#005 Take Me Home, Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Bill Danoff/Taffy Nivert/John Denver

Homer Howard resigned from the Kentucky State Police in 1969 to take a job as a Special Agent with the US Treasury Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. His assignment in West Virginia was to find and destroy moonshine stills and arrest the distillers.  In Appalachia the word for such an occupation is “revenuer,” one whose responsibility is to enforce laws against illegal distilling or bootlegging of alcoholic liquor. I find this ironic considering his father, Ewell Howard, a once duly-elected jailer in Manchester, Clay County, Kentucky, once himself squeezed a little liquor out of corn. 

I sometimes imagine a comical parallel universe in which a first-generation Mexican-American ICE agent works the border, repelling the waves of Los IIllegales. I’m his son, going to school with kids browner than me. I think a lot of weird thoughts, more than I care to admit, being just another Spaced Kowboy drifting through the mulitiverses.

We left Hazard in Bryan Adam’s Summer of ’69 for the coal mining town of Beckley, West Virginia. I was five; my brother John was about six months old. We arrived there in time for the Apollo 11 moon landing which I remember watching on TV. I started first grade. The only musical connection I can make to Beckley is that our little community was named Harper Valley. Mom and Dad joked about the PTA. If you’d like a 3-minute treat watch this video: https://youtu.be/aOZPBUu7Fro

I just now watched this for the first time and coincidentally the resonator guitar being played slide-style looks exactly like the one I own that I play as an acoustic. Another glitch in my Matrix. It’s also interesting to see the mash-up of Country and City in Jeannie C. Riley’s outfit, like Nancy Sinatra meets Loretta Lynn.

Shortly thereafter, we moved again, this time to the town of Romney, in the Eastern Panhandle, where I joined another classroom of first graders already in progress. There was no coal in Romney, but the history of the War Between the States was deep, the town having changed hands between my native South and the Northern Agressors nearly fifty times. Remember Kentucky never succeeded from the Union, yet it was south of the Mason-Dixon line. Some local antebellum homes still had Minié ball holes in them that their owners would proudly show you. The mountains above the town still has trenches all around where troops and cannons dug in. It’s also the home of the country’s first Confederate Soldiers cemetery. Thankfully, the statues are still standing there. It’s one little corner of our country where history, for the sake of history itself, has not yet been revised.

I could write volumes on Romney. My former writing coach Kelly Morgan says it’s my vein of gold. My childhood memories include damming up the little creek behind where I lived, making myself a little swimming hole, trapping the crawfish for my amusement. The summers where wonderful. I picked wild blackberries that Mom would bake into pies. The mountain top was dotted with apple and peach orchards. I’d ride my bike through the dirt lanes in between the fruit trees. The fall foliage was beyond gorgeous. Freshly pressed apple cider every October just made the experience better. Winters were spent snow camping, deer hunting and playing Biddy Buddy basketvall. Spring in those mountains came with Dogwood blossoms, Little League baseball and the promise that fishing in the river and small lakes was just around the corner.

Dad’s exact motivation for turning on his own people and our traditional ways I’ll never know. He busted up a lot of stills in the several years we lived there. My father’s attitude towards alcohol was one of extreme moderation. I can only recall five occasions that I saw him drink, and then it was only one beer. He expressed to me his opinion of drunkenness which was not favorable. A beer every now and then with the meal was OK, he said. Dad worked a lot of car accidents while in the KSP. He measured skid marks and wrote reports and drew diagrams of where the vehicles and bodies ended up. I know his experience as a state trooper exposed him to many grotesque scenes, and I know the accumulated PTSD from all he saw, heard, smelled & touched affected his mental health.

He warned me of the dangers of drunk driving with a story of finding a deceased male who had missed a curve and ran off the road. While there were no visible signs of injury that could’ve produced immediate death, the autopsy later showed a beer bottle lodged in his throat. Apparently tipping that Miller High-Life skyward for the last swallow was both the cause of the accident and also of the young man’s demise.

While my dad was a gifted storyteller, he wasn’t prone to prevarication. I had to believe the tale was true. It wasn’t enough though to dissuade me from taking my chances with underage drinking and driving, nor doing so in my 20’s. Other stories for other times. 

Interestingly enough, he once told me all illicit drugs should be made legal, but heavily taxed. Dad was always a mixed message. Nonetheless, I have many more stories about my father, and many more stories about Romney, too.

Today’s story is really about hippies. Yes, that great horde of soap- & scissor-avoiding, dope-smoking, acid-dropping, war-protesting, free-loving, poetry-writing, art-making , guitar-playing hippies. I forgot patchouli-dousing. We must never forget patchouli-dousing.

