Reflecting on baby brother’s death
November 9, 2018
In a perfect cycle of life, children would outlive parents and younger siblings would outlive older ones.
We don’t live in a perfect world, and our life cycle is far from perfect. Both the cycle and the world are flawed. And there’s nothing we can do about it.
When my cell phone quacked (I have a mallard duck ringtone) about 15 or 20 minutes before 3 o’clock on the morning of November 7 and I saw my sister Jeanne’s name on the caller ID, I knew either she had butt-dialed me or she was calling with bad news. I wasn’t sufficiently awake to speculate about what the news might be.
I certainly wasn’t expecting her to say something like, “I hate to call you at this time of day but Jeff died this morning.”
Daddy, who died at the age of 93, and mother, who lived half a year past her 87th birthday, left behind six siblings. That was part of what would have been a perfect life cycle. Daddy, being older, went first, and then mother followed about three weeks later.
I should have been next. I’m the oldest. The line of succession should have been me, then Jeanne, Jerry, Jeff, Julie, and Janie. Our births spanned a period of nearly 23 years. Jeff was fourth. I was born in 1943, he came along in 1959.
I wasn’t around Jeff very much. He was only a couple of years old when I went off to college, and then I went off to marriage, and fatherhood, and work. I saw him mostly on visits.
He was fun to be with. Smiling, inquisitive, quick to come up with nicknames for people. For some reason, he called daddy Lamp.
Mother and daddy moved from Wickliffe to Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the 1960s. Jeff went to school there. From very early in his life, he participated in sports at the Boys Club of Oak Ridge, and later, he coached kids in basketball, football and baseball.
I moved to Oak Ridge in 1976 and saw him more frequently than before, but we had separate lives and I can’t say we were close. I wish we had been closer.
Jeff had significant health issues in recent years, due in part to his work in nuclear clean-up at the Department of Energy plants in Oak Ridge. He had to wear oxygen all the time. He knew his time was limited because of breathing problems associated with COPD and other issues, but I don’t think he or anyone else expected that his life would be snuffed out by a heart attack. A heart attack. He was more than a month shy of his 59th birthday. People that young should not be stolen from us by heart attacks. In a perfect world, people that young would not be taken by any condition.
There probably are other, better stories that Jeff’s contemporaries can share. I can think of three.
The earliest one was from a time I was still living at home, or not long after I left. Jeff was in diapers and playing in the front yard of our home alongside Beech Grove Road outside of Wickliffe. I had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, name of Smoky, that I had bought from Clint Boyd. Daddy advanced me the money, $20 I think, and I was supposed to pay him back at the rate of a dollar a week. I don’t know if I did, or if he and I forgot the payments. If Jeff toddled too close to the road, Smoky would either grab him by the diaper and pull him away, or get between him and the road.
Another memory was when I was visiting them in Oak Ridge and was playing catch with Jeff in the back yard. I was in my tobacco-chewing phase back then and I had a twist of home-cured tobacco from uncle Herman Tilley. Jeff wanted to try it, probably because many big leaguers in those days chewed tobacco and spat upon the baseball diamond. That was a decision he regretted after he took a couple of chews and turned a different shade. I suspect that was his last attempt to chew.
There was a greenbelt – a wooded area – behind the Oak Ridge house. Either I had a tent or there was one at the house when I was visiting. We decided to put up the tent in the woods and spend the night there. Jeff was a bit worried about bears. “Joe, are there bears in these woods,” he asked me. I told him I guess a stray bear could be there but it was unlikely. After a while, he asked his second question: “Joe, will bears hurt you?” I said that they might but they probably wouldn’t if left alone, and if they got too close, you could hit them on the nose with something. He ruminated on that for a bit and then, seeking some assurance of his safety and believing I might be able to provide protection, finally asked, “Joe, can you whip a bear?”
I can ponder the unfairness of Jeff’s death without a lot of pain. It’s when I see pictures of him and ponder that unfairness that it hurts the most. He has entered a state of peace that his friends and siblings won’t find right away.
Friends and family will gather for a memorial service at the Boys Club, which was practically his second home, on November 17. He told Jeanne he wanted to come back to Ballard County to be beside mother and daddy. A graveside service will be held at the Wickliffe cemetery at some later date.
I don’t like going to cemeteries to say goodbye to family.
Are you sure you’re who you think you are?
June 11, 2019
It’s surprising to learn that you are not exactly who you thought you were. Not necessarily a bad surprise or a good surprise, but definitely a surprise.
I lived for almost 75 years proud of the fact that my several times paternal great grandfather came to this continent by boat from England in 1635.
Because of Ancestry.com, I learned that wasn’t true. If the family tree information shown on Ancestry is correct, my several times paternal great grandmother had been here for 23 years before Edward Culver or Cullver or Collver or Colver the Puritan arrived to be one of the founders of Dedham, Mass.
