I remember that the road to Texas was forever. Sometimes it would go for miles and miles without just one little turn in it. And what ever happened to their hills? These poor people through west Tennessee, and Arkansas just didn't have one mountain to run to or one hill to hide behind. There wasn't one huckleberry or one chinky pin. Where did the squirrels live in this world of the longest-eared rabbits? There weren't even any dogwood trees or tadpoles. And there I sat with Anita on one side and the door on the other with my autoharp picks on my finger, and no happiness in my heart. I was contemplating opening the door and running all the way home to Clinch Mountain, when a good strong healthy pinch from Anita brought me back to reality.
In three days we were in San Antonio, and a new world awaited me. We lived at 850 West Brooklyn in a boarding house with a Mrs. Murphy and you could buy ice cream down on the corner at the drug store. This ice cream was in a big box behind the counter. It stayed there all the time. That drug store had ice cream every day, really it did. It came in something called a cone, which was really a little cookie shaped like a cup. I let my cousin Fern know about it right away.
I had blessed San Antonio with myself just two days , and ran home crying to Mother Maybelle, and Aunt Sara in utter despair. All I had wanted was a "poke". I had bought my candy at the store and asked the lady behind the counter for a "poke". I stood there a little while, and she looked at me with a blank stare. By this time everyone in the store was examining me as if I was a snake. You'd think that someone there would have sense enough to reach behind the counter, take out a little brown poke, and give it to me to put my candy in. Even Leanord Neal knows what a poke is and his store at home in Maces isn't half this big. You'd have thought by the way they were looking at me that I didn't know what a poke was. Even I knew what a poke was. It wasn't until after a good cry that I found out that the world had such high class names for "pokes" as paper bags.
Aunt Sara lived with all of us at Mrs. Murphy's. Uncle A.P. lived with Jeanette and Joe in Almo Heights. And so the Carter family started a new series of transciptions for drug trade products. (The old original Carter family, Mommie, Aunt Sara, and Uncle Doc.) Then they had added Jeanette as a solo. And then Helen, Anita and myself were to record three afternoons a week in the basement of Don and Dode Baxter's home. When Helen and Anita and I started to sing you would have thought that Mother and Aunt Sara would have given us a little help with the background. But we had to sing and play that first one alone. I tried singing as low as possible, hoping that they would drown me out, which they did. I make it through the first session without them discovering that I had no talent whatsoever. I even learned a solo. It was the very song you would expect a ten year old to sing "The Engine 143." This is an old Carter family song which has to do with the wreck of the train the FFV 143. It must be four mintures long, and I hung right in there and sung one note just as bad as another, for the entire four minutes.
The old family had a lot of devoted listeners to stay through that episode and hear another good song by the family. I had no talent but I had guts. Uncle A.P. had a habit of singing just when he wanted to. Mother and Aunt Sara did most of the songs, but if he felt that it needed a little something extra, he would sing just as far as he felt he was needed, and then he would quit. I used to think he sang only where he knew the words. He liked to look out windows and he liked to walk. There were times that he'd decide to take a walk right in the middle of a song, and we might not see him until we were working again.
He and Aunt Sara didn't talk too much. It was about this time that Coy Bayes came from California, and he and Aunt Sara Carter Bayes (by now) moved into another house. They seemed very happy, and I loved Coy Bayes. He was my father's first cousin , as well as Aunt Sara's husband, and I thought he was a giant. He was about 6 foot 4 and he knew everything. He told me that a glass of hot water was very good for you in the morning, so I drank one immediately after getting up and ran around the block. I had to run just to keep up with his giant stride. I felt that Aunt Sara was lucky. I dont' remember having any compassion for my Uncle A.P. at this time. Maybe once when I realized that Jeanette was doing the cooking, and she was just about 16 by now, I guess I knew they were all a little sad. Jeanette and Gladys, A.P. and Sara's daughters were two of the most beautiful young girls that you would ever see. And they are beautiful women today with children and grandchildren of their own. They both live in their own homes by their brother Joe, and these are the places left to them by their father.
