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"From Up the Crick"

Page 4

Summer was also the time for weddings and bull-banding. We would stand across the road that the newly-married couple had to pass on their way from church, and they had to throw their change to us. We wished them luck in proportion to the amount of money that we got. Summer was lying in the glider and reading a book, being lulled to sleep by the rhythmic swing of the glider or the hum of a fly. It was camping out over-night in the backyard with Miss Pittman keeping watch over us because Mother was afraid something would happen. It was roller skating on rough macadam streets or pulling the weeds in our front walk and garage walk. Once Cyril and John “Possum” Cullen pulled half the weeds and put them on top of the un-pulled ones. They told Mother that they were too tired to sweep the walk, and she said that they had certainly done enough, paid them, and then began to sweep. They had to finish the job the next day. Some summers we would soak the weeds with gasoline. It worked but it was messy.

With childish gullibility we believed all the stories about how big the firemen’s carnival was going to be this summer. We colored and expanded everything beyond its limits and envisioned elephants and roller coasters. Jokie Monahan, a member of the volunteer fire department, always promised at least ten rides. Jokie stuttered and his te--te-ten rides often meant a small train and nine ponies. We did end up with pony rides and swings that tossed us in a circle out over the crowd of people standing up street. A shabby, squeaking Ferris wheel took us to the top, the highest point in town, and we squealed with fear as we looked out over the game stands, hot-dog stand, the paddle wheel and bingo for those adults given to gambling. Our dollar didn’t stretch far beyond the first hour. But there was always the chance of “sponging” more from our parents if they were over street. And then the big parade! Fire trucks from Shaft and Lonaconing and Frostburg and even areas away from the crick drove down the main street, a quarter-of-a-mile long, and a few bands. The Anon Band from Frostburg and the Blue Angels from Westernport, played and marched between the truck.

The people who came with the carnival fascinated us, for we did not live with men with tattoos and women with bleached hair and heavy makeup, women who didn’t wear enough clothes to pad a crutch. There were whispers about “hootchie-kootchie shows,” but those tents were off limits to us and opened long after we were asleep. Of course, only the “visiting” firemen would dare to attend, for our lives paralleled those things we believed in, and a “hootchie-kootchie show” wasn’t one of them, or so we were told with obviously deliberate discretion. Our lives were continuous delightful adventures balanced between freedom and discipline, the freedom to do what our parents allowed us to do and the discipline that followed if we didn’t.

Life was always new to us, and we greeted it with a surprise as lively as autumn. Autumn brought the new school year, perhaps a new teacher if we were in the odd-numbered grades because we had combination grades, but rarely a new student. I can’t recall anybody moving away, but then, not too many new people moved in. The new school clothes excited us, but it was a short-lived excitement because the uniforms were required the third week of school. We envied the public-school kids because they could wear reds and greens and plaids, and we had to spend eight years in blue and white.

Autumns brought church suppers and a temporary “ecumenical movement,” born out of expediency rather than toleration, because Protestants had roses, asters, snowballs, and vases that the Catholics needed for their suppers and Catholics had tomatoes, potatoes, homemade pickles, and corn that the Protestants needed. And each needed the other to come to the supper to assure success. Again, like Monday morning’s wash, the women’s race was on: to bake the best lemon meringue pie, the best cherry-walnut cake, the richest fudge, to crochet the fanciest doilies, to make the best pot holders and aprons, to sell the most raffle tickets for the grand door prize. Church suppers were always best during election years because all candidates were there, sometimes even gubernatorial candidates, because they didn’t dare to try to garner all those votes. We looked at them in amazement and wondered if they really were such good liars that “they could make Samson’s rock (a large rock in the area) seem like a blue bird’s nest.” We dressed in our best Sunday clothes and our best Sunday manners.

