Copyright 2005 Buddy French
Did you ever wonder why we sometimes think back to childhood and seem to get lost in many wonderfully warm nostalgic times of the coal camps golden era? Sure, we faced some tough times too, but are we not better off for it? Why do we hear so many of those born in a coal camp speak of cherished memories?
Could the answer be that its simply because adolescence seldom concerns itself with the responsibilities that we as adults deal with? Perhaps we lived a sheltered life in a place and time when innocence was a virtue.
Was it because we were not bombarded by three or four different TV networks with horrific doom and gloom news twenty-four hours a day seven days a week? Or was it simply that we were allowed to just be children?
When young girls played with dolls and made mud pies and little boys played marbles and explored the mountains for fun and entertainment.
Could the answer be that we were allowed to experience failure and success, adversity and happiness?
If you said yes to any one or all of the above I believe you would be correct. Do you occasionally feel like the pressures of the world are closing in on you and sometime wish you could just escape to those carefree childhood days? Well come join me, take a few moments and forget about those car and mortgage payments, jobs or the worries of life you may face today. Journey back with me to those childhood times when things were booming in the coalfields. Pull up some of those snapshots from the recesses of your mind. Perhaps its a picture of the company store where you visited so often. Or maybe you still see that picture of your dad coming home from the mines after a hard days work. Those dirty bank clothes and silver, round lunch bucket were such a familiar site. And then there was Monday wash day and the wind blowing those clothes as mom hung them on the clothesline in the yard. So relax, take a deep breath and join me on a trip back to the good times. The following are but a few of the many good memories I have of a simplistic time growing up in Gary Hollow.
In the 1950s, especially during the summertime, everyday was a new challenge and adventure. One of my earliest memories was what we children simply referred to as the Iron Bridge. It was a steel pedestrian bridge about sixty feet high and ninety feet long. It was much like one you would see over a busy city street today, but this one crossed over the railroad track and river. At about the age of five, it was on this bridge that my friends and I would play chicken. And for the first year or so it seemed I was always one of the chickens. At the first sound of an approaching coal train, we would all run onto the bridge and position ourselves right above the train track. Some of the older boys would shout, I dare you, I double dare you, I double dog dare you to stay on the bridge. As the noisy steam locomotive grew nearer, it appeared it would surely strike the bridge. Then at the last possible moment, most of my friends and I, our hearts pounding, would flee to safer ground like our very lives depended on it.
But a double dog dare was not something you took lightly and eventually that special day came, as the sound of the steam whistle had become a rallying call for us kids in the neighborhood. With great anticipation we all ran onto the bridge and took up our positions right over the railroad track. The black coal smoke boiling from its stack was a fearful sight as this steam-breathing monster bore down upon us. As if it were only yesterday, I remember shutting my eyes, holding my breath and gripping the bridge rail with all my might. Some ran, but I held my ground. As the train passed under us, its whistle shrieked at a terrifying pitch. The hot steam and choking smoke seemed to consume us, but after a few seconds the air cleared and I was left with a wonderful feeling and my hair full of cinders. I had met the train head-on and defeated it and best of all, I didn't have to be called chicken anymore.
By the age of about six, Buddy Heldreth and I had ventured up on the hillside to the site where the Coal Company erected the nativity scene every year at Christmas time. I marveled at how those life size figures of sheep, camels and the three wise men standing near the manger, seemed so real when illuminated with floodlights at night. In reality, it was a little disappointing when we found them to be painted wooden cutouts propped up with a stick.
I must have been around eight when we had explored as far as the water tank high on the mountainside overlooking Gary. Many times the tank would overflow, spilling water to the ground far below and forming a great man made waterfall to play in on those hot summer days.
I was probably ten years old when we had been as far as "Big Rock. It was a huge boulder sitting on the ridge leading from the water tank to the top of the mountain. With no other rock formations in the area, it was indeed a strange sight. Big as a dump truck and flat on top, it appeared it had been set down on the spot it occupied. Tommy Charney and I named it Big Rock and used to brag to the younger kids in the neighborhood about the mysterious huge rock we had found. I recall all the excitement it generated among my friends when I told them we had discovered an asteroid on the mountain.
When I was in the seventh grade, Ronnie Sagady and I had explored all over the mountain above the Gary water tank and built our own campsite that we named "Camp Randy". I dont recall how we came about giving it that name. It was situated right at the top of the mountain on a flat knoll. We cleared an area about 25 feet wide by 40 feet long and used many of the smaller saplings to nail against the trees, forming a fence around the cleared site. The remainder of the cut trees was used to build a picnic table and lean-to and of course, what would the mountains be without a grapevine swing. Ours was just over the hillside below the camp.
If were honest with ourselves we can all remember some type of mischief we got into while growing up. For me it was my second trip to Camp Randy.
At the young age of thirteen, two of my friends and I, who will remain anonymous, decided we would get some beer and have a party at Camp Randy.
Late that evening before heading to the mountains, we had another friend purchase us a quart bottle of beer from Pages Place, a restaurant/beer joint located in Gary Bottom.
As we made that long hike up the mountain trail, our mood was quite festive. We were loaded down with all the camping gear we could carry and were anxious to arrive and set up camp. I quickly put up my army surplus pup tent that had no floor or front flap, while my buddies built the campfire. On the menu for supper were pork and beans and canned biscuits.
Since we had no way of baking, I had been told that biscuits would fry up nicely in a frying pan coated with grease. This is when our problems began since no one brought along grease, but I did have a stick of butter. I unpacked the big black iron skillet my mom had given us to use and promptly cut off about half a stick of butter and dropped it in the pan. With the campfire roaring, the biscuits fried up to a nice golden brown in just a short while. But what we were really excited about was taking that first drink of beer. After all, we had seen adults in the movies and on TV drink beer and they seemed to get so happy and have so much fun. As I passed a biscuit to my two friends, we each filled our cup with what was by now, very warm beer. When I took that first drink, I had never tasted anything so disgusting in my life. I must have gagged with every drink, but not a one of us would dare lose face and not drink that cup of beer.
Well of course we all had to act out what we thought it would make us feel like and within just a few minutes you would have thought we were all higher than a Georgia pine. But then reality set in and we came crashing back down to Earth. I will never forget all three of us hanging over the fence and throwing up those butter soaked biscuits and warm beer.
My experience doesnt offer a pretty picture, but it taught me a lesson that night. If my two buddies happen to be reading this, I expect they would admit they learn a life lesson also. Many of my friends and I continued to visit Camp Randy until I was in senior high school. I have many wonderful memories about those trips to the mountains and its been forty-plus years since Ive been back. I keep saying Im going to go back for a visit. Someday, I will return there to relive my youth again.
Thank you for accompanying me on my journey back to the good times. Funny how a half-century ago can be so long, yet in some magical-like way seem like only yesterday. Although those times have now passed into history, their memories are but a thought away. Perhaps for just a moment or two a wonderful nostalgic feeling filled your heart as you were reminded of some of your good times. Tell your children and grandchildren about them or write them down. Dont let them fade away!