Thursday, March 28, 2013

Missing Irma

She was the one who stayed home.  She went away, but she came back.  Her sisters moved far away from Rainelle, West Virginia, and stayed there.
Irma Belle Amick, about age three.

Except for some unhappy years spent in Richmond, Virginia, she lived in West Virginia.  It didn't matter to her that she didn't have much money; West Virginia was her home.  She was the queen of "make do with what you have."

My mother, Irma Belle Amick Tuck Ballengee, died 13 years ago on March 30, 2000.  I've thought of her a thousand times this week.  As my daughter nears the delivery date for her first child, I remember how my mom came to stay with me when Katie was born.  I don't remember her being as anxious as I have been.  To me, she was calm, cool and collected.  "Sometimes if you set them up and rub their back, it helps," she told me when Katie's crying would not be comforted.  It worked.  When I was a child, she was not always so calm, if the truth be told.

Irma Belle was born 13 November 1915 in Runa, Nicholas County, West Virginia.  Her parents were Irvin Starling Amick and Lelia Clingman Humphries Amick.  In August 2012 I wrote a blog about the family of Irvin and Lelia that has more details about their history, "Our Amicks in Modern Times".

Irma was the fourth of five children who grew up in the rolling farmland of Nicholas County.  On 25 April 1931 she married Charles George Tuck with whom she had three children:  Charles, Martha Jane, and Carol Ann.  Charlie Tuck worked in the mines in southern West Virginia, and the family lived in Beards Fork, East Rainelle, and other mining towns.  When work was scarce, they moved to the Newport News area where Charlie worked in the ship yard.

But things were not peaceful in the Tuck household, and it came to a point where Irma filed for divorce, which was finalized 10 October 1947 in Richmond, Virginia.  Irma and her children returned to Rainelle and lived with her parents.

Irma Amick Tuck and Red Ballengee.
She worked to support her family as a waitress and also as a clerk in the Men's Quality Store on Main Street.  A certain railroader began coming by the store every morning to help Irma work the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.  On 1 July 1949, Irma and Austin David (Red) Ballengee were married in Richmond, Virginia.

We lived a rather contented life in the Osborne Addition outside East Rainelle, my dad working on the railroad, my mom dragging the box springs outside to clean them every spring and cooking dinner after church every Sunday.  In those days women always wore dresses, even when cleaning house, and all meals were cooked at home.  It was exciting when we were driving home from church, and my dad just drove right on past the street to our house.  "What are you doing?" Mom would ask.  "Let's just go down to Thelma's and eat," Daddy would say.

One spring day Mom had all the windows open and was cleaning away in her bedroom at the front of the house.  A salesman saw the windows open and walked right up and called out to her.  It scared my mom so badly that she couldn't speak.  When the salesman made his pitch, she said, "Oh, no.  We couldn't buy anything.  He (my father) hasn't worked since the fiddle of Mebruary."  That story was told for years at our house.

Her sisters and their families came to visit from California, Arizona, Ohio, Texas,and North Carolina.  Cousins, nieces, and nephews came to visit.  Once Aunt Carrie brought the fixings for tacos in her suitcase from Phoenix, strange food indeed to eat in East Rainelle.  All our visitors seemed so successful, but they were really no more successful than we were, wearing our home-sewn dresses and eating our home-canned vegetables. Irma much preferred the comfort of making-do-with-what-you-have in the mountains of West Virginia.
My mother and me at Anthony's
Creek in Greenbrier Co., 1951.

My parents were married for only 21 years; my dad died 3 July 1970.  Then began the most difficult years that I can ever remember, for both my mother and me.

Before my dad's funeral, Mom went to the beauty salon to have her hair done.  The stylist pinned up Mom's dark hair in beautiful small curls at the back of her head.  For the rest of the summer, until I returned to college, once a week she sat in front of the dresser with the big round mirror while I pinned her hair up into those curls.  I never saw her wear her hair like that again.

I debated whether to return to college after my dad's death, but I did.  My mother's two friends, Merlene McClung and Zora Smith, drove us to Berea.  After depositing my things at the dorm, we ate lunch at a restaurant in the town.  As I stood on the street watching them drive away, my mom turned around in the back seat to take a last look at me.  She was facing a long, cold, lonely winter at home.
Irma resting after cooking Sunday dinner.