You see, Romney was located about a two hour drive by micro-bus west of Washington, DC. Word got out that the fertile bottom-land of the South Branch of the Potomac River was a natural and abundant source for Mary Jane. You know, Lucifer’s lettuce. Wacky tobaccy. As a matter of fact, the word “weed” was spray-painted on the areas road signs that pointed towards Romney. This graffiti was a guidepost directing the young men and women who were spit on while trying to change their world to pot, free for the picking.

It’s also worth mentioning that the real name of that Great American and Woodstock clown, Wavy Gravy, given that nickname by BB King incidentally, is actually Hugh Romney. He and I had a laugh about that together a couple years ago. I’ll treasure those few minutes with Wavy forever.

So the mini-buses would roll into town, sticking out like the proverbial. While they might have stopped for briefly for gas and groceries, the VW’s would pass through town and head River Road. The hippies park along the almost non-existent shoulder, anything but inconspicuous, and would hike down the hill with burlap bags and gather plants by the pounds. Now I doubt there were gooey sticky buds growing, just the seven-pointed leaves that probably contained very little THC.

Dad would, just for sport, because harassing hippies was a past-time for him, accompany the West Virginia State Police, who would wait for the hippies to return to their micro-busses with the bags of weed. The youths would be placed in handcuffs and transported to the State Police post in town to be booked. Ironically, growing outside the back door of the Post was an eight foot tall marijuana plant, as if it were a mascot.

One particular Sunday evening, Dad came home and told a story about chasing down a few wayward hippies, ones who tried to escape, having forgotten his service revolver in the car. I told that story at school the next day and soon my classmate, Ann, now Dr. Ann, Ph.D., award-winning author of the book “Given Ground,” and of Appalachian life. Ann told her parents my story. Her dad and my dad being friends, well, you can imagine the talking to that I received about confidentiality and my father’s career.

I tried to contact Ann about 10 years ago after finding her book and reading it. It hit home for me as all the stories were directly or indirectly familiar. My writings in Kelly Morgan’s improve classes began to reveal my West Virginia years because of Ann. I tried contacting her in several ways. I was only able to speak to her partner. It still bugs me that she didn’t want to speak with me. I can’t imagine by fourth grade that I had already become that big an asshole that she didn’t want to speak with me forty-five-plus years later. I wonder how I might have alienated her in some way. I always blame me first, but people are strange, or so I’ve heard Jim sing.

What I do know, is that even then, I identified with those hippies, three-quarters of a generation ahead of me, and not my father, who I looked up to in so many ways. From that young age of nine or so, I wanted to try weed. I wanted to ride around in a microbus, wear a peace-sign necklace, grow my hair out and douse myself in patchouli oil. Those things would take a while, but eventually I would make up for lost time.

#003 Heritage

“Kantner once told me, ‘You’re never going to grow up,’ and I’m making a determined effort at it.” – Grace Slick

I’m doing my best not to grow up, but try as I might, it’s happening slowly. A couple of years ago, I decided I was finally mature enough for community college. School’s going well. I seem to have finally nailed how to focus, concentrate, memorize and regurgitate for a full three and a half months at a time. I celebrate such small victories.

Last year in my group communications class, populated with Gen Z’s and Millennials, our final project was called “Music Meltdown.” Each group of eight students was to put together a presentation analyzing  bands that had broken up. 

Our group chose The Spice Girls. Yawn. It wasn’t my choice, but I went along.

During the final class of the semester, each group made it’s presentation. One at a time, the other bands in question were revealed: NWA, Destiny’s Child, Led Zeppelin and *NSYNC. I sat in stunned silence.

My life keeps following me around. Call me paranoid. Call me whatever you’d like.

I wanted to raise my hand and announce that I had connections to all the groups. I had been Jason Bonham’s tour manager, Dr. Dre’s tour accountant on his “The Chronic” tour, *NSYNC’s merchandise accountant twice and Destiny’s Chid’s tour accountant in Europe right before Beyonce blew up into, well, Beyonce. 

What would have been the point? Although I’ve always been treated well by my fellow students, it’s hard to call them peers. Nobody likes a showoff, especially a showoff old enough to be one’s grandfather, or even great grandfather in a few cases. I had a vision of myself morphing into Grampa Simpson before their eyes. What would have been the point, indeed. No one would have believed me anyway. 

As David Byrne once posed, “How did I get here?” That, dear reader, is the $64,000 question. I promise you, if you come back week after week, and we both live long enough for me to unfold the story of my life from zygote to forty, you’ll get the whole story.

[Deep breathe.]

Let’s begin, shall we?

