Please welcome guest author Shirley Noe Swiesz. Swiesz grew up in southeastern Kentucky knowing she wanted to be a writer; however, raising children and moving around with a military husband did not leave much time. She wrote her first book, Coal Dust, when she was forty nine years old. Her weekly column ‘Quilt Pieces’ appears in Harlan County’s The Tri-City News, and her new book A Great Heart, featuring stories surrounding Mary Breckenridge’s midwives/nurses and the people they served, is being published shortly by iUniverse.
I think that most of us mountain kids were not afraid of much of anything except the occasional haint or two. I am sure you all remember Bert Vincent? Well, once he wrote about a teenager whose friends dared her to go to a graveyard after dark. She was supposed to stick a fork in a grave to show that she had been there.
Well, you know we wore those full skirts back then, probably made out of feed sacks, and this girl squatted down in her pretty skirt and stuck the fork into the grave. She was a brave girl…but that fork went into her skirt and when she got up it felt like someone was pulling her into the grave. Ole Bert swore that she had a heart attack and died.
Now ole Bert was a writer and that bunch tend to stretch the truth about as far as it will go, so I have no idea if this story is true or not! My dad loved to read Bert Vincent’s stories. I can see him now, laughing to himself when he read some of Bert’s tales.
Those of you who don’t know Bert and never heard of him, he was a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel back when I was growing up. We couldn’t afford a paper so Corrine and Ralph Price gave us theirs after they were finished reading it and Daddy would read it word for word, beginning with Ole Bert.
Bert Vincent. Photo courtesy the author.
Sam Lewis lent me his book called the Best Stories of Bert Vincent, Sage of the Smokies. It was illustrated by Bill Dyer. Now ole Bert was born in to a family of educators at Bee Springs, Kentucky in 1896. He got a college education and went to work as a newspaperman for the sole purpose of someday becoming a governor.
But I am getting ahead of myself. He taught school for a while but he quit, for he said the students were picking up Vincent habits of cussin’ and chewin’ tobacco. He worked for such newspapers as The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch but eventually returned to the Appalachian Mountains.
At the time of the printing of his book in 1968 he had worked 35 years as a columnist doing his popular ‘Strolling with Bert Vincent’. He started the Cosby Ramp Festival which Harry S. Truman once visited. He solicited funds to build a chapel for people at a ‘poor farm.’ His humanitarianism brought him many awards; his literary talents brought him honorary college degrees. An anonymous friend once said about him, ‘Bert Vincent has religion and doesn’t know it!’ But my words for him are, ‘he was a character!’
A few years ago a man said that he picked up a stranger hitch hiking over around Whitesburg, making his way toward Harlan. ‘He was higher than a kite,’ or perhaps he said, ‘he was drunker than a skunk’…I can’t quite remember exactly how the man said it. Anyway the inebriated man told him his name was Bert Vincent.
I have heard that old Bert liked ‘shine along with tobaccy and cussin. He was a true mountaineer who liked to sit on sacks of grain beside the old men who hovered around a stove at the local store and listen to them tell their stories, trying to outbest one another. He was loved by housewives and adored by children, for he offered homes for pets in his column and was liberal with his compliments to the ladies. I think he only did one book.
I guess my Ole Cap Smith story reminds me of Bert’s stories. The idea of Ole Cap just sort of grew on me after I met an old man who had gone to work in the mines when he was seven years old.
And so, Ole Cap began working in the coal mines that same age. He is sort of a combination of those young children who knew little except hard work and the loss of their childhood either in the coal fields or the logging woods.
Ole Cap was raised right near two big mountains in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, the Big Black on one side and the Pine Mountain on the other. His Pap got kind of weary of working the poor, tired land and moved his family to a coal camp.
Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va. Boy had to stoop on account of low roof, photo taken more than a mile inside the mine. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908. National Child Labor Committee Collection /Library of Congress
Now, I realize that Ole Cap Smith’s story is difficult to read, but after trying to use the words of today, or as we called them ‘proper words,’ it just wasn’t the same. The words they used then, and many still use today, are a version of words brought over from Scotland and Ireland by the first settlers. They got all turned and twisted throughout the years, but we are different and I wanted to bring out that difference. We are a unique people and I hope that all of you stand up tall and proud when you say you are from Harlan County, Kentucky.
Cap Smith’s Story:
“Sissy war th oldest gal an we jest got ta calling her Sissy an hit stuck. She was as beautiful as one o th Lady Slipper flowers thet a body would run acrost in th mountains an as rare. She had allus had a wild streak in her an she wanted real bad ta git away from th mountains. Truth be tolt she hated th mountains an th unending poverty. She had a way o makin fun o th people right in front o them an they didn’t seem ta understand hit. She allus tolt me thet she didn’t feel like she belonged around har.”
