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March 10, 2018

GROWING UP IN LOUISA -- SAINT PADDY'S DAY!

 

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 

So why am I a week early writing about Saint Patrick’s Day?

What I remember most about the Irish holiday was the preparation. Teachers and parents would start us off with the making of giant shamrocks, painting the wee people and their ‘pot of gold,’ and the like. One year when I was in grade school the teacher played a record of Irish jigs, the singing of ‘Danny Boy,’ and read us stories describing the antics and rowdy play of this special day. So I’m inserting this one early that you may prepare and get the others ready to ‘dance in the streets,’ or whatever may come to mind. Making green cupcakes, and dressing up like a leprechaun and there’s always the playing of the pipes, fiddles, and other Irish instruments. Even a week’s notice is barely enough to make ready. I remember the song, Loch Lomond that we sang in class. “Oh ye take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.” I remember my thoughts about the ‘bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.’ Of course, as a growing boy, I was less concerned with meeting the lassie than whether there were fish to be caught in this famous lake.

In checking the web on the subject, I see that Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations happens all around the world on or around March 17. I’ve also heard rumors that the events are better attended in the United States than those in Ireland itself. This traditional date is set on St Patrick’s death. That was way back in the Fifth century. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, driving out the snakes, and is still busy interceding for his Celtic even now. Some Irish Catholics pray to him and carry the signs of a shamrock in celebration of an almost purely secular excuse to party. If the seventeenth falls during lent, those who practice Christian religion, especially Catholic, would not be able to drink to the good Saint’s memory except that in remembrance him they are allowed a day off from those restrictions to honor the fellow. In fact, from my point of view, this day is the day many remember their ancestral homeland.

I’m told that the Irish do enjoy a good toast and a swig of alcoholic nectar. Places like New York has their big parade on the 17th, but Chicago has chosen the 18th. Chicago once turned the river green and served green beer all around. Whenever it is celebrated, the middle of March is the approximation of the day of parades and feasting, imbibing, and maybe a prayer or two by those of Irish decent. Conjecture as to whether Shakespeare chose to kill off Caesar on a similar date in his play could be debated by those with little else to do. The phrase ‘Beware of the Ides of March, may be a forewarning of tragedy, but it is likely a mere coincident that the date is so close to the day so cherished highly by the Irish heart.

In all my years of growing up in Louisa I don’t recall once seeing anyone parading around in green costumes and proclaiming the name of the famous Irish Saint. Given that Lawrence County was dry in those days I’m sure ‘green beer’ would have been out of compliance. Sheriff Jordan and Bernard Nelson would have swept down on any offenders and found them a place to play near the Courthouse ‘green.’

 I recall that my grade school teachers had students cut out tons of shamrocks from green paper to hang around our classroom and the halls thereabout. The educators read us stories about those ‘little people,’ that might be hiding under the mushrooms and casting their magic spells. There was a story about a ‘pot of gold,’ at the end of the rainbows. Little green Leprechauns appeared in our children’s movies, but we never took them seriously. They were ‘make believe.’ I do think we were reminded at school the day before St. Patrick’s Day to remember to wear green. It would be years later that I heard that if you didn’t wear green on that day your classmates could pinch you. Back then, I recall only a few people who claimed to have Irish blood, but if we’d had Ancestor.com back then more would have known the truth. The hills were heavily populated by folks from the ‘Emerald Isle.’

For most of my life I’ve cared very little about the wearing of the green because I saw myself as being purely English, perhaps Scottish with a possible mix of Native American. Alas, those days are over! I sent my DNA to Ancestor.com to find out that I am 23 percent Irish! What a shocker. I had no idea I was even partly Irish. After all, I don’t root for Notre Dame and I don’t speak Gaelic. I did have an opportunity once as an adult while visiting in Busch Gardens to dance with a wee lassie from Dublin. My darling wife, Susie, stood by and watched closely to guarantee my good behavior. All I remember is that she was a good and forgiving dancer. I seriously doubt I held up my end when it came to dancing.

