Gypsies on the Mountain

Mama and I sit on the front porch in the growing dark, watching a string of lights move along the side of the mountain.  I ask her what they are.  “It’s the Gypsies,” she says, “they always come back this time of year.”

“Where do they go off to?”

Mama tilts her head and pauses for a moment. “Someplace on the other side of the mountain, I reckon.”

A storybook picture fills my mind, of a tall covered wagon with pots and pans banging against its sides, drawn by large dark horses and led by dark-skin people in brightly colored clothes, barefoot children with tangled hair dancing along behind.

I see myself, one of those dark-skinned children, not the coming but the going, to that mysterious place on the other side of the mountain, in a Gypsy caravan with twinkling lights.  I wonder if I am really a Gypsy child.

“Why do they come back,” I say.

“Why, to steal our eggs.”

Did they leave me here?  I wonder.  Maybe they traded me for the eggs.

The house is small and dark; we go to bed early to make the lamp oil last longer.

Lying beside Mama in the growing dark I force my eyes to stay open to keep away the monsters that hover in the darkest corner of the room, waiting for me to go to sleep.  When they will invade my dreams and chase me through the terrifying night …..

 

Bless Her Heart

While walking Winston in the park today I realized I owe you an apology for my recent rants. Time was I never ranted but swallowed my ire and pretended the world was always a happy place. For this reluctance to express anger I blame my mom (God Bless Her Heart, as we say in the hills when speaking ill of someone – to show we really love the ornery person). My mom was, of course, a wonderful woman (God Bless Her Heart) but she was of the “turn the other cheek” variety.

Well, of course I could say the other cheek I was thinking of was lower down on the body and I forgot which one she meant. I tend to get things mixed up that way. You aren’t buying it? Mom wouldn’t either. She raised us to not “Act the Fool” (Bless Her Heart) and to Mom facetiousness was never funny.

But this isn’t about Mom. It’s about me apologizing for sending out negative vibes instead of positive uplifting ones, about me trying to make amends for my angry rants. The best way to do that, I think, is to give you a list of a few of the things that I’m truly grateful for:

1) That my eldest daughter just bought six baby chicks but can’t have a rooster, which is okay as she’s only going to have them lay eggs (in the garage until she can get a chicken shed built). They are already counting on 42 eggs a week after the chickens become hens. This is part of her answer to the coming food shortage she keeps hearing about. (Bless Her Heart)

2) That my youngest daughter has given up feeding her family grain, anything made from wheat, oats, soy, or even corn. That’s right. She now makes pizza crust from coconut meal, brownies from black beans, etc. They really do taste good, Bless Her Heart. I just hope Michelle doesn’t hear about it!

3) Which brings me to the last item for today. We still live in the good old USA where my grandson can buy a green wig with his birthday money, have me make him a strange-looking cape and go to an anime convention where everyone looks like they just stepped off an intergalactic vehicle traveling through unknown worlds to visit planet Earth, and nobody thinks it’s odd. My Mom would be appalled. Bless Their Hearts, she’d say. Ain’t it wonderful!

Bless Your Heart!

A Boil on the Presidency?

If you’ve ever suffered from boils you know how painful they are. They have to be lanced and drained in order to heal.

Although I don’t remember the following family story as I was only a toddler, an older brother told me about the days when we lived in poverty due to the early death of our father.

The trouble began with an outbreak of boils. To bring the boils to a head and give relief from the pain our mother applied hot compresses, probably from a solution of Epsom salts, and/or soda and boric acid powder in boiling water.

But more boils continued to break out. Finally, Mom sought the advice of a wise old hill woman who told her we were all suffering from an evil in the blood. She said to have the older boys gather burdock, a weed that was plentiful in the hills, and make a tea from it. Everyone in the family should drink the tea and it would soon remove the evil that was tainting our blood. At last we found relief.

I researched and found that burdock has been used since the Middle Ages as a blood purifier and treatment for boils. As well as a host of other ailments. Interestingly, the article’s advice was: “Do not gather burdock in the wild.”

Evidently because “The roots of burdock closely resembles those of belladonna or deadly nightshade”. Now was that a narrow escape or what? One mistake and the solution to our problem might’ve killed us. Not unlike, I think, some treatments for cancer today that kill the good cells as well as the bad.

What a mixed-up world we live in! Everything appears to come down to trial and error. Pure luck appears to determine the outcome.

I can’t help but wonder what evil force has infected the blood of our country. Rising like a boil to the surface with hate messages running amok.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a boil on the presidency.

Upon the Tinkling Creek

Cousin Charles SwearenginI just learned my cousin Charles Swearengin passed away this morning. He’s pictured to the right. The following poem is excerpted from our Kentucky book and was written and addressed to Charles by my brother many years ago. May they both rest in peace.

Upon The Tinkling Creek
Composed By Byrd Adams, Jr.

