My Aunt Myrtle Hall Roby was actually my great-aunt, being the sister of my mother's mother, Dove Hall Wilson. The Hall girls were one-half of the children of Ernest "Toadie" and Margaret "Maggie" Hall and I believe it never occurred to them that there was any place to live other than Pleasants County, West Virginia. And when they introduced themselves, they always, always, included their maiden name. Such as, "I'm Fanny Hall Bills; "I'm Myrtle Hall Roby;" I'm Cassie Hall White;" "I'm Weltha Hall Reynolds;" "I'm Dove Hall Wilson." Then they would look a person straight in the eye, never flinching -- as if they were in a state of blissful defiance. I liked that.
The five Hall boys all had first and middle names which started with the letter H, thus being HHH's. When they introduced themselves, they always, always, said their middle names. Such as, "I'm "Hayes Highland Hall;" I'm Hiram Hill Hall; "I'm Harry Harrison Hall;" "I'm Howard Homer Hall;" "I'm Hudson Herbert Hall." Then they would look a person straight in the eye, never flinching -- as if they were in a state of blissful defiance. I liked that too.
The boys also had the notion that to live any place besides Pleasants County, West Virginia, was outside the norm of a rational mind. The lone exception to this was Uncle Harry. Harry was a truck-driving man and the founder of Hall Trucking, a firm known for many years in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. He had stopped one evening early in his driving career for a bite at a restaurant in Ripley, West Virginia, where he met a cutely-turned waitress named Mary Miller. I reckon when he said, "I'm Harry Harrison Hall from Pleasants County" she went into a swoon from all that slick talk and upped and married him on the spot.
This must not have set too well with the rest of the Halls, as shortly after having her and Harry's one child, Mary disappeared into history. The one known fact of her marriage into the Hall family is that she was never invited in to any of her in-law's homes. Not once. Not Ever. I suspect that was because she was from "out there," and thus, "not one of us."
Harry died in Kanawha County, West Virginia, on October 27, 1956, and his son, probably resentful of the slights afforded his mother, had him buried there. On November 17, 1956 his brother Howard said, "I'll be damned if any brother of mine is going to spend eternity laying around with a bunch of Democrat politicians," went to Charleston, had Harry dug up, then transported him back home and had him re-buried in Pleasants County, West Virginia on November 19, 1956. Everyone was pleased and a large family ice cream party with preaching by two ministers from Rock Run was held after the ceremony.
When addressing aunts and uncles - or any other adult - in the 1940's and 1950's in Pleasants County, West Virginia, a kid always commenced speaking the same way: "Yes ma'am, Aunt so-and-so," "No ma'am, Aunt so-and-so," "Yessir, Uncle so-and-so," "Thank you kindly, Uncle so-and-so." To ask for anything without saying, "Ma'am - or Uncle or Miz or Mr - may I please..." was the same as signing one's own Death Warrant and being banished to a never-ending hell in Pennsylvania or some place equally bad.
After having spoken, one got The Look, which meant that those un-flinching eyes would stare straight into a feller's soul for what seemed like 34 days, as he stood there stammering and stuttering until he at last learned to stare un-flinchingly back. This training period lasted for several years and wasn't completed until a feller noticed that deep inside those piercing black eyes was a glimmer of acceptance, and mirth, and love and family and the love of family. The Rite Of Passage had been completed and on that day the heavens opened, the angels sang, and all the saints rejoiced. You were now of Them -- and were not to ever forget it. Whether you were six or sixteen or sixty-six, you were now one of Them and where ever your journey took you, you were to always look people in the eye and, without flinching, say, "Sir, I'm from Pleasants County, West Virginia!" And God would smile.
Pleasants County is divided almost in half by Middle Island Creek, which has its beginning near the village of Little in Doddridge County. The county seat of Doddridge is West Union, which Pleasants Countians pronounce as Wes Joonyun until a feller goes over there to your Morgantown College and realizes he's the one that talks funny. This usually takes about three semesters. But that doesn't mean anything is going to change about the way a feller talks -- just that he realizes it. Nossir, ByGod, I'm from Pleasants County and there a bush is a boosh, and push is poosh, and fish is feesh, and creek is crick, and dish is deesh, and we arn our clothes then hang them in the close press, we rid the table after dinner, we throw your daddy down the steps his pants, and we love our famblies. And we're quick to tell you that the boundary of West Virginia extends to the high-water mark on the far western shore of the Ohio River, so it's our river and we thank you very kindly to stop polluting our water as it hurts the small-mouth bass when Middle Island empties in to Our River at St Marys.
And the small-mouths were plentiful along that stretch of Middle Island that ran placidly past Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Ralph's farm. As a farm, it looked just like the rest of the farms located out to McKim which is on the road to Hebron. And if God has ever produced a stretch of land prettier than what runs along Middle Island between Broad Run and McKim, He probably kept it for Himself. And that little crick-made valley is as gentle as the folks who live along it. Easy, rolling hills to the east with just enough rocks and boulders to make it interesting, rich, dark alluvial soil along the banks - which is called bottom land, or just plain Bottom - the corn fields on the west side, then more hills that eventually give way to the bigger scheme of things and taper off when they meet the river. It was a great place for a kid to visit and a young feller would get all tingly just thinking about it.