I am suspicious of the information about place of birth, but if it is correct my great grandmother times 12 was Anne Lewes, reportedly born in 1613 in James City, Va.
Submitting DNA to a service such as Ancestry.com can help you learn much about your genetic history. In some cases, what you learn may be shocking. In my case, I learned that my biological father wasn’t who had always been my daddy. I was almost 75 when I learned that. Now, I feel as if the Culver side of me is only a third instead of a half. I have discovered a biological third that I never expected. That third belongs to the Lester family.
I learned that my maternal biological line is indeed the Crice family through my mother, Jessie Lee Crice Culver. I learned that J.D. Culver was and remains my father in every possible way … except biologically. I learned that the biological father was a man named Douthitt Lester, a resident of Bardwell at the time.
Here’s the story of how I learned about a new side of me.
My sister Jeanne Culver Thorpe is very much into genealogical research. In fact, she has a couple of books about the Culver family available through Amazon.com.
She sent her DNA sample to Ancestry, and eventually I did too. It became very interesting to see the eight relatives’ matches that were changed every couple of days.
I started noticing a match to someone shown by the name of suzzannek1. This match stood out because it was at the same relationship level as Jeanne. Jeanne and I talked about it and exchanged e-mails, trying to guess how I could have such a close match who didn’t show up among her matches. We guessed every way except the right one.
Jeanne eventually made contact with suzzannek1, whose name is Suzzanne Kozma. She is the daughter of the late Douthitt Lester. The only way we could have been related so closely is that we had the same father. And that’s what it was. Douthitt (Les) Lester is my father and hers.
I have looked at Lester history and I’ve decided that I’m happy to have a third family tree. There have been some impressive Lesters, and, yes, some maybe who could be overlooked, especially the two who murdered two men.
I encourage you to use one of the DNA services. I know of two, Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. You may find information you should pass along to your children. I did.
J.D Culver lived to be 93 and Jessie Lee Culver lived to 87. I thought that provided good odds for my descendants. But then I learned about the Lester side.
The best I can figure, I have already lived longer than any of my direct male ancestors among the Lesters. This gave me a good basis to tell my children, especially my sons, to mind their health.
Here’s why. My father, Douthitt Lester, died at age 49. My half-brother Bill Lester was dead at 43. My grandfather Clyde Lester, who was principal and superintendent of Bardwell schools and served as a state representative, fell dead at the dining table at age 50. (His wife was Ethel Douthitt Lester, who taught school in this area.) His father, Dr. William Henry Lester, lived to age 70, but his father, Dr. Sterling Henry Lester, lived only 25 years. Sterling’s wife, Anne Cole Davis, married him when she was 14 years old, gave birth at 15, and died when she was 16.
Sterling’s father was Fountain Claiborne Lester, who died at 40. According to a newspaper story, he sliced a man’s throat during an argument. That didn’t prove fatal so he stabbed the man in the throat, and it worked that time.
His father was Fountain Lester, who lived to be either 74 or 75. I haven’t found the date of his birth so I don’t know which is correct. Fountain’s father was Henry Lester, who made it to age 74. Bryan William Lester was his father, and he lived to be 65.
They were preceded by a series of Richard Lesters. Richard IV died at 54, Richard III died at 67, Richard II lived only to age 35, and his father, Richard Andrew Lester (being the first, he didn’t need a number), lived only to age 23.
Thomas Lester, who would have been my 12th grandfather, or great-grandfather, lived to be 64. The ancestry tree says that he married Anne Lewes, who was born in James City, Va., in 1613. She lived until 1635.
There were a lot of early deaths. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know about the Lester family until I was nearly 75 or I might not have lived this long.
Mowing and thinking about Uncle Billy Bob
April 27, 2020
While mowing late this morning and early this afternoon, I thought about my uncle Billy Bob Crice.
I don’t think Billy Bob could have followed Gov. Andy’s rules for staying safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Billy Bob didn’t just want to be around people, he needed to be around them. That’s who he was. He loved being around people more than any other person I’ve known.
He knew practically everyone in the county and a ton of people all across the state. He knew who their parents and grandparents were, he knew their spouses, he knew their children and grandchildren if they had any.
He might not always remember a first name. That’s why it was not uncommon to hear Billy Bob call people by their last name.
In his later years when his hearing was bad, he probably didn’t understand what you said. But that didn’t matter. He would smile his Billy Bob smile and nod his head as if he did hear and agree. He knew what he wanted to say to you, and that was satisfaction enough.
Don’t shake hands? You might as well have told Billy Bob not to breathe. If you and he were at the same place, perhaps in a restaurant, and he didn’t know you, more than likely he would approach you and hold out his hand. He would hang onto that handshake longer than most people. Before he let go, he would know your name and where you lived. If he did know you, it was the same approach except for asking your name.