 I would like to learn to play an Irish jig on a fiddle or pipe, but without some magic, or formal training, that won’t happen. I don’t use blarney and have no desire to ‘kiss the blarney stone.’ I’ve seen it on TV, but it looked dangerous to me. You must lean backwards over a high wall to reach the stone. I don’t like high places, so that isn’t going to happen with me. I barely know any Irish history since it wasn’t taught in school. What I do know came from TV documentaries. I know some about the wars for independence from England, and the wars of terrorism between Northern Ireland vs Southern Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, but I really don’t see the reasoning for taking lives over one’s faith. I guess I’ve lived too long enjoying ecumenical tolerance and freedom of religion here in the good old USA. Given the history around religion over there, it’s more understandable that our forefathers focused on writing our constitution to keep the state out of the church’s business.   

My DNA test also showed I had an almost equal amount (22 percent) of Scottish and British ancestry. I had smaller amounts from countries along western European coast, from the far north (perhaps a Viking raid?) down to the Iberian Peninsula including Spain and Portugal. I was told by some that the missing American Indian my grandmother told me about could have been interpreted as Spanish.

Now that I know these facts what will I do differently? I think it gives me a little more identity with the Irish including Saint Patrick’s Day. I am more likely now to break out the green and wear a shamrock on my hat or lapel. I won’t hop on a plane to join in a march, or raise a toast to everyone I meet. But such a move now has a little more legitimacy, don’t you think? On Saturday, March 17, I just might choose to wear shirt that’s a wee bit green. About 23% green would be enough. I might also turn to write an article about Saint Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, watching a parade is different than marching in one. I know this from experience, so you won’t see me there. I can’t play a tune, or dance, and I’m not big on drinking either. Maybe having checked my DNA was wasted.      

I remember when I was a senior at good old LHS, I had to write a paper about the heritage of the mountain folk found in eastern Kentucky. I researched it for quite some time looking in places that even surprised me. For example, as a music student and member of the LHS band, I had long been exposed to music of many classes. I was not immune to the old-time country music that was practiced on the porches, temporary stages, and court-house steps. I think the restored bandstand that was a fixture on the courthouse lawn was put there to encourage our citizens to pick and sing, although maybe it was first made for concerts by a band of past generations. I remember when the old wooden structure was torn down and replaced by a new, larger bandstand made from concrete. I was young, but I saw it happen.

When writing my paper, I studied the sounds of old-time county music. I immediately saw a similarity between mountain music and Scottish/Irish jigs. The sounds directly imitated its Irish and highlander roots. The Celtic compositions I heard were very like the echoes of our beloved mountain music. I also saw a direct link between the dialects of the old world to that ‘Kentucky twang’ and the word usage I heard everyday while I was growing up. My research also told me that Scott and Irish people had come from a land of highlands and rolling hills. It made sense that upon arriving in America, they moved from the eastern lowlands to build their new homesteads in the mountains. Their language and the music they played supported the idea that the hills of Kentucky were populated with our Irish and Scottish ancestors. Knowing this, we can legitimately fondly think of the emerald isle and appreciate its people.

Here’s a link of a lad and three lassies playing an Irish jig. If you ever had doubt about the connection between Ireland and Appalachia, click on the link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCw4O_L1LFQ

 

Back then, I got an ‘A’ on that paper, which was a very rare thing for me since I was usually more into fun than writing. Besides, in those days we had no computers, word processing, spellcheck, printers, or much of anything but a fountain pen and a big rubber eraser to wear a hole in the paper when you made a mistake. No white out was invented just yet. They did have typewriters in the high school, but those weren’t for us to use on class projects. We had to write by hand and hope our spelling, punctuation, and penmanship was good. Mine usually wasn’t.

To close this off I thought I might add some limericks I’ve taken from several websites. Enjoy.

What would you get if you crossed Christmas with St. Patrick's Day? 
St. O'Claus

Why don't you iron 4-Leaf clovers? 
Because you don't want to press your luck.

When is an Irish Potato not an Irish Potato? 
When it's a French fry. 

What would you get if you crossed Quasimodo with an Irish football player? 
The Halfback of Notre Dame. 

