Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An Interlude: Observing an Anniversary

November 12, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

I took some time at the beginning of this week to mark my anniversary.  This was not the anniversary that I happily share with Lynn.  It is a more somber one - the anniversary of the day I became ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome on November 10, 2001.  Monday marked the thirteenth year with this disease.  Thirteen years…  At the onset, I could have never imagined that I would still be struggling with this illness.

I marked this particular anniversary with reflection and introspection.  I felt sad, but not necessarily depressed.  I allowed myself to mourn what has been lost during what should have been my more productive years.  I thought about what might have been had I not become ill - what I would have done with my life, how I might have spent those years.  I also found myself thinking about what I have gained during this period.  I believe that I have a much stronger relationship with Lynn and my children than I might have had if I remained in active ministry.  I believe that I have grown both spiritually and philosophically because of my struggle.  And though I have spent so much time alone in solitude during these years, I have discovered peace and serenity in my aloneness.  I might have been alone, yet I was not often lonely.  Lastly, I discovered that I am a much stronger person that I believed myself to be in 2001.  I have survived a life disabling condition, but I am still me.  It has not crushed nor destroyed me.  I have persevered.

As I said, my anniversary did not depress me, but it did make me sad.  I don’t think I realized it, but I needed companionship on that particular day.  Serendipitously, I checked my email and found a post from a good friend of mine, Karl.  Karl has recently undergone back surgery and the recovery period has taken much longer than he expected.  On Monday, he, too, was in the mood for companionship and asked if I was available to come over to visit.  Of course, I said yes.  Maybe this was an answer to a prayer I didn't know I had uttered.

After lunch, I went to see Karl.  We spent over two hours in a lively and very spiritual conversation (though not necessarily religious).  We ruminated over all manner of things, but we kept coming back to the topic about where we find meaning for life.  We discussed the many things that give our lives meaning and purpose.  Together, we shared our mutual sense of sadness that we found ourselves in that day.  But we also shared our mutual sense of joy in life itself and in the friendship we share.  By the time it came to leave, I was filled with gratitude and happiness that I had been without earlier in the day.  I’m so glad that I had such a good friend in Karl with whom to share my anniversary.  That visit filled an emptiness in me that I didn't realize I possessed earlier that day.  As the saying goes, life may not always give you what you want, but it sometimes gives what you need.

With gratitude and grace,


Monday, November 3, 2014

Where Has He Been?

November 3, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

In my last regular blog post, a couple of weeks or so ago, I told you that I was going to a writers conference and that I planned to take approximately a week off to recuperate.  When that leisurely week came and went, I sat down to compose another thrilling installment of "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  But alas, the words would not come and the page remained blank - and lo and behold, yet another week past.  This time it was not leisurely or refreshing, but filled with angst and self-loathing.  The words just were not there.  Try hard as I might, I had no tale to tell.  The writer, Natalie Goldberg, calls this state of being as having the “monkey mind.”  It’s like a monkey sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “You are not really a writer.  Your words are no good.  The story is not worth telling.  Give it up now before you embarrass yourself.”

Today, I have decided to tell the monkey on my shoulder just where he should go.  Today, I choose to write, and in so doing, believe that I have a story that is indeed worth telling.  I share this with you, dear readers, by way of explanation and not as a cry of self-pity.  It is what it is.  Some writers call it “writer’s block,” but I like Goldberg’s “monkey mind” much better.

Now, with that out of the way, let me tell you a little about what I’ve been up to the last couple of weeks.  October 17-19, I attended the James River Writers Conference here in Richmond.  All in all, about 300 people attended.  I attended workshops and panel discussions.  I met authors, famous and not-yet, and we talked about our passions and projects.  And yes, on that Saturday morning, I did meet with a literary agent and pitched my book ideas.  She was very kind and generous with her time.  She asked good questions about my writing projects.  When my time with her was up, she requested that I send her sample chapters around the middle of November when her reading load will be a little lighter.  So, for all of you who offered up prayers or who sent good thoughts, thank you!  They did not go unheeded.  So now, my future as a writer lies in the quality of my writing that I’m about to send to her.  Now you can imagine why I became so flustered this past week!  But, I remind myself, all will be well - no matter what the outcome.

I have spent my time since the conference reading good books, storing up words as a squirrel stores up acorns.  I have also poured through old family photos and watched movies my dad first recorded with an 8mm camera.  I still have the original film and projector, but thankfully, before he died, Dad had these wonderful movies transferred onto VCR tape.  Someday soon, I hope to digitize them myself to save them for the next generation.  This time looking at old pictures and home movies is not about indulging myself in nostalgia, but mining my mind for memories.  It has been time well spent.

Well, this is all that I have in me today.  Tomorrow, with the “monkey mind” banished, I will attempt to compose a new chapter for my emerging memoir.  I hope to share this with you before the week is out.

Humbly yours,


Friday, October 17, 2014

Congratulations to Our Winners!

October 17, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

We have a winner!!!  Actually, make that two winners in our contests to give away a Kindle and a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate.

The winner of the new Kindle is Patty Donmoyer from Virginia.

And the winner of the $25 Amazon Gift Certificate is Mary Nations of North Carolina.

I want to thank them and you for subscribing to my blog via email and for encouraging others to do so.  Your support is very much appreciated.

Have an awesome weekend!



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Attending a Writer's Conference This Weekend

October 16, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

I am attending the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, Virginia beginning tomorrow.  This is the second year that I have attended this conference and am very excited to be going again.

I ask that you send some good thoughts my way on Saturday morning around 9:30 a.m.  This is the time of my one-on-one with a well-known literary agent.  I am going to pitch her my book on growing up in Kingsport.  If she likes the concept and is willing to take me on as a client, then she will represent me to publishers for a book deal.  So, I could use all the prayers and good vibes I can get.

