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February 3, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – Scary Mont-ners!   

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

The youngest of my three grandchildren that I get to see nearly every day is young enough that he only speaks a few words. Of course, his pronouncing of syllables is a little off, so my dear Suzie and I struggle to figure out what he is saying. We have ‘hold me,’ ‘I cold’ and ‘feed me’ down pat, but none so well as his favorite pretend mont-ners (monsters). They were apparently introduced to him through television cartoons and/or his older sister, or brother. Like all toddlers, he loves to chase and be chased, all the while shouting ‘Mont-ner.’

It was back in the days of my growing up and attending movies at the Garden Theater, when I was caught up in the same fads that Hollywood produced and promoted across America. Playing on our imagination, we envisioned invaders from outer space, the undead of various kinds erupting from tombs and graves, or a slimy pit of despair. We were haunted by the curses of other generations. Foolish men stirred up trouble while trying to make money with freakish side-shows. As a youth, I personally witnessed a number of side-shows when the carnival came to town. What was commonly called ‘freaks’ back then, were big money to the promoters.

 It is questionable as to which had greater influence on society, but many quickened our heart-beats and made us shrink down low in our seats. No doubt we gobbled boxes of popcorn and spilled our drinks when we first saw the shocking image of a monster. Two types come to mind. The first, and perhaps the more famous of all was the Frankenstein Monster. This fellow was made up of body parts taken by creepy men sent out to help Dr. Frankenstein, a scientist, find the key to creating life. In the movie we are led to become sympathetic to this scary creature. Oh, I thought, if people only understood and gave him a chance, but alas, he was doomed to return to a fiery end. I wept for him and the sorry, if understandable, condition of mankind.    

Then there was Dracula. This blood-sucking ‘undead’ vampire preyed on a beautiful, innocent, aristocratic starlet, who if her blood veins were violated, would be destined to become a vampire herself and a slave for evil. Her father and her apparent boyfriend would fight trying to protect her when she slumbered in her chambers. Count Dracula had a trick up his sleeve. He could manifest himself into a bat and fly through the open window to the very bedside of the sweet maiden. It would take sunrise and a stake driven through his heart to neutralize this monster. We were glad when it finally happened. We felt immediate relief that the vampire was finally dead.

When Howard Carter discovered King Tuts tomb back in 1922, fashion immediately adopted Egyptian motifs and replicated artful discoveries in dress, decorations, and jewelry. Carter’s benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, who financed the dig, became ill and died just after the opening of the tomb. Others of the team quickly began to wither and die off making the public wonder if a curse was falling on those audacious enough to disturb the tomb. This seemed to be bring certain death to all involved.

When the movie was made, we watched the mummy rise from his coffin in all his wrapping, some trailing behind him as he shuffled after the tomb invaders. With one moldy hand to the throat these grave-robbers met their dreadful fate. Maybe grave diggers deserve a curse. After all, we treat sunken ships as a memorial in honor of the men who were entombed. Why wouldn’t we treat all graves the same?   

Another monster movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was merely a badly deformed human, who was agile enough to climb the parapets and up and over the gargoyles that were high upon the famous Parisian cathedral.  The hunchback’s deformity was too much for man to handle. The crowds recoiled from his appearance, finally unfairly leading to another tragic death. We convinced ourselves that we would do better if given the chance. Then again, maybe it was the nature of man to reject those who were different and it was simply survival of the fittest. I suspect that kind of thinking lowers our relative worth to that of an animal. Like a farmer, mankind culled the unsuitable hunchback from our midst. There lies the cost of non-tolerance for those who are different.      

 During that same era, we watched many others including Werewolves, Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and the Blob. There were creatures from ‘Outer space,’ and those who turned into flies, or perhaps became invisible. Imaginations soared with fake science and the public ate it up. Even today we look up when Roswell, NM is mentioned, or we hear something new about Area 51. We look for the Lock Ness monster, wonder about Sasquatch, and Bigfoot, and in our dreams, we think about a close encounter with UFO’s.   

