Mountain Memories

Forgive a minor plagiarism:  I was born at an early age, 25 minutes after midnight on 28 June 1935 in Pineville, Bell County, Kentucky, which boasted a population of about 2,400 people, which is still about the same as it was then, in the heart of the Kentucky bituminous coal fields of the Cumberland Plateau, where the natives pronounce Appalachia with a short second “a” instead of long the way flatlanders do.  My delivering physician, in the house converted to a local hospital, was Dr. Maw, who did not know midnight had passed when I arrived, so he had to be reminded that it was the 28th when he filled out my birth certificate.  Maybe that explains a lot about the confusions that have attached to me in childhood and later.

My life until almost age 3 was spent at my parents’ small brick bungalow on Cherry Street in Pineville where I still have a few vague memories – being in a wooden play pen with blocks and other toys, and being abused by my cousin Jimmy Jeffries, who was about eight months older than I, and my hero, then, as now.  I liked to throw the blocks, which had trains, planes, letters, numbers, and animals on them.  I recall throwing at the mantel over the fireplace and my mother, Emma Wayne Jeffries Boston, scolding me.  Her maid was also Emma, Emma Washington, a black woman and the first person, reportedly, that I called “Mama.” My mother was an impatient, intellectual college-educated woman with a kind streak.  She was born on 28 July 1907 in Pineville, Kentucky, the oldest child of three born to James Henry Jeffries (Senior) and Mary Hunter Patterson Jeffries.  Emmy, as her friends called her, was never known as Emma; it was either Emmy or Emma Wayne in the southern tradition of awarding girls with two given names.  Her younger sister was Jane Hunter “Honey” Jeffries, later Blackburn after she married her college sweetheart John Bell Blackburn the year after I was born.  Between Emma Wayne and Jane Hunter, James Henry Jeffries, Jr. was born, in 1911, and served in General Patton’s Third Army in the European Theater and later in the Pacific Theater during World War II.  He died prematurely in 1949 of what may have been polio or some form of meningitis.

Another memory I have, pre-third birthday, is sitting on ashes in the Cherry Street backyard watching the coal and occasional passenger trains, switching back and forth across the creek-sized Cumberland River.  The ashes came from burning coal, the primary fuel in that coalfield town of the 1930’s.  I think staring at trains as a toddler led to my life-long fascination with trains and other forms of transportation.  I also remember our wired-haired terrier, who my mother named Greta Garbo because she had beautiful lines, but very big feet.  Greta lived to be almost 17 and died when I was beginning high school in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where we had moved when I was three. Greta’s death was a tragic day for me.

One of my strongest memories was at an age about 4, my father drove the two of us from Big Stone Gap to Pineville’s Louisville and Nashville RR depot, where my father’s good friend, Spence Herron (sp?) of Corbin, Kentucky was an engineer on a L&N steam locomotive.  He and his crew were putting a freight train together.  Four miles up the line from the Pineville depot was rail yard and turntable, oddly enough called “Four Mile, Kentucky.”  I remember being handed up to the fireman with a racing heart.  The rungs of the engine ladder were too far apart for me to climb up alone.  When aboard, I sat on Spence’s lap on the right side of the cab, looking down the outside of the firebox, opening the throttle, which had a brass handle, beginning the most exciting ride I had had and would have for many years until I was a flight student the Naval Air Training Command twenty-some years later. Spence and the fireman were stereotypes of what they were; wearing blue denim bibbed overalls, tall bill caps, and each had in his back pocket a large wad of very fine string, which I later learned was called “waste” for wiping off handles, gauges and whatever. When we approached a road with a grade crossing, Spence put my hand on a wooden handle attached to what looked like a cotton clothes line leading up to the top of the cab.  We pulled down together and the most wonderful wails came from the engine’s whistle – I think the pulls resulted in two longs, a short and a long, which I think is still the warning of grade crossings.  What I can be sure of was the wonder of this totally illegal eight-mile trip, then sitting on the fireman’s seat, and my short conversation with the soon-to-be-obsolete crewman (I did not know, or care then, but this engine did not have a mechanical stoker, which automatically fed coal to the firebox.) The fireman would shovel large lumps of coal directly into the firebox, monitoring the steam pressure and being a “copilot” for the engineer.  My conversation with the fireman consisted of questions from him, which I don’t remember, but I do remember one I asked and the fireman’s answer, which I remember well due to his then titillating response.  After looking around the cab, I realized there was no bathroom, and I asked how they went to the bathroom.  The fireman replied, “Son, we just shit in the shovel and throw it in the firebox.”  I was pleasantly shocked and enjoyed the fact that he did not mind using the word “shit” to me.  The last I remember was being handed down to my father, who had waited patiently until my free round-trip was over.  The remainder of that trip has faded in the mist of my memories, but not the thrill of seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of a steam locomotive up close and personal.