Wednesday, 22 August 2012 12:37
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.
Wednesday, 15 August 2012 13:05
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.
Wednesday, 08 August 2012 12:23
When I was a young boy, as I’ve said many times before, I spent a lot of times on the banks of the Horse Creek. Whether it was fishing, swimming, riding our car-top boats or just camping out, many a day was well wasted there.
This was during a time when enjoying the great outdoors was at the top of our list in ways to have fun after the work was done. We fished a lot back then. We didn’t always catch a full stringer but most times we did pretty well. But the times we didn’t catch fish it still was head and shoulders above a day working.
Most of the times when we fished was in the late evening after finishing our chores when the sun was getting low in the sky or after dark. We would grab our bait bucket (which usually was an old tin Prince Albert tobacco can or a Carnation cream can) and a mattock and dig until we filled our can with red worms.
I had a couple of favorite places to fish when I was a boy on the creek but the one I liked the best was just in front of the old Sibert post office. There was a big tree not far from the highway with it’s roots reaching down the river bank where I could climb and sit on the roots close to the water.
The bank there was about 6 feet above the water and was clean and sandy. The fish seemed willing to always bite there, especially after dark. The perfect place to spend the night by a campfire while our cane poles danced to the biting of the fish.
Below there, towards the Sibert swimming hole the edges of the creek were lined with thick patches of tall river cane. There we cut fishing poles that were 20 feet or longer that would reach across the creek in a lot of places. I don’t know why, but I always thought the fishing was better on the other side no matter which side of the creek I was fishing. We then baited all our poles and stuck the sharp ends of the cane deep in the soil to prevent the monster fish that were waiting to pull them into the water when we weren’t looking.
Before the daylight faded we would gather up as much driftwood as we could for the cool night ahead. But we never seemed to have enough wood. So lots of hours were spent fumbling through the dark night finding anything that would keep the fire going. I always felt safe as long as the fire was burning. Plus it was useful to cook an occasional hot dog or burn a marshmallow we brought from home.
One time we were cooking wieners and did a mean trick. When we finished cooking them each of us got two and we placed them on our buns. Well, one of the fishing poles started bouncing from a fish and one of our gang hurried to the edge of the creek to pull in the fish. He left his hot dogs behind. Bad mistake.
While he was stringing up a fat catfish we removed his wiener from the bun and replaced it with worms. After tying the fish up, our buddy came back to the fire and picked up his bun and took a big bite.
He said, “Boys next time wash your hands when you cook the hot dogs. This one taste liked you dropped it in the dirt.”
And with that remark all of us started laughing but we never let on what we had done. He finished the hot dog and then someone told him of our “dirty deed”. He spent the next few minutes throwing up and most of the night chasing us all over the creek side vowing revenge.
Now to the part that no one seems to believe. We caught lots of fish there on that riverbank but we also caught other creatures. We caught huge water dogs or as some people call them, mud puppies. Now I’m not talking about the little salamanders that you see swimming in ponds and creeks, these boogers were 8 to 12 inches long.
Most of us when we caught one wouldn’t take him off the hook, we were afraid of them. We merely lifted them over the fire and burned the fishing line into, cooking them in the fire. From what I can remember they had a head that looked a lot like the Night Fury’s head on the movie, “How to train your dragon.” But most people laugh when I tell them about them.
Another thing we caught regularly was huge crawdads (or crayfish to some of you non-hillbillies). Those crawdads were huge! I remember some were 6 – 10 inches in length with broad, fat tails. They almost looked like the lobsters you see crawling around in the lobby of Red Lobster’s tank. Again, when I tell people no one believes me. But, it’s true.
I just got in touch with one of the state’s biologist at the Red Bird Ranger Station and they are supposed to let me know if these creatures still exist in the waters of Clay County or if they are now extinct. I’ll let you know when I find out something.
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 12:23
So about 15 years ago I started doing research on the internet and the facts that I found have brought me to the conclusion that the story was true. Here is what I found out, not in my words but in the words of people who knew about George (or James) Burkhart.
The first story I found was from Dr. John J. Dickey’s Diary. Dr. Dickey spent a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky and particularly Clay County as he tried to spread God’s word in the mountains. Here is the story as it appears in the Dickey Diary as it was told to him by John E. Roberts:
John E. Roberts, November 10, 1898, Manchester, Kentucky
My grandfather, Joseph Roberts, came to Clay County from Powell's Valley, Virginia.
