Memories of My Childhood

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Here I am fifty-two years ago in front of  the state capitol building in Sacramento, Ca. I was in the Air Force stationed at Mather Field

 
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Siting outside a one-room school house on a big rock on a Sunday morning, I could hear family and friends singing  "Precious memories, how they linger, How they ever flood my soul; In the stillness of the midnight, Precious, sacred scenes unfold." As I sit here writing, I can vision two young boys, my brother Marcus and me, walking barefoot on a small path over mountain tops to visit our aunts and uncles guided by instinct. I can picture all of my brothers and our friends searching for wild grapes and cutting dead grape vines to use as ropes to swing from tree to tree. I well remember my climbing on top of a big rock to show the older boys that I wasn't afraid, but I was too afraid to come down until Marcus put out his arms and to coax me. The picture of my father showing me how to make traps to catch wild game and my mother teaching me how to make butter with the big paddle churn will remain with me for the rest of my life. All the jokes that we used to play on each other can never be duplicated. The memories that I have written are of a young boy growing up in the mountains and having the most caring family who anyone could hope for. We can never relive these times, but we were given the capability of revisiting them in our memories.


I have done research on the Feltners. The Feltner name is German. While I was in the service, I was stationed in Germany and could speak fluent German. Feltner in German is spelled Feldner, meaning of the field or farmers. "D" in German is pronounced as a "T " in English. In the 1790 census, three Feltner Families were living in the Western part of Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, a lot of German soldiers came to the United States to fight for the British. I am assuming that some of these soldiers were named Feldner and when the British lost, they fled to the hills of Virginia. When ask what their names were they would say Feldner which sounded like Feltner to the natives so they entered their names into the records as Feltner. In 1792, when Kentucky became a state, the Western region became the Eastern region of Kentucky. There are three distinct lines of  Feltner families that now exist. One is in the from the Glomawr section, one is from Hazard-Hyden area, and the other is from the London-Corbin area. I have known people from all three of these branches and none claim to be related to the other. When I was young, it was said that one day the Feltners and sage brush would take over Kentucky. It never happened.

On the third weekend of August, there is a reunion of  the Feltner Families at the  J.M. Feltner 4-H Camp, London, KY.


When writing anything about people and their community, one must remember the times and conditions. In the thirties and forties which encompassed my childhood, we were in a great depression. Seven out of ten men were unemployed. The mountain people were suffering the same as everyone else, except that the only jobs that they could get were in the coal mines. Coal mining was one of the worst jobs that any man could have, but he was lucky if could get this. He had to get up at four in the morning, walk two miles to work, load sixteen tons of coal on his hands and knees and in some cases on his stomach, and then walk home with black coal dust covering him from head to feet. When he went to work, he never knew if he would make it home. There were always caveins in the mines. My father told me that the mice and rats were his warning. If he saw them scurrying from his "room", he knew to get out. They could feel the tremors. Twice, he was saved by them. If an explosion occured, the driver of the coal cars would instantly head for the entrance. The miners would hop on board as it passed their workplace. This was their only means to get out. In some instances, not everyone was acounted for and they had to go back to try to rescue them. The only light they had was a carbide lamp on their caps.

One story that my father told me was that one time while he was working in his room, he heard his friend from the next room give out a yell. When he went to see what was wrong, he saw that his friend had a bad accident and needed a doctor. His friend did not want to leave because he had to finish loading the coal. My Dad told him that he would do the work for him to go and see the doctor. His friend finally agreed and left. Five minutes later, the room that Dad was working in collapsed. He said that the most that he ever loaded in one day was twenty-two tons.

A lot of these hard working men's lungs got filled with coal dust and they died early with black lung disease. This was a very slow and painful death. Almost every person who lived during these times had a relative who was either killed in the mines or had lung disease. My oldest brother, Roy, died from black lung disease at the age of twenty-five in 1942.  In most cases, they could only buy their groceries at the company store. Their pay checks came from this store. They usually had to buy them on credit from the commisary which always charged higher prices for its goods. Their purchases would be deducted from their paychecks. Every two weeks, they would line up at the paymaster's window and if they were lucky, they may have a few dollars left over. Make no mistake about it, the people who lived in these camps and hollows were hard working and they deserved much better than what they got. All my older brothers worked in the mines. No one was better than the other. Some just had a little more. We were lucky to be one of these because we had a farm and a family who was willing to work it. We did what we had to to make a living.


In the 1920's, the mining union headed by John L. Lewis started to unionize the local coal companies. There was hell to pay. The organizers would stand at the mines and threaten to kill anyone who tried to enter. Some of the miners tried and they paid with their lives. Finally the owners gave in and the miners were unionized. My father said that it made life better for him, but I thought if this were better then what was it like before.