Our life in autumn was a swirl of color, pouring the rain down on browning grass, drooping scarlet sage, and roses, getting the first load of lump coal for the winter. We smoked the corn silk of the corn stalks, and we shared our treasures at corn and potato roasts. Sometimes we even quietly paused and admired the blue skies of October as we chewed the white silky bloom of the Indian tobacco and spit the bloody red juice that it produced. In order to see the full wonder of the colored leaves of autumn, we walked the long Rock Road to Dan’s Rock, stopping at the spring above Paradise Street to fill our Mason jars with cold, mountain water. Hurriedly, we passed the house where the man had killed his wife and children, but not without taking a quick look at the side yard grindstone on which, according to those who knew, he had sharpened the very knife that he had used. When we reached Lewellyn’s farm, we knew that we were about there. Finally, the rock with its rugged cliffs hiding blueberry bushes loomed before us. We climbed to the top where we could see Frostburg on the one side and the winding Potomac River away down below on the other side threading its way through the farm valleys of Maryland and West Virginia.

At autumn’s height it was classroom bulletin boards of pressed, paraffined, orange, yellow, and red leaves. But most of all it was waiting with limitless plans for Halloween. There were no store-bought costumes nor trick-or-treating, nor jack-o-lanterns. Halloween was the time to be bad, to soap car windows, to raid gardens, to throw old cabbage heads on porches, even to push over outhouses. The professionals among us “tick-tacked.” We took old wooden spools, notched the edges, tied a long string around them, wrapped the string around the knotted spool and then “let it rip” across the windows of rooms where people were sitting quietly reading or listening to the radio. We raided Miss Pittman’s dying rhubarb patch while chanting like cultists:

“A cat has kittens
A dog has pups
Hey, Miss Pittman
Is your rhubarb up?”

We picked on the defenseless but didn’t show mercy for the mighty. John Ort, local bakery owner, chased us all over town for frantically rapping on his door and then hiding, continuing the same thing over and over. We started Halloweening early, and the bravest among us walked through the cemetery defying the dead by daring to walk over their graves. Halloween was our Walpurgis night; we exorcised our demons and settled down for another long winter.

Equal only to the excitement of Halloween was the excitement of a “shootin’ match.” The “crick” person was a lover of sports and a “shootin’ match” was one of his favorite. Shootin’ matches produced a profound impression upon me, never to be effaced. I remember the cold, the chill of the day, but I remember most the drama and the excitement and the crowds. The matches were held at the Midland ball park during late autumn or early winter because the birds, barn pigeons, were tougher then; they had molted their feathers during the summer and they were no longer feeding their young. Shooting homing pigeons was illegal but the crick people found the loophole: barn pigeons were not homing pigeons even though some had been trained to do just that. The singular difference was distance, for the barn pigeon couldn’t travel the long distance and return as did the homing pigeon. If the shooter missed a trained pigeon, the trapper would frequently throw a homing pigeon into the air to circle the missed bird and guide it back to the barn or coop.

Some shooters had street pigeons from Baltimore crated and shipped by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to Cumberland and the C & P Railroad to the crick. Jack Evans of Lonaconing bought as many as 200 per month for practice at a cost of two-for-a-quarter. Shooters trained for months for a match, gradually increasing the number of birds each day, beginning with five birds and ending with as high as fifteen the week before the match. A “shootin’ match” was a very serious, momentous event that involved a formal, written contract between the opponents. The shooters decided the number of birds to be shot at and the amount of money to be won. The number of birds at a really big match would usually be twenty-one birds to each shooter, and the amount of money was usually determined by the expertise and popularity of the shooter. Pots ranged from $500.00 to $5,000.00, the shooter putting up a certain amount and his rooters making up the rest, and for each $10.00 bet, the better was taxed $1.00 to help to defray the cost of practice birds and match birds. A hat was also passed. Many people bet on each shot, and much money was gambled on those chilly afternoons.