And when it was time to leave, it would take him half an hour after he said he was leaving before he actually made it outside. He had to stop on his way out and talk to everyone.
After I retired, I took Billy Bob lots of places. I served as the loud voice to tell him what the other person said. Very often, the person to whom he was talking also was old and hard of hearing, so I was speaking loudly in both directions. As a result, I continue to talk louder than necessary.
My mother was one of Billy Bob’s sisters. Whatever was the gene that drove him to enjoy being around people, I didn’t get it. I’m perfectly satisfied being at home without another human to whom I have to speak loudly. I did, however, like being with Billy Bob and serving as the loud voice. I miss him.
OK, if they are big portions
August 12, 2019
After seeing my recent photo of bacon I burned on the cooking sheet, my baby sister (by about 23 years), Janie Culver Handlin, texted a photo of some perfectly browned, crispy bacon her husband, Chuck, cooked.
She added a note, something like, “Wish you were here so you and Chuck could share the bacon,” the “here” in her note being Vero Beach, Fla., where Bella Culver and I visited for a few days a couple of weeks ago.
I replied that even though Chuck’s bacon looked very good, there wasn’t enough of it even for just me, much less enough to share with anyone.
I doubt if there were more than six strips. Good grief folks, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of turning on the stove if six slices of bacon was all I planned to cook. I don’t consume bacon exactly by the pound, but certainly not by the slice. Two pounds of bacon lasts for about three meals. Of course, I don’t eat all of it; I break off about an inch of each strip and share it with Herman. He likes bacon too.
Janie wrote back that maybe I need to work on portion control.
Portion control! Prithee and pray tell, what in hell is portion control? My problem is high blood sugar. The doctor has never once told me I have high portions.
Anyway, I do control portions. A half a dozen strips of bacon is not a portion. Nine strips starts getting close.
Portion control! Of course I control portions. Just a few minutes ago, for instance, I decided to eat some leftover beef vegetable soup I cooked yesterday. I looked at it and evaluated it by the portion scale – by the way, I am very pro-portion; I deal in large proportions when it comes to eating – and decided that it probably wasn’t enough for three bowls full, maybe two and a half bowls, so I ate all of it so as not to be wasteful. Now that’s what I call portion control.
And maybe sharing an inch off of each strip of bacon with Herman is a whole nother kind of portion control.
By the way, remind me a little later to check my blood sugar.
Where’s the sauce?
September 13, 2018
A couple of my sisters and I, and a few first cousins and some first cousins once removed, and maybe even some cousins not far enough removed have submitted DNA to Ancestry.com.
Every day or two, Ancestry posts eight shared matches I can check to see what genealogy we might share.
Most of the matches are distant cousins. Most of them are 5th to 8th cousins. I’ve never heard of them. I’ll never meet them.
Some matches are people I know, like the two sisters, and cousins Jackie Faye and Roger Crice. A few second cousins crop up from time to time.
Some of the matches lead to significant surprises. But that’s how it goes with DNA. Don’t do it if you’re not man enough – or woman enough – to find out things you never suspected.
I was scrolling through shared matches earlier today and came across a couple of fascinating names.
One of the names was Sue Bacon. The other was a made-up name like you see on some other sites. It was Piglegg.
Piglegg. Sue Bacon.
Where’s the barbecue when you need it?
You should see the other guy
June 1, 2017
My sister, Jeanne, had the pleasure recently of having dental surgery, which involved a couple of dental implants and bone grafts. That sounds like something a person would do for entertainment on a Saturday, doesn’t it? If you answered, “Hell no,” then you got it right.
Jeanne was raised in Ballard County – in Wickliffe and later just outside of Wickliffe – and went to school here, including part of her high school years. She moved to Oak Ridge, Tenn., with the rest of the family when my father got a job there. I had already run away from home by then and may have been working at the Cairo Evening Citizen. Jeanne became a graduate of Oak Ridge High School. She then earned a degree from Tennessee Tech.
Jeanne retired not too long ago after teaching nuclear worker safety at a Department of Energy site in Oak Ridge. Now, like me (oldest of the six siblings by at least a few days), she’s an older person, married, living in Knoxville, the mother of a beautiful daughter and the grandmother of a handsome young boy.
She sent me an e-mail about the dental experience. I thought it was clever – it made me smile, which is a rare thing – so I asked for permission to use it and she said I could, so here it is:
While waiting for my turn to see my dental surgeon, I had time to reflect on the young generation that manages and directs us these days. Do you remember when we were young and our elders had to explain to us some of their humor? We have become our elders.
Last week, I had dental surgery to insert two dental implants and two bone grafts. One of the side effects, in addition to the pain, are the bruises on my face and down my chin and neck. Looks like I have grown a beard.