Just so you know, I will probably be taking the next week off of active blogging, but will resume the week of Oct. 27.  You can expect one post from me next week which will announce the winners of my Kindle and Amazon Gift Card contests.  Thanks to all who participated.  It was very helpful.  I hope that those of you who have subscribed to receive my blog posts via email are enjoying them.

I really appreciate all the feedback you have been giving me on my recent posts.  Your comments mean a great deal to me and are truly helpful.

Here's to wishing and hoping!



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wowie Kazowie!

Bozo the Clown
October 15, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

And don't forget - if you subscribe to receive my blog posts by email before or on October 15, you will automatically be registered in a contest to win a new Kindle reader from Amazon.  For more details about the contest and how to subscribe, please read this post.



P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.

(Note to Reader: This post is part of a later chapter in my book and is out-of-order in terms of the book layout.  Mostly, my book is shaped chronologically, but today I wanted to shake things up.  Hope you enjoy this story.)


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

Wowie Kazowie!

My early shot at fame came in the winter of 1970 when my mom got tickets for me to attend the most
watched TV show in Kingsport for 9 year-olds - Bozo’s Big Top. The show had just debuted on our hometown’s newest, and only, TV station: WKPT, an ABC affiliate. Of the three cities in northeast Tennessee which made up the Tri-Cities, we were the last to have our own channel. Johnson City was the first to get a TV station in 1953, a CBS affiliate, WJHL. Bristol was the second city to do so in 1956, an NBC affiliate, WCYB. For several years, these two stations split the ABC shows between them. But on August 20, 1969, Kingsport’s own Channel 19 came into being.

The 1960s were the heyday for Bozo the Clown. This ubiquitous clown was created in the 1940s by Alan Livingston and whose rights were bought out by one of his own Bozo stand-ins, Larry Harmon, who became the quintessential Bozo. At a time when many TV shows were syndicated, Harmon decided to franchise the Bozo TV show. This meant that TV stations across the United States, and even other countries, had their very own Bozo the Clown shows, much like many local stations had their own version of Romper Room.

Kingsport’s very own Bozo was Rusty Cury, who was tapped by the station to play the lead role. Cury went to clown school in New York to prepare for the role. He was given lessons in becoming a proper Bozo by non-other than Harmon himself. For three days, he was trained how to be the perfect Bozo - what costume to wear, how to apply makeup, which Bozo gestures to use, and even how to speak and laugh like Bozo, a certain speech pattern and tone which Harmon himself had perfected.

Cury’s job to launch Bozo’s Big Top was not easy. WKPT was still very new and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising the show’s debut. So at first, Cury dressed up as Bozo and walked Kingsport’s street to recruit kids for the live audience. But soon after the show began to air, getting an audience was not a problem. People started calling in to ask if their kids could be on the show. That’s what my mom did to get me on. In the time that the show had debuted, I had become one of Bozo’s biggest fans. Every day I would tune in to WKPT at 4 p.m. after getting home from school to watch the show. It soon became my dream to be in the audience, just like the kids who I saw on TV. Good ol’ Mom made it happen.

When the day finally arrived, I was beside myself with excitement. Mom picked me up from school and we drove downtown to Commerce Street where the station was located. On the short trip there, Mom lectured me about controlling my excitement and being on my best behavior. When we arrived, Mom parked the car on the street and put enough money in the parking meter to get us through the show.

We entered the door on the ground entrance and were told to take the stairs to the second floor. Once there, we stood on a landing outside a locked door to the TV studio. We were there early, so I was right next to the door. Other kids and their parents stood behind us or on the stairs. The waiting was so hard - I thought that I would just explode. We were so close to seeing Bozo, but this locked door barred our way. It seemed to take forever, but finally a lady from the station came out and told us that it was time for us to come into the studio.

On TV, everything looked so big. I had imagined a very large and brightly lit room. But my first impressions were about how small the room actually was. How could such a room be the home of the Bozo show? Also, I was struck by how dim the studio appeared. The walls were covered by dark curtains. The only thing that was lit was the small Bozo set which was up against one wall. And then there was the issue of the camera - there was just one. I thought TV studios were probably filled with several cameras, at least three or four, but the Bozo show had just the one.

The twenty or so of us kids were led onto the show’s set. We were seated on bleachers which were
A shot from the actual set of WKPT's Bozo Show.
framed by a painted wooden outline of a circus train, in keeping with the theme of the show, Bozo’s Big Top. We were then each given a special Bozo tag with our very own name already printed on it so that if we were called upon, Bozo could call us by name. I was just grateful to be a member of the audience. Never in a million years would I have imagined that Bozo might actually speak to me - that he would know who I was. I mean if Bozo knew your name, then maybe you could be his friend. Friends with the big clown - nah, that was just too much to imagine or hope for. Better to just fit in with the crowd and concentrate on not falling off the top of the bleachers where I was seated.

After we were prepped for the show - what to expect, how to behave, what to do, what not to do and the like - it was time for the show to actually begin. Into the studio came the famous clown himself. What struck me first was how big Bozo was - for a nine year-old - he seemed very tall. There was the wing-tipped, big orange hair that stuck out from the sides of his head. His face had big eyebrows, a big red nose and a large red smile painted over his mouth.

Bozo’s neck was covered with what looked like a miniature blue and white cape that draped over his
chest, shoulders and back. His costume was blue and had large white furry balls adorning his shirt. Around his waist was a bright red sash. But what really blew my mind were the size 18 clown shoes he wore. How could anybody walk, much less dance, in shoes that big, I wondered. If the studio was smaller than I had imagined, Bozo more than made up for it by how large he appeared in real life.

