Goose Creek and Fourmile are about eighty miles apart, but they might as well have been on different planets from my perspective. Certainly, I was seven when we moved back, and there had to be an increased perceptiveness on my part as well as a willingness of my parents to expose me to more things. But looking back it had to be much more than that.
Part of it was that we had been isolated in Goose Creek and were now part of three interrelated communities, the hollow, Fourmile and Pineville. Another part of it was the contact with people like Runnels and Poley who had been beyond the mountains and as a result viewed literacy, manner, sobriety and accomplishment as conventional, unlike the hillbillies who generally viewed them with contempt and suspicion.
Finally, the isolation of Goose Creek and it subsistance living while my father taught had been supplanted by the worldliness of Pineville, where things happened; and the family could occasionally enjoy some of the opportunities the town offered
Thus, a week after our arrival, Dad took Henry and me into town where we saw our first building more than two stories high and our first automobile. We also saw men wearing suits on weekdays and stores filled with an unending supply of clothing and tools. I saw my first moving picture show in late June, and several weeks later my father took my mother to see Sarah Bernhardt portray Camille on the stage of the Princess Theater. In her late twenties, Mamma was barely aware of the profession of acting and certainly knew nothing of Sarah Bernhardt. But my father, who viewed language as God’s greatest gift, found himself totally incapable of his usual stoicism, and his excitement was infectious.
He talked about nothing else for a week after the performance. Then later, when the recountings and accolades had stopped, a volume of Shakespeare’s plays was quietly added to Dad’s collection of books, which at that time included the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s stories.
There also seemed to be a change in Mamma, although only Vada saw it in the beginning. “Somethin happened to Ida thet night,” she recalled many years later. “She went into thet theatre with both feet still in the mountains, and she came out sensing the possibilities of the world. I don’t know nothin ’bout Sarah Bernhardt, ‘cept she’s very famous,” she added; “but of all the people she touched from the stage, none felt the impact as strongly as Ida.”
The importance of the Bernhardt performance was probably more in the form of a catalyst, because I’m sure that Mamma shared dad’s vision of shedding their mountain ways and becoming part of the twentieth century, but events shape everyone’s life, and in this respect, mamma was no different than anyone else.
Very soon afterwards, the Continental Coal Company opened a hospital for its employees, and the public when space was available. Continental employees paid twenty-five cents for treatment, with the company paying the remainder. In a converted hourse, the staff consisted of one full-time nurse and volunteer aides, almost the first of whom was my mother.
The hospital was a milestone for Pineville and was evidence of the exploding economy of the Cumberland Gap. A potential war in Europe and its concomitant demand for steel products had caused coal to become a highly valuable commodity. At a time of violent labor unrest in the northeast, mines were being thrown up to carry the black rock to the north, all to the benefit of the Cumberland Gap.
Part of the price for this process, however, was an appalling number of injuries and deaths. Mamma, with a sensitivity for the ailing and injured which bordered on the spiritual, walked into Pineville every Tuesday to help at the hospital and to study first aid. There she quickly learned as fact what everyone knew imperically about the wretched conditions of mining coal and the callous indifference of most mine owners.
This, in turn, instantly introduced her to the issues of corporate responsibility and the role of the federal government in the lives of individuals and corporations. From her very first day at the hospital, her stories sparked intense political discussions among the family and Poley, particularly on those long summer evenings when the men rested from the relentless regimen of physical labor.
Curiosly, the discussions went on for hours without the stimulus of disagreement, since no one was willing to defend “big business.” Thus, although the housework and chores still were done, mamma’s week now contained large portions of hospital work and the adventures of teddy Roosevelt.
Unhappy with the manner in which Taft backers were controlling the Republican convention, Roosevelt had threatened to form a coalition of disenchanted groups from both parties within a new Progressive Party. Grandma, Mamma and Poley Stivers were with him, waiting for the call to arms.
It came on June 24th, when the newpaper accounts of the last evening of the Republican convention reached Pineville. Now two days old, they told the story of Taft’s packing the convention and Rosoevelt’s withdrawal of his delegates to a caucus at which time the decision to create the Progressive Party was made.
Poley was sitting on the steps of the porch, still soaked with sweat from a day of felling trees on a creeek south of Mockingbird Branch. Pap was in Flat Lick building a house, but Dad, his brothers and Poley had gotten the rights to cut the timber which was harvested through the summer and fall and then floated on spring floods to Corbin. As with many mountain activities, a record was kept of each person’s contribution, and the proceeds were divided accordingly. Even John, who had to be watched lest he wander off, could contribute by lifting and hauling and earn a share.
Through the open door to the kitchen, Poley read from a day old copy of the Cincinatti Inquirer to mamma as she prepared dinner. “Well, they’ve finally gone and done it, Mrs. Jarvis.”
“Kissed the Colonel goodbye. The Taftians packed the convention with their own folks, so the Colonel took his delegates and left the convention. They’re going to start a new party, called the Pergressive Party, and they can count me in.”
“Wait until Rosa hears, she’ll be fit to be tied. I don’t know who she dislikes more, the fatcat taftians or the do-nothing Wilsons. She’ll be out hangin up posters soon as someone prints them.”
