Winter had its challenges in my Appalachian community. Few houses could boast that they had insulation, and none had central heating. Most simply had a coal stove in the corner of the living room. During the fall, each household made winter preparations by scavenging for enough coal to last the winter. We’d learned about hard work from Preacher Charlie’s sermons: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6).
It was in the cold of winter my widowed Grandma passed, leaving her two teenage sons to fend for themselves. My uncles knew about the Bible ant’s, but they stretched the context of the verse a mite too far as they prepared for winter with a Robin Hood mentality: stealing coal from passing trains.
The distant whistle of an approaching train brought Billy and Fred running. Feigning innocence, they smiled and waved at the engineer, before grabbing long willow poles hidden in the weeds by the tracks. As the train rumbled by, gusting their hair and driving dust into their squinted eyes, they stood their ground: David against Goliath. Lowering the poles against the top of the passing train, any coal laying on the edge hit the pole and came flying to the ground. The boys tossed their poles into the weeds and gave a friendly wave to the conductor—as if he didn’t know their scheme. They gathered their bounty with delight. Yes, they were expeditious, like the ant—and they looked like ants silhouetted against the huge freight train roaring by.
I’d like to justify their actions by remembering they were teen orphans. After all, they weren’t taking from the local folks; conversely, they simply made a few chunks of coal disappear from passing trains. What’s that to an empirical corporation like the Vanderbilt’s? Anyway, the coal could’ve fallen off on its own. And it might’ve hurt someone in the process. So, they could have been doing the train company a favor. Afterall, it seemed a molehill to the giant company shipping the coal, but it meant a warm house for a couple orphaned teenagers.
Poor decisions that produce a measure of success can create habits of monstrous proportions. When Fred bought his first car—a big yellow ‘55 Buick, straight from the lemon line in Detroit—his excitement sizzled when the engine blew. But he and Billy concocted a plan. They pointed the car towards the edge of a steep embankment, Fred accelerated the knocking engine, and leaped from the car as it crashed through the brush towards the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Fred’s miscalculated exit sent him skidding on his elbows—a bit harder than the soft upright landing he’d anticipated. The fake accident turned out a mite more realistic than planned: Fred’s cuts and bruises were proof.
My Momma and Daddy seldom argued, but this event brought on a near-divorce. Momma defended her baby brothers’ honor, after all, she’s named her sixth child after him. But Daddy challenged the collision as something other than an accident. So, Momma went into her silent routine for a couple of weeks until the incident lost momentum as the local gossip at the general store. The insurance company paid up, and Uncle Fred eventually healed up, but the car, upside down at the bottom of the hill, leaked enough lubricants into the North Fork to attract prospectors from Shell Oil. After these many years, I wonder if it’s still there: quite a treasure if someone should choose to restore it.
Woodsong Publishing’s note:
If you enjoyed this blog by author Larry Arrowood, you can take a look at his book, Troublesome Blue, which share’s a similar theme of stories from the Appalachian region. Here’s the link: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/troublesome-blue-larry-m-arrowood/1115416647?ean=9780989229111
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