THE STORY TELLER

by Mike Peters


If you looked close enough, you could still make out the writing.  Faded and originally painted on the barn by his eldest daughter, the advertising jingle was left over from his days as a dairy farmer.  "You can whip our cream but you can't beat our milk."  Grandpa Coleman, a carpenter who worked for Jess Faber, walked in front of the barn after the pickup truck dropped him off.

He placed the lunch box on the kitchen counter and removed the thermos that kept his coffee warm.  I used to pretend that the silver container was a rocket.  He rolled up his sleeves, untucked his shirttail and unbuttoned the dirty work shirt. Underneath was a sleeveless white cotton undershirt, what we called a tank top.  He cleaned his face and hands in an old wash basin, located on a small stand just inside the kitchen, and tossed the dirty water out the back door.  His oldest grandchild rushed out to the porch and waited in the swing.  Certainly there'd be time for a story before Grandma called us for supper. 

The "Story Teller" was born and reared up "Spicewood Holler" in Jackson County.  He wore Old Spice and coveralls, played a Jew's harp and enjoyed a small bowl of Neapolitan ice cream before bedtime.  When it wasn't ice cream, it was "milk and bread" -- corn bread crumbled into a bowl, covered with cold milk and eaten like Frosted Flakes.
 
By the time I came along, the telling of the story took a tad bit longer than it had when my mother was a child.  Emphysema forced Grandpa to alter his delivery.  His  grandchildren watched a barrel chest expand with each inhalation.  He perfected a pursed-lip breathing technique, that he used when winded.  It was in through the nose and out through lips formed as if they were blowing out candles on a birthday cake.  He'd lean forward on arms, his upper body in a tripod-like position.  All this reduced his airway resistance and allowed Grandpa to catch his breath a little quicker.

There was no disguising Grandpa's passion for the story, no concealing the excitement in his voice.  The story slowed when he snapped shut his silver Zippo and took a long drag of menthol from his Salem.  Maybe the pause was purposeful, for effect.  I don't know.  I do know that he had a "need to tell." It would be some years before age and genealogy infected me with a serious case of "need to know."

My favorite story was one he always told on the road to Boone County.  My Peters grandparents lived there, up Toney's Branch in Bloomingrose.  Grandpa Coleman would always accompany us on the trip.  He knew my paternal grandparents, when Burton and Sadie lived out on Harrison Ridge, at the head of Spicewood, up where Jackson and Kanawha merge.

We'd always make some stops along the way.  At a drug store, we'd buy some Prince Albert pipe tobacco for Grandpa Peters.  At Harland's place, we'd grab a bucket and some sides, so that Grandma and Grandpa Peters would not feel obliged to cook.  During all this, Grandpa Coleman was quiet up front in the passenger seat.  That would change soon.  He would open up, somewhere on Len's Creek Mountain.

The mountain, named for Leonard Morris, is on the Kanwaha/Boone border. Mother always worried about being on the mountain when there was ice and snow.  Don't think that ever was the case when we drove to Boone County. Leonard Morris was the son of William Morris, Sr., who according to George W. Atkinson's "History of Kanawha County, West Virginia ... "  was the first permanent settler in the Kanawha Valley.