Hawthorne Junior High School was getting two new pupils, June and Helen Carter. Not that I had an over-active I.Q. but I was ten and I was in the sixth grade. I was really going to get in that school and do a lot. They gave me all kinds of tests. They used words that were never heard in Pore Valley, they put me in a Spanish class, in a music class (I was supposed to know something, I was on the radio, wasn't I?) They sang songs that would have been too high for Grace Moore, they put me up in front of the entire school with my auto harp, my picks fell off in the middle of "Old Engine 143", and rolled four rows down under five seats which I crawled under. I retrieved my picks and never missing one word of the songs, was laughed at by a good three hundred, but got a standing ovation by three. I just stopped and faced it. I felt stupid, had no talent and I wanted to go home. Maybe it was the little thing that I inherited from my forefathers that made them face impossible odds when they came to the south-western part of Virginia to settle there in the 1700's, with the Indian wars, the sicknesses, the threat of hunger, and death, that made me just stick with it. The eariest way to get along, I found out, was to join them. If they were going to laugh at me, I'd just let them. I'd be funny if I had to be. They gave us a free activity period, and if you could entertain, you could have the floor as long as you could hold their attention. In no time those poor unsuspecting little Texas children knew what a gravel flipper was, had heard all about my tadpoles, and were going home demanding their parents to see the Garden of Eden away back in Virginia. They even asked for a "poke" to put their candy in. Helen adjusted fast, and always made good grades. Now Anita, she was something else. It was her first year in school, or I guess we should say, her try for school. We lived just across the street from her elementary school, and my brave little mother curled her Shirley Temple curls, put on her new dress, and took the little bundle of sister to school. She enrolled her, gave her to the very nice teacher,, whispered a sigh of relief, and went home . . . to find little brown eyed curly-headed varmint smiling at her from the front door. Anita didn't like school. This went on for two weeks. Then a mighty bewildered mother just gave up.
Anita had a private teacher that first year in San Antonio. It wasn't really Anita's fault that she was spoiled. Mother had three brtohers who came to live with us for a while, after Grandpa Addington died. We just couldn't see what we were doing. Anita was too pretty, too sweet and talented to ever be anything but wonderful. We did her a great injustice, and it took several years for the poor child to learn about herself, and to finally find her way. It must have been a forty-years-in-the-wilderness for her. But despite the confusion of those early years, she survived beautifully.
I learned a lot in San Antonio. I learned that you could see two movies, two cartoons, one serial, and get spit on from the balcony up above, at the State Theatre on Sundays. Some people had two coats. There was a zoo with all the animals that God had ever made, a lot of people went raving mad on a Sunday afternoon and ate just plain old rattle snake out at the park where they served it absolutely free. A plain old poison rattle snake, fried. They put it in their mouth, they chewed it. amd they swallowed it down into their stomachs.
I don't think it ever occurred to me that there was evil of any kind in the world. I might have been just a little scared of living, but not because of anything evil that I had ever actually witnessed. There was a little park near our house and Helen and I sometimes played there with our friends. We had gotten a pair of roller skates, and I was pretty good on one skate, and was trying hard for two. I had heard of roller skates back home, but there just wasn't any place to go skating. They just won't do much on gravel.
I kept seeing a man in a car drive by us. He was always there. His hair was very slick, and he would always lean way over the wheel. I remember thinking . . . "What is that man always driving past for?" He used to just holler at us, then he started asking us to get into the car. We would always run to him, but I didn't realize the danger until one day he opened the car door, and he only had on his shorts. He was saying something I couldn't quite understand, and I stared to run. I was horrified. I was crying and barely made it home just ahead of him. He was driving alongside Helen and I, still mumbling. Mother called the police, but we never saw him again. I began to realize that the world in which I lived was not always beautiful, and I wasn't sure I liked this part of it. I grew up a little that day.