Many homes on the crick had backyard pigeon coops and training birds, for the matches were serious business. Each trainer had a wooden trap just large enough to hold the bird, and a string was attached to the trap to enable the trainer to open it. When he did so, he would “brush” the bird; beat it with a newspaper or paper sack. Some trainers used dogs or rocks to chase the bird when the trap opened. The trainer numbered his birds according to their flight patterns. Was it a low driving or raising bird? Did the bird fly to the left, to the right, or straight ahead? Then, if a shooter were missing a bird that flew to the left on the day of the match, the trainer would place all such “left-fliers” in the trap, for a shooter shot at his opponent’s birds. Also, if a bird were a “loss,” not killed, the bird would fly home, and the trainer would send a runner home for the bird to bring it back and re-trap it. According to crick “authorities,” Danny O’Brien from Midland holds the trainers’ record for re-trapped birds; at one match he managed to use the same bird five times. The crick shooter shot at the world’s best birds and had thousands from which to pick.

The physical boundary of a “shootin’ match” had to be a forty-yard circumference. Each side had a judge and a timer, and there was a final judge, chosen by a toss of a coin, who kept time, and, in case of a disagreement, made the final decision. The shooter approached his spot, up at the Scratch, twenty-five yards away from the trap, with his gun-carrier who also pulled the string for the trap -- but only when the shooter was ready. Up to this point there was no time limit. The shooter had to hold the gun below his elbow and away from his body until the bird flew. Two men went to the trap, placed the bird in it. Good trappers knew good tricks. They were known to flour or talcum the bird’s wings so that when the wings moved, a cloud of dust distracted the shooter. At times, they added a few extra feathers on the bird’s back to confuse the shooter or used a pin or carbide on the bird’s bottom to guarantee speedy flight. Using white birds when there was snow on the ground created the same effect. After the trap was opened, the shooter had thirty seconds. If the first bird didn’t fly, a second bird was used. If the second bird didn’t fly, the shooter scored a “kill.” The bird had to fall within the forty-yard area, and, if somehow or other, it ‘crawled’ out, it was a loss. Therefore, each shooter had a “runner’ who ran after the dropped bird to retrieve it before it got out of bounds.

A “shootin’ match” was a very dramatic occasion and some shooters were more dramatic than others. Simon Arnold, who showed real class, brought a big tent to the ball park the day of the match, a tent that held chairs and a cot where Mr. Arnold would lie “belly down” between “turns.” Some form of shelter, usually an automobile, was provided for all shooters to keep them away from the noisy excitement of the crowd, to keep them calm. It was a very solemn, memorable moment: the shooter walking to his position, his gun-carrier walking beside him and the long wait for the trap to open. The shooters were memorable, too. There was Jack Evans, several times mayor of Lonaconing and owner of the Lonaconing Water Company. George “Bubby” Llewellyn shot as did Francis “Tug” Hughes, who was especially strong on the last five or six birds, and Gashouse Johnson, John Hersick, Louis Cesnick, Joke Ralston, and Arch Cameron. There was Graham “Flab” Gray, a barber, and later a candidate on the Independent Ticket for the Presidency of the United States. And, above all, there was Leo “Toad” McNeil.

One of my early memories of Toad takes me back to the Midland ball park. I was very young, but I walked out to home plate and presented Toad a bouquet of flowers. What the occasion was I do not know. But I remember it. Toad was born in Elk Garden, West Virginia, but his father moved the family here so he could work the mines. There were four sons: William “Boney,” James “Chase,” Leo “Toad,” and Ashby, who didn’t get a nickname. There were three daughters: Agnes, Mary, and Margaret. I know little about Toad’s education, but I believe that he went to St. Joseph’s School for a few years; at least I believe my daddy told me that he did. Toad was not Catholic, but he insisted upon giving the nuns their Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and he always wore, attached to his long underwear with a safety pin, the many religious medals that the nuns gave to him in return for the turkeys.

