trees would be available. TiTi brushed those arguments aside. By 1948, the company had reached the end of the line and went out of business. Although Daddy had revolutionized logging by introducing Caterpillar tractors to snake the logs from the woods to the sawmills, the company had retained a couple of teams of huge draft horses. As the country became more and more mechanized, there wasn’t a big demand any longer for draft animals. So Daddy was stuck with feeding their voracious appetites without getting any benefit from them. I think that in part is what led him to decide to try a farming scheme on Pine Mountain in the Laurel Branch area where the company had lately logged. He used one of the team for plowing and other farm chores. He managed to trade the other team to a LaFollette horse farmer for a pony and a white Tennessee Walking Horse. The walker, of course, was Daddy’s, and he rode it proudly through the streets of town. The pony, a stallion that had never been ridden, he gave to me.
His name was Dan, and he had been used—and I suspect abused—as a mine pony, hauling mine cars from deep within the coalmines. However, as a young stallion, he was unruly and unreliable, so the miners got rid of him, selling him to the farmer who swapped him to Daddy in the trade for the draft horses. We stabled him in a barn over on Yellow Row, a couple of hundred yards behind our house and across the railroad tracks. That’s were we also kept our hogs and, when we had one, our cow. The farmer had thrown in a saddle—the English type, which I hated. We saddled him up and led him over to a nearby field. Daddy held him by the halter while I jumped into the saddle. Daddy let go and Dan took off, galloping at full tilt across the field. I was caught unaware and leaned sideways in the saddle, which hadn’t been chinched tightly enough, allow the saddle to turn and throwing me off. My foot also had slipped deep into the stirrup so when I hit the ground Dan dragged me for a few yards before the strap broke, freeing me and keeping me from serious injury. We finally caught up with Dan peacefully eating grass in a neighboring field. The next time I rode him it was without a saddle. In fact, I never put a saddle on him again. Sometimes Dan would accept me riding him without any problem. Other times he would jump and buck. But he never again ran away. After that first time, I was always ready for him with the bit pulled tight until I was firmly astride his back. One day I was riding Dan through town and he decided to give a show at Jellico’s main intersection. In those days U.S. 25W was the main north-south route from the Midwest to Florida. During the summer especially, the streets were always clogged with the cars of tourists from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and even Canadian provinces. On this day, Dan waited until we were in the middle of the intersection under the traffic light and started bucking. I was used to it by then and knew how to wrap my legs under his forelegs to keep from falling off. When he finally tired of his game, he calmed down and we started up the street. To my surprise, a number of tourists who had gotten out of their cars to watch the show started applauding. I was embarrassed and rode away as quickly as I could make Dan go.
During my junior year in high school, I was a member of the Future Farmers of America. As such we had to have a project. Mine was to raise a bull calf. I bought the purebred white-faced Hereford for $10 from a farmer as soon as it was weaned. We put it in the barn and I took care of it for a year, buying its feed and seeing to its needs. Actually, it was a pretty easy project, and shortly before the end of the school year, Daddy and I loaded the calf, which was starting to get big and contrary as bulls tend to do, onto a trailer and took it to a stock auction in Knoxville where it brought me a little over $100. All in all, I made a profit of about $50 for my six months of work.
After the Kitchen Lumber Co. folded, Daddy got into raising bird dogs. My favorite was a pointer named Jake. We also had a feisty little English setter and various other dogs from time to time. But Jake was the mainstay. I recall on one hunting trip in the Elk Valley, Jake tore out to retrieve the downed birds after we had shot into a covey. But he didn’t come back. We searched high and low, calling out for him and whistling. No Jake. It was lunchtime so we sat down on some logs in a clearing to eat our sandwiches, wondering what had become of Jake. As we ate, we heard a slight stirring under one of the felled logs that was still resting on its stump. We eased over for a look. There was Jake, crouched down under the log in what had to be a very uncomfortable position, rigid in a point at a wounded but still living bob-white quail. Daddy picked up the bird and killed it, and Jake came out, happily wagging his tail. We had been within a few yards of him the whole time but he wouldn’t give up his point or betray his position no matter how much we called.
