#008 Oh, Deer

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

John Lennon & Paul McCartney

I lied. I promised you this would be the last post about Romney. As I go down my own personal rabbit hole, taking a few of you with me, I discover more. As a writer, to be true to mine own self, I must do what I must do. 

To quote that great American, Winston Churchill, “it will be long, it will be hard, it will be bloody.” I’m not talking about World War II. I’m talking today’s post. Coincidentally, I worked briefly for a band called World War III, but please stay to the end anyway. See, I slipped something in here about my music career. We’ll get to World War III in a couple decades from now. Figuratively, not literally.

My 10th year was eventful. After this post, I’m pretty sure one more and we can exit, stage left, Romney. A lot happened that year that with my certain strain of hindsight I now see as important.

Obviously, I celebrated my birthday, and as a right of passage I received from my dad the following gift:

A Western Auto break-action 20 gauge shotgun! I had to earn that manly firearm. I took and passed the WV Dept. of Natural Resources Hunter Safety Course. A couple of my Boy Scout buddies were there in the evenings, after school, with me. The little DNR building is still there. I spotted it the last time I passed through Romney just over a year ago. 

That fall, when squirrel season began, I really felt like a young man, walking through the woods carrying that gun, fully aware that I would only point it at something I was willing to destroy. As an exercise, Dad had me load a shell of small shot, perfect for squirrel, at a little sapling about as big around as my forearm was at that age. Kaboom!!! The baby tree was torn up badly, as was some of my hearing. No one wore protection back then. When our ears came back, Dad said now imagine as hard as that tree was, what damage would have been done to something as soft as a human? The impression, to last a lifetime, was made. 

Next, Dad took a six by six inch piece of wood about an inch thick that he’d been carrying and placed it by a tree. We walked about 10 yards away and Dad handed me a shell with a deer slug in it instead of shot. I took aim and pulled the bang switch again. The force from the slug damn near drove me backwards. There was a hole about the size of a nickel in the piece of wood! I’m not sure who was happier, Dad or me. The kid with one good eye, who couldn’t hit a baseball, the slowest one on the basketball court, the last one picked for kickball, could shoot straight!

We walked towards home, quietly listening for chirps in the trees, careful to not step on any sticks lest they snap and bely our presence. I’d reloaded with the squirrel shot. Towards the end of the journey, about 10 minutes from home, I thought I heard something, high in a tree. I looked up and something grey was moving, though not much, hard to see. Maybe it was the wind, but the chirp could be heard again. I was certain I could see it. I looked at Dad, seeking permission though at this point, as a certified WV Safe Hunter, none was needed. I took aim, squeezed yet again and damaged my hearing one more time. 

(I’ve been told by a doctor my tinnitus is probably from being around gunfire as a youth, and most likely not from loud music. Yes, and… is probably the truth.)

We waited for gravity and the Grim Reaper of Aerial Rodents to perform as expected, and nothing happened. I was disappointed to say the least. My first round fired in the battle of man versus wildlife was in vain!

Now keep in mind, my father could shoot. He could group pistol shots together at 10 yards in the space of a half dollar. He could take down three quail boom boom boom on one flush of a covey. I’d previously asked my dad how come he was such a good shot. His reply was ammo was expensive, especially growing up in Southeastern Kentucky on the banks of the Redbird River a couple decades previous. 

We waited silently for what seemed like an eternity. I was feeling worse by the moment. Dad didn’t seem to care. We turned to head towards home. As we walked away, our back now turned to the tree, we heard a thump. We returned to the tree and there lay the deceased squirrel. The Howard family tradition of Great White Hunters was being passed on. I picked up my prey and marveled at it’s gray fur tinged with black and red. It was hard to see where the shot had hit the beast. There was no blood.

On the way home, we stopped by a little shack-like cabin, or was it a cabin-like shack? Dad knew the old man that lived there. I suspected some of the man’s income came from information about who was making ‘shine in the vicinity. Perhaps the old man himself had a still and it was better to give up a few neighbors than himself. We’ll never know, but that day, my first kill was given to the old man who undoubtedly had it for his dinner. The lessons of giving and not wasting, were not wasted on me. Besides, Dad didn’t have to clean it, Mom didn’t have to cook it, so much work for so little reward. 

That November, at Romney Elementary, the principal declared in the morning announcements over the speaker in each classroom that the first day of deer season would be Deer Day, and anyone going deer hunting would be granted an excused absence. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell Dad, who, of course, said we’d go. 

That November morning of opening day of deer season was cold and clear. We left before Oh Dark Thirty. I had my hand warmers lit. I was bundled and booted appropriately, but I was still cold AF. Dad left me on a little tree-covered knoll beside the river with a view through a thin copse of trees in between. He went about a hundred yards upstream to wait himself. The sun was yet to rise above the horizon, but dawn was breaking. Mild advection fog rose from the river obscuring my view. Through frozen nostrils I could smell the cold, deciduous humus of my adopted home state of West Virginia, of my Appalachian heritage.

And then I heard the subtle crunch crunch of hooves on frosty leaves. Or did I? Maybe it was a hunter, perhaps not wearing the new, yet-to-be-popular, orange vest as I wore. Through the fog, I could see a shape. Was it a deer, an errant cow, or, hopefully not, a human? I wanted to bag a buck so bad I could feel it all the way down to my frozen toes. Damn, I couldn’t see the target. I withheld fire. And waited.

The sun rose, the fog thickened a bit, then dissipated as I froze. I listened for another deer and heard nothing, saw nothing. Shit. About a half hour later I heard my Dad’s unmistakeable whistle, loud and clear, from the right and a minute later he came into view and joined me. He asked if I’d heard the deer. I told him how I’d heard something but couldn’t ID the target. He affirmed that I’d made the right decision. Better to be prudent than commit manslaughter at such a tender young age. 

As it turned out, I was the only kid to participate in Deer Day. I felt special. I felt sorry for the other kids whose inattentive, deadbeat or panty-waisted fathers didn’t take them hunting. But then came the ultimate pisser.

The following May, when certificates for perfect attendance were handed out at the end of the school year, I expected one, and my name was not called. What the H? I HAD PERFECT ATTENDANCE. I raised my hand and asked “Where’s mine?” I was informed by my teacher that I had one absence. DEER DAY! MOTHER BLEEPING DEER DAY!

I went to the principal to appeal. He told me an absence was an absence, even an excused absence. I’m sure the seeds of a lifetime of self-righteous anger and indignation were well-planted by that day, but let me tell you, they sprouted with a vengeance. I had been set up by that bastard principal. Set up to fail! I stayed pissed for quite a while. Still, in this moment, I’m seething with anger, wishing I could remember his name so I could look him up on Find-A-Grave and take a leak on his headstone the next time I’m in West Virginia.

I know I still have some forgiving to do. There are a few graves I’d like to piss on. Hopefully they or their relatives did not choose cremation. 😉

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

Thank you for reading. If you haven’t yet, please follow this blog using the button to the right. 🙏🏽

#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.