During the war, most of the young men volunteered or were drafted to serve their country. After the war, some of them returned to the coal fields, but a lot of them went elsewhere. They settled down in the manufacturing states. Their brothers and sisters followed and it became a great migration from the hills. Mines closed and the trains were replaced by trucks. Super highways and strip mining changed the entire countryside and the rivers turned yellow and streams dried up. No more kids with a tree limb for a pole and safety pins for hooks could be seen sitting on the stream banks waiting for that lucky bite. Drive-in theaters disappeared and sitting on the front porch drinking a RC Cola and eating a moon pie was no more.  One of the greatest change was when Kentucky wiped out segregation. The other Southern states were resisting changes with clubs, guns, and even deaths. Governor Happy Chandler said that it was not going to happen in Kentucky. Segregation ended without a whimper. Black and white children could now play together in the same school yard. Any one could now sit down in the same diner and share any seat he wanted in a movie house. Without realizing it, their way of life had disappeared before their eyes. Life changed for everyone.


I am sure that anyone from the mountains who has traveled has had his friends joke with him about his being from the hills. They have asked me if I put rocks in my shoes so I would feel comfortable walking. I would look at them and say "what  shoes?" One day, a person from Ohio ask me what was the difference between a hillbilly and an idiot. I replied that it was the Ohio River. I told my brother-in-law that I was so poor that I only had one runner on my sled. He laughed and joked about that for years. We were always asked if one of our legs was shorter than the other. When the Wild Turkey distillery was partially destroyed a few years ago and its whiskey ran into the Kentucky River, I said this was great for a lot of folks in the mountains. The fish would get drunk and float to the top making them easy for them to be caught. They didn't have to dynamite them any more. I said that I could see my kinfolks heading for the river singing  "Shall we gather at the river."   For the first time in their lives, they wanted to be baptised and go down three times. One time my brothers Baxter, Fred, and I went into the restaraunt near the Greyhound bus station in Hazard. We were hungry and decided to have breakfast. The waitress ask us what we wanted. Baxter said he wanted some sausage and eggs. The waitress asked how he wanted his eggs. He said fried. She stood there shaking her head not believing what she had heard. She looked at Fred and he said that he would have the same. When she asked me, I said "me too".  Another person was asked how he wanted his eggs. He said that he wanted them fried in deep grease and whalloped over like Mint does at home. What is the difference between a Hill Billy and a Mountain William. If you had a dollar in your pocket, you were a Mountain William. I tell some of my friends that my wife had always dreamed of seeing a knight in shining armour come charging across the green fields on a white stallion to sweep her off her feet. What did she get:? A Hill Billy riding down the mountainside on a mule wearing bibbed overalls.

 

The swinging bridge at Rush Creek.

A typical swinging bridge

 

The people who lived in mountains were called "Mountain People".  They were very proud and independent people. First, let me say that I am proud to be from the mountains of Kentucky. I loved those mountains and the people who lived there. When people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I was born near Hazard, Ky. deep in the Appalachia Mountains. I would tell them that I lived so far in the mountains that the Grand Ole Opry didn't get there until Wednesday. Sunshine was pumped in and moonshine was pumped out. As the old saying goes, "You can take us out of the mountains, but you can't take the mountains out of us". Most of the bridges that we used to cross over Carr Creek to some of the hollows were swinging bridges. These were one span bridges using two steel cables about four feet wide strung on two tall posts on each side of the creek. Steel cables placed about ten feet apart holding up wooden supports. Then, boards would be nailed to these for walking. About half way across, the bridge would start swinging from side to side. When one got used to walking on these bridges, there was no problem. Seeing a stranger walking across one for the first time and holding on for dear life, was always very, very funny. These bridges were used throughout the mountains. Sometimes we got what we called a storm burst. I realize now that it was a hurricane that came over our area. When this happened, flood waters would reach almost to the bridge and one had get up a little nerve to go across.

   

There were some people who lived in the hollows who never got outside of them. Scuddy was no exception. In 1943, when one of my cousins was married, she and her husband were moving to Happy, two miles from Scuddy. She was going down the road crying and waving her arms. Between sobs she was yelling, "Goodbye ole Kentucky, goodbye ole Kentucky." Some of the people sitting on the their front porches were laughing so hard that tears were coming from their eyes. I heard one man say, "What in the world is wrong with her? She is only going to Happy."

On almost every wide spot on a highway in the road there was a local grocery store. If the owner had a beer license he could sell beer, but hard liquor could only be sold at separate stores in wet counties with a Kentucky permit. Believe you me, there was a lot of  whiskey being smuggled from a wet county to a dry one. Anyone doing this could double their money on each bottle. On a Saturday, at almost all of these stores, men would be sitting on feedbags drinking beer and listening to a juke box playing beer drinking music.

