My brother Bill had a birthday recently, and I’ve been thinking about him a good bit. As a child growing up in Cumberland on what is now Parker Street — named for the only funeral director/embalmer in town during the 40s, 50s and 60s — I had two sisters as well, both older.
They were not the least bit interested in exploring the mountains, the woods, the coal tipple that ran over my grandmother’s property, or the empty coal cars that were waiting to be filled on the railroad tracks across from our four-room house. It never seemed small to me because there was a porch, an indoor bathroom which my dad’s friends helped him install, and the whole outdoors. Besides we didn’t have a lot of “stuff.”
I recently bought and planted six pink rose bushes named “Nearly Wild” because they remind me of the pink roses on Gilliam’s Hill where Bill and I played for hours on end, picking blackberries, running down the hill, and peering inside the abandoned coal mine there.
Recently, I was reminded by my sister Frances of a day toward the end of World War II when I was about five and he was three, and I was tormenting Bill by swinging his right shoe by its shoe string round and round my head. Either I deliberately let the shoe go or the string slid through my fingers. The shoe ended up in the Cumberland River, and I can still see it floating away. My memory had Frances tormenting him by pretending to throw it away with some vegetable scraps. At that time, waste disposal in Cumberland was the river. Just pitch it and forget it. Today, you’d get arrested for doing that.
On with my story. To buy shoes, you needed a ration stamp and we had none. My mother’s brother, William “Ellis” Adams, a member of the Army Air Corps came home on leave. Yes, he was at Pearl Harbor as an aircraft mechanic when it was bombed, and because he was a smart kid was sent for pilot training. He became a non-commissioned officer, flew B-17s in the war, spent 20 years in the service and ended up a major-but that’s another story. Anyway, he gave other his ration book, and she and Bill went to downtown Cumberland to buy shoes. There was a thriving downtown before issues with the coal problems and other factors which have virtually decimated Cumberland.
As was the custom, the clerk who helped mother fit Bill for the new shoes had the philosophy as did she, “Get ‘em a little big and he’ll grow into ‘em.” While walking home — very few had cars and we weren’t among the, — mother was using the walkway on the railroad bridge that separates the Fairview Section from downtown, and Bill was walking on the railroad ties between the rails. As they crossed Looney Creek, Bill got his right shoe caught between two ties and as his foot slipped out of the shoe, down into the creek the shoe went. For the next few months, he wore two left shoes, a new one and the old one. He maintains to this day that he has a strange and funny walk because for a time in his formative years, he was always turning left.
The waters of my childhood took more than Bill’s right shoes and garbage: One Saturday summer day, the Cumberland River almost took Bill. It was the day I lost my innocence when I realized for the first time that in my idyllic childhood, I was not exempted from death.
I was 10, and Bill was seven. We found ourselves in deep water. We had taken my dad’s rod-and-reel which we were forbidden to use — cane poles for us, no equipment from Walmart — and were fishing when the plug, a Jitterbug, got caught in some brambles by what we called the stump. The stump was the deepest place in the river, the place my mother used as a diving board when she was a girl. Bill went to retrieve the plug and fell in the river. Could any of us swim? No! We were regularly admonished “Stay away from that river.”
I began to scream; men working on the coal tipple that day saw what was wrong ,but were too far away to help. My grandmother restrained my mother who was intent on saving her son. My father, who was sleeping in the swing on the front porch after a week in the Lynch mines, came running, jumped into the murky waters, grabbed his lifeless son, and scrambled up the river bank, holding Bill as if he were Abraham offering his son Isaac to God.
But the beast was not to claim Bill that day because my father, who knew nothing about water rescues although he had wired LSTs at Bremerton, Wash., during World War II, grabbed a large wooden barrel stored under the house, tossed my brother, limp as a half-sack of feed on the barrel, and began a vigorous massage of his son’s back.
The beast came spewing out from its hiding place inside my brother and, impotent now, was absorbed into the ground. When my brother awakened , he said in a quiet voice, “Daddy, I’m sorry.” And our dad just laughed aloud and drew my brother to him in a clumsy sort of way, but I saw the trembling in my dad’s hands which matched my own.
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