CHRISTMAS ON THUNDER ROAD
by
Leslie
A Melungeon Boy

Christmas is a special time of year, but when the cold outside is bone chilling and your ma sends you down to the creek to fetch a pale of water, it can kind of take the shine off of the holiday. Christmas had never been that special for the Collins family up in Puncheon Holler, but Christmas 1927 would be different, especially for Bobby, their only son. Until he was about thirteen years old everybody in the valley thought he was a girl because he wore dresses. With his long black hair and androgynous sounding name, who would be the wiser? He wasn't in dresses to be punished, or because his parents wanted a girl. To the contrary, they already had a house full of girls and were delighted to finally have a boy.

They weren't one of those couples that wanted a boy to carry on the family name, because in these parts, you can't throw a rock without hitting a Collins. Their name is so common that Collins – Collins weddings are common in Hancock County, most often with distance cousins. There are so many Collins, in fact, that when they named their community after its founder Vardeman Collins they opted for Vardy, a variant of his first name.

It's more likely they wanted to have a boy to work on the farm. Ideally, he'd be smarter than a mule but just as strong. Keeping him in dresses and wearing girls boots in winter was strictly a matter of economics. The family was poor, dirt poor. With five girls and one boy, it was cheaper to keep him in his sisters’ hand me down dresses and everything else. They all dressed the same, were all skinny as a rail, and they all had the same face, so he was just one of the Collins girls as far as anyone knew. None of them were what you might call pretty.

He even wore a corset sometimes, the same one his sisters wore, and for the same reason, to fit into each other's dresses. That's what corsets were really for. At a time when fabric was made by hand and farms grew flax to weave their own linen, clothing was prized and expensive. Variations in a woman's size and shape might render a relatively expensive dress unusable, so rather than modify the dress, it was more practical to modify the woman, or boy in this case.

They went to a small snake handler church up Puncheon Holler, and outside of the congregation, and the teacher and students at the Presbyterian mission school down at Vardy, they pretty much kept to themselves.

Puncheon Creek flows in to Black Water Creek just south of the Virginia-Tennessee state line. Black Water Creek has cut a narrow valley between Powell Mountain to the northwest and Newman's Ridge to the southeast and eventually flows into the Clinch River. Folks there call Back Water Creek Valley “the heart of Melungeon Country”, but I don't think anyone else wanted that title.

Melungeon were not exactly loved. It's not just because they were considered to be “people of color” who were neither black, nor white, nor Indian in a racially segregated and stratified society but because they had a reputation for a casual attitude about laws. That was especially true of laws and customs pertaining to property rights and commercial dealings.

His uncle was wanted in three states for fraud; because he sold the same horse a dozen times and it always came home to Black Water Creek Valley. He called it his “homing horse”. He wasn't the only one who sold it and he wasn't shy about helping facilitate its journey home, if you know what I mean. They'd even dye its hair on occasion to change its identity.

Anyhow, the high sheriff of Hancock County wasn't anxious to arrest him and with everyone having the same name it could get so confusing that it was better left alone. Bobby, his sisters and his parents were honest, but as often happens, they suffered from a reputation earned by others whose actions clouded perceptions of their whole community.

The Melungeons are a unique ethnic group of mysterious origins. Some say they descended some of Desoto's men, while others say they were from shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who washed ashore on the Carolina coast perhaps before Jamestown was settled. Typically they have very dark hair as compared to their Scotch-Irish neighbors who eventually settled in the region. One thing's for sure, they weren't Indians. If they started on the eastern edge of Cherokee territory, coastal Carolina, their decedents ended up near the juncture of three present day states; Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. I guess DNA testing will sort out their origins eventually.

The Collins girls, including Bobby, could all read and write thanks to the Presbyterian's mission school that was established in the late nineteenth century down in the valley. Bobby was a good reader and would read the leftover Knoxville newspapers mailed to the missionaries. They would end up in the school library when everyone else was done with them and the students could read them if they wished. Only the inquisitive students did so.

