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Spirits of '76
by Sam Richmond



Back then they weren't many fire hydrants in Posey, but there was one at the very top of Hill Street. Every year around New Year’s Eve the hydrant got OPENED and Hill Street got CLOSED. See, sleigh ridin’ was a part of winter. Folks was a might more tolerant of things like this back then, and besides, it give ‘em a chance to get rid of a lot of old tires.

Now if y’all can remember the winter of ‘75-’76… it got cold! And if you don’t remember… you didn’t live around here then.

‘Bout mid afternoon New Year's Eve that hydrant at the top of Hill Street sprung its little annual ‘leak’ (thanks to Benny Weeby). Benny lived at the top of Hill Street, and his wife made some mighty fine hot chocolate. Benny, on the other hand, had the usual 5 gallon churn of home brew ‘workin’ off’ in the basement. The New Year's sleigh ride and social was on!

Hill Street dead ended just past Benny’s place to everything but goats… that’s ‘cause Hill Street was STEEP. The turn-around at the dead-end made a perfect place to gather, sip a little home brew or eggnog, and dare each other to "try ‘er all the way down to Maple." Maple Street intersected Hill ‘bout three or four blocks down and was the last place you could ditch without encountering too much traffic.

Near zero temperatures made it an exceptional evening for hot chocolate, home brew and ice. The ice just plain liked it cold. It laid down smooth and black on the pavement. Matter of fact, it was freezing so fast and hard a body had to keep movin’ around a little if he didn’t want to get froze in place.

Within minutes after Benny shut the hydrant down, Hill Street was ready. It was so ready it was scary. It was like looking at a black mirror… three blocks long and wouldn’t have been much steeper if you’d a hung it on the wall neither! Seemed like everyone was hangin’ back a little... so Benny brought out more home brew.

The scene was getting’ pretty festive. The big ol’ stack of Town and Country bias plies were burning brightly. The black smoke was rollin’ and the gooey little black balls of suet that kept fallin’ seemed a fine compliment to Benny’s home brew. The ambience was beginnin’ to thaw a little. Well the bonfire was glowin’, the booze was flowin’, but nobody was goin’ … that dam hill looked like a frozen water fall!

One thing though, if a hill is steep enough and slick enough you can ride almost anything down it. (One year we used Cryin’ Eddie, till a hole come in his coveralls and the cold and ice and the pain sobered him enough to let him get away from us.) Few folks had actual sleighs or sleds. Most would show up with door mats, cardboard boxes (one of Uncle Burley’s favorites) or maybe a blowed up inner tube. The storm drain at Ash, or the Ashhole as we called it, did have a tendency to deflate inner tubes real fast, and that kinder left a feller on his Ash if you get my drift.

…and then Benny walked out with the ol’ lady’s big ol’ dishpan. Smooth white enamel, it was. Near three foot across, shiny in the fire light… and the crowd got a little crazy when they saw it. Ooooo…. they said ….ahhhhh… they said…. Benny’s gonna dieeeeeeeeeee… they said.

Benny had a whole afternoon headstart on them with the churn of home brew… his thinkin’ might not have been the clearest just now. He had been down Hill Street lots of times though, just not in a dishpan.

"Well, she shouldn’t a left it on the table," Benny said boldly. "Shoulda been put up. Awright, you bunch a sissies… I reckon I’ll have to show you how this is done."

With that, Benny plonked the dishpan down and tried to get in. For a while it looked like he wouldn’t fit, but then Norman Cruikshanks slipped and slid over and began to pretzel Benny’s legs in a criss-cross fashion underneath his butt. By the time Norman finished locking Benny’s legs in, he was on his knees and Benny, looking like a poppin jay in a bird bath was just about nose to nose with him. Now Benny was drunk, no question about that, but he still caught the look in Norman’s eye

"Durn you, Normy, don’t you spin me…. Normy…. Normy…. Nooooooo wo, wo, wo."

And Benny was off… and pickin’ up speed … and RPM’s.

"Da … mam … mam …. you …ooo … ooo ….Nor … or … or … me …eeeee … yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee."

Spinning past Elm, Benny was able to get one leg out just before he busted the Ashhole wide open. This slowed the spinning enough for him to catch glimpses of Maple… and traffic on Main! One thought spun through Benny’s mind… well, two actually, but he could kill Norman Cruikshanks tomorrow in the daylight so’s he could enjoy it… if he made ‘er till then! The other thought was BAIL OUT!!!