Let’s talk across the mountain, Charles
And down the hollow road,
Passing by the old graveyard
Remembering tales of old:
How Granddaddy built his house
Upon the tinkling creek,
Adding rooms as babies came
To fill a mansion, sweet
Aunts and Uncles now grown old,
And I along with them,
To fill this sacred country with
Our voices growing dim.
Pause to rest a moment here,
My rifle on my knee,
To take a rabbit on the ground,
Or gray squirrel in a tree.
I’m in no mood to fire a shot
Upon this sacred day,
Where rabbits hop, and stop, and hop,
And gray squirrels come to play.
I’d rather pause among my kin
To spend a day or week,
Here where Granddaddy built his house
Upon the tinkling creek.

Just Call Me Scrooge

Just call me Scrooge, but I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. I love the love but hate the hate. Don’t preach to me about it being a celebration of Christ’s birthday. I know that. That’s the love part.

And I don’t hate the Santa Claus and gifts part either. It’s the memories that part brings up and the realization that many children will soon learn too early there is no Santa. That’s what I hate. And don’t preach to me about that part, either, about Santa being the spirit of giving, blah, blah, blah.

The memory of those children from the past blend with knowing that many children in the present will have no Christmas this year. They’ve joined the little ghosts that walk in the back of my mind. Like a Greek chorus. A mute one— because what can they say?

So now that I’ve made you indescribably sad let me add that phrase the elitists like to use: it’s the human condition. Distance yourself from it. What else can you do? Provide for your own and put some change in the Salvation Army’s bucket after you buy your Christmas turkey or ham.

But for God’s sake, don’t whine and carry on about it. If there’s anything I really, really hate it’s a whiner! Merry Christmas.

The Man Who Thought his Daddy was a Booger

My mother talked a lot about her ancestors and I remember being enamored by her story about her Great-Grandpa Alfred Honeycutt. He would never speak ill of anyone, she said, and if others said something bad about somebody in his presence, he would say something good about them.

The men in the community often gathered around the pot-bellied stove at the general store to gossip (of course they didn’t call it that as only women gossiped in those days). Knowing Alfred’s proclivity for thinking only good of people, one day when they saw him coming they started bad-mouthing the meanest man in the county (Mama never told me his name so if anyone recognizes him as an ancestor by his occupation please forgive me).

As the men talked they kept an eye on Alfred, stopping to give him time to comment. “Well,” Alfred said after a long pause, “he’s a good whistler.” The man was an engineer on the railroad and was well-known for his whistling as he ran his train through the small community. Grandpa’s response tickled the men no end and the story was passed down – for over a hundred years!

Another story that was passed down, but in secret, so I did not learn of it until I was in my thirties, was Alfred’s ancestry. He claimed to be a “base-born German Jew”. Some said he was raised by his grandfather and took his surname from him.

It seemed Alfred had told someone his father was a “Berger” or “Burger” – something like that. Because some of the Amburgeys in the area had shortened their name to Burger or Burgey (and the original name was Amberger) this was seen as a vital clue to his identity. The family wondered which Amburgey man had fathered him but had found no strong evidence in that direction.

I, too, searched for clues. Alfred had recorded in his military records that he was born in October, 1832 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. This was the only solid evidence I could find about his birth, and came from him. I worked around that while looking for any Burgers, Burgeys, Bergens, etc. in that area. Nothing fit. I’m not a genealogist but I believe I’m a fair researcher.

Alfred was in Letcher County, Kentucky by 1851 when he married his first wife, Elizabeth Amburgey. She gave him three children before she died, and in the 1860 Census, the oldest child, Robert, age eight, was living with the John Pigman family. The other two children, Thomas, age 2 and Phebe, age 6, were living “in houses nearby.”

In February 1861 Alfred married his second wife, Elizabeth Reynolds, who was a cousin to his first wife, and in November 1861 joined the Confederate cause in the Civil War for a period of one year.

During Alfred’s enlistment in the Confederacy, Union General James Garfield*, later to become, in 1880 our 20th president and the last one to be born in a log cabin, took possession of Piketon (later Pikeville) on February 19, 1862. Garfield wrote to Assistant Adjutant General J. B. Fry that there had been a marked change in favor of the Union among the citizens of the neighboring Virginia counties (Pikeville lies near the border of Virginia). He said that at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains several meetings had been held inviting him to “come among them and promising their cordial support.”

Perhaps Alfred was one of those persuaded by the General. On August 22, 1863 Alfred re-enlisted, this time on the Union side, and mustered in on October 10th. He was honorably discharged at Catlettsburg on December 17, 1864 and mustered out on December 24th in time to be home for Christmas. According to the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky Historical Data Systems, Inc. Alfred was discharged in good standing from both the Confederate and Union armies.

When Alfred went off to war for the Union Elizabeth was expecting their first child together, Ulysses S. Grant Honeycutt (called Grant), my great grandfather, who was born February 18, 1864.

While I was attempting to trace Alfred’s parentage I came across a book called “North Carolina Bastardy Bonds” by Betty J. and Edwin A. Camin and ordered it. On page 23 was a listing for Susannah Hunnicutt (Honeycutts has had various spellings) in Buncombe County, in October, 1832.