My father said that when my grandfather came to Clay County, there were only three families on Red Bird, viz, Dillon Asher, John Gilbert, and Edward Callahan. Mr. Roberts settled near the mouth of Big
Creek on main Red Bird. He had children as follows: Farris (probably named for John Farris of Laurel who settled first on Red Bird); Jesse; Thomas; George Washington (father of deponent), born about the time of the Battle of New Orleans and was named in honor of that victory; Betsey (Begley); Rachel Wilson (Sturgeon people); Sookey (Bowling), mother of Elisha and Delaney Bowling of Laurel and Jackson Counties; Chana (Hacker), wife of Samuel Hacker, the largest man ever in Clay County, being a great bully; Action (Hacker), wife of Claiborne Hacker, mother of Ulus and Logan Hacker of Terrill's Creek, Jackson County, also "Long" John Hacker.
Mr. Roberts says further: "Eli Vanover and his wife, Nancy Bailey, of Harlan live now on Buffalo Creek, Owsley County. He is 95, and his wife is about 85, both active. He visited my house last spring. She told me that James Burkhart, the man who lived in the sycamore tree in Harlan, lived to be 130 years old. When he was over 80 or 90 he planted a walnut tree and said he wanted his coffin made from the wood of that tree, and it was done. The body of the tree was split and hewed into boards from which the coffin was made.
When he was about 110 years old his gray hairs came out like one who was afflicted with fever and there came in its stead a growth of black hair just like that of a child. About the same time he cut a full set of teeth which were very white and strong and continued so to the day of his death. After this he would dance like a youth and claimed he was a boy again. Mrs. Vanover was a girl at that time and saw this with her own eyes. She was raised near Burkhart. Ad. White, son of James White, married Davis Irvine's daughter. He lived at Richmond, Kentucky. He represented his district in Congress. His brother was mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, died about eight or ten years ago.
Here is another account of George (or James) Burkhart that I found on the internet:
Field Notes from Harlan County, Kentucky by Alessandro Portelli
History is another idea I had to redefine. On our first interview, Becky Simpson told me the following story, about a man who "Actually he was the first one that was known to live on Cranks Creek. That was down here at the mouth of the holler—[at the crossing of routes] 421 and 68. The sycamore tree was there, that he lived in the trunk of. And he had his stove, he had his table, he had his bed in that tree. That's a good-sized tree, ain't it."
George Burkhart, an Indian fighter and scout from Virginia, of Dutch (i.e., German) descent, came to Cranks Creek probably around 1806. He was apparently born in 1725, and is first documented as owning two tracts of land on Cranks Creek in 1806, was remarried in 1833 and died in 1850. This is how his story was recapitulated by the local newspaper, drawing from oral sources: "They had two beds and a fire place with a flu. One of the beds was in one of the roots of the tree where a man could roll up in blankets and sleep comfortably for the night. Burkhart was from Virginia. Isaac Burkhart was born in the sycamore tree house. Isaac told that they had a brush fence around the sycamore tree to keep the bears out.
This is one I found on George Burkhart Family Genealogy search:
George Burkhart was born in Germany in the year 1725. Soon thereafter he proceeded to Virginia, where he married. The Union produced five children, and his wife died. He married again, and in the year 1800 removed to Kentucky. He settled on Crank's Fork of Cumberland River, fourteen miles south of Harlan Court-house, and with his family took shelter in an enormous hollow sycamore tree. By the way, Harlan County is not wholly unlike the big-tree district of California. This tree was forty-five feet in circumference, and necessarily fifteen feet in diameter.
In this romantic abide he and his wife and the five children had beds, tables, chests and such other furniture and things as a wild mountain house usually contains. Although the frosts of seventy-five winters rested on his ample brow, he did not neglect that part of the divine in junction which says: "Be ye fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth," for when the requisite years had flown he was found to possess by the second wife eight children.
His second wife died, and after a short period of mourning he went to Virginia, that generous old State that had already furnished him two wives, where he married a third time. Her name was Elizabeth Grabill, and they had two children. This third "better half" of the old man died at the good age of seventy. Mr. Burkhart was now a centenarian. The grief-stricken husband bewailed her loss even more bitterly than those who had gone before her. But his days of sorrow were not many. He soon turned out to the "log-rolling" and quilting, which fashionable pastimes were frequent in their occurrence, and danced with the girls, entertained them with his comic songs, and was a regular gay old deceiver, as giddy as a girl of fifteen. In the year 1835, at the great age of 110 years, he married a fourth time. The name of this last wife was Lavenia Morris, and her age was thirty-five. The immense disparity of age, seventy-five years, worked harm. Dissensions arose, and separation followed. No children blessed this union, and as all his others had become grown or died, the patriarch was left alone in the cold, cold world. The wonderful old man died in the year 1850 at the great age of 125 years.
Newspaper account: Hamilton Telegraph, Butler County, Ohio Thursday, June 28, 1849
The Oldest Man in America - GEORGE BURKHART, living in Harlan County, Ky., is one hundred and fourteen years old; was born in Germantown, Pa., and has lived for several years in a hollow sycamore tree, of such dimensions as to contain his family, consisting of a wife and five or six children, bed and bedding, cooking utensils, etc. He professes to hold to the Lutheran faith.
