The teen years

We lived during my early childhood and elementary school days 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.

After my grandmother’s death in 1948, my parents decided it was time to move to a better location. Daddy bought a lot on Fifth Street and planned to build a house on it. 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 and the lack of her own house.

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.

A trip to Texas

Daddy also had bought a brand new Kaiser automobile, replacing the war surplus Jeep he had bought when the 1941 Ford sedan that had valiantly seen us through the war years died. The Kaiser was truly a luxury car compared to the Jeep and even the Ford. To inaugurate it, Mother, Daddy, Mama Miller and I headed off for Texas to spend Christmas 1948 with Uncle Clayton and Aunt Madge in Edinburg. It was my first long trip and I still remember it vividly, especially places like Natchez, Mississippi, New Orleans, Galveston, Brownsville, and, of course, Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley, including visits to the nearby border towns of Reynosa and Matamoros, my first ever experience with a foreign country. And it was interesting to experience Christmas in the warm weather, something I would come to take as commonplace during our years in the tropics of South America and the Caribbean.

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 almost inevitable teen-age acne.

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, Edgar Allan Poe, 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 raised an eyebrow at my explanation, but praised my writing and had me read the story to the class. It was probably the first A I got in English.

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 Federal 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 a 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 four-door 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 since 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 13 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.

A visit to the Nation’s Capital

It wasn’t until my senior year that I had a “steady” girlfriend. She was a cute sophomore named Phyllis Llewellyn and I was totally smitten. 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 Daddy about it, he pointed out that the boy in question came from a poor farm family and that any 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.

Next: With a song in my heart

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