(This is an experiment to which I’ll be returning from time to time and editing, adding to, trying to turn into something. Readers may ignore it or visit it to see how it has changed. I don’t see it as a journal so much as trying to make sense of the most critical 3 months of my young life.)
I was never very good at introspection, trying to figure out why I said something or did something or how I got to be the person that I am. Most men are said to have the same limitation.
However, looking back over a life that has lasted nearly three-fourths of a century, it’s hard not to notice a few life-intersections that felt minor at the time but turned out to be major game-changers.
The summer of my eleventh year was just such a time.
In mid-1951, my world changed. Our family moved from a West Virginia mining camp into the home of our maternal grandmother on the remote Alabama farm where my mom had been raised. To my mind, we had moved from civilization to Mars.
We went from living in a mountaintop community with swarms of children to a farmhouse 13 miles from town and nearly that far to the nearest friend my age. It felt as if I had been sentenced to solitary confinement.
From a life preoccupied with playing and enjoying myself, I moved to one focused on the life of a working farmhand. Ball games and fun times with buddies were replaced by long afternoons in the field alongside my brothers and sisters.
In leaving West Virginia, I traded an exciting new school with terrific teachers and great classmates for an old, barren, two-room Alabama school 10 miles from the county seat, presided over by a small-time dictator-principal and his wife. Mrs. Johnson taught the first 3 grades; Mr. Johnson had the other three. I wondered if the county school board even knew they were in the system.
For the four years we’d lived in West Virginia, our Alabama cousins seemed to find my Yankee brogue fascinating and on summer visits south, would gather around just to listen. When we moved back to Alabama and it became apparent that I was going to be a classmate at Poplar Springs, my strange speech pattern quickly went from exotic to an embarrassment;
That summer, in the annual revival at New Oak Free Will Baptist Church, the small church where our family had worshiped for generations, Jesus Christ came into my wife and saved me. .
Finally, toward the end of that summer, Mrs. Boshell, our elderly neighbor one mile up the highway, was murdered. Before the sheriff arrived, some of us children stood on her front porch and stared down at her mutilated body.
It was years before I gave thought to the effect such a sequence of major events arriving in wave upon wave could have upon an 11-year-old boy.
My dad, Carl J. McKeever, was a coal miner born to the profession. His father and uncles had all worked the mines in that area of north Alabama, the foothills of the Appalachians. Dad dropped out of school and started inside the mines when he was 14. At the time most boys are enjoying 9th grade and playing softball after school, dad was doing a man’s work for a man’s pay. The oldest of what would become 12 children, his work ethic, as we say, was the highest. Eventually, dad and all his brothers would be miners.
Mom, Lois Jane Kilgore, grew up on the family farm not five miles away from Carl. They met at church on a Saturday night when he and his next-oldest brother Gip were looking for girls. The “singing” at New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church was where they found 30 or so young people that night. The Kilgore kids, 9 in all, were there in full force. Three years later, Carl would marry Lois and they would produce 7 children, including one who died in childbirth. I’m number 5, the fourth one to live.
When I was 7, the small “push” mines (that is, unmechanized) where dad worked in Alabama were laying off, so he and his friends, including several of his brothers, went north in search for work. They found it in a mining community called Affinity, 6 miles outside Beckley, West Virginia. The men moved into a boarding house there until they earned enough to move their families north. The house our family moved into was, like all of them, company-owned and far too small. Our house had four rooms, two downstairs and two upstairs. If anyone thought this was unusually harsh, I don’t recall. It’s just how people lived. My oldest brother Ronnie was 12 then. Glenn was 11, Patricia 9, I was 7, Carolyn was 5, and Charlie (called “Tog”) was 3.
We loved West Virginia as far as I know. I sure did.
When we moved into that little house perched on the side of the mountain in November of 1947, I was a second grader. No one had ordered coal for our house yet, so when the snow fell, almost as soon as we arrived, and mom decided to celebrate by making “snow ice cream” for us, we got so cold we had to go to bed to stay warm. No one minded, and we laughed about it for years.
Although our family belonged to the Free Will Baptists back in Alabama, we began worshiping in the little Methodist Church at the foot of the mountain. I played with friends at school, on ball fields, and up and down the hills and under the houses. Mom sang in a quartet at church. Dad sometimes worked double shifts in the mines to earn enough to support this family. We were poor, but since everyone else was also, we hardly noticed. There were few cars in Affinity. If you wanted to go anywhere, you walked a mile to the highway and caught a bus into Beckley.
When we first moved north, the children would rag us unmercifully about our rural southern speech. We spoke of maters, and taters, and totin’. They called us “Alabama cottonpickers.” I suppose they thought that was a putdown, but that’s exactly what we were.
Most people do not think of West Virginia as northern, but the residents of Affinity spoke with thick Yankee accents. Being 7 years old, I dropped the Alabama flavoring to my speech in a heartbeat and was soon talking like a native.
Each summer as soon as school ended, Mom would take the children–some or all of us–on the bus for a two week vacation visiting Alabama relatives. Dad would stay behind and then usually come for the second week. We made the rounds of kinfolk during that time, from Birmingham to Jasper to outside Nauvoo. Then, we boarded the Greyhound in Birmingham for the 24 hour ride back north through Chattanooga, Knoxville, Bluefield, and Beckley.
Our visit back home to Alabama in June of 1951 seemed routine. We would have our two weeks in the farm country, then return to the mountains of home. That was the plan, at any rate.
That day, we were staying at the farmhouse with my grandma (Grandpa Virge Kilgore had died nearly 2 years earlier) when someone drove up with a phone message. Dad had called from Affinity to inform us that the West Virginia mines was laying off workers, and we would be moving back to Alabama.There was no discussion; it was just a fact. There was no decision to be made; we would move home.
