Well Blow Me Down and Call Me Flossie

When I was fifteen I worked one summer in Don’s Restaurant in Hazard, Kentucky. My name was Flossie. Don had such a turnover in waitresses he couldn’t remember our names so he used a few favorites remembered from ages past. Assuming there’d been a Flossie, that is. So I said “Blow me down and call me Flossie!” After all, he was paying me fifty cents an hour.

We had a tip box to put our gratuities in (I’m more sophisticated now) to be divided up weekly. Like a good little Flossie I put all my tips, excuse me, gratuities, in the box during the first week but when it came time to receive my cut, I only received four dollars.

I complained to the other girls that my tips, excuse me, gratuities, had been more than that for half-a-day. They laughed at me. “We don’t put it all in,” they said, “just a dollar here and there.” In other words I had shared all my own tips, excuse me, gratuities, with them, but they had shared only a smidgeon of theirs with me. The scale had been weighted to their side. I wondered why they hadn’t told me ahead of time. That’s how green I was. I’m more sophisticated now.

Okay, I said, and the next week I only put in a couple of dollars. But I felt dishonest. “Oh, he knows,” one girl said, “he don’t care.” And, since we were all in cahoots, I figured it was okay. But my conscience still bothered me, just a smidgeon. I’d been taught that rules were rules and were meant to be followed.

Although I never became a corrupt politician, nor even an honest one for that matter, I wonder if that’s how it begins? If we all do it, then it’s okay. Let’s vote ourselves some special benefits, set up different rules, just for us.

Of course none of this is actually vocalized. Most likely they just breathe in that rarefied stink in the air that wafts off the old farts who’ve been corrupting Washington for years, and they know without vocalizing that this is how things are done in Washington, DC.

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.

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.

Appalachian Rhapsody–God’s Comic Intervention

Out of the void of darkness came the Big Boom and another mountaintop in Appalachia tumbled down the mountainside, buried a graveyard, filled up a stream and killed a fish. The fish asked why but nobody answered. A small boy heard and looked up at the old man sitting on a cloud, coughing and waving away the coal dust. “Gee whiz, God,” said the boy, “Whatcha letting them do that for?”

And God laughed. “T’ain’t funny,” said the boy.

“Oh, yes it is,” said God, slapping his knee, almost choking on his laughter, “you’ll see.”

The boy grew up and became a man. He went to Detroit to work in the car factory. He sent money home to his maw to help care for the other youngins, and one of them even became a mining engineer and told the mountaintop removers where to set the charges. More Big Booms, more mountaintops crashing down into the valleys. Huge machines now did the work requiring fewer and fewer workers. While the valleys filled up with all this debris more and more people left the wrecked mountains and moved to the cities.

There they married people whose ancestors had left the mountains over the past two hundred years, generations that had mingled and merged with others throughout these United States. Whose genes had  grown weaker and weaker the further they had strayed from their source. Weak brains had become rampant in the populace, and it was the ones with weak brains who had plundered Mother Earth and destroyed the mountains. Others of the weak brain had stood by and watched the plight of the mountaineers with disinterest, even prejudice.

But with the new infusion of the blood of the mountain people who were forced to move to the cities, a new race was born. They came to be called the Neomelungeons.

“So you see,” said God to the boy who had become a man and was now a very old man. “By letting the weak-minded destroy the mountains, I brought forth a new race. The blood of your ancestors was kept sacrosanct behind your mountain walls, where they retired after your Revolution. In their blood lives on the history of America, forgotten by many whose blood has been diluted this past two hundred years. The mountain blood is that of the mixed races of all people, come together for a divine purpose: to help mankind evolve to the next stage of your journey on your return to the One True Reality. Your place of origin at my side.”

The old man said: “Well, pon my soul and honor!”

Eight Days on Sand Key

Normally, when it’s zero degrees in Iowa and snow covers the ground I want nothing more than to hibernate indoors while admiring the winter wonderland through my frosty windows. However, during the recent cold spell, I received an invitation to spend eight days as a guest on Sand Key, compelling me to brave the frigid temperature on the way to the airport where I flew off to bask in the Florida sunshine.

After arriving at the condo with its security gates and different keys for entrances, exits, pool area and changing rooms, I was almost afraid to venture out for fear of not getting back in. My brother and sister-in-law had been granted vacation use of the condo by an employer and were allowed to have visitors so my older brother’s widow was also with them. Although the condo, beautiful and furnished tastefully, was evaluated at almost two million dollars, I was not overawed. It was simply more elegant living quarters than I was accustomed to.

I slept well in the king size bed although I missed Winston’s warm little body against my back and hoped he was behaving for my daughter. This was the first time I’d been away from him overnight in two and a half years, also the first time I had seen my relatives since that time. We had talked often on the phone though and I looked forward to reminiscing about the past.

Although we made small talk, shared meals and loaded the dishwasher together, and on the second day my widowed sister-in-law and I took the trolley to Clearwater to shop for things to take home from Florida, three days went by before we spoke of Kentucky.

It’s strange, but I learned for the first time that my brother, who was twelve when I was eight, did not remember that he was the one who woke me to tell me that morning that Daddy had died during the early morning hours. Yet that moment stands out in my mind as clearly as if it was yesterday.

In another instance my widowed sister-in-law said to me “Who would ever have thought it would be you, little Amanda Nell, who would do the family book. Who would have thought it!”

I have always had trouble interpreting the things people say, but what I learned from my brother and what my sister-in-law said seemed connected somehow. All those years ago my brother had left the room not knowing my body had turned to stone. I remember lying rigid in the bed with no feeling at all and yet I don’t remember getting up. Sometime later I stood in the doorway to the front room in our Appalachian home staring at my father’s body lying in the casket while relatives and neighbors sat in chairs around the room staring at me. I once said to my mother “It was really hard on me when Daddy died.”

“It was hard on all of us,” she said.

As I caught the plane home I had my brother and his wife drop me off early at the airport because I was halfway through an interesting novel and also because I knew the day was finally warm enough for them to play golf. We’d had a few cold, for Florida, blustery days.

But as I sat in the Tampa Airport, I remembered those days so long ago when my brother had shared such terrible news, news he doesn’t remember telling me. I thought of my sister-in-law saying “Who would ever have thought it” that I would be the one to do the family book.  But, I thought to myself, I had to.  Because nobody else did. And it was important to leave a written record for those who wanted to know what our small world was like during that place and time. 

Back in Cedar Rapids my daughter picked me up at the airport and I hugged her close, rejoicing to be back in this cozy place I’ve created for myself. When I awoke this morning the temperature was  nine below, but inside I felt a warm glow the frigid weather will never touch.