At some point they would let Bobby take the old papers home to insulate the walls and attic floor of their board and batten house and place them under the linoleum for protection against drafts in winter. Winters were rough for Bobby’s family up in the holler. While there was no shortage of trees, there was always a shortage of firewood and they were too poor to buy coal.

Trees had to be felled by axe and cut up with a two man cross cut saw, then split. The girls weren’t strong enough to do it in a timely manner so they picked up any fallen wood that could be easily broken or cut up and used for heat and cooking in the winter. Dad and daughters could only cut, split, stack and dry so much wood when there were endless other demands on their time. Uncles would help, but they didn’t exactly have lives of leisure themselves. The family was never warm in winter.

A deer or wild turkey was a feast, but squirrel, wood chuck, rabbit, possum and just about anything in a snare was the more usual main course. Everything was like the proverbial hog; when people say “the only part of the hog not used on a farm was the squeal!” Even the ash from their wood stove was reused as rain water would be passed through it to make lye that would transform animal fat left over from cooking or rendering into lye soap for laundry or baths.

They may have been poor, but they were always clean. They did have hogs, goats, a milk cow and a mule to pull a plough and pa did the best he could with the girls helping him. The girls’ raised chickens to sell and barter eggs, but so did everyone else, so cash was hard to come by. The Presbyterians provided surplus Army blankets from the Great War that were a Godsend in winter and the family had just started getting RFD mail service, so things were looking up.

In April Bobby had been following the news paper reports of the flood in the Mississippi Valley. Things had reached such a state that President Coolidge was going down to see it in person and the American Red Cross was fully mobilized to oversee relief efforts on behalf of the federal government. State Guard units and farm workers were mobilized to hold back Old Man River. It was a calamity and Bobby wished he was there. He longed for excitement.

Another news item was about how Prohibition had introduced corruption and organized crime into society. He knew, however, that it had been great for his neighbors who were selling moonshine. Their closest neighbor, Earl Mullins, was a distant cousin of the notorious Newman's Ridge moonshiners, and would always say he was in “the transportation business”.

Bobby had started hanging out at Earl’s garage. He was a big help to Earl as a go-fer just handing him tools, cleaning up and holding things when a second pair of hands was needed. He was quickly learning to be a car mechanic. The workings of cars just intuitively made sense to him. He even invented an inflatable bladder that would prevent whiskey in a partially filled tank from sloshing. And as if learning wasn’t enough he was even getting paid for his help - in cash.

Bobby saved his money all summer and fall and wanted to make Christmas of 1927 special for his family, so he planned a shopping take a trip to Sneedville, the county seat. It was only about 18 miles away, but it was a very dangerous walk. The road over Newman's Ridge was a series of switchback turns so sharp that people say you can see your own tail lights on some of the curves. With sheer rock faces on one side and sheer drop offs on the other, drivers tended to fixate on their own safety not expecting pedestrians to be walking in the road way.

Falling off a sheer cliff offered the additional prospect of falling onto the same road just to be run over by the same car once again. Adding to the danger was the road surface; mud and gravel. There was no pavement so you could just as easily slip over the edge as be pushed.

Saturday before Christmas Bobby told his father he was going to walk to Sneedville to buy a Christmas present for his ma so he would be gone all day. He had put on his best dress and nicest boots for the excursion and set out down holler then down the valley toward the state highway. But, when Earl drove up and offered him a ride, things started looking up. Earl not only gave him a ride, but had a job for him to do in Sneedville as well.

Unbeknownst to Bobby, Earl was on a moonshine run and they were sitting on one hundred gallons of pure grain alcohol that would need to be transferred into glass mason jars upon arrival. Earl had better uses for his time, but he knew Bobby needed the money so he offered him the job of draining the tank into individual glass jars. This was not how things were normally done, but was an oddity of this one customer who lacked intermediate storage for the product.

Earl’s car was a flat black 1922 Dodge Brothers Roadster with a souped up engine -“souped up” being a horse racing term for a horse injected with drugs “soup” to make it run faster. It also had a reinforced frame and springs. He had even replaced the wooden wheel spokes with steel bars painted to look like wood so the car with heavy duty tires and 8oo pounds of whiskey in it would look like a normal car. Having a girl along would reduce suspicion that much more.