The show’s producer started the countdown with his hand - three, two, one… we were live on TV. The camera panned the children in the audience as music played in the background. The song was by the Beatles - the “Yellow Submarine.” I couldn’t help but look at the monitor which was near the camera, waiting to see myself as the camera zoomed in. And in a moment, there I was front and center in the middle of the top tier of the bleechers.

“Wowie Kazowie, boys and girls!” said Bozo as he waved at the camera. That’s what he always said when the show opened. Bozo talked to the camera some more, then he turned and welcomed us to the show. Next, Bozo introduce a cartoon. Bozo usually had two or three cartoons each episode. They were always about his circus adventures.

After the cartoon and a commercial break, Bozo had the kids play a game in the studio. We formed two lines. We had to take off our shoes and put them in a big pile. The object of the game was to have the kids race each other to the pile, find their shoes, put them back on and then race back so that the next kid in line could go. The first line of kids to put on all their shows was the winner. I liked this game a lot. We played it at school sometimes when Mrs. Dobyns, our gym teacher, came. I don’t remember if my team won or not, but I do remember how much fun it was to play, especially with Bozo egging us on.

After the game was over, another commercial aired and we went back to our seats on the bleachers.
What came next was the pivotal moment of the show. It was time for the Grand Prize Game when one kid would be chosen from the audience to play a special game. If you were the one chosen and actually won the game, then you were given the grand prize - Bozo’s Treasure Chest. The Treasure Chest was a very large box on wheels filled to overflowing with the coolest games and toys you could ever imagine. Dozens and dozens of games and toys were in the chest. It was the dream of every girl and boy to win the grand prize and take home all the loot.

The Treasure Chest was rolled in by Bozo’s sidekick, Slappy Pappy, played by J. C. Mullins, who pushed the box out onto the set and right into Bozo’s posterior. “Whoa, Nellie!” Bozo exclaimed. I laughed at it even though Slappy Pappy always bumped the Treasure Chest into Bozo’s behind. Bozo then explained what the special game of the day was. On this particular day, it was the Bozo’s Nose Throw. The Nose Throw consisted of a wooden paddle in the shape of Bozo’s head with a big round shape on the side of the paddle painted red - i.e. Bozo’s Nose. Attached to the paddle by a string was a plastic ring. The object of the game was - with one hand - to get the plastic ring to hook on the nose part of the paddle. What came next was wholly unexpected - and held the possibility of altering my life forever.

After Bozo had introduced the Grand Prize Game and then revealed the Treasure Chest, there was only one thing left to do - choose who would play the game. Background music began to play. On the monitor, a white circle appeared above a shot of the kids in the studio audience. As the music played, the circle began to move. First it would surround one kid’s face, then it would move and do the same for another kid. It kept moving from child to child, row to row. Then the music stopped and, lo and behold, the circle had finally landed on just one kid. Yes, indeed - on that particular day, on that specific episode, I, Stevie Rhodes himself, was chosen to compete for the Grand Prize of winning all the toys in Bozo’s Treasure Chest.

I was stunned at first. My eyes grew big and my mouth hung open. I sat there frozen. But then, as in a dream, I heard my name called. It was Bozo. He was speaking to me and inviting me down out of the audience to play. Lightheaded, I stood up, wondering how I was going to get down to the floor from the top of the bleachers. But before me, the crowd parted with kids leaning left and right to create a space for me to step down, and down I went.

When I reached the studio floor, Bozo reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. In his other hand, he held the Bozo’s Nose paddle. He once more explained how the game work and then asked if I understood. I nodded my head “yes” because I was just way too nervous to speak. Then Bozo gave me the paddle which I held in my right hand. I understood that I had three chances to get the plastic ring on the nose part of the paddle. My heart pumped away and I felt the blood rushing through my body. “Okay,” I said to myself, “I can do this.” Then Bozo told me it was time for the first try. Music once more filled the background. I raised my right hand, quickly pushed my hand out in a scooping fashion. The plastic ring flew up and the string tightened, but the nose on the paddle remained empty.

“Be calm,” I told myself, “I’ve got two more chances.” And with that I focused in on my task at hand. Once more I thrust my hand, scooped with the paddle and the ring flew upward. And once again, I missed my mark.

Down to my last chance. Everything rode on what I did next. All I could think about was all those toys and games in the box, and being able to take all of them home and show them off to all my friends. I steadied my hand, my eyes burned with determination, and for the last time I made a scooping motion with my hand, the ring shot up, the string tightened, and for just a second, the ring appeared to head directly for the nose. But alas, it was not to be. The ring hit the nose and promptly bounced off. Close, but no cigar.

All of my breath seemed to leave me. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that I had lost. I handed the
paddle back to Bozo. The great clown comforted me in my loss and then quickly handed me my consolation prize - a measly can of Pick-Up Sticks. I was then ushered back to my seat in the bleachers.

I don’t remember much about the remainder of the show. I was too focused on my loss of fame and fortune. All I really remember is Bozo closing the show with his catch phrase, “Always keep them laughing!” Then it was all over and I found myself back in the car with Mom. She did her best to cheer me up - after all, she pointed out, I had been on TV, and that was something special.

On the ride home, I resolved to give my 3 year-old brother, Ken, my consolation prize. I sure didn’t want them and it would make up for him not being old enough to go on the show with me. When I told Mom what I planned to do, she said “no.” Ken was too young for the game and the sticks were just too sharp. He might put his eye out with one of them.

So I kept the Pick-Up Sticks as a memento of my moment of near glory. But I put them in the back of my toy closet so as to not have to remember too often just how close I had come to bringing home the contents of the Treasure Chest.

Not all was lost, however. I did get to meet my hero of afternoon TV and he did call me by name. How many 9 year-old kids in Kingsport could say that!

(Many thanks to Rusty Cury for sharing his own memories about his time as Kingsport's one and only Bozo the Clown!)

