Not long after settling into our new environment I met our new neighbors, Amos and Laura Johnson. Amos was born in 1894 in Bell County. Since a young man, he had served as Constable on Puckett's Creek. He was the only representative of law and order in that isolated rural area. The road along Puckett's Creek ran from U.S. Hwy. 119 in Blackmont through Tugglesville, Insull, and Pathfork to the head of the creek at Alva , Kentucky. The road passed through the backwoods and lawless communities that straddled the Bell and Harlan County Line. The mountain people who lived up every stream and hollow along the creek were hardy people that were the roughest and toughest God-fearing people on earth. They made their own laws, they raised their own food, they sewed their own clothes, they had their own unique mountain dialect, and they manufactured their own corn liquor. Most had no need for the outside world that extended beyond the Cumberland River. From the early 1900's until the 1960s Amos was the law in that community.
The first day that I sat down with Amos on his front porch I soon became mesmerized with the stories he told about his younger days enforcing the laws on Puckett's Creek. I remember him talking about forming a posse to go after a law breaker. Of course in that creek valley everyone knew everyone. Amos may have been the law, but he was also a neighbor. So the rebellious ones in the community respected him as much as all others. However, if on occasion laws were broken, Amos and his posse would ride up a hollow along the creek bank on horseback to flush out the would-be lawbreaker. Many times punishment was quickly served as Amos served as sheriff, judge, and jury. He would give the law offender the scolding of their lives and threatened their lives if it ever happened again. Then everyone rode home, put the horse in the barn, and went to bed resting assured that justice had been served.
The one thing I remember most about Amos is that he smoked a bent billiard tobacco pipe. He would turn that pipe sideways, strike up his lighter, take a puff or two, gather his thoughts then he would become lost in his memories of a bygone era and I too became lost in awe as he told the adventurous stories of his younger days.
After repeated times of going to visit Amos, my mom said I would have to stop going everyday, as I had been. She said I would begin to bother Mr. Johnson and that I would neglect my homework. So we set Thursday as the one day every week that I could visit with Amos during the school year. (Summer term was a totally different arrangement).
I don't know how or why this next thing happened. However, every day when I came back from my visit with Amos I would excitingly tell my mom the stories he had told me. I also talked about him smoking his pipe and the smell of the tobacco. One day, out of nowhere, my born again Pentecostal Christian mother who believed that anything that happened outside the church building was a sin and that all users of tobacco, alcohol, card playing, and foul language were going straight to hell, told my dad that he was to buy for me, every Thursday and bring it home when he came home from work, a Gladstone Cigar so I would have it to smoke with Amos. I do not know that this conversation between my mom and dad actually took place as I have described. However, I do know with great assurance that my dad would never have bought for me, at any age, a cigar without my mother's blessing.
I don't think I need to explain what this collaboration did to a young boy's ego and self-esteem. Every Thursday, Amos with his pipe and me with my cigar. I felt that I was as big as Amos and that I, living vicariously through his stories, "was" the Constable rounding up the lawbreakers and hauling them off to jail. That was a unique feeling of pride and accomplishment that I don't think I have ever felt since.
Amos was special to me in many ways. He was also the first amputee I had ever seen. Amos was a severe diabetic. About a year after we moved next door to him, he had to have a leg amputated just below the knee. This put him in a wheelchair but it did not slow him much. However, a few years later he had the other leg amputated in about the same place. By this time, I was 10 or 11 years old. So I would push Amos in his wheelchair to the front porch or into the house whenever I went to visit with him.
His wife Laura was a character all her own. Yet everyone loved and trusted her because she was the only midwife available between Brownies Creek and Wallins Creek. Probably 95% or more of the population born on Puckett's Creek between the early 1900's and 1966 passed through Laura's hands as she assisted with child birth. The closest resemblance to a medical facilities was about a twenty-five mile ride by horse back into either Pineville or Harlan. Even in the 1960's, a large part of the population did not own automobiles. Of those who did, most found it easier, due to the road and/or weather conditions, to get Laura in than it was to get a woman in labor out. So Laura became the guardian angel on Puckett's Creek.
Often people would have need of Laura's services in the late evening or sometime in the middle of the night. When she was ready to go she would come over to our house and knock on the door to tell us where she was going. If it was during the night, Mom would then wake me up and say, "Laura has to go deliver a baby. Amos is alone. You need to go stay the night with him." No sooner said than done. I was out the door. I really liked it when people came for her in the early evening before Amos had gone to bed. During those times, before we went to bed, we would always open a quart Mason jar of tomatoes that Laura had canned from her garden. We would divide the contents of the jar, salt it lightly, then consume the delicious nectar of the earth with Saltine crackers and a glass of milk.
