The Manchester Enterprise: A Boy's Memories Bits of Clay

The Knoxville Girl

After I printed my story on the song “Pretty Polly” I had three different people ask me about the words to another old song my mother sang a lot. The song is named “The Knoxville Girl”.

"The Knoxville Girl" is an Appalachian murder ballad much like “Pretty Polly”. It is said to have derived from the 19th century Irish ballad The Wexford Girl, itself derived from the earlier English ballad "The Oxford Girl". Other versions are known as the "Waxweed Girl", "The Wexford. These are in turn derived from an Elizabethan era poem or broadside ballad, named "The Cruel Miller" sometimes known as “The Bloody Miller”.

Although the lyrics are less explicit than those for "The Wexford Girl", the song is generally considered to be creepier or spookier in its rendition.

A special thanks go out to Bessie Ball (one of the people who requested the words to “The Knoxville Girl”) of East Bernstadt for her letter and kind words.

Here are the words that I remember Momma singing so many times that was recorded the Louvin Brothers in 1956.

The Knoxville Girl

I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,
And every Sunday evening, out in her home I'd dwell,
We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,
I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down.

She fell down on her bended knees for mercy she did cry,
Oh Willy dear don't kill me here, I'm unprepared to die,
She never spoke another word, I only beat her more,
Until the ground around me within her blood did flow.

I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around,
Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town,
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl with the dark and rolling eyes,
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, you can never be my bride.

I started back to Knoxville, got there about midnight,
My Mother she was worried and woke up in a fright,
Saying "Dear son, what have you done to bloody your clothes so?"
I told my anxious Mother, I was bleeding at my nose.

I called for me a candle to light myself to bed,
I called for me a handkerchief to bind my aching head,
I rolled and tumbled the whole night through, as troubles was for me,
Like flames of hell around my bed and in my eyes could see.

They carried me down to Knoxville and put me in a cell,
My friends all tried to get me out but none could go my bail,
I'm here to waste my life away down in this dirty old jail,
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl, the girl I loved so well.

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The Horse Creek Navy

The Horse Creek Navy… a boy’s memories.
By: Rodney Miller

“Full speed ahead!” Ronnie shouted. The enemy had been spotted as we rounded a bend in the water and the naval battle for the control of Horse Creek was on. The point of impact was in a straight stretch of water and all aboard both car-tops prepared for the head on collision of steel. We had a seasoned crew aboard the car-top that day and all knew what had to be done to keep from going down with the ship.
Ronnie and I with long wooden poles in hand would push them deep in the river bottom and with a yell of push from Anthony at the rear with a paddle to steer the vessel both heaved forward to gain top speed. The poles were again trusted deep in the bottom of the river as the command to push, was again shouted. Both car-tops were on a collision course and both were picking up speed fast.
The car tops skipped across the water effortlessly and as we neared the point of impact Ronnie and I shifted our weight towards the back of the car-top to give the front of our car-top more lift out of the water. Through many a battle we knew the boat with the front end the highest would ride over the enemy’s boat and put it under water and ultimately sinking the opposing players.
But what the crew in the other car-top didn’t know was we had a new trick up our sleeve and their demise was just a matter of time. It was something so ingenious that after the battle that day it was banned on the river from then on as an unfair advantage and was never used again
Our car-top of choice was cut from the top of a 4-door 1949 Plymouth. The reason it was such a good car-top was that it had a deep bottom and very rounded in the front and the back. It was cut from Dad’s old car with an ax leaving the front pillar and side post sticking up for leverage when using our push poles to move our car-top. These boats, needless to say, were also dangerous. Cutting off a car-top with an ax is going to leave lots of sharp steel for accidents to happen as they sometimes did.
We cut the top off without Dad’s permission, which was a big mistake. Nothing was really wrong with the car except it had not been started in about a year because of a dead battery and we thought it was just another junk car. Well when Dad came home (and of course it was too late to put the top back on, needless to say), we wished somehow we could have. He lined us up in a row and proceeded to teach us another valuable lesson in “asking before doing”.
But now the damage had been done to the perfectly good car and all we had to show for it was a red behind and a pretty good-looking car-top. We removed the headliner from the top and got rid of all the crossbows and did our best to hammer all the sharp steel into a flatter surface so the danger of getting cut would be less. I was just about to give the rearview mirror a hard whack with the ax and then I got an idea.
I told Ronnie and Anthony, “What if we took the mirror attached to the front of the car-top and turned it around to work as a hook to stop the other car-tops?”
“Why?” Ronnie asked
“Well every time someone gets their boat on top of the other it always pushes the front under water and they sink. What if we left the mirror on the top to stop the other car-tops from riding over ours?” I explained.
Ronnie and Anthony both agreed it was a great idea. But before the trip to the mighty waters of the Horse Creek we had to try our car-top out. We had our old car-top we used in our fishing pond by the house and we would give the new ’49 Plymouth a test run.
With Ronnie and Carlos in the old car-top and Anthony and I in the other we back off about 50 feet and pushed the car-tops towards each other. The mirror worked just as planned. When the boats meet each other the mirror kept Ronnie and Carlos’s boat from riding up on top of ours and pushed the other one under the water sinking to the bottom of the shallow pond. But in the collision, I fell against one of the sharp post and cut my leg pretty bad. Today, I still carry that battle scar that I tell everyone was an old “Navy wound” from a battle for control of the river.
We again worked on the sharp pieces of steep with hammer and ax and even padded the sharp ends with cloth and duck tape to avoid another mishap. Now, she was really ready for the biggest naval battle to come along in quite some time, we called it “The Battle of Horse Creek”.
We lived about two miles from the river so we got our Pap Paw Burkhart to load the car-top in his pickup truck and haul it to Horse Creek. We unloaded her at the old swimming hole and took it for its maiden voyage up the creek and it performed flawlessly. A couple of other car-topers were on the river that day and a challenge went out just to test her in the Naval game so often played on the water.
As we spotted the challengers round the bend and the command “Full Speed Ahead!” went out, the two met in the river with a thunderous sound. The two challengers needless to say, showed a lot of guts as they went down with their ship giving us a salute for a well-fought battle.
The reversed mirror did just as if it had been designed for just that. But from that day forward it was declared an unfair advantage and all agreed it would never be used again on the waters of the Horse Creek. I think it may have been a reason for the car companies to start attaching them to the front windshield. It could have possibly been an idea of one of those defeated that day in the famous battle (because they did grow up to work for Ford in Ohio) I believe who came up with the idea to never again attach a reverse mirror to the roof of a car. Or maybe it could have been something like a safety idea.