Didn’t work.

That one last leg was doubled under his butt and had him firmly lodged into the dishpan. Maple was comin’ up fast. Rock ‘er, Benny thought, rocker an’ wreck ‘er… it’s my only chance.

Now if y’all remember, they was one fire hydrant at the top of Hill Street - well, there was another at the bottom. A hundred and ninety pounds of drunk projectile traveling at about sixty mph wasn’t enough to take out that ol’ cast iron Mueller, but it did crack it a might… and it knocked Benny’s dishpan plumb off !

As a fine mist of water started to turn everything to ice, the only thing Benny heard was the tick, tink, pip, ping of chipping enamel. When he realized it was from his teeth laying over there in a snow bank, it took away a lot of the elation he had been feeling at being alive. As the spinning in his head slowed a little and Posey began to right itself beneath his quivering legs, Benny found that he could stand… almost. So bent over, braced with one hand on a knee and bleeding from the mouth, Benny looked waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back to the top of the hill, shook his fist wildly at Norman and said, "Nam noo, Morman! Mime nonna nill oo!" And Normy laaaauuughed… till Wayne Rolley’s feet flew out from under him and he collected Normy amidships and down the hill they went!

"Son of a biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii," screamed Norman. But as they picked up speed, all he and Wayne could do was hang on to each other.

As the two swirling figures jumped the Ashhole, Benny saw ‘em comin’, recognized Norman’s red checkered Woolrich and began to frantically look for something to kill him with. It did not, at once, occur to Benny that he was directly in the flight path. Finding nothing suitable to maim Norman with, Benny decided to do him in with his bare hands. When the arctic mittens wouldn’t come off, he found that the spray from the hydrant was fast turning him into an icicle. That’s also about the time Wayne and Norman slammed into Benny making it a menage a tois into the traffic on Main. Made no never mind to Benny, he was pissed… and had a pretty fair headlock on Norman that no approaching bread truck was going to deprive him of. Wayne was by this time frozen to Benny’s other arm, so this obviously left Benny with no alternative but to bite Norman's ear. When Norman saw the blood, he naturally screamed but strangely felt no pain… gummed he was! Well, the six arms, six legs and associated bloody mess slid to a stop in the middle of Main Street.

Lyle Martin had been driving a cab in Posey nigh onto twenty years; he had never seen anything like this.

The frigid temperature was quickly freezing the three wet, struggling men’s clothing together. Each had about one arm and one leg apiece that still functioned independently. Lyle thought at first that someones snowman had accidentally rolled into the street, but upon a closer look decided that no one would purposely concoct anything this grotesque. Now, as bad as Lyle hated the prospect of getting stuck on the ice, he stopped the cab just short of running them over.

Wayne, who started out basically as a victim in this melee, was again basically victimized. It was his ‘deer in the headlights’ stare, staring into Lyles’ headlights from thiiiiiiiiiiisssss . . . close.

It’s funny how from three or four blocks away a scene can be misinterpreted, home brew notwithstanding. When Arlie Bivens showed up with his coal scoop, he had no idea of all that had just taken place. The fact that everyone at the turn- around was rolling on the ground laughing was no indication that this year was any different from any other year. Now, folks, Arlie’s coal scoop was famous on Hill Street. It was considered the Ferrari of improvised sleighs all over town. A coal scoop is a shovel used for shoveling coal. A ‘D’ handle of steel and fine white hickory is fitted to a scoop shovel just about the size and general shape of Widder Jenkins’ behind. Arlie gingerly placed the scoop on the ice, with full knowledge aforethought that nothing on the hill could touch it. (The shovel, not Widder Jenkins’ behind).

Arlie pointed the handle of the shovel toward downtown. The street was just steep enough that when he straddled ‘er and sat down, he had a pretty fair bead on the little wad of happy folks waaaay down there through the ‘D’ of the ‘D’ handle. Arlie didn’t know that a third or two of the happy folks down there may be up on serious charges before morning. He took a firm two handed hold of the shovel handle sticking up between his legs, lifted his feet and ooched forward with his butt. As the scoop began to inch onto the ice, Arlie, in his best Tennesee Ernie Ford impersonation, boomed out "Load sixteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen...” Arlie was thrown forcibly onto his back but managed to hang on.