I have been asked more than once, “What does the other guy look like?”
When I reported to the dental office, I announced “I'm here to see the other guy.” All I got were blank stares. I said “never mind” and told them who I was and who I was there to see. I shuffled to my seat and waited for my appointment. (At least the staff was kind and well-mannered – I don't think that they talked about the “batty” old woman until after I left.)
On a better note, my dentist understood when I said “You should see the other guy” and laughed. I added “You are the other guy.”
Grave Witching at Crice Cemetery
August 25, 2010
“Here’s the head of another grave,” says Leon Todd on this early Wednesday afternoon at the Crice Cemetery in the Oscar/Barlow bottoms. The weather is cooler than it has been, so it’s almost possible to breathe in the humid atmosphere that is common here. If you could wring the air, you’re pretty sure that water would run out.
“I think that’s where John Crice’s headstone stood,” Kenneth Crice says. “Someone stole it or moved it, but I think it was there.”
Donnie Lanier, one of Crice’s good friends, has brought a probe: a piece of steel about the diameter of a pencil, three or four feet long, with a steel handle welded at one end to form a letter T. Lanier probes where Todd has indicated would be the head of the grave. The probe hits something that sounds like rock.
Crice and Lanier do some gentle digging a few inches into the ground and sure enough, they find the base of the monument that once marked John Crice’s grave. He died in 1866 at age 75. He was Kenneth Crice’s great-great grandfather. Kenneth is my first cousin.
That’s the 22nd grave Todd has located in the cemetery, which lies on two sides of a lane that runs between weeds and trees. Before he leaves on this 25th day of August, he has located around 35 graves. Todd indicates where the head and the foot of the graves are, and Crice drives two stakes to mark each grave.
Crice met the Todds – Leon and Fay – at meetings of the Ballard-Carlisle Historical and Genealogical Society. Crice was telling about his work in preserving the Crice Cemetery, and Todd told him about using divining rods to locate graves. The proper term, according to Todd, is dowsing, but many people refer to the practice as grave witching. That’s consistent with the term “water witching” which refers to the practice of locating underground water.
Todd agreed to come to the Crice Cemetery to help determine how many people are buried there. The markers go back into the 1800s. There are not many markers, but Kenneth Crice suspected that many people were buried in graves that weren’t marked or the monuments were stolen or lost over the more than a century that the land has served as a cemetery.
The Todds live about three and a half miles west of Bardwell on Highway 123.
They’ve been dowsing for graves for about three years. Both of them say they can locate graves, but Leon does most of the dowsing.
“I got interested in it after I’d read about it,” he says. “There’s a lady over at Carbondale, Ill., who’s done it for 30 or 40 or 50 years and I talked to her and I just thought I’d try it.”
He made his first set of divining rods by bending two welding rods, about nine and a half inches long on the long end and four or five inches on the short end. He cut two sections of a broom handle and drilled a hole into each section. He places the short end of the rod into the hole. The rods turn freely in the holes.
His first set of rods actually is the only set he’s ever had.
He says the rods don’t have to be of a particular metal. “You can use aluminum or copper or steel,” he says, and adds that the handles don’t make any difference. “You can use the rods in your hands. You don’t even have to have the broom handles,” Todd says.
He’s never tried to find water, but he says he knows people can dowse for water. “I know my granddad did,” Todd says. His grandfather dowsed for water with a forked willow stick.
Todd says that in addition to water, a dowser can find fences, old houses, graves, or abandoned railroad beds.
At the Crice Cemetery, as he walks along and the rods move until they’re pointing at each other, he says he’s found a fence. He traces the fence to see where it was located on the east side of the road, and then tracks it onto the west side.
He doesn’t know how the dowsing works, why it reacts to an old fence line but not to a root that could be growing along that line.
“I don’t have a clue. I don’t think anybody knows.”
After he made his divining rods, Leon and Fay tested them.
“We’d check cemeteries and make sure it’d work,” he says. “Some of Fay’s people had a stone over at Barlow with five names on it. We went there and found all five graves that were around the stone.”
Can most people be successful using divining rods?
“I don’t think everybody can,” Todd says. “Some don’t have the right mindset or something. I think a lot of people could do it if they got the right mindset, and came out here by themselves to kind of get the feel for it. It’s something that’s unexplained. I don’t think anybody knows how it works.”
Does anyone doubt that it works? “Yeah, ’til they see it, you know. A lot of people don’t think water witching works. I know it’ll work because my granddad did it.”
Todd says he doesn’t locate graves for people very often. He goes out mainly with a cousin who does historical research in Carlisle County. “I’ve gone with him and found a lot of stuff. We knew it was there but not exactly where. We’d confirm where it was.”