I remember as a kid when I empathized with the giant gorilla, King Kong, who was captured during an African safari, and brought by ship to New York to be promoted in a side-show. Man’s greed and lack of respect for the captured animal was part of the tale, but the overriding fact was that the great King Kong had fallen in love with a beautiful girl played by Fay Wray. (a last-name prominent in my family) The audience was tossed between screaming and crying. Emotions flowed first out of fear, then with sympathy. The oversized ape broke loose from its chains and terrorized the City, finally climbing the Empire State Building only to be shot down by WWI era fighter planes. Our hearts hurt for the unnecessary death that should have been allowed to live within its own habitat. This proved once again the lack of understanding and character of mankind. Sadly, we went home wondering why crowds of people could not identify and find a peaceful solution. The complexities of mankind somehow allow us to shout for blood and then just as quickly turn back to empathize with the under-trodden.      

The scariest movie that I remember came out late in that era. It was taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s, ‘The Pit & the Pendulum.’ I had mistrust of the character played by Vincent Price, (an actor, art expert, and winner of the $64,000 Question program). He seemed hospitable, but insane, as he hid secrets that would come to haunt us all. A visiting brother-in-law had stopped in to find out why his sister had died in the care of his host. To protect the secret, the hero brother was taken to the dungeon and strapped to a machine having a swinging blade (pendulum) that worked closer to the prone gentleman. It would soon slice the brother-in-law two, if only little by little.

 While this dungeon experience was stressful to the audience, nothing prepared us for the shock when they suddenly flashed a picture of the dead sister’s newly opened coffin. That picture, which is burned into my memory, gave theater goers a terrible fright. There we saw the sure answer to whether the sister had been buried alive. There in front of us, the bloody claws of the corpse with its broken fingernails proved the point. It was clear that she had tried to dig through the coffin’s shredded fabric and lid, to attempt an escape. In bloody horror, her corpse lay there exposed to this young mind. I remember it had its mouth open, as if still crying out for the rescue that would never come. I was in shock, as were those around me in that dark theater. I could barely breathe as I pondered how it must have felt to be buried alive. Wait a minute… I don’t want to think about that.     

This was a time when America clambered for scary pictures. There can be little doubt that they must have been just as much fun for the producers to create. I remember that years later I was a lighting technician on a stage play, Dracula. That was fun. The special effects people back in the day were not restricted except to avoid such things that may have led to outright panic. Today’s film-makers have digital resources that can imitate whatever might be imagined. They can now take things to the point of absolute believability. The space wars, zombies, and high-speed chases appear real and come with surround sound that can pull us into the action, sometimes in 3-D. The market of darkness somehow still exists and tempts us through movies, theme parks, television, and real-looking costumes.

As for me, I’m glad we didn’t have that level of technology back in those pioneering days. Recent reruns of movies that I saw when I was growing up make me shake my head. They appear silly and highly naïve to me. They are poorly acted, and way more comical, than scary. My children and grandchildren laugh at those old movies and lose interest in favor of nearly anything else. Already in their life, they have seen much worse and have a much higher tolerance of violence. With this new level of sophistication, they are much harder to scare than the pubic was back in those early days. With the resources available to film-makers today, I’m sure a remake of some of these would be improved, but I suspect the moral embedded in the original story might be lost. They can draw the screams, but would they also draw the tears?

 Those movies taught us lessons that we have applied throughout our lives. We have hardened our outlook and doubt that there are any real ‘mont-ners.’ We do have atomic wars, terrorism, and endemic illnesses, along with an insensitivity to other people’s suffering. These are the things that threaten us today. Because I have read the last chapter of the Book, I have reason to fear the worst is yet to come. It won’t come from Hollywood and will result in gnashing of teeth and crying buckets of tears. Regardless, I have faith that we can be on the winning side when the final curtain is drawn. Pass the popcorn, please.

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January 27, 2018

GROWING UP IN LOUISA: It's a humbling life!

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

When I sit down to write about my past, I tend to write about those things wherein I might be seen in a favorable light. In truth, life and its memories are a series of successes and failures, but who wants to talk about the failures, eh? For me, many times I find that real growth comes from the negative situations. I learn more from my struggles than from things that come easily. In other words, learning may hurt. At my age, the memory banks are loaded with scar tissue enough to make a neurosurgeon happy and wealthy, but surgery isn’t the answer. When it comes to writing this column, I’d rather recall the lessons learned without focusing on their respective costs.