It was a slow and uneventful trip to Sneedville. The whisky tank mounted low in Earl’s car was completely full. That way it wouldn’t slouch so it wouldn’t adversely affect the handling of the car on the dangerous switchbacks.

Arriving in town, Earl drove into a garage and over a pit normally used for oil changes and other car repairs. He closed the doors that had been left open for him and showed Bobby what to do. Bobby wasn’t happy about working in the pit in his best dress but he knew after four hours of filling and boxing up mason jars, that he would have more money than he had earned in his entire life. Earl promised to return in a few hours, closed and locked the garage doors and left. Bobby got to work. He didn’t spill a drop and stayed remarkably clean as well.

Earl returned and paid Bobby for his services. Bobby never saw another person at the garage and they left four hundred quart jars of clear moonshine neatly boxed and stacked against a wall. Bobby would go shopping and walk home because Earl had another pickup to make and said he was going to spend the night in Knoxville. Bobby envied Earl’s exciting lifestyle.

Sneedville with about 500 people was the only town Bobby had ever seen. He had never been to Knoxville, a city of a hundred thousand people that had electricity. An electric light sure would have been better than using that kerosene lamp under a car with a tank full of gasoline in a closed garage draining highly flammable moonshine into mason jars. Bobby didn’t realize how lucky he was lucky to still be alive. Earl did!

Earl in his car headed east out of town to ply his nefarious trade and Bobby headed to town stopping first at the hardware store to buy a hand pump and enough pipe and fittings to reach the creek from their house. He then went to the coal company in town. “Can I help you young lady?” the receptionist said as Bobby entered their office.

“Yes ma’am, I want to buy two tons of coal as a Christmas present for my pa and have it delivered. Here’s a map I drawed to our house in Puncheon Holler and here’s our RFD address that’s painted on our US Mail box down on the road. How much would that cost and can it be delivered on Christmas Day?”

The lady looked at him, put her glasses on, stood up and looked at his face closely across her desk. It was awkward for Bobby. Could she tell he was a boy? After studying his face for about twenty seconds, she smiled at him and said, “Are you Bobby Collin? When you said Puncheon Holler, I recognized your face. I’m your second cousin’s wife Ethel Collins, just call me Cousin Ethel. Lordy, lordy, you do look just like your sisters. I hain’t been cross the mountain in oh so long and I hain’t seen you since you was six year old. How’s yer ma and pa a-do’in?”

She knew he wore dresses and why, and she felt sorry for him. After conversing with him for a while, she was impressed by his choice to spend his savings on the family rather than on boy’s clothes she knew he wanted so much. She could tell he was smart and was a kind person and she immediately liked him. She saw potential in this kid. She told him the price of the coal and said they could deliver it on Christmas Eve but not Christmas Day. He agreed and paid her. She even suggested that rather than carry a pump and forty pounds of pipe over the mountain, they could put his pipe on the coal truck to deliver it at the same time. In the meantime his sisters would wonder why he was digging a thirty foot long trench all week before Christmas.

Having told her what he wanted for his ma and sisters, she offered to go shopping with him to advise him. Dressing in rags didn’t exactly instill in him an eye for quality clothing or equip him to become a wise consumer. Both traits come from experience. She put a note on the door and closed the office. Because of her help, he made much better selections.

To his surprise and delight, after he had all his gifts purchased, and she saw he had a little bit of money left. She suggested that he buy some gifts for his “twin brother” as she winked at him. “I know he is your size, so you could try them on in his place. The sales lady won’t mind.”

“Oh no Miss”, said the sales lady, “That’s perfectly alright. Lots of girls around here buy boy’s clothes for themselves anyhow, so don’t feel self-conscious about that.”

Ethel even had him try on shoes. He didn’t have enough money for them, but she said she wanted him to have his feet properly measured so he would know how to buy shoes in the future.

After picking out and new pants and a shirt he said, “I think they would fit my brother perfectly Cousin Ethel. Thank you for remembering him.” And, as if she hadn’t done enough, after they got back to the coal company, she flagged down a west bound coal delivery truck and arranged for Bobby to get a ride back over the mountain where he was dropped off in Black Water Creek Valley for a safe eight mile walk home. Before leaving her he thanked her for her help and for protecting his secret in the store. It has been a remarkably successful day.