How did the Irish Jig get started?
Too much to drink and not enough restrooms!

“I was going to give him an ugly look but he already had one.”

My dear Suzie told me that this article proves I’m full of blarney… After all, what would you expect from someone who’s 23% Irish?

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March 3, 2018

Growing up in Louisa  ...Boogying!

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candle stick.” This little nursery rhyme that I still carry from early childhood is a bit disconcerting to me as I look back over the years. You see, I have never had the agility to walk around a candle stick without risking my trousers catching fire, let alone tempt fate by pushing myself airborne over a flickering flame. In fact, I owe apologies to an early tap dancing teacher in Louisa. Apologies are due not only for my failing her class, but for my displaying no interest whatsoever in the then faddish practice.

I recently saw a notice in the Lazer that a line-dancing class was being offered. While there’s little hope I would ever learn line-dancing, any more than I learned to ‘stroll,’ back in the day (I loved to watch others stroll). I do have memories of a time I when was TAKEN (dragged) to a dancing class. My mom must have seen all the Hollywood dance movies of the day. She apparently imagined that her precious muffin might dance to Shirley Temple’s ‘Good Ship Lollipop’ and gain fame and fortune in Hollywood. I suppose I was to bring fame and fortune to the family. It turned out that her goal was unreasonable and would not materialize. Despite my clumsiness she dragged me to Hewlett’s Shoe Shop adjacent to Moore’s grocery on Madison. She had a pair of my dress shoes fitted with heal taps and with toe taps, as well. I liked the ‘click’ when I walked in shoes with heal taps, but the heavier ones in the front just gave me something else to trip over. They were now dancing shoes and were not to be used in public, or during play.

 While I have no memory of who the dancing instructor was, I do remember the classroom. I learned this from the weekly visits when I was pushed up some long stairs in the Compton building that was on the corner of Lock Avenue and Pike Street. I think still exists. As mom shoved me up the steps I undoubtedly whined and resisted. Once I had arrived in that large, open, second-floor room the teacher lined all the kids up. (I may have been the only boy), We were to learn the fine art of tap dancing. In my case, it might have been more useful if she would have taught me to simply walk straight without stumbling. I was, and still am, a bit clumsy. I had developed what I believe is a special skill; that is, finding new ways to trip. It wasn’t as funny as Dick Van Dyke tripping in his TV show, because I frequently suffered injuries such as bruises.

After only three or four dancing lessons I was more than ready to give up. The teacher had likely given up earlier, but my mom was there to watch every move and cheer me on. After what seemed like forever, my mom finally accepted that I wasn’t progressing. The good part was that she wouldn’t have to continue to spend the three dollar fee every week. Sadly, neither would I bring the family money and fame in Hollywood, or at least not by dancing. It was just as well because Hollywood never asked me if I could dance, or even liked dancing. Frankly, when a dance number began in a film at the Garden Theater, I usually figured it was a good time to get some more ten-cent popcorn, or visit the small men’s room just off the lobby.

 Now that I’ve mentioned Hollywood, I remember once being in a long line of kids and their ‘stage mothers.’ It was at the Garden Theater where every kid was in line to pose for pictures. Everyone was clean and polished and wearing their best Sunday outfits. The photographer had promoted the idea to parents that this was a real Hollywood ‘screen test.’ Shirley Temple, move over. Mom explained that once the pictures were taken they’d be sent and reviewed by famous Hollywood producers who would select the next star from the lot. Alas, as far as I know, no one from our little town ever passed the screen test. We did get a package of pictures that parents could purchase for only a small sum. Some of those pictures may exist to this very day, perhaps in the far corners of an attic. Mine are gone, unless the one showing me in a sailor suit came from the session. That exists in a scrap-book that Suzie put together. Maybe she’ll put that out at a wake or memorial service one day. No one will believe I ever looked like that! At that point, I’d never admit it!