But as idyllic visits to Aunt Myrtle's was, there were certain drawbacks and one was to occur with a vengeance.
It all started innocently enough early one Saturday morning when cousin Bobby Johnson rode over on his Western Flyer bike for a weekend trip out to Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Ralph's. Now Bobby was their grandson, being the only child of Opal Roby Johnson and Paul Johnson and we all called him Gremlin. That handle got hung on him at the very instant of his birth, when Opal took one look at her new-born babe and said, "My God, Doctor Hamilton, he looks just like a gremlin!" And Bobby has been Gremlin ever since.
It was only about four and a half miles from our place near the high school to the Roby farm, but the journey could take over three hours as several stops were required. First of all, young boys had to stop at Mrs Bonar's home and sit on the porch and say "Yes ma'am," and "No ma'am," and "Our folks are fine and said to be sure to say 'hello' to you all," to Mrs Bonar and Mrs Hackney - Mrs Bonar's daughter who lived with her ever since Mr Hackney had got somehow got himself killed - even though they had seen each other at Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.
After biscuits and gravy, we rode up the alley for the required stop at Uncle Hud and Aunt Hazel Robinson Hall's home. After a generous helping of Aunt Hazel's blueberry pie and more yes ma'ams and yessirs, we walked over to Harry Snyder's Quaker State filling station where Harry always asked, "Where are you two fellers headed to? Out McKim? On your bikes? Have youins checked your tar pressure?" We always said, "Yessir, that's where we're going," and "Nossir, that's why we stopped. To check our tar pressure and make sure there's oil in the Bendix brakes."
By this time, Harry's wife, our cousin Lula Hall Snyder - who to this very day is one of Pleasant County's genuine nice people and is alive and well and kicking up her heels at a young 90 years - had come across the yard separating their home and the station. She would say, "Where are you two fellers headed to? Out McKim? On your bikes? To visit Aunt Myrtle? Did your moms fix you any samwidges?" We always said, "No ma'am, that's why we stopped. To get some of your peanut butter and home-made jelly samwidges." She would smile like she had just been touched by an angel and head back to the house muttering, "You'd think a body would have something better to do than spend all her waking hours fixin' samwidges for a gang of ornery boys. Bless their hearts."
This was the cue for her middle son, Terry Hall Snyder, to appear out of his brother Jim's close press where he had spent the morning tying knots in Jim's dress shirts and shoe laces. Terry was a real good boy and always said, "Where are you two fellers headed to? Out McKim? On your bikes? To Aunt Myrtle's?" We always said yep and that's why we stopped to see if you wanted to go and we would probably spend the night - if we could get out of town. Terry would sign on and we were ready to head out of town. Almost.
Across the street from Lula and Harry lived my Aunt Laura Wilson -- an old maid who seldom smiled but we were too young to know why - who, like most Wilson women, spent most of her day sitting on the porch swinging. She usually motioned us over and while we stood on her porch squirming, she would ask, "Where are you fellers going? Out McKim? On your bikes? To visit Myrtle Hall and that husband of hers? Bless her heart. Do yoins have any money?" We always said, "Yes ma'am, Aunt Laura, that's where we're going - out to Aunt Myrtle's and we're going to sit on that swinging bridge they have and mebbe catch some small-mouth."
By this time, Gremlin would have had enough and say, "She ain't my aunt! She's my grandmother!" At this, Aunt Laura's already pinched face would draw up like she had just bitten into a bitter persimmon, and she would say, "Well! If yoins are going to act like that, I won't give you any money." And she didn't - she hadn't planned to. Laura was a little close with her money, although another of her nephews, my cousin Mark Smith, said she gave him a penny the one time he painted her porch, with the admonition of "Don't blow it all on candy." Bless her heart.
In those days the only paved roads in Pleasants County were the streets in St Marys and The Road To Hebron Out McKim was no different, being mostly State Road gravel and New Deal pot holes. The next stop was Cool Springs at the bottom of the hill across from where Frank Ingram, who was married to Pauline - another of the Roby girls - had his apple silo. After filling our Boy Scout canteens with clear, cool, spring water and filching a couple of apples each, we headed out to where Broad Run empties into Middle Island and the rock-skipping contests were held, then past the Larue place which was homesteaded in 1796, and spoke to the current resident, Miss Epsie LaRue, another old maid who always asked, "Where are you pack of scalliwags headed? On your bikes." We stood politely and told her we were heading to the Roby place. And she always told us not to cause Myrtle and Ralph Roby any trouble like we did our poor folks in town, Bless Their Hearts.