Christmas 1927 was the best Christmas of his childhood. The coal meant his father’s workload would be greatly reduced and the entire family would be warm for a change. He had gotten a new pocket knife for his pa and something special for each of his sisters. And his ma now had running water in her kitchen. He felt like a man that day and was dressed like one too. Who knew getting coal for Christmas could be so wonderful?

End of Part 1

On Thunder Road

Gift wrapped in news paper, a new pair of boy’s shoes, several pair of socks and an extra shirt arrived with the coal shipment on Christmas Eve. They were a Christmas gift from Cousin Ethel. Bobby had obviously made a good impression on her. Having spent his entire childhood in hand me down dresses, he had never had boy’s shoes, or new shoes. Although, he and his sisters spent most of their lives bare footed, shoes were a winter thing and an adult thing.

That Christmas afternoon, Bobby went over to Earl’s garage to show off his new clothes. It was the first time Earl had seen him in boy’s clothes. It would take some getting used to, and he would certainly be less useful as a decoy in the passenger seat of the car on moonshine runs.

His black hair was still abnormally long but it gets cold up on the mountain in winter and it was warmer that way. He’d cut his hair when the days got longer and warmer. In the mean time, he’d push it under his hat. Long hair felt normal to him. His parents always kept his hair long specifically so he looked like a girl. It was easier to let strangers assume he was a girl than to explain why he was in girl’s clothing. Their financial hardship was nobody’s business.

His teachers knew he was a boy as did the other kids at the school. Most didn’t make fun of him though because every one of them would likely be in the exact same situation if they had five older sisters and were the only boy. Hand me downs were the norm in these parts. Also, they knew he wasn’t above delivering a quick punch in the nose, dress or no dress.

With New Years Eve coming up, there was a push for retailers to replenish their stocks of moonshine ahead of the celebrations. Earl had to pick up some product in Kentucky and deliver it down to Knoxville, and asked if Bobby would like to go with him. He had taught Bobby how to drive the car viewing him as a potential relief driver on empty returns from long trips to and from Memphis, Cincinnati or Atlanta.

Bobby asked his parents. They were obviously concerned for his safety and worried about his interest in Earl’s illicit activity, so they promptly said no. When Bobby literally begged his parents and Earl pledged that he would not engage in any high speed or reckless driving, they finally relented. Their boy was growing up and they hoped his thrust for adventure would be quenched by this trip. They were wrong in so many ways.

Earl and Bobby started out like the last trip heading down the valley, the Dodge Roadster being 8oo pounds lighter with its moonshine tank empty. But, when they got to the state highway, instead of turning left toward the switchbacks, they turned right toward Mulberry Gap, a “water gap” through Powell Mountain.

It’s called a “water gap”, but there’s no water there. Sometime in the distant past the folded and faulted rocks that would form the parallel valleys and ridges of southwest Virginia and east Tennessee were eroded away by ancient rivers. Rock formations that were more easily broken down and eroded away formed the valleys while rocks more resistant to erosion formed the ridges.

A river running across the resistant rock formation that would someday form Powell Mountain was there before the mountain existed so over time it was able to cut its way into and across that resistant rock. But at some point that river chose a different course and the channel it had cut through that rock was abandoned leaving the gap. Millions of years later, someone would build a road through it as a way to get from one valley to the next.

It should also be pointed out that the term “mountain” as used in this region is accurate only as far as height but these “mountains” are actually ridges tens and sometimes hundreds of miles long as compared to the large cone shaped things called mountains in most places. That explains why water gaps are so important to the region’s transportation system. They are the only way through these otherwise impenetrable barriers. Roads that go over ridges rather than through these natural gaps are costly and have those dangerous switchbacks.

