A lot of times, when folks find out I'm from the Appalachian Foothills, they want to know if I'm a hillbilly. Well, I'll let you judge that for yourself.
Although I have lived other places in my life, I am now back in Kentucky with my family to stay. The memories of my childhood here are as precious as any gem to me.
I was raised by my grand-parents and spent part of my youth in little four room shack that sat on a shale cliff overlooking the Kentucky River. No running water. No indoor plumbing.With the river at my feet and the mountains above, I was in heaven. I didn't know we were poor, it was just our way of life. We raised a garden, and my grandmother canned the vegetables we managed to get to grow in a soil heavy with clay. Working in the garden was not an option, we needed what food it could provide to help cut living expenses and be able to afford a few of the luxuries of life.
Chickens roamed the yard not knowing that at anytime they could be the main course for the night's menu, and there were eggs to be gathered before I left for school on the bus that came down the narrow road. Meals were cooked on an old wood fueled cook-stove and to this day I can still taste the gravy and biscuits my grandmother made there. We did have electricity, but just enough to have lights. No television, just an old Channel Master radio that crackled like thunder when I tried to tune in the rock and roll stations from Lexington some 50 miles distant. Life was simple and good.
We had a boat that my great-grandfather had made tied to the bank down below the house and somewhere he had come up with an old Sears Game Fisher motor for it. It was a two and a half horsepower and would only push the heavy wooden boat up-stream slightly faster that one could have walked it at a decent pace.
I must have traveled a thousand miles up and down that stretch of river between locks 12 and 13, running what we called "trot lines" for catfish (A trot line is a piece of nylon staging with hooks hanging down every three or four feet. It was strung between the banks of the river and weighted with rocks (or whatever was handy) to hold it near the bottom and baited with live craws) or placing bank sets ( a thick length of cane with a heavy line and hook) into the shore near the undercuts the river made in it's travels to try to get the big flat-head catfish that are the best eating of the family.
These were baited with a live sunfish or bluegill and rigged so it's back just cut the top of the water enough to allow it to create a commotion and draw the predatory fish in to be caught. We did a lot of what you might would consider "normal" fishing with rod and reel too, but these types of set-ups were, on the whole, more productive in putting fish in the freezer.
Reading consumed much of my nights at home and I still remember the very first hardcover book I ever owned. I still have it today and could lay my hand to it now. It was Jack London's "Call of the Wild" and it fostered a love of literature in me that burns brightly even today. It was only later, when I became old enough to drive and saved up enough money for an old junker, that I began to sample the more worldly pleasures of life.
Church played a big part in my childhood . Since my Great-grandfather was a minister, we went to every meeting of any kind that was held. Not only on Sundays, but Prayer meetings on Wednesdays, singings, revivals, or any other function. I may have back-slid so far now the knees of my britches are worn out, but it gave me the foundation of what was right and wrong.
My very favorite thing to attend, was what they called a "Dinner on the Ground". Friend, let me tell you. You can't get any better food than what those mountain ladies would bring to these affairs because every woman cooked what she made the best. They would spread table cloths out on the ground and place the food on them. I am not exaggerating when I say there would sometimes be 50 or 60 feet of table cloths laid out with every square inch covered with food. Most of it so good, if you got a little on your eyebrow, your tongue would beat your brains out trying to get to it!
When we weren't working or in school or church, we roamed the forests building forts and slaughtered innumerable imaginary foes with BB-guns and arrows fired from home-made bows or a jack-rock from an inner-tube rubber powered sling shot whittled with care from a wild dog-wood.
My friends and I swam in the Kentucky River and built the tallest swings we could fly out of in the elms, maples and sycamores that line it's banks. We would wade the creeks catching crawdads (crayfish) and salamanders and keeping a close eye out for copperheads and rattle snakes, the predominate species of poisonous snakes in this area.
Swinging on any opportune wild grape-vine also offered the chance for a little dangerous thrill. Or, we would do what we called "riding a tree".
This little trick involves finding a young tree or sapling that looked to be about right, and shinnying quickly up it to the very top where your weight would cause the tree to bend over until you were standing back on the ground, or at least were so close you could drop the rest of the way.
Now there was knack to this, requiring a good eye for a tree and the use of what I refer to now, as the MOB=BOT formula. Wherein: The Mass Of Butt belonging to the prospective rider MUST equal the Bend Of Tree. This must be preformed correctly! A casual miscalculation could leave one suspended at an inconvenient height, or enduring the insufferable indignity of laying flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you (or worse) and the broken top of a tree in your hands, not to mention the guffaws coming from your fellow tree riders.
Hunting was a way of life too. I knew how to rig a spring snare for a fat, juicy, rabbit by the time I was 8. That way we could eat the fellows that were eating our garden! Squirrel and dumplings was a treat to be enjoyed and venison was a treasure here in an area where most of the deer were killed out during the depression and subsequent years. But now, I don't hold it against those folks. They did what they had to do to survive in an already impoverished area.
Some of you good people might turn your nose up at such meager fare, but I tell you now, nothing tasted better to me at the time. We would kill pigs in the fall and dress and package them, curing the hams and hanging the jowls for bacon. Nothing much of a pig went to waste. Even the brains were consumed although I must confess to having never developed a taste for that (yuck!).
So you see, I was brought up close to earth and animal and therefore feel a kinship that perhaps few will understand. I only hope that I can teach my own children how to love and respect the land and creatures that surround them here as much as I do. For, as much as we would use the bounty of the earth available to us, we never dreamed of abusing it. The taking of another creature's life was tantamount to murder if that animal was not to be consumed or used.
Things sure have changed a lot since the days I ran barefoot in the Kentucky country-side and felt the mud squish up between my toes. Twenty-five or thirty years doesn't seem like such a long time ago. I never dreamed then, that I would be where I am today; with a family of my own that I love heart and soul. Just goes to show you I guess, that you never can tell.
I hope this little monologue has dispelled a few myths about folks like myself and maybe enhanced a few others. Because well, if you haven't figured it out by this point my friend, let me put it to you in plain terms........
I am a Kentuckian by right of birth and proud of it, but I'm a hillbilly by the grace of God!