By: Raymond Greiner
I lived in Vienna West Virginia until age 11, we then moved to Marion, Ohio where I entered the 6th grade, in 1951. We all have memories of our early years as we awakened to the world, its realities, complexities, and unending newness. West Virginia has always been a state where folk’s struggled a bit more, rural life was dominant in the mid 1940’s when my memory storage activated. This description is not intended to evoke that everyone was wandering around in rags; high-end folks also lived there. West Virginia from an overall perspective seemed caught in a time stall, as other states moved quicker to implement industrialization, creating a more affluent working class; however, industrialized states faltered during the great depression years whereas West Virginia remained much as it had always been. The depression era came and went, more of a speed bump than a crisis. In West Virginia living on the financial edge was already imbedded as a day-to-day presence. My grandparents and parents were just above the poverty line, employed, and viewed as middle class. I was unaware of depravation during my formative years.
Grades 1-5, I attended the old Vienna School, built in the 19th century it had oiled, wooden floors with hanging globe lamps, blackboards with paddles displayed hanging on the wall, old-fashioned wooden desks with inkwells and lift tops to store books and supplies. We didn’t change rooms like in later grades one teacher taught all subjects, but we did change rooms twice a week for music, and when our principal Mr. Huffman would show a movie on Fridays in the largest classroom. We all crowded in, some standing, to watch a 16mm, black-and-white movie. I remember two, One Million BC, and Destination Moon. I distinctly remember One Million BC, and the fear I felt watching cave men fight giant dinosaurs, only to learn later that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before humans appeared on the Earth. That was a disappointment. I also remember the teachers, all women, very strict, and although the paddle was seldom used, it served as a symbolic reminder that disruption of any kind would not be tolerated, and it worked well. It was an interesting time to experience youth. Difficult to imagine such an environment today, as “helicopter parents” hover, monitoring a teacher’s every action. Discipline has been largely removed from schools. In today’s cultural design parents get neatly typed and carefully worded letters explaining the child’s disruptive behavior and a meeting is scheduled to discuss the incident. At Vienna School in the 40s the teachers cleared things up, on site, quickly and very effectively.
My grandparents on my mother’s side, the Slater’s, lived in Parkersburg, only six miles from Vienna, and we visited often. My grandfather Slater was retired during my early memories, he had sold cemetery lots in Parkersburg and also Charleston.
The Slater’s were vagabonds of sorts, they owned a small orange grove in California in the early 20th century, and I remember old photographs of this farm. Grandfather Slater had taken a job in San Francisco when he was in his early 20s, traveling there from Georgia, and a year later his wife Minnie (they had married in 1902) arrived by train with three children. Grandfather Slater was in San Francisco during the big quake and fire that destroyed the city in 1906, a year before Minnie arrived. He was a handsome man, performed skits in vaudeville shows and had a variety of jobs, then somehow ended up with the orange grove. I don’t know the details regarding how they landed in Parkersburg, WV, but my mother went to Parkersburg High School graduating in 1930. Wish I knew more. I remember a photograph taken in California showing three kids and my grandparents. One was my aunt Sadie, my mother was not born until 1911, so she was not in the photo, and one, Clara, died during childhood, but there was a small, wide eyed boy, standing tall, this was my uncle J.P., born in 1903. I also had an aunt Janet, born a year before my mother; she was the academic of the family, graduated from Parkersburg High School in 1929 as the class valedictorian. The three sisters were very close, Janet, Sadie and Helen (my mother). My uncle Bill was the youngest, not sure of his birth date, but it must have been around 1920, since he had graduated from high school prior to being drafted into the army in 1941. Uncle Bill was the most charismatic member of the family, very good looking and gregarious, everyone was drawn to him, he had all the natural gifts. He was comfortable in social settings, became a hero in Italy during combat with the Germans, and was awarded the bronze star for bravery enhancing his charismatic image. Everyone loved uncle Bill. Uncle J. P. (James Paxton Jr.), everyone called him J.P., but he was uncle J.P. to me. He was too old to be drafted, and he suffered from a mild mental disorder, not classified as retarded, but a slow learner, and was removed from school after the 5th grade. They had no special education classes in those days. Uncle J.P. was also bullied and shunned socially at school, which likely was responsible for his academic impairment and dislike for school. The Uncle J.P. whom I came to know was anything but retarded, he was very smart, read the newspaper from front to back each day, and knew much more than most people realized.
Uncle J.P. lived at home with my grandparents, Jim and Minnie. The contrast in personalities between uncle Bill and uncle J.P. was vivid. In the course of daily life my grandfather developed a habit of oral demeaning directed at uncle J.P., verbal snipes over minor issues. When uncle Bill visited, he also fell into this negative activity directed toward uncle J.P. Even at my young age I could recognize this, and it made me feel uncomfortable, I knew it was wrong. I came to love uncle J.P., so much; he paid more attention to me than the other adults in the family, read things to me. Uncle J.P. was also an absolute master gardener; he knew everything one could possibly know about gardening. His garden was the center of his life, and very large. He sold tomatoes and strawberries. People would come from great distances to buy his produce. His garden was organic and perfect. He marinated tobacco in water then put the mixture in a garden sprayer, this was his pesticide. I was so impressed at the neatness of his rows; always weed free, as he worked tirelessly with his hoe in the sun wearing a straw hat. To escape the verbal abuse, uncle J.P. stayed to himself as much as possible. He led a very solitary life. He did tell me he had a girlfriend in grade school and that he had saved 100 dollars, which I thought was a huge amount of money at that time. Parkersburg High School was very near their house, and Uncle J.P. volunteered to chalk the yard lines on the field for home football games. He did this for years, and all the coaches and players came to know and love him. They treated him better than anyone else; he so enjoyed this job. This was his only social connection. They gave him a permanent pass to the games, but he always returned home and listened to the games on the radio.