We were the picture of prosperity. All those instruments in the back, us bedraggled children peeping out the windows, Mother and Aunt Sara with one of those good ole "I don't believe this" kind of stares. And, oh yes, the fog-I forgot to mention that. This made everything great. Uncle A.P. had to lean way out the front window, along with his driving, and he added the final touch with the great way that he had of expressing himself. He could curse the greatest, wihtout using the Lord's name in vain. He used Joe's name seveal times . . . and something about wearing him out and some more about them bicycle boys and more about wearing out poor ole Joe. No nightmare that Joe could have been having at this time would have compared in any way with the one we were experiencing at that moment. I went to sleep three times in school the next day.
A columnist once called me a contrived bucolic. (Rural and rustic) I still have the Appalachian dialect. I pray that I always will have. Of all the speech teachers I have given ulcers to, I'd like to say that I was sorry. But to change myself from what I was at home was something that I defied the world to do. Home had been good to me, I had no worries or fears there, and that was more than I could say for the world that I had been thrown into. Why should I try to be like that? And so I cling to the sound of the dialect from the mountains. I can always carry that with me. If I am a "contrived bucolic", then I salute the wonderful contrived bucolics who live in the Appalachian area.
I don't know just how many transcriptions were made by the Carter family. I do know that they were played on most Mexican Border stations. XERA, XEG and XENT. Many of the fifty thousand watt stations in the states played them. And the Carter family records were selling everywhere. You could even buy them in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
We came home, home to the mountains, to Fern, and all the things I loved. It was good to be home. We started going to Hilton's school. Helen, Anita and I. ANd I wondered why I should miss Texas. I didn't remember crying when I left there, but I did miss it, and I missed my friends that I had left there.
I was about to become a performer. I mean out on the stage, in front of people. We played Midway High SChool, and a lot of the old coal fields. We sometimes took script for money, and at that time there just wasn't much money in that area. The Carter family did most of the show, but we had out little songs, and Uncle Doc would always give us a dollar apiece. I was wealthy. They charged twenty-five and fifty cents, and those prices were very high. I put the first bit of comedy that was ever introduced in a Carter family performance. I would drag a big wooden board across the stage. They would ask me where I was going and I'd say, "I'm looking for a room, I've got my board" . . . I don't remember where I got it. Maybe I should have put it back. But the family would sing some of the wonderful songs, and they would forgive me for my feeble endeavor. We took another trip back to Texas in 1940, around Paris, and played a few school houses, but times were very hard, and we came home in a little while.
Once we played at Clinchport, Virginia and we had gone in Uncle A.P.'s car. We were coming home the other side of Gate City and he had one of his famous flats. He could have the greatest flats in the world. Not just the tire going down, slow and easy near a good all night service station, but one of those a little short of an atomic explosion. I was trying to sleep in the back seat with Helen, Anita, Aunt Sara, two guitars and ole auto harp, and oh yeah, A.P.'s fiddle. He never played it much, but we always carried it. It was the very thing for a good bump on the head, just as we had our famous flat. It was around midnight and he bounced out of the car and ran around for a good look. Sure enough, flat as a flitter cake. Now for the spare. What spare??? A.P. Carter never had a spare in his life, but he was the greatest flat fixer in the world. Didn't he always have his pockets full of patchin? Where was the patchin? There had been patchin in that pocket for ten years. Why shouldn't it be there now?
Probably because it was in his son Joe's pocket. Joe had a bicycle, and why shouldn't he have patchin in his pocket too, like his father. The most logical place to find patchin was where it had been for years, in his father's pockets. And who could tell, old Joe might need it any mintue now. It wasn't conceivable that we would find a service station anywhere. There just wasn't any, and any good farmer was lucky back them if he had wheels for his wagon. They never heard of a spare, and probably woudln't own a car for at least ten years.
We were about eighteen miles from home, and we had to get there. You couldn't keep three little girls out all night. They had to go to school next morning. There wasn't anything wrong with the old Chevy motor, so away we went-boogedy, boogedy, boogedy, for eighteen miles on a good solid rim.