According to Todd, he can tell if the person buried in the grave is a man or woman. “The woman over at Carbondale uses a dowsing rod,” he explains. “She holds one out and if it goes around counterclockwise, it’s supposed to be a woman and if it goes clockwise it’s supposed to be a man.”
Todd uses a ring tied on one end of a string, but he says you can use just about any metal, even a metal washer. He holds the string and ring above the grave. When it starts rotating in a circle, a clockwise rotation is a man.
He determines if the grave belongs to a child by the length of it. A child’s grave is shorter.
Crice knew there were more burials in this cemetery than there were markers, but he is surprised by the number of sites Todd locates.
This family cemetery could have been lost to family members except for the work Crice put in. His brother, Robert, has helped, and Lanier has also helped, but mostly it’s Crice working alone to keep the weeds down and to maintain the cemetery as well as he can.
Many people consider cemetery preservation to be very important for family members and genealogical researchers. One person came from Michigan to see the Crice Cemetery because he was a distant relative of the Crices and he had heard that some of them were buried there. Seeing the cemetery and the monuments was a moving experience to him.
Remembering with Aunt Nina
June 3, 2019
My sister Jeanne Thorpe, who lives in Knoxville, was opening some boxes the other day, boxes she retrieved from our parents’ house in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a few years ago and just now got around to opening.
She was really surprised by the contents of one of them.
Our daddy apparently clipped almost everything I wrote back in my newspapering days. The box she opened was in the shop at the back of the carport, where he worked on radios and television sets. He was, in my opinion, one of the best at fixing a troubled set. Jeanne said he would sometimes go to the shop and pull out one of the articles or columns and re-read it. I teared up when she told me and I choke a little now as I write this and think about the pride he felt for me.
I looked at my family tree on Ancestry.com a few minutes ago and discovered that Jeanne had scanned in one of the columns daddy kept in that box, and she posted it to my family tree on the ancestry site.
The column was written probably in 1985, when I was managing editor of The Oak Ridger newspaper. I wrote a column each week.
There is one particular paragraph of which I am proud as I read the column nearly 35 years after it was published. It starts with these words: “For Aunt Nina, the distance is mostly of time.”
Because I believe that old column may capture the feelings many of us have after we move away from home for one reason or another, that reason often being to find better career opportunities, I am going to share the entire column with you.
Aunt Nina called Friday night while I was washing dishes.
She was feeling lonely, maybe a little sorry for herself, and also didn’t want to miss an excellent opportunity to lecture me about the bad manners I’ve acquired since I moved from Western Kentucky.
I didn’t mind suffering through the lecture. For one thing, I deserved it; for another, any excuse to stop washing dishes is welcome.
Aunt Nina, you may recall, lives in Paducah, Ky., where she has retired from her job as an operator with the Bell telephone system, or whatever name it goes by in these confusing days.
She grew up outside Wickliffe, Ky., in the old Jones homeplace just across the yard from where my dad built the house where I did a lot of my growing up. Later, we tore down the old homeplace – and a lot of memories at the same time – and I built a house there.
Isn’t it strange how the cycles work? My dad built beside the house in which his mother – Edna Jones was her maiden name – raised him, then later had to move to Oak Ridge for job considerations. We tore down the original house, and I then built beside the house my father built, only to desert that home myself when a marriage went bad and I had a daughter to raise. That’s when I came to Oak Ridge to live close to my parents.
Aunt Nina – Virginia Jones is her real name – never married. She had to leave home for work, too. There wasn’t much to do around Wickliffe in those days except go somewhere else. She was working as an operator for the local phone company – that was in the days when you cranked the phone and told the operator, “I want to talk to Fran,” and a lot of the time you didn’t have to give a last name because the operator knew who you meant – when she was given an opportunity to move to Paducah and work for Bell.
She took it. She really didn’t have much choice. She was unmarried, jobs were scarce around Wickliffe, good jobs were unheard of, and she might not get another chance at a good job.
There wasn’t much around Wickliffe or Ballard County that would make you want to live there … unless you were raised there. In that case, it’s home and it will always be home.
Aunt Nina, for instance, has lived in Paducah for 30 years or more, I suppose, but Wickliffe, and specifically the old homeplace, is still home to her. And I think that’s the reason she called Friday.
“Joey,” she said – she always calls me Joey, calls this column Joey’s Place – “I wish I could get in a boat and go down the Mississippi River.” She had her geography misplaced a little bit, I suspect, since it’s the Ohio that flows past Paducah, joining the Mississippi just below Cairo, Ill., and then the two merged rivers go past Wickliffe, although it is, indeed, called the Mississippi at that point.
Then she reminisced about how her only brother, Walter, who has been dead for several years, swam across the Mississippi when he was a young man. I pointed out to her that the river wasn’t as wide in those days, but that really was irrelevant to the point, if not irreverent to her mood.
She was suffering the same ailment which attacks me regularly, and in growing intensity, these days; some call it homesickness but I prefer to think of it as the disease of distance.