Monday, October 13, 2014

The One-Armed Fiddler

John E. Hale with infant children
October 13, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the seventh installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

And don't forget - if you subscribe to receive my blog posts by email before October 15, you will automatically be registered in a contest to win a new Kindle reader from Amazon.  For more details about the contest and how to subscribe, please read this post.



P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

The One-Armed Fiddler

While my grandmother, Cora, was the patient nurturer in the family, my grandfather, John E. Hale, was the one more likely to lay down the law with his children. Cora told how one day Papaw gathered up all the boys in the family and took them out onto the front porch. Their house was just off the Norton Road near Main Street in Wise. They lived right at the center of town. The tallest building in Wise at that time was the county courthouse and the jail right beside it, which one could easily see from the Hale’s front porch. Papaw raised up the remaining stump of his right arm and pointed toward the jail saying, “Boys, you see that jail? I’ve got just one piece of advice - if you get yourselves in there, then you’re also going to have to get yourselves out.”

The reason for this warning may have been triggered by one of the Hale boys many pranks. Like the time they took the Mayor’s wagon apart, carrying all the pieces and rebuilt the wagon completely intact on top of the Wise Courthouse.

John Hale, in general, was strict with his children in matters of right and wrong. This was both a bent
Talton "Bad Talt" Hall
in his character, and also a result in his years as a lawman. In September 1890, he was appointed by Judge W. T. Miller as a “Special Policeman” for Wise County. He was also a member of the Home Guard in Big Stone Gap, a self-appointed group organized to police the town and bring order to the area. In both his capacity as a Special Policeman and a member of the Home Guard, he participated in the manhunt and capture of the infamous Kentucky outlaw, “Bad” Talt Hall. Hall, implicated in a number of murders over the years, was ultimately brought to justice after killing Police Chief John Hylton of the town of Norton, Virginia in 1891. After he was caught, he was tried, convicted and hanged in 1892.

Papaw also participated in the search and capture of fellow lawman gone bad, “Doc” Marshall B. Taylor, who was a second cousin of mine. He was also known as the “Red Fox.” This nickname came to be associated with Taylor because of red hair and beard, and also for his stealth in tracking down outlaws. Taylor was a mountain mystic and seer, who had studied the works of Swedish philosopher and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, and claimed to be able to commune with the dead and the heavenly host. He was also a part-time preacher (at times Methodist, other times Baptist), physician and herb doctor (hence his title, “Doc”), and he also served as a U. S. Marshal.

Notice that "Doc" Taylor seems to
be holding both a Bible and a gun.
One of Taylor’s responsibilities as marshal was to roust moonshiners in of the hills of southwestern Virginia and to put them out of business. In this capacity, as one could imagine, he made a number of enemies. One, in particular, was a moonshiner by the name of “Old” Ira Mullins, who had sworn to have Taylor killed, going so far as to put a $300 bounty on his head. Taylor decided to take matters into his own hands and kill Mullins first. On May 14, 1892, Taylor and two brothers, Calvin and Henan Fleming, lay in wait in Pound Gap (henceforth known as the “Killing Rock”), a break in the mountains between Virginia and Kentucky. Sadly, Ira was not alone as he traveled - he had his whole family with him. This did not deter Taylor and the Fleming boys. Shots reigned down upon the Mullins family, killing all but two of them - Ira’s young son, John, and Mullins’ daughter-in-law, Jane. Though Taylor and the Flemings attempted to disguise themselves, wearing bandanas tied around their faces, the two remaining members of the Mullins’ clan were still able to identify them.

After this massacre, Taylor went into hiding. Sheriff John Miller organized a posse of twenty-two men, including my grandfather. The manhunt lasted for several days. Taylor was finally captured after he snuck onto an outgoing train in Norton to Bluefield, West Virginia. He was apprehended there and brought back to Wise where he was placed into custody in the county jail. Ironically, Taylor’s cell was right next to Talt Hall, whom he, in his capacity as U.S. Marshal, had helped hunt down and arrest just a year previous. Not only did my grandfather participate in the manhunt for Taylor, he helped guard him as well. Grandpa was present the day that the jury found Taylor guilty of murdering the Mullins family, and he was also present when Taylor was hanged outside the Wise Courthouse.

The day of the hanging for "Doc" Taylor, aka Red Fox
Since Taylor was an ordained preacher, he asked for and received permission from the court to preach his own funeral sermon and to offer communion before he was hung. He preached for over two hours to a large gathering of people. When he finally offered the sacrament, no one came forward to partake of the elements except his wife, Nancy. He also requested that his wife make him a new linen suit to wear to his hanging - a completely white suit, symbolizing Taylor’s belief in his own inward purity. She also made him a white hood, instead of the traditional black one, which was to be placed over his head when he was hung. His last request before death was that his body not be buried immediately, but rather to lie in state in his family home for three days. Why three days? Why, of course, he predicted that in three days time, he would rise out of his wooden coffin, fully restored and prepared once again to preach the Gospel. After his hanging on October 27, 1893, per his instructions, Taylor was laid to rest in his white suit and his coffin placed in his home for three days. To no one’s surprise, he remained dead. Taylor’s body was then taken to the woods on a ridge overlooking Wise and buried in an unmarked grave.

First Edition, 1908
In 1908, the Appalachian author, John Fox, Jr. published a novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was made into a movie in 1938, starring Henry Fonda. It was also later transformed into an outdoor drama, which has been performed each summer in Big Stone Gap for over fifty years, and become the official state outdoor drama of Virginia. My grandmother never saw the production itself. She said that she didn’t need to because she already knew the story by heart.
based in part on the stories of “Bad” Talt Hall and “Doc” Taylor. It was one of the top-ten bestsellers in the U.S. both in 1908 and 1909. The main character in Fox’s novel was none other than John “Jack” Hale - “Jack” was my grandfather’s nickname. Though the character is a composite and fictional, he is based to some degree on Papaw. Fox and my grandfather were close friends for many years. They had served together in Home Guard in Big Stone Gap and participated together in the hunts for Hall and Taylor. Mamaw said that Fox would drop by the house every now and then to visit with Papaw, often staying overnight. It was during these times together sharing memories and tales of Wise County that Fox gathered stories and background for his novels.