What are the things that a little eleven year old girl would think about? I remember just little scraps of my life at this time. The thing that I wanted most to do was to go over to Grandma Carter's house and get upstairs by myself, smeak a chair up from the kitchen, crawl up on it, and look in that little black bad hung way up on a nail out of everybody's reach. It was the most mysterious little black bag in the world. We were never allowed to go upstairs without someone with us, and we knew better than to ask what was in the bad. I remember I did once, and was told not to ask again. From that time one, I was obsessed with the mystery of that black bag. I was always just "the right size to get Grandma a bucket of water", always "just the right size to get the kindling in", always "the right size to milk the cow." I kept thinking that I would outgrow that "right size", but I never did. I grew into all kinds of little jobs. And all the time I was growing, I had visions of getting out of Grandma's sight just long enough to look in that little bag, just once. I was a little girl, "just the right size to look in that bag," but no one ever realized that I wanted to know about life, and so I was to learn everything I could from just living and breathing everyday air. I found out that the little bag carried all the instruments that made my Grandmother capable of bringing all kinds of little boys and girls into the world. She carried everything that a good midwife should have and I'm sure the black bag was there the night I was born.
Grandma Carter was quite a figure in our area, you'd see her walking tall with her bonnet pulled over her eyes, a basket of eggs on her arm on the way to the store, and she was very wise. Once my father had a brand new copper kettle that he had purchased for the unholy art of bringing a few gallons of alcoholic sprits into the possession of some of the gayer men in the valley. He had it hidden away in the mountain far away from the sight or sound of any revenuer anywhere. Before he could get that contraption set up, Grandma came down the mountain with a crooked stick in her hand. In the crook of the stick hung a new shiny copper kettle. She met Daddy and I, blasting away with "The Land Of The Uncloudy Day". Grandma hollered, "Uh, Ezra, come here son. I've found the dandiest copper kettle. It's just the right size to make my apple butter in." She made no mention of all the things that would have helped with the still. She just left them there, so my would-be moonshiner father never became that at all. But we sure had some dandy apple butter that year.
That summer, Mother, Aunt Sylvia, and Mother's brother, Little Doc. Addington with Carl McConnell, (The Virginia Boys) and myself worked all the theaters and school houses in Viringia and North Carolina. There were seven of us, and we had all kinds of instruments. They were everywhere. In the back seat, the trunk, on the floor of the car, on the top, in my nose, in everybody's nose, and oh yes . . . all seven of us were in the car too. That poor car was walked on, slept in, abused and broken. We ate in it, changed clothes in it, and learned a lot about being an apprentice to the trade in what I had chosen to follow. I had learned to tap dance a little. A wonderful teacher names Carmen Stallard tought several of the girls at Hilton's school to do a few steps. I added this to my act. Anita had seen in "Ripley s believe it or not" a girl who could sit on her head. I mean just double up backward, and sit on it. She spent the next few years with her feet in the air, turning cartwheels, flipping over and sitting on her head. All this eventually got into our act. It was pathetic.
We had a Life magazine reporter come to our house to take pictures and do a story on the Carter family. He was from New York, and we couldn't understand one word that he said. He made motions, we all smiled. Anita did her sitting-on-the-head routine, and not to be outdone, I showed him that I was still a pretty good stomach mover. We fed him good, he photographed the Carter family, and we were all set to have ourselves in Life magazine. But it was December 7, 1941. That week the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. All that we ever saw to remind us that we had had an interview was a bushel basket of burned out flash bulbs. I cherished them for months.
Then I went through a routine of caring absolutely nothing about the entertainment world. I reverted back to the gravel flipper, and my long walks in the woods. If Helen and Anita rambled as much as I did, I didn't run into them anywhere in my travels among the squirrels and rabbits. I had other important things to do. There was a war on and Mother was still working some with the family, but we were in school and I was about to make an attempt to become a farmer. Daddy was sick about this time. He had a very bad case of low blood pressure which forced him to retire. We had our home. We didn't owe much moeny, but we were faced with the problem of doing something extra to survive.