For example, I remember all too clearly the summer baseball leagues I joined that included many of my esteemed classmates. When reading this it is likely that some may smile when they remember my early efforts. Someone had simply given me a catcher’s mitt as a gift. Knowing my mom, it is likely that it was the cheapest of all the gloves/mitts in the store display. So ‘low bid’ was to set my future instead of my discovering where my talent, if any, would be manifested. When it came to catching neither mom or I had the slightest notion of its purpose, or responsibilities.

Therefore, it was simply because I owned a catcher’s mitt and was the only kid fool enough to play that position, that Eddie Boggs, our coach, named me the team’s catcher. Sadly, I wasn’t trained or particularly adept in this position. After all, I had ‘seen’ only a small number of baseball games, whether in person, or by an announcer’s descriptions over the radio. The problem was that there were many things I hadn’t seen or fully understood. Oh, I knew generally that the catcher was to ‘catch the ball’ when it was thrown by the pitcher. I found out the hard way that a good catcher should also understand the intricacies of the game. With experience, Coach Eddie suggested, I would get that understanding, but in the meantime, the transition would be painful for us both.

 I remember the day that I took the field to play a ballgame held in High Bottom at the old fairgrounds. I think this approximates the general area where the new high school is situated. In this first game, I would spend the day learning all kinds of lessons while watching the opposing team’s score steadily rise. For example, I discovered that if I wanted to walk out to the pitcher’s mound to speak with the pitcher, I should ask the umpire to call ‘time.’ If granted, then the ball would be dead meaning that no one on base could advance. In my experience, it wasn’t obvious that catchers would turn to the umpire and ask for time and the ump would raise his hands to show ‘time out,’ so I just didn’t know. I made the mistake of strolling out to the mound only to see the runner who was on third break into a run for the now, unguarded home plate. The other runners advanced at the same time. So the other team scored while I discovered that slow me couldn’t get there in time to tag the runner out. Embarrassing? Sure. It was even more so when I did the same thing twice more. Ouch!

It got worse when I totally missed nearly every pitch. Sure, some were outside, and some were in the dirt, making them difficult to catch. The coach told me it wasn’t my fault, but runners advanced and the score continued to build. I learned that our pitcher might throw the ball over the plate, but that was unpredictable. More batters were walked and then ran freely to the next base on the next passed ball. After a long, painful time my stomach began to hurt. My coach told me that I needed to throw myself in front of the pitch to at least knock it down. I adopted a mentality that each pitch would be uncatchable instead of crouching and supposing it would be over the plate. This shift in thinking allowed me to have enough jump on the pitch to knock down the ball and reduce some of the scoring. Once I learned this trick, I prevented an amazing number of runs, howbeit, too late for this game.

There were many lessons of the same kind. The worst was the snickering of the opposing team and the hanging heads of my teammates. The final score was a loss of seventeen to nothing. Sixteen of those runs were my fault. The other one happened to be a clean hit when bases were loaded. I wished I had not shown up for that game. It was time to quit and hide my shame. I would never play again.

Eddie came to me and said I had to do it again. It may have been the first time I heard the story about remounting a horse when thrown, but the message was delivered. Eddie encouraged me and gave me hope despite of the clear evidence that I was the team’s worst nightmare. After a few days, he talked me into trying again. I gradually got better, but I was never a good catcher. In the end, I could do a decent job behind the plate, but I was far from being the star I dreamed I might be.