My grandfather was born July 2, 1862 in Whitesburg, Tennessee to Samuel Lane Hale and his wife, Catherine Brewer. Mamaw told us that Papaw’s earliest memory was of his father lifting him up to sit atop the split rail fence of their farm so that he could see soldiers marching back to their homes following the Civil War. Dressed both in the Blue and the Gray, the Hales and other families from east Tennessee fought on both sides of the conflict.

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Hale family suffered economically during this tumultuous period, only to face the national depression in the early 1870s. When coal was discovered in southwest Virginia, many Tennesseans left their homes to start over. in 1880, Samuel and Catherine Hale moved their entire family - all twelve children - to Powell Valley, Virginia, with Big Stone Gap at its south end and the city of Norton to its north.

One of many of my grandfather’s talents was as a mechanic. With the right tools, he could build just
about anything. A fellow from Wise County, Morgan E. Lipps, wrote an article for the Kingsport Times-News about an early incident with my grandfather in 1885 in Powell Valley. Lipps was in his yard near the main road when, in the distance, he saw a man’s head high up in the air. The man was riding something, but it didn’t look like any horse he had ever seen: “That outlandish contraption rolled right up to our gate and sure enough it was part man and part wheels tangled up together... The man part was John Hale, son of Sammy Hale.” In hindsight, Lipps said that the thing that my grandfather was riding was a bicycle, but back then, he had no words for what it was. He said, “This man Hale evidently had found an old buggy wheel and one off a discarded wheelbarrow. He had joined the two together with some sort of frame with the buggy wheel in front with a makeshift saddle mounted high up. John was riding that thing big as Jake.. It was the first bicycle ever manufactured in Wise County and the first one rode.”

John, like his father, Samuel, and his grandfather, Thomas, before him, was apprenticed in art of
John E. Hale displaying many of the fiddles and furniture
he crafted by hand.
woodworking and cabinet making. He was much more than just a planing mill operator, he was also a craftsman of fine, intricate furniture and varied musical instruments, both before and after he lost his right arm. People from all around the region sought him out to build furniture for their homes. Likewise, musicians requested instruments of many types - fiddles, mandolins, banjos. Papaw loved playing these instruments too, especially the fiddle. Even without his right hand to hold the bow, Papaw would simply insert his stump between the wood stick and the hair, sawing away. One of his favorite tunes was “Turkey in the Straw.” He would take his fiddle with him on social occasions, like when he and some of the town’s men gathering at the jail to guard prisoners. Papaw would serenade them with a tune.

As much as John was known for his furniture and instruments, he was even more well-known for giving
William Jennings Bryan
them away - and to whom he gave them away. He particularly admired American leaders and fellow inventors. He gave one of his violins to Thomas Edison. More than one piece of his furniture was sent to Presidents and remained in the White House during their terms. But the man he admired most and who was the recipient of my grandfather’s generosity was William Jennings Bryan, the great Democratic orator. Grandpa sent Bryan a beautiful, handcrafted rocking chair while he was serving as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. My grandfather attached a note to the chair which read, “From a One-armed Mechanic. Bryan sent a gracious response of thanks, which made John very happy. Over the years, he received many such letters of thanks and appreciation for the gifts that he sent.

John E. Hale just prior to his death in 1943.
Following a long trip to California to visit his oldest son, Kingsley, Papaw returned to Wise County a very sick man. Cora and his family cared for him, but age and ill health had taken its toll. John Hale died on October 20, 1943 in the home that he and Cora build. He was buried in a hand-crafted coffin, made from Papaw’s favorite wood - black walnut. He was buried in the Wise County Cemetery, not far from his house. He was buried beside two of his children with his first wife, Burnith and Timothy, both of whom had died in childhood. His grave is not far from his old colleague and nemesis, Doc Taylor, whose grave is now marked.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Only 5 Days Left to Win a Kindle!!!

October 10, 2014

Dear friends, family and constant readers,

There are only 5 days left to qualify for the Kindle giveaway or to win a $25 Amazon gift certificate.  If you aren't familiar with the contest, here are the details:

The Free Kindle Contest:

During the month, September 15 through October 15, 2014, I am holding a special contest to giveaway a brand new Kindle from Amazon.  All you have to do is subscribe to my blog, 
"One Writer's Life," to receive posts by email  which come out approximately 2-4 times a week.

How to Enter:

Go to my blog's homepage, scroll down and look on the right-hand navigation bar for "Follow By Email."  Enter your email address in the form and click "Submit."  You will receive an email confirmation of your desire to be subscribed.  Be sure to confirm through the link included in the email.

You only have to subscribe once and your name will be entered in for the drawing.  The winner will be notified no later than October 18, 2014 by email, so please be sure that you register using a valid email address.  If the winner does not respond with his or her mailing address within 48 hours of the notification email being sent, the prize will be forfeited and an alternative winner will be selected (same guidelines apply).  The contest prize - the Kindle - will be shipped after a mailing address is provided.  Once the prize is claimed, the winner's name will be announced on this blog.

Start and End Dates:

The contest will be held from Monday, September 15, 12 a.m. through Wednesday, October 15, 2014, 11:59 p.m.

How the Winner is Selected:

The winner will be chosen completely at random from a list of all who subscribed to the blog in the period specified.

Rules and Restrictions:

You must be 18 years old to participate.  You cannot be a member of the author's immediate family.  Your mailing address must be in the United States.  All previous winners will be excluded from the drawing.