Toad lived most of his life in Klondike, Maryland. It was a typical mining town in some ways. The unpainted houses were very close to the narrow, pot-holed road, dirtied by the mining trucks. Most homes had chicken and pigeon coops, and gardens in the backyards, and the town sat atop the middle of Big Vein Mine No. 7, about sixty feet below. At one time, Klondike was about 75 percent foreign. Up the crick this means that the person didn’t come from the British Isles. Also, there were three black families who lived there. This in itself was unusual for the crick, but what was even more unusual, their children spoke fluent Hungarian and could sing the Hungarian folk songs.

Toad’s eldest brother, Ashby, ran a grocery store in Klondike. Like many of his fellow townspeople, Ashby was also known to drink a bit and allegedly could put both arms through the steering wheel to prevent him from falling over and still manage to bring the car home from a long distance and place it perfectly in the garage. Brother Chase once drove the family surrey-cart to a chicken fight, but he came home on foot because he bet on the wrong chicken and lost the horses and the surrey-cart.

The McNeil’s leased a coal mine in Woodlawn about a mile down the road from Klondike. The mine, No. 6, became known as the Cheese Mine because the miners bought their food at Ashby’s store and all he had for their dinner jacket, the lunch bucket, was cheese, so the miners carried cheese sandwiches.

Toad worked Mine No. 7 for a short time, drove mules with a bull whip, but because of his baseball ability, was signed by the Baltimore Orioles and was sent to one of their minor-league farm clubs in Beckley, West Virginia. Toad soon came home because, as he said, “Damned if they were trading me off like a mine mule.” After Ashby died, Toad took over the family store and continued the family custom of allowing the Klondike people to get food “on tick” during lay-offs, strikes, and the Depression. Most people paid him back as crick people usually did. Eventually, Toad’s grocery store turned into a grocery store and saloon. Although Toad never drank, he loved frequenting the bars along the crick and setting up everybody in the bar. However, he would not give an extra piece of candy to the child buying a nickel’s worth of candy in his store. Here, he was strictly business. According to my Daddy, Toad knew how to do two things: play ball and make money. His store books were examples of great simplicity. They read, “Took in and Paid Out,” two columns that told it all, just amounts but no other clues.

Toad is like a series of photographs or flashes to me. His unfailing presence and charm were an important part of my young life, and I’m afraid that he might suffer harm from too definite expression. He was steadily consistent, determined to live simply. He didn’t need a fancy house, considered an outhouse ample for his needs, but his widowed sister, Mary, insisted that he install a bathroom before she agreed to come live with him. All year long in Klondike, Toad wore long underwear, a flannel shirt, a sweater, and heavy trousers, but he was a dapper dresser when he went to visit. He never owned a car but always had somebody available to drive him where he wanted to go. Perhaps, this afforded him companionship.

Toad was a solitary figure coming up our front walk, a tall, angular man always happy to see my mother, to pat me on the head or lift me high in the air. I went to major-league baseball games in Pittsburgh with him, Daddy, Glenn, and Goat Morgan. I recall visiting him at the white, sterile University of Virginia Hospital where he had sinus surgery to help relieve the respiratory problem that plagued him throughout his life. I remember being in his store in Klondike where whatever candy bar or bottle of tonic I wanted was mine. I’ll never forget my excitement as he killed bird after bird at a shootin’ match. I knew that any ball that was hit near first base, his long, gloved arm would reach and catch. Toad was a splendid man for a child to know.

And yet, running through his life was a strain of elementary wildness: shootin’ matches, chicken fights, guns. He kept a baseball bat under the bar for protection, and at times used it when the customers became rowdy. The Holy Rollers rented a church in Klondike. Toad didn’t like them, bought the church, evicted them and then sold the church to a more traditional denomination. He was a man of contrasts, always surrounded by picturesque characters, by dark-clothed miners, by visiting gypsies whom he feared, by Klondike foreigners that he often didn’t understand, by Republican Party leaders whom he didn’t hesitate to use and manipulate. And yet, he was most at home, tending his small store, hunting with his hounds, sitting at the kitchen table with his shy, ladylike sister Mary.