People are predictable in that whatever trait one has in one area, it will likely be repeated in others. For example, when visiting my cousins on the farm, I was assigned the simple task of gathering eggs. For them it was a minor, and very routine chore, but for me I it happened that I had to face-off with the meanest, ugliest hen in eastern Kentucky. She allowed me to push my hand under her to touch the recently laid egg, but she soon squawked and pecked away on my sleeveless arm. Ouch! She flapped her wings at me and made more threatening jesters and squawks. It made me wonder if she would attack my face if I didn’t cease and desist in my gathering activities. I decided I would just gather from the other nests and do hers, last. I took note that one or two eggs I found seemed far heavier than others, but I figured I could sort that out later in the safety of the barnyard. (I was told later that these were fake eggs meant to encourage the hens to lay.) Finally, I saw the rude hen leave the henhouse. This was my chance. As I turned and approached the unguarded egg I felt the attack from behind. With wings flapping the mean hen landed on my shoulder and pecked at my head. I ran for my life spilling the eggs I had gathered. At least the fake eggs weren’t broken. Again, I was a failure. I’m not sure what I learned, but my cousins who had been in hiding gave themselves away with laughter. To them I was a ‘town boy,’ roughly equivalent to a city slicker.

I wasn’t one of the more popular guys in high school, at least not with the girls. Besides not being particularly attractive, and being clumsy, naïve, and clueless, I was too honest. I tried to be on the level, thus disclosing any motivations I may have formulated in my mind. For some reason girls found that to be insulting. Go figure. I continued to try and date, seeing a limited few for months at a time, but in the end, we’d agree to be ‘friends.’ I had always heard it was good to have lots of friends, so I went along with the idea. The next evening though, I found myself alone.

Oh well, I could practice my music and maybe something else would come along. It did. Suzie and I have been married forty-two years. She’s the one with the real stories, but I doubt they’d be flattering to my ego, so they won’t be in print. Come to think of it, it would reflect poorly on her, as well, since she’s chosen to hang around me. Brave girl, that one.     

There were several occasions that I rode my bike out on Mayo Trail around ‘dead man’s curve,’ to see two sweet young ladies that lived near the Varney homestead. Sue and Judy Thompson, girls I knew from school, were fun to chat with, but their father kept a close watch to see that my unannounced visits weren’t too long. After all, the girls had chores to do and I was a disruption to the day. At least that’s what I thought, he thought. Now, as an adult, I think it is remotely possible that he just didn’t want them around boys. He need not have worried as I was as naïve as they come and had the best of intentions. I was flattered they’d speak to me, so I tried to enjoy the rare happy event.

Anyway, on one of several trips (likely the last one), I climbed the backyard fence into the pig sty. One of the girls warned me that the sow was not in a friendly mood. I turned just in time to see her point her sixteen tons of muscle and fat toward me, grunting and slobbering as she ran. I got the message. I ran for the fence and for the first time in my life, I jumped and cleared the obstacle. It was good that I didn’t get hung up in the fencing. Both girls, laughing, told me I should be more careful as they reminded me that they had warned me. Shaking all over, I turned my bike back to Louisa and the safety of home.

When I was eighteen, I left Louisa for the Air Force and was stationed in Virginia when a roommate from Louisiana asked me to go with him on leave to visit his parents. He lived in Shreveport, but once we arrived he expressed a desire to drive southeast to Monroe to visit his grandmother. He borrowed his mother’s car and we left on the hot trip. In those days, very few cars had air-conditioning, including this one. Heat and humidity had well settled in. We were both so hot and were wet with perspiration. My friend turned the car south on a dirt road, kicking up dust that built up on us like cakes of mud. The car windows were down so the dust from the road coated us so we looked like Egyptian mummies instead of young men. The road was fairly straight and was beside a bayou that was well-lined with live oak trees heavy with Spanish moss. The water just over the levee was black, as if a dark tea.

 My friend told me that some of what appeared to be logs were, in fact, alligators. My mind raced with the thoughts of being bitten by one of those toothy swamp creatures I had seen in many countless Tarzan movies. We must have driven on this dirt road at least two hours when my friend suggested we stop for a bottle of pop. Just ahead I could see that the road widened. There sat a small building with some gasoline pumps in front. We parked next to the levee, and my friend got out and walked across the road toward the little store. I stretched and looked at the black water, shivering with the thought of being dragged into the swamp for a gator meal.