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Pretty Polly

Pretty Polly

Growing up music played a large part in my family. One of my Daddy and Momma’s favorite was the old mountain song Pretty Polly that was recorded by Bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. I love the lyrics and sing them often when I get out my old guitar.
For those of you who haven’t heard the song here is a little history I dug up on the song Pretty Polly.
The earliest known version of the story (The Cruel Ship's Carpenter or The Gosport Tragedy as it was known earlier) was printed sometime around 1750 in Gosport, England. The original version was some thirty-five verses long, I won't burden you with full lyrics, but the story goes like this:

Willie, a carpenter, has gotten his lady pregnant, and bids her to come to him to make plans for their wedding. She does his bidding only to be murdered and buried in the woods (Willy evidently wasn't quite ready to settle down). Most American versions, including this one by Stanley rarely, if ever, mention her pregnancy.

After murdering Polly, Willie went to sea, but was not left in peace for long. The ship was not far from land when Polly, carrying a child in her arms, appeared to the crew. The lookout, who was half-drunk, runs to embrace her, but found she was only a ghost. The captain seeks out the murderer, who goes mad and dies.
I’ve had several people ask me for a copy of the words so I thought I might include them in my weekly article as my part of my memories growing up as a young boy.

Pretty Polly by Ralph Stanley and Patty Lovelace

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me.
Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me.
Before we get married some pleasures to see.

She got behind him and away they did go,
She got behind him and away they did go,
Over the hills and mountains to the valley below.

He rode her over hills and valleys so deep.
He rode her over hills and valleys so deep.
Pretty Polly mistrusted and then began to weep.

Oh Willie, Oh Willie, I’m afraid to of your ways.
Willie, Oh Willie, I’m afraid of your ways.
The way you’ve been acting, you’ll lead me astray.

They went up a little farther, and what did they spy,
They went up a little farther and what did they spy,
A newly-dug grave, and a spade lying by.

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right.
Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right.
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.

She knelt down before him pleading for her life.
She knelt down before him pleading for her life.
Please let me be a single girl if I can’t be your wife.

He stabbed her in the heart and her heart’s blood did flow.
He stabbed her in the heart and her heart’s blood did flow.
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw something over her and turned to go home,
He threw something over her and turned to go home,
Leaving nothing behind him, but the girl left to mourn.

He went down to the jailhouse and what did he say.
He went down to the jailhouse and what did he say.
I killed Pretty Polly and tried to get away.

Oh gentlemen and ladies, I bid you farewell.
Oh gentlemen and ladies, I bid you farewell.
For killing Pretty Polly my soul will go to hell.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Juanita and Rufus (Jamup) Miller Jr.