I may have posted this sometime in the past, but it fits well here and is worth repeating. Back in 1929-1930, a film was made of Louisa. Since my mother was around during the years following that, I suspect parts may have been filmed later. She graduated in 41 or ’42, but can been seen in the film as a member of the LHS band, and occasionally in groups of students who march in front of the cameras. I guess that was her screen test. They shot most of it in the winter and focused on LHS, ice skating at the locks, a band parade, and pictures of several leading merchants and leading businesses around town. Seeing those old cars and the outfits worn by the women make the movie worth watching. Billy Elkins was kind enough to send me a copy. I watch it every now and then, but it can be found on the web. I’ll post the link here for anyone wanting to see the old town when it was bustling. My mom was so short she was easy to spot, especially when she brought up the rear in the band holding her trumpet.

I doubt the film received any Oscars, either, but it does record what otherwise may be lost history. It’s likely than many of our forefathers graced the movie, but it would take effort to figure out the names of many of the people featured.  Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDogQ4wVoSQ  The movie is about a Hollywood movie scout named Gary Owens who came to Louisa to film the little town and to tell its’ story. It was said that this fellow had come to town in search of local talent. The credit out there on the web gives mention that the movie was transferred from an old projection movie reel to VHS by the Daughters of American Revolution, and by Fred Jones & Patty Wallace in 2000. I was glad to see it and can still pull it up on my computer. ‘Thanks for the memories,’ Fred and the others.

 What is it about moms that makes them think their little prizes are somehow, ‘special?’ From the moment they brought us babies home from the hospital, they were keen to load us into a tram, (baby buggy) to tour the streets (Main, Main Cross, and Madison) of our town. I can understand that they wanted others to meet their beautiful babies and hear compliments and praise of their friends. We babies were victims of their parents hopes and thusly were expected to perform. We smiled, cooed, giggled, spit, filled our diapers, and sometimes cried, but Hollywood missed it all. Sadly, even today no one has yet invited me to make a film. I can still gurgle. That’s amazing they haven’t called considering that many movies are produced today with zombies. I could really get into that role, if I don’t trip.   

I think that fathers generally escape these fame and fortune urges relating to their kids. They tend to focus on sports or some great political achievements. In my years of watching and participating in Little League programs and other such endeavors, it is a rare father that thinks their child was given the deserved spotlight on the playing field. Every father thinks his son should pitch, or bat ‘clean-up,’ and that others should be benched in their favor. Dads with little girls also know that their darling ‘princess’ should be head-cheerleader, the female lead in the school play, or prima ballerina. Let’s face it, we all know that our little muffins are the best in the bunch.

Today, as a doting grand and great-grand father, I am quick to see how very special my little prodigies are. I know that each has their respective strengths, but I keep under wraps that they may have some areas needing work. It’s not that I wish mine always would obtain the top role, but rather they each have a chance to deal with victory, and that they may also learn to handle defeat and disappointment. It will make them stronger. They will be better prepared for those ups and downs that they will experience throughout life.

History proves that it isn’t always to a kid’s advantage to be a rock star, starlet, or the MVP. I knew early in life by watching by LHS basketball and football that being a good sport was a sign of maturity. I was saddened when I saw displays from kids that were uncontrollably angered by things going bad. A wise coach will teach their charges that playing sports must be tempered by good sportsmanship. After all, that is the real lesson to be learned.

I’ve seen a parallel in life about how we feel about our children. If we hurt when we see our kids making mistakes, how much more does the Heavenly Father hurt when He sees us make defiant decisions? We are but one generation and our kids are of the next. The model is the same for each generation since we can do no better. Mankind has become civilized, but are little better as seen in recent history. Time is short, but how precious it is when we raise kids who have become good parents. Therein lies the hope of mankind and the only basis for pride. We harbor hope that our progenies may do well in life. It’s their legacy that counts and those of the next generations.   

A funny thing happened the other day as I stood by myself. I heard an old tune from the past wafting through the air. I instinctively began to move to the music. To my surprise, I found myself doing a little ‘soft-shoe’ dance to those wonderful strands. In my mind I saw again that second-floor room of long ago. Surprise bellowed up when I realized that I was tap dancing. If only mom could see me now. Pray, where are those cameras? Hollywood, watch out!  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.    