“Listen here to what ole Teddy says, Mrs. Jarvis. I think he’s got it jes right. “I stand for the square deal, but when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that i stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
“Amen,” called out Mamma. “Bring him down here if he needs some good examples of what needs fixing.”
Poley shook his head. “He caint be too pop’lar with his rich friends in New York. He wants to tax the rich, make work conditions safer, help workers who get hurt on the job and,” he raised his voice to ensure that Grandma out on the front porch could hear him, “he thinks wimmen have a right to vote.”
“Strange notion.” came a voice from the porch, “He’s one of the few men I know who’s smarter than his wife.”
Poley smiled. “Well, now, that might jes be unfair to Mrs. Roosevelt, but there’s more to it than intelligence.”
“Would you like to try education, Mr. Smugly Stivers?” Rosa came to the door without a trace of jocularity in her voice. “They’s more wimmen than men in this holler that can read. Jes look at Henry. He’s a good man and a decent man, but he caint read and once he gets passed buildin a house, he’s got the common sense of a mule.”
I had been sitting on the edge of the porch keeping an eye on Homer for Mamma and hadn’t paid much attention to the conversation until Grandma mentioned Pap. I giggled and looked at Poley who had realized his teasing had been misinterpreted but didn’t know how to extricate himself. Mamma saved him.
“Critt, what’s so funny?” She was standing in the doorway with a ‘You’d better take me seriousy, son’ look on her face.
Obviously, I had done nothing wrong. “Grandma called Pap a mule.”
“She did not,” but then she hesitated, not knowing where to go with the conversation.
“What she said, Master Critt, was that even though your grandpa caint read, he builds wonderful houses, which of course means he is very good with his numbers, and that he has the common sense of a mule.” Poley looked through the door at Grandma who seemed relieved that he had stepped in.
“Now you know Bess and Gert, an’ I’m sure you’ve heard how stubborn mules are, but ’till you’ve worked ‘em, they’s no way to know how much they know to do without being told, which is called common sense.”
Pap was away again, this time in Manchester, and it meant there were no interruptions of the political and social comments that formed the evening’s pasttime. That also allowed for a new subject of conversation which, at mother’s urging had become as large a part of the conversation as politics: the world outside the mountains, and Poley was the resource.
“Mr. Stivers, General has taught me that the people hereabouts don’t talk like most Americans and that if we went to new York, or even to Louisville or Cincinnati, we would sound ignorant. What were your experience?”
“Well, yes m’am, Mr. Jarvis is correct. We do talk diff’rent; and, to tell the truth, a lot of mountain folks is jes as dumb as they sound.” He laughed, “Some of these hillbillies is so stupid they make my brain itch; and the problem is that an outsider caint tell the smart ones from the dumb ones ‘ cause of the way they talk.
Now me, I didn’t have no problem, ’cause when I tlak to someone, I look ‘em straight in the eye, and my eyes say ‘whoa, don’t underestimate ole Poley.’ But most mountain people caint do that, either ’cause they are stupid; or ’cause their manner of speakin makes ‘em easy targets fer ridicule.”
“Did you have problems with the language in England, Poley?,” injected Dad.
“No, sir, none at all. My first time there, I was convinced that either them Englishmen weren’t speaking English or them Bluegrass people only told us they was teaching us English, ’cause I couldn’t unnerstand a word.
Later, of course, I come to find out that the English caint even unnerstand each other; so’s I didn’t feel too bad. But I’ll tell you one thing about speakin; and that is that your husband’s right. People make judgements aboutyou based on your clothes and how you speak. A mountain man will remain a mountain ma, regardless of his talents, unless he sheds his beard and coveralls and learns how to speak a whole lot better than ole Poley.”
He paused for a moment, then said, “Here, let me give you an example.” He rummaged through his pockets until he pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper torn from a newspaper. “This here’s from the Inquirer. I been carrying it fer ’bout a week. It’s the words of Thomas Edison talkin ’bout what we been talkin ’bout these past ev’nins.” He pulled closer to the lamp on the porch and read.
” ‘You see, getting down to the bottom of things, this is a pretty raw, crude civilization of ours — pretty wasteful, pretty cruel, which often comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? … Our production, our factory laws, our charities, our relations between capital and labor, our distribution – all wrong, out of gear. We’ve stumbled along for a while, trying to run a new civilization in old ways, and we’ve got to start to make this world over.’
Now those are fightin words with people what own industry, ’cause it aint the way they want to do things. Now, first suppose this weren’t said by Thomas Alva Edison, hisself. I’d venture that not a whole lot of fat cats would have paid any attention.”
Grammie and Dad nodded their heads.
“Now jes s’pose ole Poley, who agrees with ev’ry word of it, wanted to tell the world the same thing. Well, truth is, I couldn’t no matter how much I wanted to, ’cause some of them words, let alone the ideas, wouldn’t even come to mind.
But, jes fer argument’s sake, let’s s’pose that I did think that way, and I knew all of those words and a whole lot more. Do you think anyone sayin those words, but soundin like ole Poley would pay any attention at all? Course not.
So, the long answer to your question, Mrs. Jarvis, is that anyone from the hills that wants out of the hills better git the hills out of themselves afore they do anything else.”
“Amen, Brother Ben,” echoed Dad.