For Aunt Nina, the distance is mostly of time; she lives only 30 miles or less from the memories that are simultaneously sad and happy, but she lives more than 30 years from them.
For me, the span is mostly geographical, some 300 or more miles between point present and point past. I have been in Tennessee for about nine years, so there is also starting to be a time factor for me, too.
A lot of what I want to go back for is no longer there. Time and circumstances erode reality, but not memory, so it is possible to want to return to something you know doesn’t exist. For instance, when Aunt Nina was talking to me on the telephone, for just a few moments I was that little boy searching for baby frogs in the pond near the old homeplace while she watched me. God, that was a long time ago.
I could hear my Me-Ma Culver reading me the poem about Hiawatha, and laughing so happily at something I had said or done.
I was back in the woods that I camped in, hunting in, thought in, hid from unseen woods monsters in.
And I know that Aunt Nina sees her own memories, hears her own laughters, smells in her mind the odors that were so much a part of growing in the old home, where there was baking and frying and coffee percolating.
And even as I long to go back to those memories, I know that the things I remember – the smells, the laughter, the buildings – are not there, and I know that if they were and if I could drive home and walk into the old house, it would not satisfy the bittersweet homesickness.
For what I truly want, what Aunt Nina truly wants, is not really to go visit those places today, but to go back in time and relive them as they were, as they are in the memories, when we were children or younger adults.
That’s why you can’t go home. Home is not the place; rather, it is the place at a point in time. The place may remain, but the time is gone forever.
“Back home” will never be the same again
June 6, 2019
A few days ago I posted a nostalgic column from 1985, when I was managing editor of The Oak Ridger newspaper in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
I never kept clippings of stories or columns from my newspaper days, but my sister Jeanne found it in a box in daddy’s shop where he worked on radio and TV sets. Jeanne said he would sometimes sit in the shop and re-read articles he had clipped from the newspaper. Jeanne said it looked like he kept everything I wrote.
She posted two of the columns into my family tree on Ancestry.com.
This is the second of the two. It is from October 1992. At the time, I was no longer working at the newspaper but I continued to write a weekly column. I was the manager of the public affairs (outreach) program for the Martin Marietta Energy Systems Office of Technology Transfer in Oak Ridge. That was before Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin.
It tells about a trip back to Ballard County for Aunt Pod’s funeral. Pod and Herman Tilley lived in the house that I own now.
Here’s the column:
I’ve lived in Tennessee, mostly in and around Oak Ridge, for almost exactly 16 years but I still think of myself as a Kentuckian.
When I have a chance to go to Ballard County, I say I’m going “back home.”
Today, I wonder if there is a “back home” any longer.
I grew up in Ballard County, went to school there, lived there as a married man, as a father. What really made it home, though, was the strong feeling of family associated with the process of growing up. Parents, uncles and aunts, cousins. Family. People with the same bloodlines. People I enjoyed being around, playing with, laughing with.
One reality of growing up in the country or in a small town in a rural county is that the rural environment, despite all the intrinsic rewards it offers, tends to evict its young adults.
Small towns are small because few people live in them. Few people live in them because there are few jobs. If there were lots of jobs, there would be lots of people.
Some of the young people are able to remain in their small towns because of the ongoing human rotation – people grow old and rotate out of jobs, young people rotate into them – but young people always outnumber available jobs. Always.
Some young men and women want to leave, of course. Others, and I suspect this group includes most of us who grew up in rural settings, would stay there if we could.
But we can’t. We want to earn money, more money than we can earn by staying at home. Society does this on purpose, I believe, to guarantee that the factories of the world will have an ample supply of reliable small-town labor. We do make good workers.
So we are thrown out of our small-town refuges and we go into the larger towns and into the cities and we look forward to those few times a year when we can go “back home” to where we really belong, to our family, and tell trumped-up accounts of how well-off we are in our brick houses on our surveyed city lots with our fine neighbors on both sides.
But year piles atop year, and one day we look around and we realize – brutally and sadly realize – that there isn’t much family waiting to greet us. The new generation has grown up without us; we are strangers to each other, and even the blood-bond we share can’t change that fact. We have become different families within the larger family.
My latest trip back home was also my saddest. Judy and I and our children drove home last Friday. My sister Jeanne and her daughter rode with us. Mother and daddy had gone a day earlier. The family gathered Friday afternoon at the Jones Funeral Home in La Center.
Pod had died Tuesday evening. Pod Tilley, one of mother’s sisters, and her husband, Herman, had returned to their home in Monkey’s Eyebrow from Gary’s house. They chatted in the car like high school kids, Herman said.
While Herman was opening the house door, he heard Pod fall. Herman kneeled to help her, but she made one sound and she was dead.
