Cops and Trains and Bullets, Oh My!
The farther you go into coal country, the higher the mountains are, the more rugged the terrain. It seems as if there is a collective goal to cut into the mountains. Rivers cut through them, with millions of years of erosion forming valleys and hollows. Roads cut through them, and around them, with the occasional backlash from Mother Nature as she sends boulders plummeting onto blacktop. Coalmines cut through mountains, and to the dismay of anybody with a lick of sense, cut off the top of them, in a misguided attempt to glean from planet earth the fuel that she can provide.
With John Ramey stories in our head and John Ramey food in our belly, we continued moving southwest, to our destination, Matewan. The 1987 movie stars, among others, David Strathairn, who starred in another West Virginia story, “We Are Marshall.” He portrays beleaguered, but strong, leaders really well.
In “Matewan,” he played the part of the town sheriff, Sid Hatfield. What I did not know is that the Matewan area is also where the seeds of dissension between the Hatfields and McCoys were planted. We aren’t huge followers of that particular story. I kinda hate that a bunch of poorly-behaved hillbillies recreated a tawdry rendition of Romeo and Juliet that included a pig, pawpaw trees, and long-held grudges. I really hate that those poorly-behaved hillbillies get far more attention than a man named Sid Hatfield, who isn’t even part of that clan.
Sid Hatfield was the law in those parts and when push came to shove, Sid Hatfield stood by his people, and stood up to the big city bullies who came to town. Coalminers and their families wanted to unionize; mine owners and their minions did not. When Man Child and I came around the bend to Matewan, it was Sid Hatfield’s story we wanted to hear.
The most notable thing about the town of Matewan is a mammoth flood wall that guards it as if it were Jericho. Flooding is an issue in West Virginia, just as tornadoes are an issue in the Midwest (and sometimes Nashville). My dad just test drove a truck, saw some rust where rust shouldn’t be and furrowed his eyebrows. My mother noticed, when the passenger door was open, that there was mud inside the speaker in the door. The truck had been in a flood. Be careful buying “pre-owned vehicles” from West Virginia.
After numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan finally got a flood wall. The problem is, after numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan also lost a great deal of its population. People get tired of trying. People leave. I know because I’m one of the ones who left.
There is really only one street in Matewan, besides the main road. Everything was closed, except for the bank and a Mexican restaurant. When some folks get their way and everybody is deported, I imagine the Mexican restaurant will shut down. We stared at the closed sign on the door of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and pouted. As a tourist attraction, I suppose it doesn’t get much spring break activity.
We circled back to the street that crosses the Tug Fork and enters Kentucky. On the other side of it is a train depot. Oh, look! It’s a museum! I barely got the car in park beside the depot before Man Child was running across the parking lot. “I like trains!” he hollered. It is his mantra. Sometimes he’s still nine years old.
Inside the Matewan Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center was my holy grail: swag. There were also three extremely friendly and helpful folks, one of which took Man Child back into the museum and started up the videos. I stayed to shoot the bull with the other two and check out the swag.
There are museums such as the one where Girl Child attends school, the Art Institute of Chicago. There are museums such as the musty-smelling Civil War shop and museum in Murfreesboro where Man Child attends school. There are even museums where there are three arrowheads and a snuff can under glass and an admission charge. Although not quite the Art Institute of Chicago, this museum was much better than the Civil War or DIY museum and when I wandered back to find my offspring, I slowed my pace, drawn in by the history this one small town holds.
When we could tear ourselves away from the museum, we told our three new bffs that we’d be back. We wanted to see some of the places highlighted in the museum. We wanted to see Sid Hatfield’s grave. They said it was across the river, in Kentucky. We drove past the floodwall, over the river, into Kentucky, We forgot the instructions. We stopped to ask a Kentucky State Trooper parked in front of the dollar store.