After the lumber company’s demise, Daddy still had thousands of acres of mountain land, particularly in the Laurel Branch area. He got the idea that cattle could range in the mountains and be almost self-sustaining. There was plenty for the cows to eat and abundant water. He would let a bull roam with them to produce a continuing supply of calves. We had a couple of left over draft horses from the logging operation, and I helped Mac plow a big field and plant corn. The cornfield was fenced, but the rest was open range.
The bull was a beautiful animal, a registered white-faced Hereford that Daddy had picked up in an exchange for some horses. Everything started off pretty smoothly. The cows didn’t roam too far and the bull did his duty by them when the time came. The problems started when we discovered that one of the cows was a “whore cow.” She was constantly coming into heat, but could not be impregnated. The poor bull was being worked to death trying to service her. He began to lose weight and Daddy became concerned. One day we went up to the mountain and found that the bull, undoubtedly starved after another round with the whore cow, had broken down the fence and gotten into the cornfield. The corn crop was decimated. Afterward, the bull took off down the mountain looking for water. We found him stuffed and exhausted about five miles away at the Clear Fork River.
Another adventure with the farm came one night during a storm. Daddy got worried about horses in their stable beside Laurel Branch. We drove out there in the middle of the night and found that the ranging creek had already washed out the bridges on the road leading to the stable. We took off up the mountain and along a high bluff over the creek. It was slippery going in the rain and mud, but we made it to the stable and rescued the animals, who were already standing in about two feet of water.
Sometime during my high school years I came upon a new hobby: photography. I don’t recall how I got interested. Nobody I knew was doing it. Daddy had an old Kodak camera that was pretty good, and Uncle Kyle had just bought a neat little 3-¼ x4-¼ Crown Graphic, a smaller version of the 4×5 Speed Graphic cameras used by news photographers in those days. He frequently let me borrow it. My first darkroom was the bathroom, but since we had only one that was constantly in use, Daddy soon built me a small darkroom in the basement, complete with running water. I spent hours there, developing and printing. It also became my secret hideaway for just getting out of the way and being by myself.
It was Uncle Kyle’s little Crown Graphic that gave me my first taste of the news business.
It was a typical spring Saturday night in Jellico—the weather was balmy, the streets were packed with people window shopping and visiting with friends, and I was wandering with Uncle Kyle’s Crown Graphic looking for interesting pictures. I was on the north end of Main Street when I heard a crash. I ran toward the noise, thinking it was a car wreck. What I found was a Ford truck sitting in what had been the plate glass window of the Mountain Bus Station. On the door of the truck were the words, “Property of Brushy Mt. Prison.” I started shooting pictures, and piecing together the story.
Dick Rue, a trusty at the state prison in Petros in Morgan County about 50 miles west of Jellico, had driven off in the prison truck after getting a letter from his wife, a waitress at the bus station café, saying she wanted to divorce him. In Jellico, he had to drive past the intersection of Fifth Street, Main and South Main where Police Chief Drew Roberts always kept a vigil, particularly on Saturday nights. But Roberts apparently didn’t notice the prison truck. At the bus station, Rue called her outside. After a discussion, she went back in and he got in the truck, drove about 200 yards to the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, turned around and smashed the truck into the plate glass window.
He jumped out of the truck cab and hit his wife. The restaurant owner pulled a gun and shot Rue, wounding him superficially. Sadly, a man playing a pinball machine just inside the restaurant and a 15-year-old crippled boy who was on the sidewalk were killed in the incident.
Police Chief Roberts arrived on the scene and arrested Rue. He was taken to Jellico Hospital, a block from our house, for treatment of his wound. Mac, my brother, had shown up at the scene in the meantime. I gave him the camera to shoot a picture of Rue when he came out of the hospital and I raced home to call the Knoxville newspapers. I first called the Journal, but Juanita Glenn, the state editor, wasn’t interested. Next I called the News-Sentinel. State Editor Warner Ogden was extremely interested. He took down everything I gave him and asked me to send the pictures on the next Greyhound bus.
My story was at the top of Page One in the News-Sentinel both Sunday and Monday. The follow-up reported the death of the second victim, the teenager.