He looked at the world from a workaday viewpoint, was more an observer of life who didn’t enter into its doubts and conflicts. His was a winsome reflection of life. Simon Reilly, a lawyer and Toad’s friend, won a sizable settlement for a miner with black lung. Toad happened to meet Si on a street in Cumberland and shrewdly said, “Hell, Reilly, you have them all coughing up in Klondike.”

Strangely enough, I don’t  remember much of what Toad said. He grew increasingly deaf, but Daddy always maintained that Toad heard what he wanted to hear and he was stone deaf until “a nickel hit the bar.” He did buy a hearing aid, and the salesman had a clock in his office that Toad could hear, but when he came home he couldn’t hear. Toad commented, “That s.o.b. must have used Big Ben.” Evidently, he thought his own thoughts, looked at the world from his own eyes, and had unvarying loyalty to his friends. He knew his own area from top to bottom, from the United States Senator’s office to the chicken-fight pit, from inside the Republican party to the hungry miner on strike. His presence was never obtrusive but it was always there. Perhaps, Toad was summed up best in an article that appeared in the Cumberland newspaper: April 13, 1919, a report of a shooting match between Toad and Joke Ralston. Toad lost, but the match was, according to most people, the closest and best ever held in the county, Ralston won by one bird. The reporter wrote, “But if McNeil still has confidence in himself he will be given another chance for a comeback to try for championship of the county. However, McNeil is a good sport and doesn’t kick at fate.”

Down the road a piece from Toad’s place in Woodlawn was the House of Morgan, a saloon and grocery store, owned and operated by Ike Morgan. Everybody on the crick has a story or two about Ike, a ready wit who could impart into a familiar word or situation a racier significance than it had possessed before. Once a young boy bought some peanuts from Ike and began to shell them, dropping the shells on the floor. Ike scolded the boy, “Damn it, kid, can’t you see that the old woman just scrubbed the floor?” The boy said, “Well, I bought them here.” Ike quickly asked, “Well, what the hell would you do if I sold you a laxative?”

Ike’s father came from Wales but Ike was born in Frostburg. He opened his saloon in Woodlawn in the early thirties, and it soon became the favorite gathering place for locals and drummers. His wit was nowhere more unmistakable than in the handling of his stories which are terse to the point of severity, yet wholly adequate. Everything necessary is told but with an economy of word and phrase. When once asked if things were slow in the Klondike-Woodlawn area, he replied, “Things are so slow that the crick runs only three days a week.”

Ike was quick to poke fun at his wife, Mag. Mag disapproved of Ike’s drinking and one night she had her brother hide behind a tree where Ike had to pass coming home from one of his toots. The brother saw Ike approaching and began his attempt to frighten Ike. “This is the devil, Ike. This is the devil, Ike. I’ve come to warn you.” Ike, without hesitancy, said back, “I know. I married your sister.” Another time Mag and Ike had had a fight and Mag left home -- just across the road to relatives. Ike dressed up like a woman and went out to sweep the steps. Mag hurried over to see who Ike’s new woman was. A customer came into the saloon one night and hollered to Ike, “Hey, Ike, Mag is down on the Klondike bridge drunk.” Ike loudly announced, “A case of beer to the one who goes down and knocks her off.” In an attempt to slow down Ike’s occasional binges, Mag reminded Ike that “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Ike quickly answered, “Yeh, and a settin’ hen has no feathers on her ass,”

One day Ike took his sons for a ride to the Youghiogheny, and they asked their father the origin of the water’s name. Without any hesitancy he explained to the boys how the Yough was named: “an Indian and a white man were riding in a canoe. The white man stabbed the Indian and the Indian said, “Yough.” The white man stabbed the Indian again, and the Indian said, “Yough, again.” And that’s how it got its name.”

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