West Virginia and Kentucky State Troopers have earned my respect over the years. I’ve known several personally and been rescued by their ilk when I was broken down on the side of the road. Generally, they’re nice guys who are also bad asses. I was more than a little nervous with Man Child jumping out of the car and hollering towards a Kentucky patrol car “Do you know where Sid Hatfield’s grave is?” This guy busts meth labs. Do we REALLY wanna ask him directions?
Trooper Jason McLellan shook his head, no he didn’t know where Sid Hatfield was buried, but he knew where the pawpaw trees were. “Follow me,” he commanded.
Yessir. Rightawaysir. That’s not mine, sir. I’m holding it for a friend. And I have no idea what the hell the pawpaw trees are, but yessir.
We followed him up a hill, back down into a steep drive and parking lot next to the river. I was ready to wave thanks, y’know the pointer finger salute from the steering wheel that shows just how cool I am. Instead of driving off, Trooper McLellan climbed out of his cruiser and walked over to a historical marker. He wasn’t as tall as Man Child, but he shor was bulked up. I had no doubt he could take a guy DOWN. Man Child and I looked at each other. What? Is he giving us a tour? Or is he gonna make my kid raise his hands above his ankles?
He pointed to three pawpaw trees about 25 yards away, then pointed to the historical marker. I’d heard the stories and saw the mini series, but I never really realized there was a “Pawpaw Tree Incident” as part of the Hatfield and McCoy saga. Now, I do.
Once again, Man Child and I listened and learned things. We learned about the Pawpaw Tree Incident. We learned that a pack of cigarettes can be a cop’s greatest weapon. “I had a tweaker in the back seat banging his head on the cage. I said, ‘Buddy, stop that.’ He kept on banging his head. I said, ‘Hey, quit banging your head on my cage!’ and he just kept on doing it. Finally, I said, ‘If you quit banging your head against my cage, I’ll give ya a smoke.’ He looked up like huh? And he quit banging his head.”
One day, our Kentucky State Trooper friend was serving an arrest warrant. As he pulled up, he saw the perpetrator running off into the woods. He hollered at him. “Come on Jeff! Get back here!”
Jeff was hiding behind a tree, and a beer can. “You got a warrant?”
“Yeah, Jeff. I gotta warrant. You know, Jeff, I can see you.”
“I ain’t goin’ to jail agin McLellan.”
“Come on out here and we’ll smoke a cigarette.”
“McLellan, you ain’t gonna whip my ass are you?”
“If you get my shoes dirty, I might.”
We glanced at our reflections in his spit-polished black shoes and took a step back.
Jeff emerged from his hiding place and had a smoke. Then he went to jail.
Jason McLellan originally hails from Maine and calls himself a Yankabilly. He seemed pure Appalachian to me, but he pulled up his trouser leg (must be a cop thing – pull your pants above your ankles) to reveal the story of his life on the back of his tree-trunk-sized calf. A beautiful mosaic of colorful tattoos encompassed a life fully lived, with representation of the states of Maine and Kentucky, military service, police service and even time in Italy. Not all of the tats were explained and I imagine Jason McLellan has lived a life as colorful as his tattoos.
One of his first calls as a state police officer in Eastern Kentucky was for something along the lines of “adolescent beyond control of parent.” He told us the story. As McLellan climbed aboard the front porch, a wood pallet propped up four cinderblocks high, he heard, “Shit! The Law’s here!”
It was the first time he’d heard his profession called “The Law.” Standing precariously on the porch, he greeted a large woman who answered the door. A very large woman. She had a Camel unfiltered in one hand and was yanking on something with the other. He stood, waiting for the cinder block and pallet to collapse if she stepped out of her trailer. She yanked and yanked and tugged on a tube of some sort.
Finally she hollered back into the trailer at someone unseen to the trooper, “Gitcher fucking rocking chair off my HOSE!” The item in her hand was released. She takes a pull from the Camel, expels smoke, then lifts an oxygen mask to her face and takes a larger pull from that.
Officer McLellan stuttered. “Just doin’ a wellness check ma’am. Looks like everything here is okay.”