“Mam allus had control o her when she war alive but adder Mam died, there war nothing ta do but let her have her way. Thar war times thet Pap stropped her with th leather shavin strop but she didn’t shed a tear. She would stand thar an glare at him with hatred in her eyes.
She war a right good worker an she could make a biscuit as good as Mam’s eny day. And Lordy how thet gal could sang. At least some o us allus went ta church an she would allus sang. Iffen someone war sick, th rest o us would go an thet war about ever Sunday. Hit war usually us younguns fer Pap war allus sick on Sunday’s adder Mam died. I hate ta admit hit but Pap hit th ‘shine right steady adder Mam was gone.
Nobody could hardly blame him. He worked long hard hours in the coal mine an then he come home ta a bunch a younguns. The womern who war keepin the new babe finally got hit on a bottle an Pa wanted ta brang hit home. Sissy got real upsot.
“I can’t take keer o another younun, pap!” She tolt him.
“Ye’ll do as I say gal!” He tolt her an got th strop.
Mam never let Pap use th strop on us. Pap war becoming a right mean drunk. None o us hed ever seed this side o him. I war scart when he staggered ta work with me at his side. He had them little packets of sin-sin thet he would use ta kiver th booze on his breathe.”
“Sissy war no more than a kid herself but she war havin ta take keer o us all an I saw tears stream down her cheek when th babe war brought home. First time I ever saw her cry. She hadn’t even cried when Mam died.
The babe, hit war a purty little thang an Sissy fell in love with hit, but th drudgery o th work got ta her. Three months adder Mam died, Sissy left us. Thar war a drummer (salesman) who follered her around a lot an she complained ta Pap thet he made her feel uneasy like.
“Did ye do somethang ta make him thank ye war interested in him?” Pap ast her in a frightening way.
“No, Pap! He is a horrible man! I hate him! I hate this place!”
Pap got th strop agin.
“Thet night she left us. Pap looked ever where he could but no sign o her. She seemed ta have disappeared inta thin air. Aunt Versie allowed she would stay with th younuns fer awhile an she moved in with us. Aunt Versie war no kin ta us but she loved people an she loved ta hep. She had been hepin out some other folk er she woulda hepped sooner, she told Pap.
“Hit be too hard on thet pretty young girl ta take keer o all them younuns an clean an wash an do a growed womern’s work.”
Pap reckoned hit war. Sissy would have smiled at hearin Aunt Versie defend her thet way, fer th old womern hed often been at th stingin end o Sissy’s remarks.
“Th drummer left th same night thet Sissy did so everybody thought she went with him. I didn’t though. Sissy hadn’t took a thang with her, not even a pair o shoes. She would never have left with somebody without her shoes, sich as they were.
“Somethang’s ahappened ta her, Pap,” I kept sayin.
He allus said th same thang.
“She hated this place an she hated takin keer o all them younuns. I guess I didn’t do right by my little girl,” he would say, an I knowed he grieved.
Sometimes I would find him at th graveyard, talkin an acryin ta Mam. Hit jest about broke my heart. Hit got so thet I started ramblin in th mountains looking fer her. I hed this sinkin feelin deep in my soul. My beautiful sister hed ta be dead.
“Hit war nine days adder she left thet she war found on th river bank. She war deader then a door nail, jest like I thought she war. A man war going fishin an come acrost her body, almost in th water. Pap an me hadn’t gone ta th mine yit when th sheriff come ta see us.
“They fount yer little girl,” he tolt Pap. “Hit looks ta me like she war beat ta death. We figgered the drummer did hit but he is long gone now fer shore. I am sorry!”
“The men at th mine built a casket fer her an Aunt Versie an some o th other womern lined hit with a quilt. They brung her home fer thet last night…th pretty young girl who had never lived. The casket war never opened but Pap went ta th company store an bought her a dress. Hit war th prettiest thang you ever did see an all I could thank o war how much she would have loved hit. Hit seemed so pitiful ta me, even though I war a boy an still a kid, thet she hed never hed a thang beautiful when she war alive an then she war dressed in that purty thang.
Th preacher said, “Th good Lord giveth an He taketh away, an ye all need ta git yer sins shet from ye right here an now so ye can meet up with this girl. Ye needs ta git saved right now!’
Well right thar in our little camp house with my sister laid out in th front room Pap give his life ta th Lord. People started singin an shoutin. I war right glad thet Pap got saved an all, but I war rightly grievin over my sister an not only fer her, but my Mam too. I missed them both so much. I cried and cried.
“Pap never did drank enymore adder thet day an fer thet I war thankful, but thar war two empty spaces in my little boy heart. I jest couldn’t fer th life o me figger out why life was so unsartin and painful. I guess ye might say I couldn’t figger out God. Hit took me a long time ta figger Him out, but I guess He had patience.”