I grew up at Kona around black people who worked at the Kona mine. Fond in my memory is Charlie Gore. He was in charge of all the mine ponies and let me help care for them.
Daily he would check their hooves, teeth, ears, and skin, and make sure they had clean running water. I was about seven or eight years old at the time and learned a lifelong respect for animals from him.
We played all summer with the black kids and I wondered why they went to a different school. We integrated my senior year of high school and the only fighting was between the Jenkins and Neon coaches over who got Dunham’s big ball players.
They were a novelty for a while, and then it was on to business. I never saw any prejudice, but I saw it from a white view.
Next year I was off to school on the East Coast, and I was in for the culture shock of my life. We drove home with a black kid and the restaurants kicked us out, black or white restaurants. While on the East Coast we learned to dump the black kid out, circle the block, then go in and sit at different tables.
I was drafted in 1967 and the Army was much of the same. I managed to make friends with some of the Southern blacks, and they had a prejudice of their own. They hated “Yankees,” black or white, something I still struggle with today.
While I was in Vietnam, Martin Luther King was assassinated and another war broke out. Our captain immediately flew us out to a firebase, away from everyone. While standing at attention (the only time I ever did in Vietnam), the captain told us we were “his” men, and every day we killed people to protect each other.
“I expect the same from you, and it doesn’t matter if you have to kill whites, blacks or gooks, disobey me and you’ll walk point until you die or go home.” We all felt pretty much the same, and he just clarified it for us.
I came home injured, and after recovering I went to work at Bethlehem Steel at Jenkins. I worked with several older black gentlemen such as Ben Jackson, Clarence Toodle, Henry Hutton, Cigar Eban and Frank Gails. Most memorable was Big Dee Williams. He was a World War II veteran, a soft-spoken, well-mannered, gentle giant of a man. He didn’t smoke, drink, or ever utter a word of foul language. I respected him greatly, and he had a calming effect on me.
I was probably the wildest thing ever to leave Vietnam. At that time, Henry Hutton brought a big ham and all the trimmings to work every Friday, and we gave him a dollar each. After we pigged out, he took the rest home to serve in his restaurant “Hut’s B-B-Q.” It was the best of times.
I lost two of my lifelong friends this year, Raymond Lee and Dan Washington. I worked with both and rode thousands of miles with Raymond on motorcycles. He was playing with my infant daughter, and she rubbed his arm with her finger, and looked to see if the black came off.
At work, I once grabbed Dan and dragged him into the shop, tossing my coattail over his head and yelling, “Hide, Dan! It’s the Klan (the Ku Klux Klan)!” Everyone eased over to the window and peeped outside, only to see two Catholic nuns walking down the street.
One day I came upon Foster Washington, who had locked himself out of his truck. Upon seeing me, he yelled, “Here comes the biggest car thief in the county. He’ll get in my truck.” After getting in, I acted like I was stealing his stereo. He grabbed me by the ankles and yelled, “No, no, don’t steal my radio.” I told him it was just a force of habit. Everyone around was laughing hysterically. Foster told them to call the police and tell them he didn’t need them anymore. I yelled “What?! I’m helping a black man break in a truck and the police coming?” I ran and jumped in my Jeep and peeled rubber across the parking lot.
Dan Childress and I spotted Gardener Helton at Walmart. He was probably 80 at the time. Dan said, “Let’s go mug old ‘Dad.’” We sneaked up from behind and I grabbed one arm and his wallet while Dan put that big, black arm around him. After he struggled loose and swung at us a couple of times, he recognized us and hugged us.
Where else but Letcher County can two old white men and a black man get away with a group hug? Where else can you get away with the crazy antics we pulled on each other for 50 years? It seems most of our black neighbors have died off or moved away for work. While Mr. Hutton was dying, he was in my father’s room at the hospital. He had his wife bring a badge to show my dad. We made it at the shop when he was elected constable. It was a big star engraved, “I Is the Law,” a joke that would have made most people mad, but to “Hut” it was a prized possession from his friends.
Only recently I had a root canal, and on the way home, had a flat tire. Five young black kids stopped and seeing I was in a lot of pain, changed my tire. They wouldn’t let me pay them, no matter how much I insisted. They offered to drive me home. They followed me home and tooted the horn as I pulled into my driveway. Only in Letcher County.
My childhood and much of who I am today, I owe to the black people of this area. I only wish it could have been like that everywhere.