We could have listen to his stories for the rest of the day and probably would have, but for two hard-looking women rising from the riverbed like zombies from graves. One held a leash with a beagle attached to it; the other held a metal detector.
“There ain’t nothin’ here,” they claimed as they stepped toward us. They were in overalls and boots. Their skin was wrinkled parchment, their hair over processed straw. The wind blew and I smelled skunk, the same kind of skunk scent that wafted around Bonnaroo.
They continued to bemoan that there ain’t nothin’ here and apparently the area’d done been picked over. McLellan advised them of another lesser-known location where bullets and such could probably be found. I thought he meant the trailer with the pallet front porch, but apparently they were all talking about numerous Hatfield and McCoy battlefields. He gave them directions. They repeated them. Incorrectly. A gust of wind rifled the straw on top of their heads and a smell of burnt coffee tickled my nose. I always wondered how so many people could burn coffee around high schools and colleges. They must not be paying attention.
Initially, I’d assumed these old battle-axes were lesbians and I was ready to raise the rainbow flag and shout, “You go girls” for being so brave in the bowels of coal country. Then I noticed they were flirting with our state trooper (we found him first) and they told us they were sisters.
They wandered off to their pickup, the front grill covered in vertical sections of pvc pipe, looking for all the world like a pipe organ in a church. That evening I asked my dad what that could possibly be and he grinned. “For their fishing poles.”
I need to let my sister know that my retirement plans of living with thirty cats, drinking cheap gin and eating cat food have been replaced with traveling the hills of West Virginia with her, wandering riverbeds with a beagle and a metal detector and fishin’ on the warm days. It’s a goal.
As they climbed into the truck, they kept hollering back the road number. “Three nineteen?” Since their destination had apparently changed from finding shit to finding home, the road number had changed as well.
McLellan hollered back. “One-nineteen. Go left and then down the road and you’ll find one-nineteen!”
McLellan repeated his instructions.
“We go left and then git on three-nineteen, right?”
Man Child, State Trooper and I were LOSING it. We all chimed in. “One-nineteen! Corridor G! The Robert C. Byrd highway! That will get you to Charleston!”
“We go left and then three-nineteen, right?”
McLellan shook his head. “Yep! That’s it. You’ve got it.”
They waved out the windows of the pickup truck, gravel crunching beneath the tires, skunk/burnt coffee smell following behind them. I looked at my offspring and said, “Whatever way they’re going, we’re going the opposite.”
We hated to leave, but Nanna was going to have dinner ready and it was our last night there. We said goodbye to our new best friend and wished him health and safety. Of course we Googled him, learning that when he graduated from the academy, he received the “Ernie Bivens Award, an honor presented to the cadet who, in the opinion of the Kentucky State Police Academy staff supported by input from the cadets themselves, distinguishes themself as a class leader, strives for academic excellence and has excelled in all phases of the academy’s physical and vocational training.”
It didn’t say anything about common sense policing that knows to carry a pack of cigarettes as a calming agent, give directions, serve as tour guide, tell great stories and become an integral part of a community that is as different from Maine as marijuana is from burnt coffee.
We stopped back by the Train Depot to buy the swag and say goodbye. The fellow who had taken Man Child back into the museum asked him if he wanted to see something cool. Does a bear crap in the woods? He disappeared for a minute and returned carrying yellowed papers in plastic sleeves and handed the original police reports from the Pawpaw Tree Incident to my son. If he’d shown us those the first time we were in the museum, we would not have understood what was in his hands.
We played tag with a coal train on the way back to my parents’ home. Every time it went through a tunnel and beat us to the crossing, we knew the engine was winking at us like a favorite uncle who continually wins at checkers. He’s not going to give it to us. We have to earn it. Finally, the tracks went down one side of the mountain and the road went down another. Man Child sighed. “I like trains,” he muttered.
We made it back in time for my mother’s Swiss steak. This week had gone much too quickly.