MOUNTAINEERS ARE ALWAYS FREE
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
I am the kind of person who always burned her bridges behind her as she moved into a new phase of her life. As I have grown older, I sometimes regret that decision. There are certainly people in my past that I wonder about from time-to-time.
As I have gotten older, I also find myself looking back more and more to my childhood growing up in West Virginia and drawing on those experiences for my poetry and essays. One of my greatest accomplishments in my career as a poet has been my involvement with the Women of Appalachia Project founded by Kari Gunter-Seymour and having my poetry published in the anthology Women Speak.
I was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and of course, I was born male. I must have lived with my parents in their apartment in Parkersburg, but I have no memory of that. What I do remember, is growing up in a modest house located on 21st street in Vienna, a short drive down Grand Central Avenue. Our house was built on what had been an orchard, and we had apple, plum, and cherry trees, grape vines, a small garden, and woods in which to roam or play doctor with the girl next door. My parents also owned the vacant lot next to our house, which served as our baseball and football field, basketball court, and a place to play kickball, kick the can, or hide and seek and was the gathering place for all the neighborhood kids. The neighbors had their windows broken several times by errant baseballs.
I took part in typical boy activities. I played Little League and Babe Ruth League Baseball and was an all-star. I also played recreation league basketball but was not quite as successful. I also spent a lot of time alone, and I was drawn to the girls and their dolls for a reason that I did not understand, as well as romantic comic books.
I played elaborate games with my baseball cards, often playing whole major league seasons. I also made up political games with a deck of cards and spent a lot of time reading. My favorite books were about historical figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Disney’s Davy Crockett, and books about baseball. I was particularly fond of the Bronc Burnett books, and it was a book about Abraham Lincoln that I read in third grade that made me want to be a lawyer. I still have some of these childhood books. I just could not part with them when we were clearing out my parents’ house after my father’s death.
I also played in the stage band at Jackson Junior High School, and music became a big part of my life. I was never quite good enough to be the first chair trombone, so I had to settle for second chair. While other kids were listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was collecting records by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and trombonists, like J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Slide Hampton, some of which I still listen to today. I remember having a solo on the song “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and the lead saxophone player, who was a prodigy, telling me I sounded just like Tommy Dorsey. His younger sister was also my first real girlfriend. My first real brush with disappointment was when I did not win the John Philip Sousa Award in ninth grade. I also attended Parkersburg High School for one year and marched in the Big Red Marching Band. It was the last year that it was an all boys’ band, which is quite ironic considering who I am now.
I was huge fan of the West Virginia University Basketball Team and often listened to them under the covers on my Sears Silvertone Six Transistor Radio, which I still have to this day. I also still have a picture of the 1963 West Virginia University Basketball Squad, which included such stars as Rod Thorn, Cale Catlett, and Bob Camp. I also still have clippings from future Mountaineer teams, which included such stars as Ron Williams, David Reaser, and Bob Huggins.
Mother would also frequently take us over to Parkersburg to visit my great aunt Maude. My brother and I hated these trips. Aunt Maude’s favorite sayings were, “Don’t be a stick in the mud,” and “I love you a bushel and a peck,” as she pulled us on her lap to give us a kiss that left our cheeks covered in powder. Aunt Maude was a family legend. She often told us stories about shooting rattlesnakes with her sharps rifle when she lived in New Mexico, and I remember seeing the rifle and a pistol several times. I have several of Aunt Maude’s possessions like her embroidered rocking chair, end tables, a photo album, and her desk that is now my writing table. I would give just about anything to sit on Aunt Maude’s lap once again.
One of my fondest memories growing up in West Virginia was every other weekend loading up the Chevrolet station wagon with the brown panels along the side and heading down Route 47 through Smithfield, Letter Gap, and Burnt House to my paternal grandparents’ house in Shock. My parents would tell my brother and I a story about how each town got its name. I never knew whether the stories were true or not, but we enjoyed them nonetheless and enjoyed repeating them on subsequent trips and laughing together.