There was no time to say goodbye to school friends or teachers; it just happened suddenly. (Years later, it occurred to me that my friends had also moved away abruptly, too, and experienced the same shock to their system.)
A few days later, a hired truck pulled up at Grandma’s house and unloaded our furniture. We crowded into her little farmhouse, built by Grandpa for their large brood. But how they raised 9 children in those four rooms is anyone’s guess. My hunch is that farm people spent very little time indoors. Everything was outside in the yard, on the farm, the front porch, etc.
Dad didn’t arrive for a couple of weeks. And when he did, the news was even worse. He had been traveling through Ohio and the Virginias looking for work of any kind. In Toledo, while waiting at the bus station, a fellow asked if he’d like to walk down to the farmers market and buy some fruit. With time to kill, Dad said, “Sure.” That’s how he came to be robbed by the other man. With no money, Dad had spent four days hitch-hiking back to Alabama. When I heard him tell this, my heart broke that I had not been with him. Just what he needed, of course, an eleven-year old kid to take care of!
I quit playing when I was eleven.
In West Virginia, children had no chores and a world of time for ball games in the schoolyard and sled rides off the mountainside and cowboys and Indians behind the houses. On the Alabama farm, it was all about work. If I’d wanted to play, too bad. There wasn’t another kid my age within miles.
Unable to find work in the local mines–either the old push mines or the large modernized mines at Gorgas owned by the Alabama Power Company–Dad went to work on the farm. He pruned the ancient apple trees in the orchard that had stood neglected for years. He borrowed a neighbor’s mule and planted crops. We bought a cow. Little by little, we children began learning what it meant to live on a farm that was scarcely advanced beyond life a hundred years earlier.
On washdays, Mom and Grandma would boil clothes in an old black pot with a fire underneath and hang the clothes on a line. Water came from a well, which we had to “draw” with a long narrow bucket fastened to a rope. For meat, we killed the occasional hog, slaughtering and butchering it as people had done for centuries. We got a few calves and began to learn how to suckle them, how to help a cow give birth, and how to milk.
This transition period was a hodgepodge of excitement, fear, adventure, and great loss for me. I was missing my friends and my old school. I did not like being dirt poor or living in someone else’s house. I was not looking forward to attending school in the two-room Poplar Springs Elementary.
We went to church.
New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, some 3 miles toward town, was our family’s worship place since the 1800s. Other than the 4 years in West Virginia when we attended the wonderful little Methodist Church, this was the only place my parents had ever worshiped. We were related to half the members to one degree or other.
I was missing the church back north. The songs were different. Down south, they sang what was called Stamps-Baxter gospel songs. They sounded hillbilly to me; I missed the hymns which I had learned to love and to sing at the top of my lungs. Number 100 in the old Methodist Hymnal was “I Love to Tell the Story.” It’s still a favorite.
For two weeks that summer, the church had its annual revival. I have no memory of anything much about it other than a Reverend Benson or Benton was the guest preacher. He was powerful, loud, and certain. So confident was he that Jesus could come back to earth any day now, he would point at his 1948 Pontiac and say, “I believe the car I’m driving now will last me until He gets here.” Strange what we remember.
One of the nights, I was sitting on the far end of the next-to-last row and got under conviction by the preaching. The congregation was singing the most plaintive hymn ever, “O Why Not Tonight?” Eventually, I stepped into the aisle and floated forward in a daze, ready to give my heart to Jesus. Several members stepped out to join me and surrounded me as we knelt at the altar to pray. I floated out of church that night, in love with everyone I saw.
No doubt about it. Jesus Christ came into my life that night. I believe it as much as I do anything.
No one asked me about being baptized, so the next Sunday afternoon when my sister Patricia and others were put under in the local creek, I skipped the event altogether. I was a little afraid of water, having never learned to swim, and, although I would have liked to be baptized, I was not going to volunteer.
I suppose I loved New Oak Grove. But not like the little church in West Virginia. For one thing, the pastors in the south never knew my name or showed any interest in the children. I didn’t much care for the music, and they had too many old people who would talk in church, saying the same meaningless announcements and prayers, droning on and on, boring even the Lord, I felt.
To be honest, my spiritual growth did not begin in earnest until some ten years later when I joined a Southern Baptist Church near the college in Birmingham. Nevertheless, I will be forever grateful to Oak Grove for leading me to the Lord.
When school started in August, things got bad quickly.
Now, I was a short kid. The next year, I was the shortest boy in the 7th grade. So that tells you two important things about me as the new transplanted 6th grader at Poplar Springs school: I was small and I talked like a Yankee. Put those two together and Mr. Johnson, principal and Mussolini-wannabe, felt a challenge.
Second day of school.It’s recess time and everyone in my room–where the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades met–had gone out to the playground. I had made no friends and was still at my desk at the front of the room. The teacher/principal’s desk was in the rear center. I happened to notice Mr. Johnson staring at me. He stood to all of his six feet and more frame, then still staring at me, walked the perimeter of the room until he stopped in front of my desk. With no one else in the room, there were no witnesses, so he felt no need to be polite.
I smiled at him and said, “I’m not mad at you.” Just trying to fill the silence, a lifelong habit of mine. With that, Mr. Johnson jerked me up by my collar and using his huge right hand, swatted my behind several times. Then I was mad at him.
It never got any better the rest of the year. He was eternally critical, letting me know that other boys’ hair parted better than mine, making me feel guilty that our family did not have the “fifty cents dues” expected from all the children, and in general, making school–which had always been pure joy to me–a miserable experience.
Welcome to the sixth grade.