Then it was on past Hiram Hall's place at DeLong, Tom Little's house, The Don Adams home and finally Aunt Myrtle's with happy anticipation of fishing for small-mouth from the swinging bridge and horse back riding on Uncle Ralph's plug horses, Mike and Polly. We usually rode up the hill where a tree had long ago grown right up through a large boulder and on to the top of the hill. Then it was down to the spring house that Uncle Ralph had dug into the hill and then built a one-room house on top.
The room was furnished with a large bed that had sweet-smelling sun-and-wind-dried sheets, a night stand with a kerosene-fueled lamp, a chair and a small sink that had a pump attached to it for water. A little ways past the spring house and on the other side of the barn was The Roby Two-Holer -- the only one on McKim and the scene of a chain of events whose memories last to this very day.
Now before you start thinking that the Robys were being uppity what with a two-holer and all, that was not the case. It was simply out of necessity beings how there were always a lot of kids and company around and some of the women folk liked to go together, like woman folk tend to do. Another advantage to the two-holer was when a boy had to go out there alone, he could always pretend there was someone sitting beside him. In addition to providing a sense of security, a feller also got to thinking that if the snakes thought they were out-numbered they would leave you alone. Sounded right to me.
After a supper big enough to feed 'Coxey's Army,' which was one of those quaint sayings you always heard but had no idea what it meant other than it was big and it was important, we settled in to eat popcorn and drink grape Cool Aid and listen to the WWVA Jamboree, Straight To You From The Stage Of The Virginian Thee-ater In Downtown Whe-e-e-e-ling, West Virginia!
Here things got a little strange, as the pee-merkle-green-colored Arvin radio sat in the middle of the kitchen table and was connected to the single electric outlet which hung from the pee-merkle-green-painted ceiling. Folks had to sit around the table and lean forward almost touching the Arvin with their ears to hear anything at all. We boys kinda snickered but were polite enough to keep our mouths shut while Uncle Ralph patted his feet in time with the music and said, "Beautiful, Bygolly, Beautiful," and "That ol' Hawkshaw Hawkins surely do know how ter sing a song," while Aunt Myrtle clapped her hands and nodded.
Later that night when we 'youngn's' were packed into the room over the spring house, I asked cousin June - another of the Roby Girls - why Uncle Ralph kept the radio so low. June laughed and said it was because they had just gotten 'wired' and her mom and dad thought that the lower they kept the volume, the less electricity they would use!
Terry fell out of the bed laughing and Gremlin picked a fight with him for laughing at his grandparents. They were all tangled up on the floor when another cousin, Lucille Roby, filled a pan with water from the pump by the sink and poured it on the both of them. When that cold spring water hit those boys, the fight was over and I asked Lucille where she learned a trick such as that. She said a couple of dogs had gotten all tangled up like that in their back yard and her dad poured cold water on them to stop 'the fight.' Sounded right to me at the time and it wasn't until several years later that I learned what kind of 'fighting' those dogs were doing.
As the night wore on, the inner and persistent call of nature at its most basic started at about the same time the outside weather turned chilly. Now, one of the worst feelings in the world is having to go when the only place to go is a two-holer, which in the warm daylight was only about 50 feet, but is now at least 400 hundred yards through the cold, windy darkness. But go you must - even though you know there are things out there just waiting to get you. And if you've never thought there were things out there to get you on one of those nights on one of those trips, you just haven't lived.
Thinking that extra protection and the power in numbers theory would surely turn the trick, the only question was who to wake and convince they needed to make the trip too. Figuring it best to get the one with the shortest legs as they would catch him first and eat him while you made your getaway, Gremlin was chosen. It took some convincing, but reminding him he would have to go sooner or later and it was better to go now than when the girls wanted to go, he was convinced. Besides that, they were his grandparents and it was his job.
Now as it had turned cold, we decided we needed a heater to take away the chill and help scare away the mice and night snakes. Dadgummit, you just can't go out there without you have some warmth or you could freeze to death sitting right there on that thing and you would really look funny when they found you the next morning, all froze blue. Having settled that, we tip-toed across the yard and eased open the kitchen door and crawled over to where Aunt Myrtle kept her kitchen matches, snagged two then backed out the door and closed it inch by inch so as to not make any noise.
When we got out to the two-holer, Gremlin was convinced to stand guard first, it being his grandparents and all, so in you went. After striking one of the matches and looking around for some paper to burn, the county Republican newspaper and some of June's Weekly Readers from school look like good sources of fuel for the stove and you're ready to go.
After getting your stove going and adding some fuel and getting all toasty and with Gremlin standing guard, you finally commence to accomplish your task. You're sitting there stoking your stove and taking care of business and stoking your stove some more and without you realizing it, that durn stove gets away from you! Smoke starts pouring out the door and pretty soon flames start licking up the side of the family two-holer and pretty soon -- Up She Went!
It didn't take long for that old, weathered lumber to hit its ignition point and within seconds the Roby Family necessary was no more. Gone. Finished. The End.
By the time the girls in the spring house realize what is happening and run over to the house screaming like banshees to wake up Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Ralph, good ol' Terry and you are on your bikes and half-way to town.
And that's what happene