Thursday, June 16, 2011

Have Your Prayin' Done Up

June 25 is the 100th anniversary of my father's birth.  His life was a short one, and many would say that it was a commonplace, prosaic life. Some may say that he was a poor man, full of struggles. But this is not just the story of his life; it's the story of how he once almost died and why he survived.

Austin David Ballengee was born in 1911 on what he called Sourwood Mountain near Hix in Summers County, West Virginia.  His father had been married to Bertha Cales and had a daughter, Grace Ballengee.  When Bertha died, Grace and Lonnie Ballengee lived with Lonnie's in-laws.  In 1910 Lonnie married Mary Catherine Burdette, and soon after, my father was born.  Catherine died in 1912 from dropsy, which is congestive heart failure in modern terms.  The baby boy's future was uncertain; he had diptheria after his mother died and almost died himself.  The Cales family went to get him, and from then on he lived with them and his sister, Grace. 

He shared many stories of his boyhood, how when the family went to Hinton on Saturday in a horse-pulled wagon, everyone got a banana.  The others ate their bananas right away, but he saved his banana until he got home. During the summer he was put to washing canning jars, because his hands were small, and they fit into the jars.  He hated watermelon because he once got sick from eating too much of it.  One Christmas his foster-dad told him that he'd seen reindeer tracks in the snow down by the gate, and my dad spent long hours in the snow looking for the tracks.  He had a card with a strand of his mother's hair sewn to spell her name, but the card was burned up in a house fire.

Grace died in childbirth after marrying Elmer Cales; Red was about 10 years old.  Perhaps it was this lonely little boy who developed the skill of talking to people because he never met a stranger.

Grace Ballengee Cales died in 1921, and in 1922, Lonnie married for the third time to Cordie Treadway Light.  For a time Red lived with Lonnie and his new wife, but he said that things didn't work out very well, blended families being complicated things, so at some point, Red moved on.  I don't know where he lived between that time and 1930. 
William and Hattie Lively lived near the Cales family in Summers County.  The Livelys had a large family, and Red was friends with their boys.  By 1930 the Livelys had moved to the Meadow Bluff area of Greenbrier County, and listed in their home on the 1930 census was Austin Ballengee, an 18-year-old lodger. He worked as a cook for a lumber camp, and he drove a truck for a while.  He told about running over some chickens while driving the truck; the chickens belonged to Thelma Egnor who was mad as a, well, as a wet hen about it.  He also played music at dances.  He could play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, all by ear; he couldn't read a note of music but played a pretty fair "Wildwood Flower". 

He started working on the Nicholas, Fayette, & Greenbrier division of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1944 when he was 33 years old.  He lived in a boarding house on Second Street in Rainelle.  About this time on his days off he took a short walk after breakfast up to the Men's Quality Store on Main Street in East Rainelle to help the store clerk work the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.  In 1949 Red married that clerk, Irma Amick Tuck, in Richmond, Virginia.  They and Irma's three children from a previous marriage made their home in an apartment on Main Street in Rainelle.  In 1950 a fourth child was added to the family; that child was me. 

Red bought a parcel of land in the Osborne Addition and built a small house there.  The family moved into the house before it was finished because Red didn't like to borrow money, and he worked on the house as his cash supply allowed.

Both Red and Irma made a profession of faith in Christ at Sewell Valley Baptist Church, which was an important part of their lives; Red sang in the choir and taught Sunday School.  He made runs on the railroad and worked at Haynes Refrigeration during slow periods at the railroad.  After a lifetime of moving from pillar to post, Red's life was settled and family-oriented. 

In the mid-1960s Red had been called to work the evening shift in the railroad yard in Rainelle.  Long before his shift should have been over, he drove into the driveway followed by Hubert Buster in his car.  As Mr. Buster explained, Red had gotten sick at work; he'd even thrown up the lunch he'd eaten.  "When a man throws up," Mr. Buster explained, "you know he's sick."

My dad was in pain.  There were several family members at the house that evening, but for the life of me, I can't remember who was there.  As he lay on the couch struggling to breathe, my mom looked at me and said, "Anyone who knows how to pray, should pray."  She was afraid.  She called Dr. Todd from Quinwood, who said he would come.  When he arrived, he examined my dad and said he was having a gall bladder attack.  He gave him some medicine and went home. 

My dad's condition did not improve, and up in the late night, early morning, my mom called the ambulance to take him to the hospital.  At that time, when you called the ambulance, you called the funeral home.  They sent the vehicle which was also used to transport dead bodies.  No one had ever heard of an EMT, but the attendants loaded my dad into the ambulance and began the drive to the C&O Hospital in Clifton Forge, about 64 miles away today with the interstate, but at that time there was no interstate highway, so they were looking at a drive that would take at least one and a half hours, probably a little faster in an ambulance.  At that point, I estimate that it had been about 12 hours since my dad had first taken sick and driven himself home, with what one would obviously see was a heart attack.

According to my dad, the ambulance attendants wrapped him in warm blankets, but he said it felt like they had wrapped him in rubber sheets because he was so cold.  Then he began a journey that he could take only by himself.  He could see that he was at a river.  On the other side of the river were many people; they were happy, and they were waiting for him to cross that river.  At that point Jesus was with him.  Jesus began to prepare him to cross the river, putting him in what my dad described as a kind of bubble meant to protect my dad as he crossed the river.  It was then that Jesus noticed something large over to the side of them; this thing kept growing.  It was the prayers being offered up for my dad.  Jesus took my dad from the "bubble", and my dad survived because of the Christians who were praying for him. 

He lived for several years afterwards, but his health was poor.  He didn't say if or how the experience changed him, but I don't know how he could have been afraid of death after that.   When he testified about his "near death" experience, he told people that they should "have their prayin' done up," meaning that life is flimsy at best and in the blink of a gnat's eye your soul can depart your body before you ever have a chance to pray for forgiveness and help. 

Red Ballengee was not a perfect man.  I know some of the mistakes he made, and he, himself, said he sometimes took a drink when he was playing for dances.  He wasn't perfect, but he was a good father who kept his praying done up.


  1. Janet that was such a touching story. I know Charlie will enjoy it too. From what I've heard from Charlie, Red was a 'prince of a man' and he was always so glad he was so good to your mom.

  2. Love reading this Janet! If in this life only we have hope, we would be miserable.

  3. Your story about Red delighted me. What an experience he had, to share! Thank you for writing this. Jeanette