My grandparents, Joe and Lona, lived on a farm located in a deep hollow surrounded by high mountains on both sides of a dirt road in a house with no electricity or heat, except a fireplace, and a pump in the kitchen to get water from the well. My Uncle Rodney and Aunt Babe lived down the lane that ran along the creek with my cousins, many of whom died young in tragic accidents or from illness. However, my brother and I, along with my cousins, would roam the mountains, gardens, and creeks catching crawdads, picking raspberries, blackberries and paw paws or milkweed or dandelion greens for my grandmas’ pot. We also tossed cow patties at each other before there was such a thing as a frisbee, and we rode the horses, Babe and Maude, and played with the black dog, Lassie. One time we even tried to ride a cow, but that ended with us sitting on our butts in the middle of the creek.
One of most vivid memories that I have is not a pleasant one, and it still haunts me to this day. It is the agonizing moans of my grandmother as she lay in her bed dying from lung cancer. I remember that shortly before she died, she wanted frog legs to eat, and my Uncle Rodney took his shotgun up to the pond at the top of the hill to kill some frogs for her. That was probably the first time in my life that I faced death head on. I was only six years old when my grandfather died. I do remember attending his funeral, but I am not sure that I really understood what death was all about then.
Sometime on Saturday afternoon, we would load up the station wagon again and drive to Glenville to visit my maternal grandparents, Goff and Lura. We would pass through Normantown, where my father went to school. My memories of visiting my maternal grandparents are also quite vivid. They lived in the house where mother grew up right across the street from Glenville State College, where both of my parents went to school. I do remember playing under their porch and getting stung three times by a bumble bee and attending Sunday school at the local Methodist Church to keep my perfect attendance record. I also remember watching the homecoming parades and going to football games. And, of course, my grandfather is the one who taught me how to shoot or tried to at least.
We often spent Easter with my grandparents, and I do remember the Easter baskets filled with jellybeans, chocolate bunnies, and comic books and my grandmothers’ fabulous cooking. My Uncle Allen and Aunt Eleanor were frequently there as well. My uncle’s favorite trick was to grab our nose and tell us that he had stolen it by showing us his thumb between two fingers. My grandfather would also take my brother and I to visit “the girls” on Sinking Creek. I never quite knew who the girls were, but they always welcomed us with freshly baked cookies and other goodies.
I think that the real beauty of West Virginia lies in the places that we often visited. My parents were determined to show us as much of the state as possible. We traveled throughout the state to such places as Seneca Rocks, Hawks Nest, and Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, where, to the delight of my brother and I, we found wild blueberries and huckleberries. However, one of my absolute favorite places in the whole world is Blackwater Falls. We often visited the falls before the boardwalk was built, and we could go right down to the water at the base of the falls. I remember one time my brother found a spent .22 shell and used it to drink water from the river. I still have an old eight-millimeter film of my brother beside the river. I also have in my childhood jewelry box a button celebrating the West Virginia Centennial in 1963.
I left West Virginia at the age of fifteen when my father got a job as the superintendent of schools in Cadiz, Ohio. Cadiz is famous as being the birthplace of actor Clark Gable and John A. Bingham, the prosecutor of Lincoln’s assassins. It was also the home of the International Coal Festival. After that, my family moved to Wintersville, and I subsequently lived in Ada, Dayton, Zanesville, Munroe Falls, and now Tallmadge.
Although, I only spent the first fifteen years of my life in West Virginia, it is and always will be home to me. I will always be a Mountaineer. I may try to condense this essay into a poem, but until then, I guess that there is nothing left to say but, “Take me home country roads.”
Barbara Marie Minney is a transgender woman, poet, writer, and speaker. She is a retired attorney and originally from West Virginia. Now based in Tallmadge, Ohio, her first collection of poetry entitled “If There’s No Heaven” was the winner of the 2020 Poetry Is Life Book Award and is available at www.poetryislifepublishing.com. Follow her at www.barbaramarieminneypoetry.com.