So What If I'm Already Subscribed?  What About Me - the Constant Reader???

Okay, here's the deal!  You, too, can enter a separate contest by encouraging NEW readers to subscribe.  Let

your friends and family know about this blog and the opportunity to win a new Kindle, and if they like what they see and read, encourage them to subscribe to the blog.  If you recommendation results in a new subscriber, you will be entered in a separate contest to win a $25 Amazon gift certificate.

The way that you enroll in this contest is that you must send me an email and let me know who you have helped to subscribe.  I'll need a name and an email address in order to confirm that this person has subscribed.  That information will be disposed of once the verification is made to protect privacy.  The same rules to win the Kindle also apply in this contest as well.

If you have any questions about either contest, please email me and I will respond.

Good luck to all!  May the best person(s) win!  And may our blog community grow!



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Storyteller Who Dipped Snuff

Cora Lee Hale, abt. 1970
October 8, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

And don't forget - if you subscribe to receive my blog posts by email before October 15, you will automatically be registered in a contest to win a new Kindle reader from Amazon.  For more details about the contest and how to subscribe, please read this post.



P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

The Storyteller Who Dipped Snuff

My maternal grandmother was Cora Lee Hale. After the death of her husband, she lived with our family until her own death in 1971. As I child, I cannot remember a time when she was not present in my life. It was like having two mothers - one who gave actual birth to me and another who gave birth to my spirit.

When I remember my grandmother, Cora, the image that most immediately comes to mind is of her
Cora Hale and Stevie Rhodes
sitting in a green sofa chair in our living room near the fireplace. She has on her favorite blue print dress with knee-high stockings and comfortable low heel shoes. She is wearing a pair of dark, horn-rimmed glasses, though they do her little good - her eyesight failing as a result of advanced diabetes. Her gray hair is pulled back into a bun. She keeps a small tin can close by. It is filled with the brown power of Bruton’s Scotch Snuff, a tobacco that she frequently dips. And her black leather Bible, worn by years of reading, laying next to her on a small table.

Cora was a mountain woman from Appalachia. Her parents, Mickleberry Townsend and America Sparks, were from a long line of eastern Kentuckians who lived in the counties of Wolfe, Breathitt, Owsley and Estill. Cora herself was not born in Kentucky, but in Lawrence County, Missouri on July 19, 1886. Her extended family, along with many other Kentuckians, had migrated west in the early 1880s in the quest for new lands and new beginnings. But the Townsend family’s sojourn was brief. The West was not for them. The eastern hills beckoned them back home. By the 1890s, they were in Kentucky once more.

Mickleberry, Cora’s father, wore a long black beard and moustache above which were set a pair of
Mickleberry and America Townsend
with children
penetrating eyes. He was a farmer and a stove mill operator. America, her mother, raised their seven children and helped Mickleberry on the farm.

My grandmother was a natural storyteller. She loved to tell stories, especially about her childhood and adolescence in Kentucky. She and her younger sister, Lulie, were forever competing over the local boys. Mamaw said that whenever she would bring a boy home to court her, Lulie would just as quickly steal him away from her. Even so, being sisters was a stronger bond than any potential suitor - and besides, there were plenty of boys to go around.

Another story that Mamaw often told also involved her sister, Lulie. This was the story about the visitation of a spirit. She told me how her childhood best friend, a girl who lived the next farm over, became seriously ill - smallpox, if I remember correctly. Just before her illness, Cora and the girl had an awful argument. They ended up refusing to talk to each other. But as her friend’s illness grew progressively worse, she asked for Cora to come visit her so that they could make up. Cora admitted that, at that age, she had a stubborn streak and refused to go. She would make up with her friend when she was good and ready. Sadly, that time never came. The little girl died without the two of them reconciling. Cora was overwhelmed with grief, blaming herself for her friend’s death, berating herself for being so stubborn. Weeks and months went by before life seemed to return to normal, nevertheless the death of her dear friend continued to weigh on her.

One day, Cora was outside her house putting up laundry to dry in the sun. It was a bright, sunny day and no breeze was blowing. Suddenly, everything seemed to grow unnaturally still. Then Cora heard

something moving. It was the sound of her swing attached to a limb on a nearby tree. Slowly, Cora turned around to see why the swing was moving. It was then that Cora saw her - her best friend, the little girl who had died. She was sitting in the swing. Backwards and forwards the swing went with the little girl’s feet pumping in the air. She smiled at Cora, who was so startled that she dropped her basket of laundry. Cora was certain that this must be something that she was imagining. Her grief was surely causing her to see things that weren’t there.

Cora’s thoughts of self-doubt were interrupted by a scream from the kitchen. It was the sound of her sister, Lulie, who was at the sink washing dishes. She, too, had heard the swing and looked out the window, thinking that she would catch her older sister shirking her chores. But instead, she saw the dead girl, too. As soon as Lulie rushed out the kitchen door to get a better look, the apparition of the little girl quickly faded and the swing came to a stop. Cora and Lulie, both shaken, fell into each other’s arms and cried.

Later that night before going to sleep, they talked about what they had experienced. They agreed that it had indeed been the spirit of Cora’s dear friend come to visit them, but not to haunt them. Cora believed that it was a sign of forgiveness on the little girl’s part - that she released Cora from her sense of guilt and shame. At least that’s how my mamaw interpreted her visitation of the dead. For her, it was a moment of heaven-sent grace. That same night, she committed herself to never being so stubborn again.

My grandmother swore that this story was absolutely true, which only added to my own anxiety as a child upon her telling of the tale. Mamaw was no stranger to the supernatural. She had seen many things in her life which were not easily explained or understood. As I grew up under her love and care, my world was imbued with the uncanny and mysterious. She taught me that “we walk by faith, not sight” (2 Cor. 7, NRSV) - and that faith means trusting that reality is always bigger than your own perception of it.