One such store was near our house at Jeff. My brother Marcus was married and lived across the river with his in-laws. I was on vacation from school and was visiting my father. I was walking by the store the same time that Marcus was going in to buy pack of cigarettes. I told him that I would wait for him to come outside. In about five minutes he came outside and told me to go home. I asked him what was the matter and he told me that there were two drunk brothers inside and one had acused him of stealing his beer. The owner told them to take their dispute outside so he came out first and was waiting for them. I told him that I was not leaving. Then the man who had acused Marcus for stealing came charging out after him. When he got close, Marcus hit him so hard that he went ten feet backward and was out like a bad light bulb before he hit the ground. His brother came out and started to pull a pistol. Marcus told him that he had never stolen the beer and that he wanted no more trouble, but if he pulled that pistol, he would get the same as his brother. The man look at Marcus and told him to forget it. He picked up his brother, put him in their car, and drove home. Marcus and I walked home and told Dad what happened. Homer Back, our step-brother was there. He told Marcus that these were the meanest brothers in the county and they would probably come after him as soon as they sobered up. They never did.

The mountains was a safe haven for a lot of escaped prisoners. It was well known if one could get to the mountains, he had a good chance of never being caught. One day, my Father was walking by a grocery store in Jeff when he saw a taxi driver waving frantically at him. He walked over to see what he wanted. He told my father that there was a man in  the store who had kidnapped him in Atlanta, Georgia. He was made to drive him here. He asked Dad to get a sheriff which he did. The man was taken to jail and then sent back to prison. The county sheriff's department was the chief law enforcement office for the entire county. A lot of his deputies were his cronies and were in most cases hated. If one were arrested for anything, no matter how minute, he was sent to jail and the judge would fine him twenty-five dollars. The arresting officer, sheriff, judge, jailer, and county would each receive five dollars. So, in large part, their salary would depend on the amount of arrests that were made. There were a lot of people who were arrested for doing nothing. If one could not pay his fine, he was sent to jail for thirty days. There were some sheriffs and deputies who never lived to finish their terms in office.

Shortly after they were married, My brother Marcus and his wife Juanita moved to the Kenmont Coal Camp at Jeff. I went to stay with them after I graduated from Mt. Carmel High School. One of the sheriff's deputies called Big Jack was in charge of the district. One Sunday, I was walking from church singing to myself when his car pulled over. He beckoned for me to get inside. I asked him what was I doing wrong. He said that I was drunk. I tried to tell him that I had just come from church and never had a drink in my life. He pulled out his gun and said I told you to get in and I mean it. I had known Big Jack and had talked with him on occassion when he would be standing at the commissary doing nothing. He informed me that I was going to jail. He drove out the hollow and was turning on the highway when he was flagged down. There had been a car accident and the guilty driver had driven off. He saw a bigger fish than I so he told me to get out and don't get drunk again. He took off after the other car. A few years later, Big Jack had a habit of going into another county and arresting men for drinking. He would go into the local beer joint and look around for men  had too much to drink. Big Jack was out of his territory, but it didn't make any difference to him. One day they  told Big Jack that the next time he came, they would kill him. Big Jack didn't believe him so he tried it again. Just as he entered the doorway, five men shot him dead. They were never tried for Big Jack's actions were considered unlawful and no one really cared.

Next Page     


Ode to Big Jack Fields
Royal Feltner
May 6, 2008

Big Jack was a deputy sheriff;
East Perry County was his turf;
He hung around the Kenmont store
Watching everyone walking out the door.

When you saw him, you would say
Hi Big Jack and go on your way;
He might answer or give a nod
As he stood there acting like God.

There is something I should explain;
He was a great big man with an itty-bitty brain

Now Big Jack had a serious fault
He would do something he shouldn't ought;
He would go across the Knott County line
To a little beer store called the Lonesome Pine.

When he saw someone with too much to drink,
He hauled them off to the Perry
County Clink;
This was something everyone knew
That no county sheriff had the right to do.

After a year, they had  enough;
They were tired of him strutting his stuff;
They told him not to come again;
If he did, it would be his end.

But Big Jack thought that he was tough;
He was going to call their bluff;
The very next night he went across the line
To arrest any man whom he
could find.

He parked his car at the store
Walked up the steps and opened the door
What he saw was a big surprise
Five men with guns staring him in the eyes

These men weren't going to take it any more;
They pulled the triggers and he fell to the floor;
They let him lay there until he died;
And got him by the feet and pulled him outside.

The store owner turned off the light
And the men wandered off into the night.
There were questions, but all in vain;
No one knew this great big man with the itty-bitty brain
.


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"Mr. Grand Ole Opry"


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Henry "Hank" Thompson
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In my opinion, he had no equal.


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Ellen "Kitty Wells" Deason"
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The queen of country music
"It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels"

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Virginia Wynette Pugh
Tammy Wynette
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Jimmy Rodgers
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The father of country music


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Dolly Parton
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When your eyes are tired from reading, come back and rest your eyes on this.

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