There’s even an exhibit at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee on George Burkhart, the man from Harlan County, Kentucky who raised his family in a hollow tree.
Momma was right all along.
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 03:25
Momma’s Little Indians…a boy’s memories
By: Rodney Miller
After the most recent string of 100˚ days, I thought, thank God for the air conditioner. That got me thinking back to when I was a young boy and the hot days of summer. I wonderd, how did we ever survive without one?
It’s something that some of my younger readers couldn’t even imagine today. So let me tell those that don’t know just how it was.
I know that you’ve heard it over and over again from us older folks but it really did seem like summer heat would never end. And, it got worse at night.
The only thing we had at our to cool the house was couple of electric window fans. In the hot part of summer our windows and doors were never closed, morning or night. And even if we did shut the doors there were no locks on them to keep anyone out. We didn’t worry about someone breaking in because people were more honest and didn’t steal as much back then.
We usually had one window fan in the living room pulling in fresh air and the other one in the back bedroom in the rear of the house pulling the hot air out. That way it kept a slight breeze flowing throughout most of the house. It didn’t seem to help much in the daytime when the air was 90-100˚ but after the sun went down it helped a lot as the night air cooled down.
One of the things that made the summer’s heat more torturous was the fact that Momma cooked three hot meals every day. I can almost see her right now standing over a hot stove cooking with a handkerchief tied around her head to catch the flow of sweat as she labored. And I never once heard her complain.
She used a small hand fan a lot back then when it got hot. She kept it handy to stir a little cool air upon her face as she did her daily chores. When it got too hot in the house she would go to the front porch and sit and fan until she cooled off. Her little paper fan was always close by.
Because of the heat we didn’t wear a whole lot of clothes in the summer. Most of the time for me it was just a pair of shorts or cut-off pants. I never wore a shirt and for most of my early years, I never had any underwear. Our skin would get so tanned that Momma called us her little Indians. I loved it when she called us that.
Momma had always reminded us that we had Indian ancestors and I still believe it.
She often spoke about her great-grandmother on the Curry side of her family, “Muh” she called her, and the fact that she was half-Cherokee.
My Pap Paw Burkhart’s family came from Harlan County where his ancestors were of Indian descent also. According to history books George (or James) Burkhart lived in a large sycamore tree on Crummies (or Crank’s) Creek. ( Read more on George Burkhart next week)
Most folks around here called my Pap Paw “Red Meat”. Indians in the old days were known as “redskins” because of the color of their skin and I was told that’s where his nickname came from.
My dark colored skin was a plus in the hot summers. Seldom did I ever get sunburn. And because of never wearing shoes in the summer, my bottoms of my feet were as tough as leather. So tough that I could “scratch” off in gravel barefooted. Now I can step on a pea-sized gravel and almost cry.
We never spent a lot of time indoors in the hot summers because the house heated up quick and again, no air conditioner. We spent lots of time in the small branch by the house or in the swimming hole at Sibert. Later on, when I was a better swimmer, I swam in an old coal pit that was over 50-feet deep. It was known as Gib Thompson’s swimming hole.
Looking back it was sooooo dangerous for us to swim there. The edges of the pond were almost straight up and down. There was only one place on the opposite side near the gravel road (which was over 20 feet straight up a steep embankment) where a person could get out of the water. And on the near side, slate ledges in a couple of places at the water’s edge made it awfully tricky to get out of the water safely also.
Some days the pond was full of kids trying to escape the hot weather. Some even brave enough to dive from the Paw Paw road, clearing the rocky banks by inches. I have to say I was smarter than that. I never did it buy I did see my brother Ronnie do it more than once. Now I think of how lucky we were that someone didn’t drown.
If we weren’t swimming we would hit the hills to play in the shade of the forest’s canopy. We swung on grapevines a lot. And sometimes an acorn fight broke out amongst the troops. Back then when the hot summer sun was beating down, the shade was mighty inviting.
When it rained, we loved it. We were out in it chasing each other, splashing through the puddles, catching raindrops with our mouths or sliding on the grass or in the mud. When it thundered all of us would scream and run for the porch, that is everyone except Jackie. She wasn’t scared on anything. Sometimes we even got a bar of soap and showered in the warm rain. It sure beat cramming ourselves into the #3 washtub.
Today, most of us have been spoiled with all the modern conveniences we have now. I know my wife just couldn’t make it through the summer without an air conditioner.
But for Momma’s Little Indian, I kinda’ like the hot weather. It keeps reminding me of a time gone by. A time I will never forget.
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