It was always at the same place, a location that is unknown to me now.  At this rest stop, Grandpa Coleman would point and tell the story.  Sometimes he'd even sing.
Upon this lovely mountain
A filling station stands
Where curious men have traveled
To lend a helping hand
The place we stopped was a filling station in 1929, one owned by Frank Bowen, a man who "had thousands of friends along the Kanawha Boone border," according to the Charleston Gazette of 9 May 1929.  The phrase used by Grandpa Coleman to describe Mr. Bowen, was Biblical.  I'd learned about the "Good Samaritan" in Sunday School.  Sometimes the adjective was kind.  Other times, he used the words caring, helpful, and giving.
Frank Bowen was the owner
A noble hearted man
He played a good Samaritan
To help his fellow man
Grandpa would talk about two other men, Millard Morrison and Walter Wilmot. They were from out-of-state.
Two men were waiting for him
They flagged his car that day
They asked him for a favor
To help them on their way
Into his car he took them
They asked him for a ride
Morrison rode behind him
Wilmot by his side
Millard Morrison, 24, and Walter Wilmot, 31, were from New Jersey.  Walter's young bride, who was but 14 and on her honeymoon, did not take the ride.  She stayed with the car, the one Morrison and Wilmot claimed needed gas.  Bowen, who according to the Charleston Gazette, owned a "chain of gasoline service stations and lunch stands located along the Charleston Logan Road," was taking a deposit to the bank.  He stopped and offered the two men a lift to the nearest station.
As they rode along in silence
The midnight dark and gloom
Morrison took his pistol
Put Bowen in his tomb
When the suspicious pair was apprehended by Officer A. L. Youell, the two New Jersey men said the man huddled under an overcoat was drunk.  The coat was pulled away and revealed Bowen with a bullet hole in his head.
They weep and mourn in sadness
To his loving friends so true
And to his wife and children
He had to bid adieu
The men had separate trials.  Morrison's jury took five minutes to deliberate. Wilmot's jury was out for less than an hour.  The two were hung on 13 September 1929 at Moundsville.  The teenaged Mrs. Violet Wilmot, who had been a material witness in the trial, went home to Elizabeth, NJ.
Dear people all take warning
Prepare to meet your God
For he is coming
According to his word
Give your heart to Jesus
Repent from all your sins
And at the throne of Judgment
A crown of life you'll win
Thomas Carlyle, 19th Century philosopher and essayist, once wrote, "Histories are as perfect as the historian is wise, and is gifted with an eye and a soul." I'll agree with his eloquent definition.  But my take on history is a lot simpler.  History is just what it says it is -- his story.

The man who told me was a common man and he wore that as easy as we do T-shirts and jeans.  He never read the classics or any of the latest best sellers, but I'd still consider him well read.  To stay abreast of current events, it was the Charleston Daily Mail and the Jackson Herald, from cover-to-cover, that complemented Huntley and Brinkley's nightly newscast.  To prepare for the future, it was a small pocket-sized, dog-eared Testament.

The "Story Teller" told and retold the stories to keep the past fresh in our minds.  Only so much of history is written down.  Only so many of our ancestors were literate.  Grandpa's stories were for those who signed with the letter "X."  They were for those who didn't leave pictures or transcribe family information in a Bible.  They were for those that died intestate.  They were for those whose records burned in the Civil War and for those whose household information perished with the 1890 Census.  All we have on some of our ancestors is the spoken word, a hunch, some circumstantial evidence.   Nothing really concrete.  Sure, the words may be embellished or even fabricated.  But it's the best we got.  When the oral history stops, so it is with our culture, our customs, our way of life.  We begin to blend in, become like everyone else.  People with no distinguishing features are just not as interesting.

I have read Hemingway and Twain, listened to the lyrics of Kristofferson and  Prine and greatly enjoyed the Southern prose of Shelby Foote.  But these wordsmiths do not do for me what my unpublished Grandpa did.  They didn't attend West Virginia's last public hanging.  They never downshifted on Len's Creek Mountain.  They didn't tell me about the family bootleggers or the time Uncle Lon Huffman was shot.  When I retell Grandpa's stories, I walk again on dirt roads and behind a hay bailer.  I take my first bite of rhubarb pie.  I hear the soothing "swish, swish, swish" of Great Granny's glider.  The Story Teller planted those seeds in my garden.  One of the regrets of my life is that I harvested late. Another is that I didn't take notes.  

Thanks for listening and as the "Story Teller's" wife used to say, "Ya'll come!" If you're lucky, Grandpa will tell a story.

Sincerely,

Mike Peters
npeters102@aol.com

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