Another of my grandmother’s favorite stories to tell was about how she came to be married. Her older
Jim and Nannie Hale
sister, Nannie, had married a man from Wise, Virginia in 1898. Nannie was older than Cora by eight years. Nannie’s husband was Jamerson Hale, better known as “Jim.” He and his older brother, John Edward Hale, ran a planing mill and lumber business together back in Wise. After the wedding, Nannie moved there with Jim. In 1901, Jim’s brother, John, was separated and soon divorced from his first wife, Emma Baldwin, with whom he had two children: Napoleon Kingsley and Dewey Hobsan Hale. John was grieved at the divorce and filled with regret. His worry about it was constant - so much so that one day, while working at the mill, he lost his concentration and thus lost his right arm in an accident. He was left to raise two boys with only one remaining arm. Being a man of considerable determination, he overcame his handicap, continued to work at the mill and raised his sons. But John was lonely, and he needed help caring for Kingsley and Dewey.

Within a couple of years or so, Nannie began to talk to John about her younger sister back home in Kentucky. She had turned nineteen and her parents had begun to worry that she might be getting too old to marry. Nannie told John that Cora was pretty and also a hard worker, that he should consider her as a potential wife. It wasn’t long before he began making trips to Kentucky to see Nannie’s sister. He courted her off and on for a short time. They got along well, enjoying each other’s company.

After a time, John talked to her father, Mickleberry, about the possibility of marriage. There was,
John Edward Hale
however, an issue of age. John was only ten years younger than Mickleberry himself, and there was a distance of twenty-four years between he and Cora. She was all of a teen and he was a middle-aged man of forty-three. But neither John nor Cora seemed to mind much the difference in their ages. So it was up to her father. Mickleberry and John talked man-to-man and reached a mutual agreement. So you see, my grandparents’ marriage was somewhat of an arranged affair, as many mountain marriages were at that time. But the difference in this instance is that Cora was very willing to marry John and quickly consented to their agreement.

Now there was one person who was not happy about the impending nuptials - and that person was America, Cora’s mother. To say that she was mad about the arrangement is to put it mildly. The reason for her anger had to do with John’s age. Why was Cora agreeing to marry this “old man”? What was Cora getting herself into marrying a man who is old enough to be her father and already with two sons? Weren’t there other suitable men who were closer to Cora’s own age?

America was so furious that on the day of the wedding, she grabbed Cora, slinging her across her knee
Cora Lee Townsend, wedding picture
and gave her a serious spanking. Cora cried and cried that her mother had treated her this way, and on her very own wedding day. Nevertheless, she was determined. She pulled herself together and got ready for the ceremony. The wedding took place at the Townsend home place in Horntown, Kentucky on June 19, 1905. The service was lead by a local preacher, Rev. B. M. DeWitt. Cora was now a married woman, and ready to leave home in Kentucky for her new life in Virginia with John.

Together, John and Cora built their own house in Wise, just a block from downtown. Their method of construction was that John held the wood in place with his left hand, Cora positioned the nails and John pounded them into place with a hammer strapped to the stump of his right arm. Board by board, window by window, door by door, John and Cora built a home to hold their new family. They would eventually have eleven children together - nine of whom lived to adulthood. The house that they build was filled with children, and their home was filled with love.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Model City: A Fine Little Capitalist Utopia

J. Fred Johnson (l) and John B. Dennis (r)
The founders and city fathers of modern Kingsport
October 6, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

And don't forget - if you subscribe to receive my blog posts by email before October 15, you will automatically be registered in a contest to win a new Kindle reader from Amazon.  For more details about the contest and how to subscribe, please read this post.



P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

The Model City: A Fine Little Capitalist Utopia

In the early 1900s, the first dreamer of a modern Kingsport arrived. His name was George L. Carter.
George L. Carter
By birth, Carter was a local, born in Hillsville, Virginia, just over 120 miles from Kingsport. But in terms of his career, he was a coal and railroad magnate, and a force to be reckoned with. By 1902, Carter owned over 500,000 acres of land in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. He also purchased numerous coal, iron ore and other precious metal mines in Appalachia. There was a big problem, however - how to get the coal and other minerals out of this area to larger American markets. Thus a project was born - Carter intended to build a railroad that could carry his coal to market.

Since the Civil War, many had seen the need to link the railroad which ran along the eastern seaboard with the lines of the midwest. Carter envisioned building a segment of railroad which would connect the two, enabling transportation by rail from Charleston, South Carolina all the way to Chicago, Illinois. This new railroad line would eventually be named the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad - or, as it was later known, the Clinchfield.
To complete this vision, Carter would have to build this line from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Spartanburg, South Carolina - over 300 miles of some of the most difficult and challenging terrain ever to be developed. Building his railroad was not inexpensive. He needed financial backing. The first to back Carter was the New York capitalist and financier, Thomas Fortune Ryan, who invested in excess of $30 million in the project. In 1905, Carter also sought and received additional financial investment from another New York banking and finance firm, Blair and Company. One of their partners was a man by the name of John B. Dennis. Dennis would play an essential role in the development of Kingsport.
Dennis, a native of Maine, is said to have had a nose for profit. He had long been interested in the mineral deposits of southwestern Virginia. He also took notice of how rich this area was in other natural resources - such as vast tracts of virgin timber and water resources as well. Investing in this project was his way into the area. From the start, Dennis personally committed himself and his own resources into the new railway.

In 1906, George Carter hired an engineer to help him design a new town next to his railroad. The plan included a broad avenue extending outward from the new railroad station several blocks to a semi-circle from which several streets would radiate. This new town would be located on the 9,000 acres of land Carter owned in present-day Kingsport, Sullivan County and Hawkins County.