The subtle, constant tormenting from family members damaged Uncle J.P., but he concealed his feelings. He smoked all day, was a chain smoker, the entire family chain-smoked. Grandfather Slater and uncle Bill were also heavy drinkers, escalating their verbal abuse toward Uncle J.P. when they drank. Uncle J.P. never used alcohol, had very little money, and would hand roll his cigarettes on a small hand crank machine. His thumb and forefinger on his right hand were yellow with stain from smoking cigarettes. The family was not totally dysfunctional, they shared meals, and there were times of harmonious interaction, but love was shallow and I noticed that much of the food was from the garden and never a word of praise directed at Uncle J.P. for his effort.
When I was around 10, I remember Uncle J.P. holding his hand over his heart and complaining about pain, he was told that it was indigestion. Later, I remember my mother getting a phone call, and she began to cry. We were living in Ohio then, and drove directly to Parkersburg to my grandparent’s house. Uncle J.P. had shot himself in the head with my grandfather’s revolver. He was not dead, but mortally wounded, and at the hospital. I had never felt such emotional pain, it hit me so hard, it seemed I would surely die. They brought Uncle J.P. home and rented a hospital bed, his head was swollen badly, and he died three days later. Uncle Bill, my grandfather and grandmother were overcome with grief, manifested from guilt. From the time they brought uncle J.P. from the hospital, uncle Bill remained at his bedside, would not leave, eat or sleep, he just stared at uncle J.P. the entire time, until he died. This incident caused a total family breakdown, complete devastation, and everyone just cried and cried, suffering that I was unfamiliar with at my early age.
This was an early lesson in life for me. This experience caused me to open an extra portion of my heart to those I observe that are shunned or emotionally damaged from the treatment of others. Uncle J.P. was a magnificent person, he was kind to everyone, never complained, ever, and loved plants, animals, and nature in all its forms. Few people ever attain the level of connection to the Earth that Uncle J.P. achieved. I did not recognize this until I was an adult, but the pain I felt at the funeral home, seeing my grandparents, and uncle Bill uncontrollably weeping, overcome with intense grief, has never left my memory. They were broken. It was 1953; uncle J.P. was 50 years old.
All of those of that generation of my family are gone now. Uncle Bill died of a heart attack at age 56, associated with alcoholism and heavy tobacco use. Observing him throughout his remaining years, he seemed empty. He wrote me letters when I was in the USMC. Often his letters reflected his youth, and I remember him telling me how he and Uncle J.P. played together as kids. They had no money, but both loved baseball. Where they lived there were no baseball diamonds near, and they began to play stickball using a broomstick and a rubber ball. After a time, the rubber ball split down the middle, leaving two halves of a rubber ball, and since they could not afford another ball they began playing with one half. They soon discovered it was more fun than when the ball was whole, it jumped around when pitched, and did crazy things when you hit it, and they eventually gave the game its own name, calling it “half-rubber”. Kids would gather for a game of “half-rubber”. Uncle Bill thought this might be a marketable game, but it never ventured beyond a thought. It was sad to read uncle Bill’s letters describing his memories of Uncle J.P.
I knew his grief would never leave him. One would think that with uncle Bill’s broad experiences in life, during the war, interactions brought forth from his charismatic and social gifts, it seems those times would be more prominent in his memory. But his memory of playing stickball with his older brother found its way to the forefront of his thoughts. Often, the simplistic, less grand events flash forward with the greatest clarity in later years.
This experience of a family falling down frequently occurs, spiraling into darkness, often because of various forms of resentment, spurring dysfunction. When I think of Uncle J.P. and recollect viewing my uncle and grandfather intimidating him, my thoughts are: “What if uncle J.P. tried to retaliate, resist and fight back?” He couldn’t, he did not have an anger-based demeanor, he also had no place to go, being poorly educated and not easily accepted socially. The only job skill he had was gardening. Uncle J.P. was in a cage of despair, and my Uncle and grandfather were poking sticks at him. Viewing this through the eyes of a child, I thought uncle J.P. was a glorious person, one with great compassion and thoughtfulness, never critical toward others.
I am 72 now, and feel blessed beyond my ability to describe. The awareness that the average US male’s life expectancy is 73 weighs on my mind occasionally, but this also adds a dimension of bliss, more than subtracting, realizing how important the time remaining is. I live in my small cabin, 500 feet from the very lightly- traveled road, on 14 rural acres of pasture, pond and woods. My daughter took over the house, relieving me of the financial and physical burden of taking care of it. I lived in the house for 6 years, alone, but the cabin is so simple, a joyful place. I still use the house for amenities, it’s empty all day, while my daughter works but my cabin is surrounded by forest, with a large, open, grassy meadow that sprouts many May apple plants in early spring and autumn is magnificent. This is where I will be for the remainder of my life, in summers moving about more, using my boat and also camping in various places. The Cranberry Wilderness in the WV Mountains is one of my favorite camping areas, a true wilderness. My dogs, Orion and Venus, are my companions. They never complain, are always happy to greet each day, they live in the moment. It’s the best way to live. I cut, hauled, split and stacked my firewood for this winter, did the work myself, a good feeling. I now am looking forward to my time remaining. I do find myself reflecting on my life, and youth. Uncle J.P. occupies many of these memories, especially when I work in the garden. Graciousness and love of each day reveals the most tangible fruits of life. The freshness of a cool morning and high in the sky I hear the cackle of the sand-hill cranes, in their migration north. It is mid February and their presence is a sure sign spring is hovering near.
From the hinterland.