What a beautiful night, Arlie thought. From his inverted position he could see many pretty lights, the full moon, stars…. there were lots of stars…which suddenly began to blur. As Arlie's cheeks started flowing back away from his teeth, he realized that he was going much too fast.

Swisssssh…. Elmashmaplemaintaxi…. KEEEEEEE-RAAAAASSSSHHHHH !!!

The frozen mass in the middle of Main Street barely saw the blur that passed. The cold breeze from it still chilled their ruddy cheeks as they turned in time to see the impact. The big yellow Buick shuddered, the hood flew up and a little steam was starting to escape from the radiator… uh… that’s ‘cause a shovel handle had poked a hole in it. A shovel handle that extended down and out of sight between Arlie’s legs. As the onlookers looked on, Arlie didn’t say much. He just kinder jammed his hands down to cup his crotch and emitted one very high pitched "oh" and sort of melted into a little ball in front of the taxi.

The flashin’ blue lights on Sheriff Chaney’s patrol car added greatly to the festive air which now surrounded the disabled taxi… and the disabled Arlie and the combined disability of the Benny-Wayne-Norman conjoined popsicle. But with the promise of a healing handshake (when hands could actually be thawed away from around throats) and the surrendering of nearly a gallon and a half of home brew (evidence, you know) the ’76 New Years Eve Debacle, as it was to come to be known, was put to rest.

Now, as rough and tumble as this event may sound to some of you gentler folks, they was some good come out of it. Benny got lots of brand new teeth, which he’d been needin’ anyway. Lyle got a new radiator, which he didn’t need before but the insurance sprung for new hoses and a thermostat, so Lyle figgered he had come ahead. And the church got a new tenor. Arlie's eyes eventually returned to their normal size, but his clear, high, ringing voice is a permanent reminder of the ‘Spirits of ’76.

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Here's more about Sam Richmond:
I was born at home on a Saturday in 1949. It was raining ... hard. I figured I needed to be near my mother at a time like that. A call was made to Doc Stokes, as so many calls were. Folks depended greatly on him. Doc Stokes was a class act.

I grew up dirt poor in, around and sometimes under the New River as it flows through the small town of Hinton, West Virginia. Early memories are tied to the land, hard work and the good humor of my father. We farmed, cut timber and somehow made it on jobs that Dad could pick up.

Tragically, three siblings were lost at very early ages. I remember only one sister who took care of me and taught me to read even before the first grade. She passed away at age eleven. The great grief has never completely gone away.

I have no education to speak of. By carrying 'bread pokes of muggins' (morel mushrooms) and four pound lard buckets of hickory nuts to the math teacher I managed to squeak out a high school diploma. My English Lit. teacher is probably why you are reading this now. She was and IS an inspiration. Mrs. Hazel Gwinn was a dedicated teacher. Many didn't like her because she was stern. Mrs. Hazel often showed me a softer side, I wonder why.

I graduated in 1967. There were no jobs. Uncle Sam took care of that. He invited me to spend a little time away from home. It was war time, I made hard five in just over eight months. I was fortunate to spend my overseas duty in Korea. I learned a lot there. The average YEARLY income of the Korean was $500.00. Some were very rich, most were very poor.

Home again in 1969, guess what? Still no jobs in Appalachia, where I had grown up. I headed to Detroit. I stuck it out two years, didn't like it and moved back 'home'. I worked many, many jobs. Some till they were finished, some till I was finished with them. One lasted only half a day. Employment sent me to train in a trailer with 20 sewing machines, 19 women and me. Lunch time left 'em one shy.

Aside from the factories of Detroit, I've spent time at a local newspaper, done highway construction, been a lineman, and spent seventeen years in fire and rescue.

I've been married for two wonderful years - the other 30, to the same woman, ain't been that great. I have two sons, both grown. Both live close by and I like that.

I'm currently employed in Emergency Management and 911 (where it really helps to have a sense of humor).

Sometime in 2005 it became necessary to write something. The time was finally right. I know in my heart that Mrs. Hazel would have preferred that I started sooner, but this was not the first time she forgave my tardiness.

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Want to leave a comment on Sam’s story?
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Read more of Sam's entertaining stories at WhereIFish.com
And read another at USADS: Appleberry Blossoms

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