Somehow we made it through.  She was absolutely  joyous to find that Larry and I were going to have a baby.  When she came to help me after the birth, she plugged along like a trooper.  She took loads of wet wash up the stairs from the basement to hang the laundry on the clothes line.  Did I mention that she was 70 years old?  When I wanted to do things on my own, like giving Katie her first bath, she stood by to advise and support.  She never complained.  But she was always available anytime to come and sit with Katie while Larry and I worked.  They watched Batman on the little TV in Katie's room; she waited for the preschool bus from Westminster Presbyterian; she read the same books over and over; she made a doll who wore a dress that matched the one she made for Katie.

Irma Belle was devoted to Christ.  She did her best to instruct me in Christian ways, and now I can see that I should have heeded more of her instruction.  During the time that my dad worked at Charleston and was gone for a week at a time, she and I read the Bible and prayed every night before going to bed.  It was a little awkward for me at the time (I was a teenager, after all), but it makes a tender memory for me as I recall her devotion.

As we prepare for another new life in our family, I am sure that she (and my dad, too) would be elated to welcome little Lucas James.  I think of my mom and dad even more often now, thinking how nice it would be to have her here so that I could fix us lunch, maybe we would crochet baby blankets together.  But this was not to be.  She has been gone from us for 13 years; it hardly seems that long.

Irma Belle Ballengee, we miss you still.

Irma Ballengee in front of her
parents' house in East Rainelle.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Tribute to James Estep

James Franklin Estep
in 1952
He was a man of a thousand stories.  When we visited him, the real business started after lunch was done and the dishes washed.  Situated in the family room in his recliner, James Franklin Estep carried forth with stories.  Boyhood stories, stories from his days as a police officer, coal mining stories.  There just seemed to be a never-ending fountain of stories. James Estep passed from us on February 19 at the age of 92.

There was a question about his age.  Records say that he was born 4 August 1920, which would make him 92.  But his real date of birth was 1921.  He said that he had a hard time getting a copy of his birth certificate because the house in Cannellton, WV, where he was born, sat directly on the county line.  Part of the house was in Fayette County and part was in Kanawha County.

Bill and James Estep (with hat).
James' parents were George Virgil Estep, a World War I veteran who was born in Eagle, Fayette County, on 17 August 1892, and Bessie Boyd Estep, born 28 March 1905, in Vanceburg, Kentucky.  He was their first child, born 10 months after their marriage which was on 2 October 1920.  Virgil was a red-headed coal miner who played short stop on a coal camp baseball team.  Reports are that he was quite good at baseball.  He loved the Cincinnati Reds and often took the express train from Charleston to Cincinnati on Friday to watch the Reds play all weekend.  He'd come home on Sunday night to go to work in the mines on Monday.  After he retired, Virgil was intense about the Reds games on television.  Bessie came in during a game once to tell him that she thought she was having a heart attack, and she needed to go the doctor.  Virgil said, "Wait until this inning is over."

James’ grandmother, Sarah Sally Cook Boyd, lived on a hill side in Cannelton.  She fixed “salt fish” for James when he was a child.  The fish came in 5 and 10 pound wooden tubs.  She bought the 5 pound tubs because she couldn't afford the 10 pound ones.  There was a spring up behind her house, and she would take the lid off the tub and set the salt fish in the spring for a few days which rinsed all the salt off the fish.  She fried the fish in lard, and the fish came out really crispy.  Virgil told James' mom, “Bessie, Sally is going to kill that boy if she keeps feeding him that fish.”  

James Franklin Estep
Bessie and Virgil lived in various coal camps around southern West Virginia.  They had three more sons:  William Edward, born 9 March 1924 in Cannellton; Thomas Vernon, born 31 December 1927 in Dankwood; and Robert Quintin, born in 1933 in Elkridge.  Bessie became a mid-wife and traveled with Dr. Davis around Elkridge and Powellton when he was called to deliver a baby.  She could be called away at any time, day or night, so she taught James how to cook.  He became the care giver for the younger boys.

James Estep and Mr. Carl Armstrong,
taken behind the company store at
Elkridge, which was earlier known as
Armstrong Creek.
It wasn't long before James was working in the mines beside his dad.  When he was 16 years old, he sold powder at the company store for Koppers Coal Company in Elkridge.  He started hand-loading coal in 1937 for 30 cents a ton in six-ton cars.  "I was on one side, and Dad (Virgil) was on the other," he once said.  He was never without a job after that.  He said, "They used to say we had three meals a day:  corn meal, oatmeal, and miss a meal."