I earned the great sum of $29 for my efforts, $10 each for the two pictures they used, and $9 for the stories. It wasn’t a bad evening’s pay in 1948. I should have shaved my bounty with Mac because he actually shot one of the pictures, Rue leaving the hospital after being treated.
More important than the immediate payment I received was being hired as Ogden’s Jellico correspondent. From then until I graduated from high school four years later, I covered all the news events in Jellico and the northern end of Campbell County.
Ogden was a small, retiring man who always wore a green eyeshade and garters on the sleeves of his white shirt. Years later when I was on home leave from my post as AP correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, I stopped by the News-Sentinel newsroom to say hello.
“You were the best correspondent I ever had in Jellico,” he commented. “If you ever want the job back, just let me know.” I don’t think he was being ironic.
‘It takes a village’
The current buzz phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” could have been invented in Jellico. The whole town had a hand in the upbringing of all its children. We were nurtured and protected, and at the same time exposed to the realities of life, sometimes life at its harshest. The Depression had been hard, but the war years were even harder with so many of the men gone from town. Yet they were good years with fond memories. After the war, life returned to normal. But things had changed.
Jellico was a beautiful place—at least for three seasons of the year: spring with its bright green freshness, the winds of March sending kites soaring to new heights, the April rains gently bathing away the remnants of winter; summer with is slow, lazy days; fall with its spectacular display of colors. Winter was a different story—the hills barren and stark, the skies cloudy, the days short. When it snowed that changed with the bleakness of the hills softened by a blanket of white—but only for a few hours because quickly a layer of coal soot would turn the white snow to a dirty gray.
I truly had a carefree childhood—wandering freely around town, hiking in the mountains, traveling with Daddy to the various lumber company job sites, playing and sharing dreams with my friends.
Jellico had its share of problems and problem people, but most of the people I knew were kind, good-hearted, hard-working citizens who had time for the little boy with the big glasses.
I think I best summed up my feelings for Jellico in a column I wrote when I was editor of the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington under the headline: Is it a real place? Yes, Mary, there is a Jellico
After reading a recent column, Standard staffer Mary Conway asked me, “Is Jellico a real place or just something you imagined to illustrate your stories?”
Yes, Mary, there is a Jellico.
To find it you take Interstate 75 north from Knoxville and take the Jellico exit. It’s the one right after Stinking Creek Road exit.
Jellico is the only place in the world, as far as I know, with this name. The Brazilians recognized this when they put on my driver’s license as my place of birth “Jellico, North America.” That’s really all you need.
Jellico is nestled snugly between Pine Mountain and Indian Mountain and sits astraddle the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In it’s heyday in the first part of this century, it was a boomtown serving the surrounding coal and logging industries.
Jellico is not Dogpatch, as many visitors have found to their surprise. It is a blend of many things, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” and maybe even a smidgen of “Peyton Place.”
Many Jellico natives have achieved success, fame and fortune in many fields, but none is more famous than opera singer Grace Moore whose career was ended at its peak in 1947 in a plane crash.
I remember Jellico as a gentle place even though I grew up during a period when bloody violence raged across the southern Appalachian coalfields. Coal was king when I was a youth but by the time I finished high school, the industry was faltering. I and most of my classmates had to leave to seek our fortunes elsewhere. It seemed that Jellico would become a ghost town.
But Jellico didn’t die. It survives and today and once again seems to be flourishing.
Much has changed in my hometown since I left there 33 years ago. But more than you might expect is still the same.
Dick Creekmore still runs a grocery store on Main Street, but he now also has a supermarket a few blocks away. Culver’s shoe shop is still there near the intersection of Main and Fifth Streets.
Jake McCleary is still at the bank and Harold Moon still sings bass in the choir at Jellico Methodist Church. Mrs. McCleary still plays the organ every Sunday at the First Baptist Church. Mrs Kate Wirtz, a pillar in the Catholic Church, still writes about the goings and comings and doings of Jellico’s citizens in the Advance-Sentinel.
The house where I was born is still there but the road out front is paved. The yard seems smaller and the coalhouse and chicken yard out back have been torn away. The honeysuckle and hollyhocks that perfumed the summer evenings of my youth also are gone.
