My name is Marvin Duncan. I'm eighty-three years old, and I'm gonna tell you about a time after WWII when my family had to pick up and move from the mountains of Kentucky to Oklahoma because the coal mine where my daddy worked got shut down. The story is mostly about how, during that move, I hooked up with the woman I wound up being married to for fifty-five years before she died. I'm getting pretty old myself now, and I thought I'd just write all this down while I still have a working brain, and in case anybody inside or outside the family has any interest in it.
I'm pretty sure it's gonna shock the hell out of some of my grandkids. Maybe not the story itself so much as the fact that an old fart like me could still entertain thoughts of a sexual nature. To them, I'll just say 'Live and learns, kids! Live and learn!"
Some of what I write is gonna be pretty graphic, sex-wise, so be warned. At my age, writing about sex is both cathartic and entertaining, so maybe you won't mind if I indulge myself a little bit. It's not like I can do much else nowadays other than remember it and write about it. If you do mind, maybe you shouldn't read this story. Or you can just go to hell, I don't much care one way or the other.
As far as dialect goes, I'll try to represent the Appalachian patois as best I can. And one other thing; I'm not a professional writer as you'll soon discover, and I never could figure exactly what the hell commas are supposed to do, so I just stuck one in wherever it looked like it might fit. If you're one of those grammar Nazis, well get a life, why don'tcha! Anyhow, here's the story the way I remember it:
One late spring evening back in 1949, Mama called us kids in to supper and she'd just set a pot of navy beans and ham hocks on the table and turned to take the cornbread out of the oven when we heard Daddy's heavy boots clomping up the back steps. He wasn't supposed be home because he'd only left for the mine a couple of hours earlier, but there he stood at the open screen door with an odd look on his face.
Mama turned the big cast-iron skillet of hot cornbread onto a plate and set it on the table, then she turned to Daddy and asked, "What is it, Jake? What happened?"
We all knew right away that something was bad wrong. His forehead was all wrinkled up and he had a look on his face like somebody just died. I guess I was a little bit scared, even though I was fifteen at the time and pretty much grown up.
Daddy set his dinner bucket on the chair by the door, then he shed his canvas jacket, nearly black with grease and coal dust, and hung it on the back. Before he answered Mama's question, he walked over to the sink, reached down underneath and took out his jug of moonshine whiskey. He gave Mama kind of a guilty look as he uncorked it and took a long pull. We knew then that something wasn't right because Daddy never took a drink before bedtime, and almost never in front of us kids. Mama didn't approve of drinking, but she tolerated Daddy taking an occasional sip as long as he didn't overdo it. And he never did, as far as I know.
Eyes watering from the sting of the whiskey, he shuddered, took a deep breath and said, "Federal marshals shut down the mine. They're sayin' Joe McCoy, the owner, was arrested an' the mine won't be openin' agin any time soon, so that means I'm outta work."
Well, Mama stood there looking at him for the longest time before she said anything. Finally, she shook her head and sighed, mostly to herself, "Reckon we'll be movin' then. Got any idea where to?"
Daddy took one more nip from the jug, then he corked it and set it back under the sink. "I was thinkin' about just that while I was comin' up the road. You remember a few months ago when my cousin Arthur sent a letter sayin' they was hirin' fer the oil fields in Oklahoma, an' was I interested? I was thinkin' maybe I ought t' go down to the company store in the mornin' an' try to reach him on the telephone. Last I heard, he was still livin' at Aunt Clair's house near Tulsa."
Mama kinda shrugged and said, "Ain't gonna hurt nothin' t' ask, is it?"
Daddy put his arm over her shoulder and went on, "Ya know, Bess, I know the timin' ain't good, but the truth is I'm kinda glad that hole's shuttin' down, 'cause I know fer a fact that the black lung is gonna kill me sooner or later. That ain't t' say I might not die roughneckin' in the oil fields, but at least I'd die breathin' God's clean air. Anyhow, I hear Tulsa's a nice town, lot's goin' on. You'd have better stores to shop in an' more money t' shop with. An' the kid's could go to better schools."
Looking back on it, I know what I did next was awfully dumb, but I did it without thinking, the way fifteen year-olds are wont to do. I stood up and said, "But Daddy, we cain't move to Tulsa! What about my friends? What about Sue Ellen? I cain't just be leavin' everthang behind!"