I decided to raise chickens and I guess I went into it a little heavy. I started out with one thousand little chicks, and five electric brooders. I started early in the morning shoveling chicken manure, washing the dip trays, feeding, watering, putting little "please kill the germ pills" in the water. Some nights when the weather was extra chilly I'd have to build a fire to keep them warm.
One night after three A.M. I accidentally fell asleep, and I lost 143 little baby chickens. This was my first case of heavy bereavement. I know you wonder how a human could learn to love a lot of little old puny looking chickens, but if you'd have shoveled as much chicken manure as I had you might have compared it with a mother changing her baby's diapers. All I know is that my heart hurt and I cried and cried. I dug a trench and buried them all in one grave. I had one consolation, my very favorite chicken was with me yet. I liked him best, cause you could see him so good. He didn't have one feather on him. I called him Old Naked. Mostly because we had a very definite use for him.
Helen had just started courting on Sundays and old Milton Booher would come and sit in the living room. Daddy and I would slip around to the front door, sneak Old Naked in and let him stroll around in the living room in front of Helen and old Milton. You could have seen Helen blush for a mile. But they say good circulation is good for a young girl. It helps her to grow and mature. So on Sundays Daddy, Old Naked and I helped Helen all we could with her circulation.
Now you take dogs. I hate dogs. But I'll swear if there was a hundred dogs in one room and a hundred masters in the same room with me, every one of those dogs would leave his devoted master and run and jump in my lap and lick my face. I mean one of those juicy slobber old licks tucked nearly under my chin and encricling my nose, mouth, and both eye balls. I mean I like dogs well enough if they'll just stay over yonder, I'll take a chicken any day. They can't lick you in the face.
Grandma Carter would visit us often, but she would never stay the night. You could ask her to stay and she would always say, "I've got to get home to my klediments." I don't think you'll find this in any dictionary anywhere, but Grandma wasn't the kind of woman to wait for Webster to make her a word. "Klediments" meant her copper kettle, the kindling in the box behind the stove, the eggs in the basket, the little black bag that hung on the wall, or all the bonnets behind the kitchen stove. If you'd like a defintion, call it properties and possessions dear to yourself.
I had me a pair of grey coveralls. You know, with the little stripes running all in the same direction like the mechanics wear. And I had learned to drive the tractor. So I set out with the help on my father to raise me a crop of wheat that year. I drove that tractor all summer. I plowed ditched, harrowed, and sowed in wheat over 54 acres, then I drove the tractor while we binded it. There we had to shock all of that. There was something about wheat burrs on my arms, that made me think a little more about singing on the radio somewhere.
Daddy had another good project going. He had bought all the dogwood trees in the area, for making shuttle blocks. I first learned to drive about halfway up Clinch Mountain, clutching the wheel of a ton and a half truck that we were using for logging purposes. There was a lot more uses for reverse than any forward gear, and if you didn't have a "bulldog" on your truck you might as well give up. Old "bulldog" would pull you up a puny tree. I drove my best in that bulldog.
Uncle Bug, Mother's youngest brother was still living with us, and he was helping me. I love him like my brother. Mother had all these brothers with these nicknames . . .there was "Doc", "Bug", "Toobe", "Sawcat", "Duke", and "Dee". If there was ever more wonderful people than these, I don't know where to find them.
When we came home from Texas we bought Grandma Addington one of those large Mexican hats, about five foor wide. She kept trying to push down the crown, because she was sure it was a rug. How could anybody ever wear anything that big and bunglesome. We ended up hanging it on the wall. When Grandma Addington died, the preacher had these words to say, "I have lived in this section for many years, I know a lot of people, and I have never found one person that has ever seen Margaret Addington mad" . . . or angry in any way. We buried her on a snowy wet rainy afternoon down in "The Bend" near her old home place. She rests beside Grandpa, and Aunt Madge, all three of them dying within three days of Christmas, Grandpa, and Aunt Madge many years earlier, and Grandma in 1960.