Unfortunately, my world came tumbling down the morning of January 1, 1966 when I learned that Amos had passed away the evening before. I was devastated. I turned 12 years old the next day but that was the last thing on my mind. For the first time in my young life I had lost the closest person to me besides my parents. I had been raised in the church, so I fully understood what death was, but this was the first time it had a face. Today, more than 50 years later, I think of Amos often and will always hold a special place in my heart for Him.
The story now takes a new and unpredictable turn that brought another special person into my life. Just a few months after Amos's death Laura remarried a man named Herbert Parker. He was from East Bernstadt, Kentucky and was a distant relative of my future to be brother-in-law, JB Robinson.
My sister, Brenda, was nine years older than me. She had on occasion accompanied Laura on her birthing calls. So they developed a special bond. Brenda had experienced a disastrous six-month marriage at the age of 16. The cruelty of that marriage did not bode well with Laura. She pledged to Brenda that she would help her find a good man to marry. Alas, Laura married and moved away to East Bernstadt with her new husband.
Shortly thereafter, Laura and Herbert were visiting with his relative Hubert and his wife Lucy Robinson. While they were there the Robinson's son, JB, came home to visit. JB lived in Connersville, Indiana and worked at the Ford Philco plant. He had recently divorced and had four small children ages 2, 4, 6, and 8. During the visit that day Laura overheard JB saying to his mother that he would raise the kids himself the best he could but he was not going to marry again until he found a good woman who would be good to him and who would be a good mother to his children. Hearing that, Laura sprung into action. She started telling JB she knew the perfect woman for him. She laid on all the accolades she could possibly mention about the fine characterists of Brenda. She bragged on Brenda so much that she made her sound like the blue ribbon-winning hog at the Kentucky State Fair. But it worked! JB wanted to meet Brenda. So Laura arranged the first date. Since JB worked all week, and sometimes even overtime on Saturday the only time that he and Brenda had together was an occasional weekend. As far as I can recall, I only remember them having two other dates after they initially met until they got married on December 23, 1966 and they remained married until her death on October 23, 2000.
Laura, being the negotiator that brought these two together, was to accompany Brenda and JB to the Pineville Courthouse on wedding day. So Brenda took the auspicious task of taking Laura shopping for new clothes to wear to the wedding. Brenda had no idea that Laura had never worn a slip, either short or full-length, had never worn a pair of store-bought panties, and most certainly had never worn a bra. When this revelation was unveiled in the lingerie department of Montgomery Ward's, Brenda lost it! From that day forth she could never tell the story fully without breaking into hysterical laughter. But I gleaned from bits and pieces that the new store-bought panties and the slip were no problem for Laura. However, the bra was asking a bit too much. My sister had a very loud and exuberant laugh and a personality to match. If the bra situation wasn't enough to cause her laughter to be heard throughout most of downtown Middlesboro the next story Laura told her that same day . . . did.
It was a warm, clear, cloudless summer day. Perhaps the summer of 1910. Laura was a young girl. She was in the yard watching over her many younger siblings as they played. Her mother was inside the house preparing a meal and her dad was in the cornfield adjacent to the house . At that time in history there was no electricity, no radio, no television, and no one in Laura's family was literate so no one looked at or read a newspaper. Because of this informational deprivation there was no means of them knowing what was going on in the world that existed outside of their Appalachian isolation. They were oblivious to the new inventions that were beginning the modernization of America.
As the children played in the yard, unsuspecting that their lives were about to change, suddenly they heard a strange sound. One by one the mood of the children changed from jollity to fear. The grinding sound, of which they had never heard before, was coming from the east from the back side of the hill in front of their house on which the family cemetery was located. They all stopped and listened as the hideous sound grew louder and their fear became inconsolable.
Suddenly from over the hill above the cemetery came this huge shiny bird with a wingspan that was unbelievable. The sound was deafening. The children ran screaming hysterically to the cellar, under the house, to the barn, and to the mountains not knowing why or from what they were trying to escape. They ran haphazardly in all directions.
When Laura saw the apparition burst into sight, rigor mortis instantly overtook both her body and mind. As she stood lifeless in a vegetative state she saw her mother run from the house into the yard and, at the same time, saw her dad come running from the cornfield. They were both crying and praying and screaming and shouting and praising God for they knew it was the second coming of Christ and they were in the presence of Jesus himself as he circled above the cemetery separating the dead . . . It was the end of time!
Carl Nichols, President
Cumberland Gap Region Tourism Association