At the pumps, a farmer was filling his pickup with gasoline. Next to the open front door of the little store, a man was sitting on an upturned milk crate, busy whittling away on a stick. After a moment, I crossed the road and passed by the paneled pickup truck. Suddenly, a cold, wet nose projected through the panels and hit my arm. At the same instant, I heard a loud snort! At the shock of this cold, wet contact and still freshly remembering the alligator stories, I jumped, yelled and ran up the dusty road in the direction we had only just traveled. Here I was, running with my arms flailing, with dust making a cloud, and still screaming. In reaction, the man at the gas pump was startled and dropped the nozzle into the dust. The man who was whittling, overturned his milk carton and fell to the ground. That little one-room store emptied itself of a crowd of men, all looking my direction pointing, at me and laughing.  My friend came out and hollered for me to come back to the store, but I made him back the car to me and pick me up. I didn’t want to face any of these men. I lowered my body below the level of the window as we drove by the store, so not to be seen, but I could still hear laughter. In fact, in my mind I can still hear them, only now I’m laughing, too. I learned not to walk too closely to a paneled truck until I knew what it may carry.        

This article is published on my birthday (1/27) with the idea that the tales pulled from here and there are from my memory. They help explain the mess I have become. Frankly, I have made so many social miscalculations that it would have been a riot to watch. Of course, at the time I wasn’t laughing. It was only through being able to laugh at myself that I became the marvelous, wise, well-adjusted person (sarcasm) I am today. All kidding aside, when my grandchildren ask me what it was like when I was growing up, I tell just them about when I was a pirate. They wouldn’t believe the truth.

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January 20, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – It’s a Smaller World!   

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

Usually the term ‘smaller world’ suggests the idea that between transportation improvements and the digital age, that communication and travel negate the disadvantages of distances, no matter how far. Even when I was in grade school at the foot of town hill, my teachers would delight in telling their class how airplanes have effectively made the world smaller. Air service was not available in Louisa, and except for one crash-landing I remember, no planes had visited the town. There was a time, which may have instigated the teacher to bring the subject up, when a son of our town flew his Air Force plane low to ‘buzz’ us. While I may have witnessed that, I don’t even remember if it was a jet or a propeller-drive craft.

My subject here today is about solid things we thought to be finite, might somehow become smaller over time. I’m not talking about my once mammoth bones, but rather the new perspectives we gain over time. No doubt part of the basis is that we grow so big things are relatively smaller, but to be clear I think that sometimes our memories aren’t to be trusted. Our memories are based upon mental pictures developed by us when we were little people. Those perceptions are not trustworthy now that are we grown. The scary part is that if our ‘true’ memories are not exactly ‘true,’ then what is our real foundation? Did we rise from the fairly-land of a quaint little town, or are we mistaken?    

I think I first noticed this phenomenon and came to question my background during a trip home. I found myself standing in the center of Clay Street in front of a rather average-looking building that I remembered as my home during the bulk of my childhood. I had left town upon graduation to live in a starkly different environment. I so when I pulled up my memories of that ‘big white house’ on the corner, it had to be just so.

I remembered the porch on which I spent so many hours reading comic books or doing my lessons. I could even remember the ‘drip’ line next to the porch’s foundation that was created by the rain falling from the porch roof. That runoff made a little ditch full of gravel, which was a favorite place to run my toy trucks and to load the pebbles as if they were large boulders. I can still picture the area of grass between the porch and a hedge row I grew up having to clip and keep shaped. On my visit, that was missing. It had been between the porch and the sidewalk behind a small concrete curb that had been installed when the old house was built. After the sidewalk, the berm was next, and then the street.

I remember visiting with a friend in a car parked in the street in front of my house, but again, there’s confusion. You see, in truth there was hardly room for a car to park there and another car be able to pass. Spinning around I took note that the berm I remember as being four feet wide was now barely a foot. With the hedge missing and the porch somehow shrunken, I feared this was not ‘my house.’ Well, it was, but not the one I remembered.

What happened? We may recall the days when clothing was sold as ‘sanforized,’ meaning you could wash them without fear they’d shrink. Effectively, the fabric had been ‘pre-shrunk,’ even prior to being turned into a garment. Apparently, my old house, and for that matter, my old neighbor’s houses, had not been sanforized. Indeed, they had shrunk.