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The haunted heater

The haunted heater…a boy’s memories
By: Rodney Miller

It all started with an unexplainable noise late one night coming from our gas heater.
Margy and I had just gotten married. We didn’t yet have a place of our own so were staying with my Momma and Daddy sleeping in the back bedroom of their house.
The tiny little bedroom was the farthest room from the gas heater and fireplace in the front of the house so Daddy had to put another heater there to keep the room and Momma and Daddy’s bedroom, directly above it, warm during the winter.
I chose the room mostly because it was the only bedroom, besides my parent’s bedroom, that had a door for privacy. Plus, with the gas heater in there it was also one of the warmest.
Dad had installed a vent in the floor upstairs directly above the heater downstairs that would also help heat their bedroom. It worked out really well.
One night, late in the fall, I was awakened by Margy shaking me. “Rodney! Rodney!” she whispered.
“Yes,” I muttered, trying to wake up from a deep sleep and to get my eyes open. “What is it?”
“Do you hear that?” she asked in a somewhat shaky voice.
“Yes, but what is it?” I asked still a little groggy from just being woke up.
“I don’t know? That’s why I’m asking you,” she answered.
By now I was a little more coherent and I could hear something that sounded like heavy breathing. But I couldn’t make any sense of it because the sound was coming from our gas heater.
Margy held my arm tight with both hands, getting as close to me as she could and repeated, “What is that!”
By then I was wide awake sitting up in the bed staring at the foot of our bed at the heater that was still making labored breathing sounds plus now I could see that the heater was also moving back and forth a little on the hardwood floor.
“I don’t know what that is but it ain’t normal,” I told her staring at the heater.
“I think it’s possessed or something,” Margy said squeezing my arm tighter and tighter. “It’s like something we saw in the Exorcist I think,” she went on.
The heater was still making the breathing sounds and it was now almost walking across the floor it was moving so much.
Slowly I began to ease out of bed to have a closer look when Margy said, “Where do you think you are going?”
“I’m going to try to figure out what is going on with that heater,” I said as I slid out of bed.
“You’re not leaving me here by myself,” she sternly told me. And with that, she was out of bed and close behind me holding on to my arm once again.
We slowly walked near the breathing, moving heater and then both of us looked at one another and quickly left the room.
By that time Daddy and Momma had also heard the commotion and both were downstairs. “What’s going on,” Daddy asked.
I told him about the heater and we all went back to observe. It was still breathing and moving. “Let’s go check it out,” Daddy said and we headed towards the front door. On our way he reached in the closet, grabbed a flashlight and our only gun, a 20 gauge Iver Johnson shotgun, and slid a shell into the breach. I told Margy to stay close to Momma and we exited the front door.
Slowly we crept around the house towards the back. Daddy had the shotgun in one hand and the flashlight in the other sweeping the beam back and forth across the yard. As we neared the corner of the house I could hear the breathing sounds again.
Daddy handed me the flashlight, shouldered the Iver Johnson and motioned me to shine towards the backside of the house. Then, I could hardly believe what I saw.
There at the backside of our house was our pony scratching his back on the vent pipe that came through the wall from the gas heater inside. The course hair on his back against the galvanized pipe was making the “breathing” sound as he moved backward and forward. The movement was also what caused the heater to move inside the bedroom floor as he worked the vent pipe slowly across his back.
We both had a big laugh and it continued inside when I told Momma and Margy what we found.
The mind is a powerful thing. I think that the sounds were probably embellished by our brains because of the scary movie we had watched recently and because of the unknown source of the sounds.
I still laugh at the events of that night even today as I write my story of the “possessed” heater and the fear that it put into us. And now, it’s something you can laugh at too.