    

February 24, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – The Root of it All!  

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

With all the snow we’ve gotten this winter and the cold temperatures many of us have suffered, I was led to pause and think about the logistical problems that make life a little harder. Of course, what I’m thinking about is making certain we get the nourishment our bodies need (want) when we’re snowbound. Sure, we try to pick up appropriate foodstuff ahead of the storm, but we invariably forget something, or find the store shelves empty. This time around we were safe because our refrigerators were still full of left-over holiday goodies.

Even putting away the newly purchased supplies required some thinking. Like a normal male, I scratched my head and wondered what I might do to make room. Then like a lightning bolt, it hit me. Sitting the frozen stuff outside on the back porch would work. Well, a second thought scolded me for this wayward idea. You see, our neighborhood has befriended a large herd of deer, several foxes, and plenty of other wildlife creatures such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, etc. If I put out anything that was unguarded it would likely disappear overnight. On top of that I’m sure the forest fauna would remember my address and come back for more. There’s nothing like putting out the welcome mat and feeding them all.

So, keep the groceries under key, I did some shifting around to find sufficient space indoors. Because I write this column that focuses on the past, I began to wonder if man has always fought this same battle. After all, once the hunters/gatherers successfully snagged a buffalo, there was suddenly a lot of meat to drag into the house. I wondered. Now, please keep in mind that when I was growing up, I was just a kid. I wasn’t necessarily aware of everything that happened in life. I left the big issues in the hands of my ‘grownups,’ but I did observe a few things that rise out of the cobwebs in my mind.

 I remembered that the good folks from the country had places where they secured storage, such as barns, cribs, and other out-buildings. Townspeople sometimes had barns, garages, and sheds on the property, but rarely were any of these used for food. The occasional ‘smoke house’ may have been the exception, but another place wiggled through my mind to take its rightful position as perhaps man’s earliest refrigerators. I’m talking about the old root cellars and spring houses that I remember being used on some of the homesteads I remember visiting. These kept food cool in the summer and prevented it from freezing in the winter.

 It was essentially a hole in the ground that was insulated by the surrounding hillside and rocks. They often had an underground source of cold spring water that kept temperatures constant, usually around fifty-five degrees. The ones I remember had doors that were locked to keep food safely away from the abundant animals lurking about, and growing children that might claim it as a playhouse. While people had more than one reason to venture outside to little buildings, it could be rough trying to find the steps that led down into the cellars, especially during heavy snowfalls. Slipping might have been cause for a serious injury in that cold environment. Digging out a safe access route was a challenge, I’m sure. Hopefully, the privy was situated downstream of the root cellar. That would prevent contamination of any water source running into the little structure.

Of course, folks living in those conditions saw it as a routine task for the family to venture out. They still had to do the milking, feeding the chickens and collecting eggs (few to none during cold spells), slopping of the hogs, and maybe gathering, or splitting firewood, or filling the ash can with lumps of coal. That was just part of life for many. In the current generation the problem may be more about how to reach and clean the satellite dish. After all, it’s the weekend and I want to watch the ballgames. Things have a way of changing, don’t they?

In another recent article, I mentioned how much Tom Jefferson may be shocked by the refrigerators that we use today. What with ice makers, filtered water, freezer compartments, drawers, etc., it would have to be a shock to imagine for old Tom and his staff. Of course, today’s refrigerators wouldn’t have worked anyway. Monticello didn’t have electricity, and if they did the snow would have knocked out the power lines. Why, he couldn’t have even called the power company to complain…I digress.

 It was common on larger colonial estates that the cooking was done in another building to protect the main house from the risk of fire. I’ve been in many of the old plantation homes here in Virginia that still exist up and down the James River. They all had separate kitchens early in their life. The first kitchens didn’t have cast-iron stoves, later called ranges, which were fueled on natural gas, wood, or coal. Instead, they had open fireplaces that the cooks used by swinging great pots over the coals on iron arms designed to take the heat. I can see that being okay during cold winter months, but I doubt I’d like those sweltering summers much. It was a step better than using campfires, I guess.