Pod was the force that kept the family coming back home to Ballard County. When you went back home, where you really were going was to Pod and Herman’s.
The family gathered at the funeral home on Friday and again at the cemetery with Pod for the last time. We visited and talked, laughed at times, but we also cried. We cried deeply. We hurt. We hurt for ourselves as individuals and for ourselves as family.
The preacher, who grew up just down the road from Pod and Herman, hurt too and had trouble finishing the service. He described perfectly what Pod meant to us.
Six of us nephews were the pall bearers. Our generation has served our grandmother and our uncles and aunts in that capacity. The casket is a heavy burden, particularly when it carries the extra weight of family, of love.
After the funeral, we went to Pod and Herman’s house. The table was loaded with food prepared by women from Pod and Herman’s church. It was almost like to used to be, but probably will never be again. We ate, visited, changed clothes and drove back to Oak Ridge.
I keep asking myself is there still a “back home” to go to without Pod, and I don’t know the answer. I do know it will never be the same.
The day George and I drowned
George and I were watching TV the day we drowned so we missed out on all the excitement.
Meanwhile, my parents were having more than enough excitement to go around.
My cousin George Crice was a year or so younger, and we were together much of the time, playing, getting into things, fishing, and later hunting.
His father was Dick Crice, one of mother’s brothers, and his mother was Oma Dell Garrett, one of the four children of Joe and Nola Garrett of Wickliffe. Oma Dell’s brothers were Clifford (better known as Wart) and Howard, and she had a sister, Rosie.
George and I managed to fish in many of the ponds and creeks in the vicinity of where I grew up at the junction of what is now Highway 121 (I think it was numbered 440 back then) and the Old Blandville Road.
On this particular day we decided to fish in a little creek a couple of miles down the Old Blandville Road. We were young enough that I’m guessing my mother drove us there.
To get there, you drove toward Blandville, past Hub Copeland’s and Otto Beardsley’s farms, both on the left side of the road, and Albert Carpenter’s on down the road a way on the right side. Starting at the Carpenter farm, there was a long downhill drive. Hayner Beardsley (at least, that’s how we pronounced it but I think his given name probably was Hannah) and Anna Tufts lived in the house on the left at the bottom of the hill.
Maybe a quarter of a mile farther on was a bridge over the creek we planned to fish in. The creek formed the property line of Leroy Dennis’ place, just past the bridge.
It was a little creek, probably not more than a foot wide in some places, but two or three feet wide beneath the bridge where there was a little pool that might have been a foot or two deep.
It wasn’t an impressive looking fishing hole but we had been there before and we usually managed to catch some creek perch and some small (five or six inches long) catfish.
We caught some that day, too. It was a hot day, but it was shady under the bridge so we were doing okay.
Then the rain came. Not just a little rain, but one of those West Kentucky gully washers.
It rained and rained, but we were under the bridge so we weren’t getting wet.
But then we noticed that water moccasins were beginning to be washed down the creek as the water began flowing faster, running down from the nearby hills.
It was probably half an hour later that my mother – a born worrier, one who has the worry gene built in and therefore needs no formal training in worrying – decided she should drive down and pick us up.
But she could get no farther than Anna Tuft’s house. Water was over the road that far back from the bridge.
She and Anna waded through the deepening water, through the snakes and the debris and the jetsam and flotsam (I don’t know what jetsam and flotsam are, but I’ve seen the words in books about the ocean and here’s a chance to use them), all the way to the bridge. To hear mother tell the story, the water must have been about thigh-deep by then, but I doubt if it was much more than ankle deep.
The bridge was under water. The poles we had been fishing with were dangling in the water, hooked onto a nearby fence.
We were nowhere in sight.
Anna went to her phone and called daddy, who at that time was working as a TV repairman in Bob Deckard’s shop in Cairo, Ill.
“Oh J.D., you’ve got to come home! The boys have drowned!” she reported to my father, who surely was stricken to his heart by the tragic news.
Young we may have been, but we were outdoorsmen or outdoorskids, and not particularly foolish about such things as rising water.
When we saw the snakes drifting by we found a stick and marked the edge of the water. Within minutes, the water had swelled out well past the stick, so we knew we shouldn’t stay there.
We discarded the cane poles and walked up the hill to Leroy Dennis’ house, where – even though we were drenched like the proverbial drownded rats (I know drownded isn’t a real word, but that’s how we said it and it sounds better than plain old drowned) – they let us in.
We were sitting there watching TV while all the excitement was happening out by the bridge.
I don’t remember how we hooked up with mother, and I don’t remember what happened after we did. Some things are best forgotten.
But there was an aftermath to the story.
I couldn’t find the little metal tackle box we always took fishing.
Weeks later, the Dennis family kept noticing a really bad smell out in the shed. It was coming from my tackle box, which we must have left in the shed. We had caught several small fish that day, and we left them in the tackle box. Confined fish and hot Kentucky days aren’t a good combination.