Unfortunately, Carter was not able to bring his vision of the railroad or the new town to fruition. The development of the railroad proved too costly to see it through. Seriously in debt, Carter decided to sell his investment to Blair and Company. John B. Dennis became Blair and Company’s point person on the project. They would continue to build the railroad and underwrite it with their own financial resources.

George Carter had a brother-in-law by the name of J. Fred Johnson, who also served as Dennis’
The Clinchfield Railroad Line
manager. Johnson was also from Hillsville, Virginia, and therefore was an Appalachian native. When Blair and Company bought out Carter, Johnson continued to work for Dennis. Eventually, he would take over the management of building the new railroad for Dennis. Johnson was a product of the Protestant work ethic, but he was also influenced by both Progressivism of the era and the New South philosophy which placed strong emphasis on Southern economic development, industrialization and diversification. Johnson also believed in the importance of expertise. So he brought in engineers from all around the country to solve the engineering dilemma of the mountainous area through which the railroad would have to pass. $100 million and 50 train tunnels later, the railroad was built! It was one of the costliest engineering projects in the United States at that time.

It’s important to acknowledge that if there had been no Clinchfield Railroad, there would have been no modern Kingsport, Tennessee. It made its way to present-day Kingsport in 1909. Not too long after, Dennis, while conferring with Johnson, decided that the new railroad needed an industrial hub. At that moment, they were standing in a muddy cowpasture in what is now downtown Kingsport. It would take another five years, but this renewed dream of a new city began to come to pass. On December 31, 1915, Dennis invited J. Fred Johnson to become his partner and help him build the new Kingsport.

Margaret Ripley Wolfe, in her excellent book on the history of Kingsport, entitled, Kingsport: A Planned American City, tells the story about how after Dennis offered Johnson the job of building Kingsport, he reportedly told his wife that “they could either be millionaires or build a town.” Johnson chose to build a town - and in the process he still did pretty well for himself financially.

From the very beginning, these two founders - Dennis and Johnson - decided that Kingsport would not
Downtown Kingsport
Courtesy The Archives of the City of Kingsport
be just another mill village, coal camp, or company town. Rather, they envisioned an industrial city that was unlike any other in the country. It was to be a “model city” - economically diverse, professionally planned, and privately financed. A new type of city for a new century!

Dennis and Johnson formed an organization called The Kingsport Improvement Association. The newly formed Association, financially underwritten by Dennis and led by Johnson, bought land from Blair and Company, which included 6,355 acres which had originally belonged to Carter. This land would form the initial area for building Kingsport.

Once again, the experts were brought in - in this case, to help build a new city. The first of these experts was Dr. John Nolan, a nationally known city planner and engineer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The founders’ vision was of a city of 50,000 residents with enough industries and businesses to support this population. Carter’s earlier design found itself incorporated into the Nolan plan. Nolan’s design was essentially three-fold. He laid out the city with the residential areas in the high elevations of the area. Industrial development was located near the railroad and the Holston River. The business district lay in the level area between the two. Like Carter’s original design,
Church Circle
Courtesy The Archives of the City of Kingsport
downtown was laid out in a grid style with a large broad avenue for the business district which began at the train station and ran for several blocks ending in a semi-circle with streets radiating outward. One difference from Carter’s plan was that in this circle four churches were built, reflecting the importance of religion in the lives of the founders and also the later industrialists who would locate there.

With Nolan working on the design of the city, Dennis and Johnson turned their attention to the style of government which would lead the new city. With guidance and input from experts in municipal government at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, they chose a city manager form of government, with a Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Kingsport was the first city in Tennessee to adopt this type of governance.

For the development of the educational system, they turned to experts at Columbia University. And on it went in the city’s development - experts for the design of both private homes and public buildings; experts for public health, sanitation and disease-prevention; experts for landscape and gardening, etc. These experts were hired to give input and knowledge, but ultimately the final decisions were left in the hands of Dennis and Johnson.

On March 2, 1917, the charter for the new city of Kingsport, which had already been passed by the legislature, received it’s final approval from Tennessee Governor Tom Rye. That same year, Kingsport received it first national recognition when it was featured in the Saturday Evening Post, which heralded it as the “model small American city.”

With the foundations of the new city established, J. Fred Johnson went to work as the city’s principal
The Kingsport Press
Courtesy The Archives of the City of Kingsport
promoter. He has often been called Kingsport’s “one-man Chamber of Commerce.” With Dennis’ 
support, Johnson began to recruit businesses and industries to Kingsport which would compliment one another and not compete. George Eastman of New York was convinced to open a new chemical plant there - Tennessee Eastman, which at one time would be Tennessee’s largest employer. George Mead from Ohio agreed to open a new pulp mill and paper plant. Blair and Associates backed a new publishing company and installed John B. Dennis as board chair. The Kingsport Press would become the largest book publisher in the world at its height.

While profits lured the financiers and corporations, it was the dream of becoming part of the middle class that brought most of the people to Kingsport. From nearby counties, the Appalachian region as a whole and also people from around the country came to Kingsport in hopes of one day owning their own home, having a steady paycheck, giving their children a good education, of having a life that was substantially better than the one their parents lived.

This was certainly the dream of my great-grandfather, E. F. Taylor. In the 1920s, he sold the family farm in Speer’s Ferry, Scott County, Virginia to my great-uncle, Emmett Rhodes. With the money from the farm, he purchased dozens of lots and land parcels from The Kingsport Improvement Association, upon which he built new homes to sell. Great-grandpa Taylor did very well for himself, too. 

J. Fred Johnson died in 1944. John B. Dennis died in 1947. The generation of the dreamers and founders had passed. But the spirit which made Kingsport a reality - its sense of public-mindedness and strong sense of community, the feeling that this small city was created for a purpose and that it had a destiny to fulfill - lives on.