To get back to food storage, when I was growing up in eastern Kentucky many of my friend’s families used the same methods for keeping food as did Mr. Jefferson, President Washington, and all our nation’s forefathers. Vegetables and roots were put away in the dark recesses of root cellars, spring houses, or basement dugouts. That reduced spoilage and kept many things reasonably fresh. I remember that even apples and homemade candy were sometimes kept there. Maybe that’s why they kept the key out of reach of children.

 Meat, on the other hand required cooking quickly, or had to be cured by using salt or other preservatives, or hanging it in the smokehouse. Smoking is still used to flavor meats, and it allows the meat to dry so it is usable over long periods of time. The Smithfield and Isle of Wight County museum near where I currently work has a display of what is thought to be the world’s oldest ham. It was cured way back in 1902. Even at over a hundred years old, I’m assured that it is still edible. It is unlikely this prize ham will ever feel the edge of a serrated knife since it is an important tourist attraction. Farms back in my day often had a smokehouse, as well as other ways to keep milk, meat and produce.

My point is this. No matter how rudimentary the appliances I remember from my early youth, I am still from a far different era than the forefathers that helped develop this great nation. I remember, as many of you might, the ice man who brought a block of ice for the ‘ice box’ in our kitchen. The ‘ice plant’ was located at the southern end of Lock Avenue when I was growing up. It was next to the high school football field. I was told that the large brick warehouse next to the railroad on Madison had been an earlier, and much larger ice plant, but the little one near the football field is all I remember.

I recall that our ‘icebox’ always seemed to smell of clabbered milk. No doubt, the ice could only do its job when it was kept fresh and the doors were kept closed. I remember that the tray at the bottom of the icebox was designed to hold the melting water, but it required regular dumping. As I toddler, I remember grabbing the tray and dumping it several times, that is, until finally I learned that spilling water on the kitchen floor was a ‘bad thing.’ While it was funny at first to see people slip, it was decidedly not funny after I was caught laughing.

I also remember that only a block down the track from the Louisa Inn, Bill Keeton once ran a frozen-food locker business. I was in there several times with my mother, but I don’t have any idea what we kept there. His locker was somewhere near the rear of Bradley’s Grocery Store and the barber shop, or maybe another door north. I’m sure it burned when that big fire happened that took many of the buildings in that area. In any case, refrigeration was a relatively new thing for many of us during those days. Freezers were even less common, and very rare in the early forties. I think I remember from somewhere that Bernard Nelson worked at the lockers briefly.

 It was the practice in northern climes for men to cut ice from the frozen lakes and rivers. They had to truck it (or wagon it) so they could store it in insulated rooms that was full of sawdust to keep the ice from sticking together. Mr. Jefferson had one of these rooms on the mountain just downhill from his dear Monticello. Historians tell us that he served up exotic cold desserts to his guests, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, or Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), James Madison, or others that may have popped in. The ice would undoubtedly have caused a commotion and was to be greatly admired. These days, my mother and grandmother would be impressed with the refrigerator I currently have in my kitchen.

The wonderful small and large appliances of today, including: cook stoves, microwaves, air fryers, blenders, coffee makers, grills, sinks with running hot and cold water, stone countertops, and fancy cabinets would be cause for even my mom to shake her head. I mean, dishwashers? Get real! So, I ask you. Just when were the good old days?

Times change, but as the world’s wisest man once wrote, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” He was right, you know. Today, we approach things differently, and have a lot more conveniences, but there are also trade-offs. So, for me, I’m in favor of enjoying whatever toys I’m lucky enough to have. In fact, I’m lucky to have even lived when I could have them. I just need to remind myself that as fantastic as they are, they are just today’s ‘toys,’ but will be tomorrow’s junk. What I think is graceful living probably won’t be considered living ‘high on the hog,’ very long. Abe Lincoln, as a President living in the White House, didn’t have a life-style anywhere near as luxurious as some of our poorest people take for granted today. With that, I think I’ll take another shower and sit down in front of my wide-screen and relax. Maybe I’ll dig out a root cellar next summer… or maybe I won’t. Just remembering may be enough.     This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.