I was spending some time with my maternal grandfather a few weeks ago, and he was telling me a few stories from when he was young. Grandad grew up in Harlan County, KY, in the 20s/30s among the coal mines. It seems easier to me to write these from his own first-person perspective. The following are not exact transcripts, but I’ve tried to do my best from memory.
When I was a boy there were lots of holy rollers and snake handlers around. I don’t think they do that much anymore; in fact, I think it’s illegal most places now. But back then, especially up in the mountains, they would make a big event out of it, and put flyers up around town a few weeks beforehand. So we’d all go and watch them, and someone would bring out a big box full of snakes and start handing them out.
I remember one man unbuttoned the top of his shirt and dropped a big old copperhead down in there. He walked around a bit and waved his arms, but the snake didn’t bite him. Apparently the snake would just go to sleep.
There was another man who lived nearby to us, and he was one of those snake-handlers, and he would go around most of the time with bandages on his hands, because he was all time getting bit by those snakes. Eventually he developed a tolerance for the poison so that he would get bit and it wouldn’t hurt him. In fact, one time a snake bit him, and the snake died!
One of the local deputies was well-known for arresting innocent people. [Grandad had a term for this but I don’t remember what it was. It might have been “pay-seeker.” Apparently they had a pay-per-arrest model in those days.] One day the deputy went to the house of one of the snake handlers and shot all of his snakes, citing some law or another. So the snake-handler shot and killed the deputy, because he had taken away his livelihood. Nobody missed the deputy too much, but that wasn’t a very Christian thing to do.
The coal miners were always trying to form a union, and the coal company was always trying to stop them. One time, before I was born, my father was going with some of the workers to meet at the store to talk about the union. The company had caught wind of it, and they brought in a big machine gun which they mounted inside the store, and when the workers were pulling up and walking in they let the gun loose on them. Lots of the miners fought back, and some of them died. My father started to run back to his car to get his shotgun, but his friend talked him out of it. I’m glad he did, because if my father had been killed, I wouldn’t have been born.
There was a union organizer who had come to live in the area with his wife and children, and I went to school with one of his sons, who was my age. We were pretty young, but he had another son who was older, about fifteen or sixteen. One night the company hired some men to go shoot their house up. The union man was out at a meeting somewhere, and they pulled up in a car and let loose with their machine guns and then sped off. The mother and her children did their best to huddle together in the kitchen. My friend who I went to school with was shot in the arm, but it just grazed him and he got better. But the older son was shot several times and died, and all he had been doing was sitting by the fire reading a book. And just like that they killed him.
Back when I was a heathen I used to drink pretty regularly. One day the local Baptist pastor had come to visit, and he was talking to my mother. I came home from work and opened a bottle of beer, as was my habit, and my mother introduced me to the man and told me his name. I didn’t know who he was, so trying to be polite, I said, “Mr. Smith, can I offer you a beer? I’m sorry that it’s not cold.” “No, thanks, not right now,” he said. “But when I do drink it, I prefer it warm.” Later after he had left my mother let me have it for offering beer to the Baptist pastor. But I didn’t know he was a pastor; I was just trying to be polite.
One time before your grandma and I were married, I went to go visit her at her mother’s house. And I had a toothache that had been bothering me for several days. Now Lois’ family weren’t drinking people, but when I told her mother about my tooth, she said I should put some whiskey on it to numb it. They had a bottle of whiskey back in a cabinet under the sink, and she gave me a little bit and told me to hold it in my cheek there where the tooth was. Well, I wasn’t going to pass up good whiskey, so I swallowed it as soon as she wasn’t looking and stuck my tongue over in my cheek so it would look like I still had the whiskey in there. And I sat there for pretty much the whole visit with my tongue over in my cheek like that. But you know what? After a few minutes my tooth really did stop hurting.