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The perfect cast

The perfect cast…a boy’s memories
By: Rodney Miller
I had just made the perfect cast. I spotted an old tree stump sticking up in the water with another tree hanging a few feet above, shading the stump. There were stick-up all around, but with the well placed cast, I had dropped the worm just under the tree and over the stickups and the night crawler hit the water, ever so soft, just inches from the stump. As the bait settled out of sight under the ripples, a swirl of water appeared as the line from my reel began to tighten. I lowered my rod tip towards the water and when the fish had taken up the slack, I set the hook hard.
The weather was unusually warn for early May in 1972. Mom, Dad and I took a trip to our favorite fishing spot, Wood Creek Lake at London. We had been there many times before but something felt special about that day, it was just perfect. The water looked almost glassy with a smoky fog rising above it. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions and best of all, the fish were biting.
We had gotten out the night before after an evening spring shower and caught enough worms to almost half fill our gallon milk jug. Mom had packed a small cooler with sandwiches and drinks and Dad wanted to try out his new Zebco 33 I had bought him for his birthday. We only had a small 14-foot boat with an electric trolling motor that probably wouldn’t do 2 MPH, but Dad always told us, “You have to sneak up on the big fish.”
As we quietly and slowly made our way out of the dock it looked as if we had the whole lake to ourselves. Back then, the boats with the big motors weren’t allowed on the lake and there wasn’t nearly as much traffic to fight. Now, there is barely enough room to park on a pretty day and a house with a dock on nearly every inch of shore.
We hadn’t gone very far, when Dad pulled the boat up near the edge and on my first cast, I caught a small bass. “This is going to be a good day Dad.” I told him as I released the fish too small to be a keeper. For the next two hours, we were getting a “hit” on just about every cast. We brought a fish-basket to hold the fish we would keep and already had enough to make a mess.
We talked about a lot of things as the day went on, leaving all of our worries at home. We rounded a small point jutting out into the lake and I told Mom, “Right there’s a place where if I was a fish, I’d be living.” The dark stump was sticking up about a foot out of the water and lots of brush surrounded it. It would take the perfect cast to hit the small opening but I somehow felt like that was where ‘ole Mr. Bass called home.
I whipped the rod under handed and it landed as if it had a laser guiding it. No sooner as the bait was out of sight something hit hard. As I set the hook, it felt almost as if I had hooked the stump. But then, he pulled back as the hook pierced his mouth. My drag began to sing as he stripped off yards of line. I knew I had hooked the biggest fish of my short life and I felt helpless to stop or even slow him down. “Give him plenty of line!” Mom yelled. My only thought was, “I hope I don’t run out of line.”
He slowed down a little and I pumped the rod again and this time, he exploded through the surface like a torpedo. “Keep a tight line,” Dad warned, “or he might throw the hook!” I cranked the handle as he turned towards the boat. When he got close, he dove like a submarine under the boat. Again, he stripped off line as I fought him again and again pumping the rod and cranking the handle to stop him.
Unable to turn him, he again went for the stump and wrapped my line around several stick-ups in the water. My heart sank in my chest as I pulled and cranked to no avail, he wouldn’t budge. I then thought he would surely break my line but the small stick-ups gave a little as he fought like a gladiator to free himself. Back and forth the small bushes cut through the water finally slowing down to just a twitch.
“You think he got off?” Dad asked. “No, I think he just tired out. I believe he’s still hooked, he just stopped to rest.” I replied
Quickly, I began to take off my shoes and shirt, empting my pockets of my pants. “Rodney, what are you doing?” Mom asked. “I’m getting my fish!” I answered in a determined voice. “I’m going down after him.”
“Jam-up, don’t let him jump in, a fish ain’t worth that.” Mom begged. Dad then looked me straight in the eye and said, “Just be careful. Follow the line down and be sure not to get tangled in it or you’ll probably loose your fish.” I nodded at him and hit the water.
I didn’t even feel the cold water as I made my way down the line deeper into the lake. When I felt where he was tangled, again he tried to get away. Quickly, I grabbed him by his large mouth as tried again shaking his head, to throw the hook. In my grasp now, I finally had won the battle. Up from the deep I came with the big bass proudly above my head as he flipped his tail back and forth with his last bit of strength.
I swam to the boat with my trophy in hand as Mom clapped her hands and Dad gave me a thumbs up. I carefully handed him over the side of the boat to Dad, as both of them were speechless looking at his size. Later at home, we weighed him in at just a little over six pounds. By far, the biggest bass any of us had ever seen.
He was a smallmouth, and that made him a little more special. I placed him in our freezer and told Dad, “When I save up enough money, I’m going to get that fish mounted.”
Next year, I left home and went to live with my sister Jackie in Indianapolis to find work. After about two months, I made a visit back home because I had gotten a little homesick. A short time after I arrived we were sitting around the table having some of my Mom’s home cooking, I had missed so much, when Dad said, “I know now why that big fish of yours weighed so much.” My mouth fell open and I asked “Why?” Hoping what I was thinking, wasn’t true.
“When I got him out to clean him” Dad went on, “ he had a small bass about 6 inches long in him and about a dozen crawdads.”
I couldn’t say too much. Dad only caught fish to eat, not to show, he always said. “Next time we go I know what kind of bait I’m going to use.” He laughed.
I laughed also, trying not to cry. There was no way I could have been mad at Dad. And to this day, I’ve never caught a bigger bass. But, I can say one thing for sure; I don’t think my Mom or Dad had ever been more proud of me as the day I brought that big bass up out of that water. I can still see them smiling today, just as they did so many years ago.
“That’s my boy!” Dad said.

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