Well, Daddy had every right to haul off and slap me clean into next week for that little outburst, but he didn't even raise his hand. He just said, "Son, I'm sorry this don't fit into yer plans for courtin' Sue Ellen, but we ain't got no choice. Hell, I'd be happy t' leave ya behind. Yer fifteen an' old enough t' make yer own way I reckon, but movin's gonna take ever penny we got, an' 'till we get back on our feet, yer gonna have t' work right along side of me. The family's gonna need yer income, boy! Now, that's just the way of it, an' I don't wanna hear no more harpin' 'bout Sue Ellen 'r anythang else!"
I sat back down feeling like the ungrateful child and mumbled, "Sorry, Daddy."
Mama was always trying to put things into perspective. She smiled up at him and patted his belly, saying, "Well, like ya say, we ain't got a lotta choices, have we? We gotta go where the work is, so I reckon Tulsa's as good a town as any. Ya think that ol' truck's gonna make it that far?"
He gave her shoulder a squeeze and said, "She'll just hafta, won't she? But here's somethin' I just thought of, Bess: Soon as the company store opens up in the mornin', they gonna come after everbody to pay up their bill. God almighty, I ain't got but eighteen dollars t' my name! I sure as hell cain't pay what we owe at the store and still have enough for gas money to Tulsa. I know it ain't right t' run out on a debt, but I'm thinkin' we best load her up and head out tonight. I can try to call Arthur along the way somewheres."
Mama looked around at us kids and nodded her head up and down like she was making up her mind about something. Then she said, "Jake, you sit an' eat some supper. Marvin, Jodie, Earl Ray, I want you kids t' listen to me real hard now. What we're about to do might not be honest, but there ain't no other way. Truth is, that company store's been cheatin' us an' everbody else since that mine opened up, but it's still a debt we owe. We just cain't pay it right now. Maybe after we get to Oklahoma and make some money, we can send 'em what we owe, but if we pay 'em now, we ain't goin' nowhere. You understand?"
The three of us looked at each other and nodded.
Well, Mama just took over like she always did when things needed doing. She reached above the stove and took down an old coffee can, opened it up and took out some money. She handed it over to Daddy and said, "Here's forty-three dollars I been savin' up. That makes sixty-one dollars, an' that ought to get us there with plenty to spare."
Daddy's eyes got real big at the sight of all that cash. "My lord, Bess, how in God's name did you manage to save up all this money when we been livin' from hand t' mouth. You truly are a angle sent from above!"
She waved that off and said, "I ain't no such thang, Jake. I'm just a woman like any other lookin' after her family." Then she turned to us and says, "Okay, now you kids fill your bellies with beans and cornbread, then get ready to pack up and load the truck." She looked at Daddy and asked, "Jake, you gonna be okay to drive all night?"
Daddy swallowed a mouthful of the sandwich from his dinner bucket and nodded his head. "I'll be fine. Anyhow, Marvin can help out some with the drivin' if I git too sleepy. Reckon I better go out and check the air in them tars. We gonna have to stop in Pikeville t' gas up, an' we can get some air at the same time."
Mama kissed him on the forehead and said, "You eat first, honey. We got time."
So that's how it all started. The company house we were living in was only three small rooms, so it's not like we had to worry about hauling a lot of furniture. Two hours after we finished our supper, Daddy, Mama and little Earl Ray were in the front, and Jodie and I were sitting on the old beat-up sofa facing backwards on the bed of Daddy's '36 Chevy flatbed truck. Everything we owned was piled up behind us. There was a canvas tarp tied over it all to protect us from the wind and weather. I was just happy it was May instead of the middle of winter. We might hit some rain along the way, but at least we wouldn't be freezing our butts off.
Before we pulled out, Mama handed me and Jodie some left over cornbread wrapped up in a tea towel and a mason jar of water in case we got hungry during the night. Next thing I knew, we were rolling down out of the Appalachians and heading west across Kentucky on the way to Oklahoma.
Well, you might not believe what I'm gonna tell you about the next two days and nights on the road. It changed my whole life!
.... There is more of this story ...