George died of cancer a year or two ago. I visited him at his daughter’s house in Michigan before he died and I told this story. George and I and the other folks in the house had a good laugh about it.
At his funeral, his daughter Shanna asked me to tell the story again. I did. Now that I’ve added it to the “Stories & Memories,” I probably won’t tell it again.
Daddy and Buddy Hughes Proved the Experts Wrong
It was 1949, the war was over, and daddy and his good friend David Budd Hughes – better known as Buddy – decided they wanted to go into the TV business.
Only problem was, the TV folks didn’t want to sell them any TVs.
That was because the TV experts said the TV signal traveled only a certain distance. I think the distance was 100 miles, or it could have been 150. It probably had something to do with the curvature of the Earth and the notion that TV signals go in a straight line and don’t conform to curves. Or maybe it was something else.
The closest stations were farther than that from Wickliffe.
St. Louis and Memphis were about 180 miles away and both cities had TV stations, but they were too far away the experts said.
But daddy and Buddy thought the experts were wrong and they set out to prove that they could receive TV signals in Wickliffe.
That’s why they began building a TV tower in 1950.
They decided to build it from wood using 8-foot sections of 2x2 lumber because that’s how they came from the lumber yard.
The tower was located in the back of the little house my parents rented from Frances Hughes, behind the house she lived in. Fran was Buddy’s aunt.
They nailed strategic cross-strips – Xs – inside the tower sections for strength.
They would put a single section into place, climb up it and hoist the next section into place.
They placed temporary steel guy wires as the tower became taller and then permanent ones as it was finished. When it was finished it was 80 feet tall, not much compared to the WPSD TV tower in a field behind my house at Monkey’s Eyebrow (it’s more than 1,600 feet tall) but extremely impressive when you consider that there was no such thing as a TV tower in Ballard County before Daddy and Buddy built theirs.
They had already ordered their antenna from New York and it came in a kit. It was what daddy describes as a "VDX" long distance video antenna. That original aluminum antenna could receive channels 2 through 6. Later, they bought an antenna called a rhombic which was better.
Their first objective was to get TV from St. Louis on Channel 5. They could get other channels later with the same antenna after some adjustments.
The rhombic antenna was pointed toward St. Louis. Buddy used a transit from Japan to point it correctly.
A rhombic antenna consists of some poles placed in a diamond pattern, with wire running from pole to pole. I remember the antenna as taking up much of the field behind the house and the tower. I think it was the key to getting signal from St. Louis.
Mounting the regular antenna onto the tower was no easy – or safe – job. They climbed the tower, daddy on one side and Buddy on the other, and they pulled it up as they climbed. (They didn't use any of the equipment that OSHA requires today for being up so high. Of course, there wasn’t an OSHA back then or – who knows – Wickliffe might never have had a TV set.)
Mother says that she doesn't know how she could have handled watching them so she took the easy way out and didn’t watch.
Buddy studied the weather maps and checked longitude and latitude so he could figure the best direction to point the antenna.
The tower was finally complete, with antenna on top, so they were ready for TV.
Their first TV was a Motorola seven-inch, black and white of course. Color TV didn’t exist back then. I remember that Frances Hughes had something to simulate color. It was a glass panel set in front of her TV screen and it had three colors, one atop the other. When you looked at the TV through that panel it gave a weak impression of color.
They invited folks to come watch TV for the first time. They set up the seven-incher on Fran’s porch, put some chairs in place, and had an ice cream/TV party. This might have been the first tailgate party. The yard was jammed with people who had never seen TV. There were some snowy images of the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game.
They bought a TV with a 10-inch screen later.
The tower lasted until the big ice storm of 1953.
After that, they were offering aluminum towers which Daddy installed himself. When I was old enough, I climbed just about every roof in Wickliffe to help him put up antennas.
The first TV station anywhere near us was WSIL in Harrisburg, Ill., but it was a UHF station on channel 22, and the antenna didn’t work well – if at all – on UHF signal. WSIL changed to channel 3 in 1961.
The first regular station was being built at Cape Girardeau, Mo. We made Sunday drives there to check its progress. That station – KFVS – signed on the air on October 3, 1954. The Paducah station – WPSD – began broadcasting in 1957.
The tower and the TV and the proof that the experts were wrong were probably pretty insignificant things in the broad scheme of the world, but they were big in our small town and in our lives.
Buddy went on to work as an engineer with the E. I. DuPont Company and later operated his own consulting firm for a number of years. He died in 2004 at age 84.
Daddy marked his 93rd birthday on November 1 this year. (Update: Daddy died on Sept. 23, 2011, two months shy of his 94 birthday. Mother died about three weeks later on Oct. 13, 2011. She was 87 years old.)