These bonds were posted because of the birth or impending birth of an illegitimate child, and were intended to protect the county or parish from the expense of raising the child. When the pregnancy of a woman or birth of a child was brought to the attention of the court, a warrant was issued and the woman brought to court. She was questioned under oath and asked to declare the name of the child’s father. The reputed father was then served a warrant and required to post bond.

I sent to Raleigh, North Carolina for a copy of the original bond and received a photostatic copy which said the father of the child was William G. Davis.

I’ve wondered since then if Alfred even knew the name of his father, or if he’d been told his name was “Berger” etc. Then other things about him came to mind, how he would never speak ill of anyone, how he appears to be a man of conscience and integrity, not afraid or ashamed to change sides in the war when he felt it was the right thing to do. But sometimes one has to quit being nice, and just tell it like it is.

Alfred, who never spoke ill of anyone, when asked who his father was, may have said his daddy was a booger. If so, for generations to come, soft-spoken Alfred’s comment would be taken for an answer to the question. Instead of what it was: a condemnation of the man, most likely already married, who brought shame to his mother.

“booger (slang): a worthless, despicable person”

Note: Most everyone knows President Garfield* was assassinated but many may not be aware of what happend after he was mortally (?) wounded. I decided to add the following story from my Kentucky book to this post for those who may find it of interest:

Evil Knows No Bounderies

Do I believe a future President of the United States was “cursed” by the evil that swept the mountains, or tainted by his short sojourn there? Of course not. President Garfield’s assassination is just a case in point, that evil knows no boundaries. It is ever present, in every place, in every age, in some form.

At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield became a “dark horse” presidential nominee on the 36th ballot, and won the election by a margin of only 10,000 popular votes. On July 2, 1881, in a Washington railroad station, after only six months in office, Garfield was on his way to visit his sick wife in Elberon, New Jersey, when he was shot by a loopy pretender who had sought a consular post.

Mortally wounded, President Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device, which he had designed. Garfield was treated by many doctors, or rather, mistreated, according to history. A number of atrocious treatments were tried out on him, and although sterilization had been preached it was not widely practiced.

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881. At the autopsy, examiners determined that the bullet had lodged itself some four inches from the spine in a protective cyst. Their conclusion? Garfield would’ve survived if the doctors had left him alone.

The murderer argued at his trial that he did not kill the President; the doctors deserved all the blame for his death. That argument didn’t work in the 1880s and Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.

President James A. Garfield was the last of our presidents who was born in a log cabin. Six months was not long enough for him to make his mark on history, yet in that time he attacked political corruption and won back for the Presidency a measure of prestige it had lost during the Reconstruction period.

Meanwhile, in the Kentucky Mountains where he had waged successful battles for the Union, the War continued in the mountain feuds; hardly a county without its “war” as a struggle for political power was waged between the former Union and Rebel forces. Both sides fought to capture local offices, with the ex-Confederates losing out to the “good old Union boys”, who elected their former comrades to fill the log courthouses and to run the counties. (Harry Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands).

The “Union” boys indicted the “Rebels” for war crimes, charging defeated Rebels with murder, arson, rape, grand larceny, treason against the Commonwealth, conspiracy, etc., and the Confederates fought back with a vengeance. In fear for their lives, Jurors became reluctant to convict them.

When officers traveled with the few who were convicted, they were set upon by well-armed members of the opposing side, who demanded the prisoners be set free.

The feuds in the Kentucky Mountains would come to represent to many the backwardness of a mountain culture as defined by the famous Hatfields and McCoys.

Meantime, the foolishness of the supposedly civilized world leading to the death of a President would merely be buried in the annals of history, proving that, indeed, evil knows no boundaries.

Andy Adams – Kentucky Coal


The above video of an interview with my brother Andy Adams of Hazard, Kentucky in Appalachia took place twenty-seven years ago when he was fifty years old, and had achieved the American Dream.

His photo on the cover of my family book Stories of a Kentucky Mountain Family was taken when he was just sixteen, with our youngest brother Hale, who was six. When our dad died, leaving eight children, Andy quit school and went to work in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky to support his mother and siblings.

Later, after being injured at the mines during a dynamite blast, he forged a birth certificate to prove he was eighteen and drove semi-trailers across the country. He also worked in the factories in Detroit, and when he came home he paid our debt at the general store.

Andy was my hero. Hale and I, the two youngest, often watched for him to come home. Memories still linger in my mind of him coming up the path on crutches after the blast at the mines, smiling at us through his pain as we waited on the front porch, and later, watching him swing down from the giant cab of a truck as he came home to check on us.

In the video he tells you himself that he achieved the American Dream, a man who only finished the eighth grade and was self-educated. He was also self-directed, with a can-do, positive attitude towards life and work that he passed along to all of us.

When he passed away on March 14 2001, I was with him. A few hours before, he had pointed over my shoulders and said “Your brothers.” I turned automatically towards the wall and said “Where?” He had a disappointed look on his face, realizing I hadn’t seen them. It was the only time I remember disappointing him. But I knew at that moment that the three brothers who had already passed on were waiting to greet him.

Andy was a hero for our times. A young man of sixteen who became a substitute father to his siblings. He set an example for all of us. I hope he knows how much he was loved.