Grace Moore’s old home, where my Aunt Esther and Uncle Hugh lived in later years, has been torn away and replaced by an apartment building. The Central Drug Store is still on Main Street but the Gay Theater where Saturday double features were nine cents is no longer there.
Pickup trucks have replaced the mule-drawn coal wagons whose tailgates provided convenient, if not swift, transportation for lads such as myself.
Fast food places abound in the Crouches Creek area where the interstate goes through and Tannery Hollow has become the fashionable place to live.
Many people have left. A few, such as Dean Rodeheaver and her late husband Clyde, returned to spend their retirement years there.
Above all, Jellico is still a place filled with “dear hearts and gentle people,” who indeed make me feel welcome every time I return.
And, though it is indeed a real, living place, Jellico is, for me at least, a state of mind. It is there that my roots lie and it is from there that whatever I have become got it’s start. It is my measuring stick for values because I have never found any improvement on the values that were taught there.
And no matter how far I travel or what I see and do, I know that I always have to go back to Jellico to put it into perspective.
Sadly, all the people named in that 1980s article have since gone to their reward. But Jellico keeps going.
A book could be written on Jellico’s characters of those years. There was, for instance, a “Mrs. Malaprop.” She always tried to use the biggest word possible, and most of the time got it wrong. She swished into the bank one afternoon and approached the president, who was talking to a group of men in the lobby. “Mr. McCleary, I would like to have a private intercourse with you in your office.” She probably meant “interview.” Mother and I were sitting in the auditorium at the Jellico City School waiting for some performance to begin on the stage. She came up and asked, “Is this seat preserved?” She worked for a local doctor, and she arrived late for a bridge club session one afternoon explaining that she had been delayed because she had to have “Doctor’s entrails engraved on his watch.” Another time she told a group of people that she was very tired because she had spent the afternoon “cleaning Doctor’s privates.”
We had a town prostitute who turned tricks in her Ford car. Another, less successful, was available under a bridge after dark, but she was so dirty she got few takers.
We had our share of sex scandals. A man from a prominent family left town abruptly after he was accused of fondling boys on a Boy Scout hike. Another prominent man was literally caught by his wife with his pants down at the home of another woman. Another couple were caught under a tree, he wearing nothing but his undershirt and she her slip. And a single mother got away with the story of a soldier husband who was killed in the war until her son grew up to be the spit and image of a local man.
My memory of growing up in Jellico is a kaleidoscope of colors, smells, and other sensations that are hard to put in print. How, for instance, can you describe the feeling of grass wet from the dew between your toes on a warm spring morning? Or the not unpleasant smell of hay, horseflesh, harness leather and manure of a stable? Or the smell of burning leaves in the fall? Or the dirt turned over by a bulldozer grading a road on Laurel Branch? Or the sweet honeysuckle vine outside my window in South End? Or the fresh smell of the earth after a brief shower?
What could be better than lying on the ground on a summer afternoon watching the huge cumulus clouds forming all kinds of intriguing shapes against the deep blue sky? What could be more beautiful than the dogwoods, mountain laurel and dozens of other spectacular plants on the green hillsides? What could taste better than a tomato, still warm from the sun, picked straight from the vine and eaten on the spot?
We don’t choose where we grow up, of course. But I can’t think of any place that I’ve seen that I would have preferred to my hometown, Jellico.
See: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/JJ/hvj25.html (accessed June 9, 2010)
I was about 16 when my breathing became so impaired that a specialist suggested correcting the deviated septum, a minor procedure but done, in those days, in a hospital. I checked into St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville for the operation. The only complication was that after they put me back in the room and took out the cotton they had plugged up my nose with, I started bleeding profusely. The nurse stuck a bedpan under my nose while she went to hunt for the doctor. Apprently I dozed off. A nun, in those flowing white habits you described, came in and saw me asleep with the bed perched precariously on my chest and reached to take it off. When she did I awoke and seeing the white vision in front of me — probably thinking I’d died and was being greeted by an angel — I jumped, sloshing the bedpan contents all over the immaculate habit.