A tour of the town by car proved the whole town had the same malady. Streets were barely wide enough to travel and turns that were tight were everywhere. I had walked these streets, kicked rocks and cans down them, and ridden my trusty bike up, down and every street. They now seemed almost too small to allow a kid to turn his bike or ride in circles. How could this have happened to concrete streets? Well, first of all, Louisa’s streets were laid out long before the automobile. It was essentially a horse and buggy town that was becoming the county seat in the late nineteenth century. The Civil War was underway and the town was occupied by northern forces. With a notable exception of the major streets, the side streets were narrow but plenty wide for two horse-drawn carriages to pass. Madison, Main Cross, Main Streets, and parts of Lock Avenue were wider. Trucks, buses, and heavier vehicles traveling north or south were routed through the business district, crossing the railroad tracks twice. As a kid growing up I investigated every street and nearly every property and pathway in town. In doing so, I found many wonderful spots, met some very nice people, and never once thought anything was lacking in the world.

From the top of Town Hill, just down from the old ruins of Fort Bishop, I could see the whole town neatly laid out before my eyes. It seemed to go for miles in one direction and then miles in the other. In truth, the town was barely a mile from the locks upriver to the waterworks. I enjoyed watching the town from this vantage point, but the last time I tried to go there the area was inaccessible, or at least seemed so.

While my old house was a mansion in my memory, it now seems way too small to have housed my family. The basketball court we’d put in on the Franklin side of the lot seems now impossible to have used that way. The old Thompson residence behind our house now has an enclosed porch, but the place we neighborhood kids played on between the houses remained, even if too small to accommodate more than a couple of toddlers.

I also have memories of senior skip day when instead of being in school, I was washed over the falls at Fallsburg only to be saved by Stanley Brown and Johnnie Justice. I remember that for a moment, I hung at the top by my fingernails. I was fearful, knowing that the drop would be twenty feet or so into the swift, deep waters of Blaine Creek. I was a non-swimmer, so I wondered if this was ‘the end.’ When I made a trip back through there to show my family the famous falls it was an embarrassment. Those falls looked to be barely three or four feet tall. With my six-foot frame how could I have even hung on the edge? What happened? Have the rushing waters worn down those big rocks? If so, will it soon be a smooth ride for a kayaker going down steam? I’m guessing those rocks are not sanforized.

To me the old town was best described as a quaint little village with gingerbread trimmings. Idyllic, yes, but very busy along the main drag. Small grocers were sprinkled all about and every brand of gasoline could be purchased in filling stations at many of the intersections. It was romantic, inviting imaginations to soar giving hope to the families calling it home. No one really wanted to leave, but the economies, wars, colleges, jobs, marriages, and even deaths had that effect.

My wife tells me of her visits to her grandmother’s house in Princeton, West Virginia. She recalled a big stone that visitors used to use to begin their assent to the sidewalk that led uphill to the house. She recalls that as a child the stone seemed so very high and that it took a great deal of effort to make the steep climb onto the perch. In visits I have seen the stone. It is maybe the size of a cinder-block, but rounded and well-worn by decades of foot-travel. The point is that sometimes our memories are bigger than life. To a little girl with relatively short legs the stone seemed enormous. To me, it was hardly worth a mention.

So, the trustworthiness of memories is called into question. Not only does change happen, but it happens where we don’t expect it to happen. Our perceptions aren’t trustworthy. I’m still the guy that understands the childhood delight of playing with toy trucks. Today, as an old codger, the best I can do is provide toy trucks to the next generation. Reversing the model discussed, those toys are small things to me, but they look big to a kid.      

Thinking back to school days, I wonder if we were really sports heroes, class leaders, popular, cool and debonair. Maybe not, or if so, in a small way. Still, let me bask in this dream world I invented. After all, it is all I have in these waning years. Just as depression can happen with a misleading thought, the foundations of optimism may be equally faulty. A better way may be to choose to live today as you understand it, and see yesterday as best you remember. Points of view determines what we see as truth, but maybe sometimes we’re standing in the wrong place. It’s okay to be a little wrong, but when you discover you are wrong, make the adjustments you must and press on. Looking back is fine, but remember things behind you may have changed. I’m wondering how small things will look from heaven. No worry. Maybe it’s the trip, after all. Regardless, it’s an increasingly small world.

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