The road through Mulberry Gap leads to Cumberland Gap. As Earl and Bobby made their way through the historic Cumberland Gap following the path blazed by Daniel Boone, the town of Middleborough Kentucky came into sight. It’s a coal and rail town benefiting from a rail tunnel through Cumberland Gap forming a major rail link between the South and the Midwest. The town sits in a giant circular valley in the flat lying rocks of the Cumberland Plateau. In the 1960’s it would be recognized as a large ancient meteor impact crater.

When the meteor struck millions of years ago, it formed giant circular hole miles across, like a giant pothole in a street. So what happens to a pothole in an area with ample rainfall? It fills with water. Perhaps an ancient river flowing past the new crater changed its course and began filling the crater. One can imagine a great waterfall down cutting a channel that would someday be the Cumberland Gap. Or perhaps the water flowed the other way – out of the crater after it filled. Regardless, that channel was eventually abandoned in the same way the river channel though Mulberry Gap was abandoned leaving a gap, a pathway from the Tennessee Valley into the Ohio Valley. Ultimately the crater would drain to the southwest via the Cumberland River.

From Middleborough Earl and Bobby headed northeast up to Harlan, a hotbed of illicit moonshine activity, to pickup the moonshine. They left Harlan in a car that had gained almost 800 pounds during its visit to town, but with its out-of-state plates and two strange dark haired men, it had gained the interest of local and federal law enforcement officers as well.

One thing you’ve got to give Earl credit for is that he carried plenty of maps, so when there was a road block on one road, he could choose another. But there are a limited number of roads in this area and the cops weren’t nearly as dumb as Earl thought they were. Revenue agents and state police had the roads tightly patrolled and were stopping everyone.

Earl’s car was designed to withstand inspection from twenty or even ten feet away, but he know it could not withstand a detailed search. Given a choice between a dangerous high speed car chase and a prison term, Earl did not keep his promise to Bobby’s parents. One thing Bobby had to admit when it was all over was that Earl was an exceptionally good driver.

While the Hancock County Sheriff might look the other way, it turned out the federal revenue agents were less forgiving. Having out run treasurer agents and state police from Kentucky and Tennessee, Earl was earning a reputation. The flat black paint had allowed Earl to turn off the road unseen in the darkness as police cars rushed past, but that had only bought them time. Earl and Bobby had ended up somewhere in southwest Virginia. At 3am on a dark night his maps were of little use when they couldn’t see anything and headlights might give away their position. The electrical grid had not yet reached this area and it was pitch black at night.

Discretion being the better part of valor, Earl chose to hide out in an empty tobacco barn until afternoon, basically out waiting the police who would still be looking for him at first light. They slept in the car Christmas night and when they awoke they discovered that they were just by chance near the town of Blackwater, Virginia, a small town in the same valley as Vardy.

Bobby, thankful to still be alive after the late night high speed car chase on another road with switchbacks, opted to walk the twelve miles home and Earl continued on to Kyles Ford, Rogersville and eventually to Knoxville to deliver the moonshine a day late. Bobby wouldn’t see Knoxville that day and never went on another moonshine run with Earl.

When Bobby got home, US Treasury Agents, state police and sheriff’s deputies were all over Earl’s farm and they eventually made their way over to the Collin’s Farm looking for the other suspect. There they were; Ma and Pa and all six of the Collins girls. Bobby was in a tight corset, one of their best dresses, his best hand me down boots and he even had bows in his long black hair. Deputy Collins was pretty sure he had seen all six of “the girls” at the Christmas service at church last night. After all, they all looked so similar that it was easy to lose track. With that, Bobby was off the hook, and he was now done with the moonshine business forever. That was the best Christmas present his parents could have hoped for.

But he’d still work on cars. Bobby would eventually see Knoxville, and even live there. After moving into a small room over Cousin Ethel’s garage in Sneedville to attend high school there, he earned and saved enough money working as a mechanic to start attending the state university in Knoxville. There he was a part time mechanic and studied automotive engineering.

He would eventually move to Detroit and in time become very successful in the car industry, but not before marrying his high school sweetheart back in Sneedville. It turns out Cousin Ethel and her husband had a smart and pretty daughter his age with whom he had fallen in love. That’s right; Hancock County had yet another Collins-Collins wedding.

Merry Christmas y’all!

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