The number one song the day I was born was “Sukyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. That’s only relevant for one reason: it’s such a major uncool song. Not that I’ve ever been cool, but only “The Purple People Eater” would have been worse. Were it not for the randomness of my mother’s fertility cycle, my song could have easily been “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore or “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. Far cooler, in my opinion,

I was born in the tiny town of Hazard, Kentucky, population then and now around 5,000. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, the region was, and to some degree still is, a time capsule of an earlier era. The dialect, music and simple way of life there have changed little over the decades. These attributes are more reflective of the original settlers’ English heritage, and given the geographic isolation immune to the rapid societal progressions of city folk.

Hunting, fishing, trapping, planting by the signs, using plants as natural medicines, distilling corn liquor, curing meat, dehydrating vegetables and cabin-building were but a few of the skills necessitated by their hardscrabble existence in those mountain hollers (hollows).

I’m proud of my English-Appalachian heritage. For the record, I detest the word “white” when it refers to my ethnicity, the word “Caucasian” being no better. Unless one is sight-impaired one can easily see that my melanin composition is actually a slightly-tanned beigish-pink. 

I far prefer the term Appalachian-American. For the record, yes, I am a Hillbilly. Use that word as a pejorative, however, and my first reaction will be to throat-punch the offender or worse. (The term “Saltine-American” is acceptable in all cases.)

If you care to know more, please consult Chapter 6 of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “Outliers” which discusses in detail my Howard heritage and our propensity to shoot first, ask questions later and be slow to forgive.

My Howard and Combs ancestors abandoned Mother England for the New World in the early 1700’s, for reasons unknown to me, and landed in Virginia. Samuel Howard was my first forefather to be documented as born on this continent. He fought in the Revolution against King George and was present at Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at Yorktown. 

Back in the 70’s, when the pre-internet genealogy craze hit after the mini-series “Roots”, my father and I spent hours looking at census records in the basement of the Perry County library. We sent for and received by mail from the National Archives Samuel’s narrative of his service in the war, written by his own hand, which was required as proof to qualify for a military pension.

[As an aside, I once ran into LaVar Burton at the spa I frequent. I didn’t recognize him. A couple of hours later I had the Aha! moment. My only excuse is that we were both naked at the time. I’ve seen Laurence Fishburne there a few times, too.]

From my mother’s side, I was told my great great grandmother, Nancy Parker, was full-blooded Cherokee. I believe it’s easy to see Native features in my mother, grandmother and pictures of their mothers. That would make me 1/16th Native. DNA analysis suggests I’m less than that, 1.2% to be specific. While far more than that of Elizabeth Warren, I nonetheless continue to self-identify as of both European and Native American heritage.

The music of Appalachia is derived from English ballads, as well as Irish and Scottish traditional folk songs, with fiddle, banjo and fretted dulcimer as the main instruments. The music from the motherlands evolved into the genres of Old-time, bluegrass and country music, and featured prominently in the folk music revival of the early 1960’s.

I’m listening to Gospel bluegrass right now as I finish this post. It’s my Sunday morning ritual, as close to church as I get these days. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that bluegrass was enjoyed and studied by the great American Jerry Garcia in his musically formative years. He actually visited Bean Blossom, Indiana and recorded with a portable reel-to-reel machine at Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival. 

Coincidentally, my wife’s maternal grandfather was a luthier and picker, and one of Bill’s Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Michelle has such great stories to tell of her grandfather, Frank Beach. I’ll always treasure the memories of our private tour of Bill’s museum on a rainy January day a few years ago.

Music was around me from the time I was born. Though neither of my parents played an instrument then, music was always present. Incidentally, my mother now plays guitar and mandolin and sings beautifully in the Appalachian tradition.

My mother listened to Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith and Dolly Pardon. She had an old Motorola console stereo that was more of a piece of furniture than it was a hi-fi. I wish I still had it today. I’m searching for a used one.

Until the age of 5, I was cared for by my mom’s mom while my parents worked. In that humble house, hand-built by my grandfather and heated by a coal-fired potbellied stove, Old-time and bluegrass played constantly on the AM radio.

My father loved music, too. I learned about bluegrass from him. I have a memory of being at a bluegrass festival with him, but I don’t think it was in Bean Blossom, yet it could have been. Sometimes I think I made that memory up.

He loved singing along with the car radio in his deep baritone voice. I remember singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” many times with him. On one particular fishing trip, while lunching on saltines and sardines, we sang along gleefully to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” There was much more.

Especially heart-warming to me now is remembering my father enjoying “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’” with a smile on his face. Although, he didn’t exactly hate hippies with the passion of Cartman, I don’t think he realized who the Grateful Dead were, and neither one of us could foresee who they would become. We couldn’t foresee who we would become, either.