In May 1940 the census reported that James worked as a "salesman" at a pool room.  During the week of March 24-30, 1940, he worked 75 hours.  His dad, up to March 30, 1940, had been unemployed for 12 weeks.  In 1939, James had worked 44 weeks for which he was paid $386; his dad had worked 28 weeks and earned $800.  The family rented a house in Smithers for $15 per month; in 1935 they had lived in Fayette County.  James was listed as 18 years old (making his birth year 1921) and had completed the eighth grade in school.

Helen and James Estep
Around this time James went to work in the mines near Rossmore in Logan County.  He happened to notice a young, dark-haired woman walking by his boarding house on her way home from church.  I imagine it didn't take him long to strike up a conversation with Helen Nagy, the daughter of Bill and Mary Kvitka Nemeth Nagy.  I don't know where you could go in Rossmore on a date, but James said he would buy a bunch of hot dogs and take them over to the Nagys' house for all of them to eat.  Word is that James and Helen were quite good dancers, so maybe they passed their time dancing to swing music.

James and Helen Nagy were married in Logan County 21 November 1941 which was the day before Thanksgiving.  They went to the court house to get a marriage license on November 19, and Bill Nagy, Helen’s dad, went with them because she was only 17 years old.  James borrowed a car, and they went to the preacher’s house (J. G. McNeely, who was also the county clerk) where they were married.  James asked the preacher how much he owed, and the preacher said most people gave him $2, so James gave him $5.  They spent their first married days with Virgil and Bessie Estep.  

James in his work clothes in the back yard at Crichton.
In 1942 James and Helen moved to Quinwood where James worked for the Imperial Smokeless Coal Company as a day laborer underground.  He was the leader of the local union which led to some disagreements with the mine superintendent at the time, so James left there and went to Logan to work. He was charged $84 to move. When the Imperial Smokeless mine superintendent left Quinwood, James came back to Quinwood to work. He went to the same man who moved him to Logan to see how much it would cost to move back. He said, “Nothing. That first price was for round-trip, because I knew you’d be back.”
When James called Quinwood to see about coming back to work, they told him he could start on Monday, so until the family could move back to Quinwood, he stayed at the Club House in Quinwood and paid for room and board.  The price of room & board included a packed lunch every day, which usually consisted of a peanut butter sandwich with lettuce on it.  No coffee or anything else.  Each man picked up his bag lunch as he went out the door.  One man threw his lunch away after he got out the door and went up to Zerze’s and bought two hot dogs to take for his lunch.

James Estep in his role as police officer of
Quinwood with unidentified men.
For dinner the men sat six to a table, and they were given one piece of meat each, so at each table there would be six pork chops or steaks or whatever they were having served.  At the time a tunnel was being built near there, and there were “sand hogs” (men who worked digging the tunnel) staying at the club house.  James said that one of the men was huge, “six inches between his eyes”.

A club house resident, Dick Fain, was sitting at this sand hog’s table one evening when the pork chops were brought out.  The sand hog reached over and took all six pork chops.  Dick Fain said, “You son of a bitch.  We each get a pork chop.  Those are for all of us,” and the sand hog stood up, showing his full size.  He said, “What did you say?” 

“Nothing,” said Fain, “I don’t even like pork chops.”

James and Helen at Christmas with Gale Kerns, their
son-in-law who was a POW in Vietnam.

James continued working in Quinwood, becoming a section boss in 1949 and receiving his mine foreman's certificate in 1953.  At first the family lived in an apartment over the company store but moved to a house in Marfrance with their growing family:  Patricia Ann, born 1942; Rebecca Lou, born 1945; James Larry, born 1948, and Gary Franklin, born 1951. After the family bought a house in Crichton, the family was completed with Thomas Vernon, born in 1956, and Christine Elizabeth, born in 1966.  

James was a member of the original Imperial Smokeless Mine Safety Team.  On 28 October 1958 he participated with the team during the recovery operation after the explosion at the Richwood Sewell Burton Mine near Craigsville.  The Spring 2010 Goldenseal magazine published an account of the safety team .  

Still cooking!
James worked a second part-time job as police officer for the town of Quinwood.  Route 20 from Charmco to Quinwood used to be a one-lane road that followed the creek from Quinwood down through Leslie and Bellburn.  In winter when the snow was deep, it might be impossible to get to Rainelle for several days because there was no modern equipment to remove the snow.  The current two-lane asphalt road was built about 1956.  When James was working part-time as the town police officer, a man committed suicide.  James said the man’s body lay in bed covered up with a blanket for two days because the ambulance couldn't get up the hill from Charmco because of the snow.  He said that public drunkenness was a major problem in Quinwood which was home to around 3,000 coal miners.  The town had seven beer joints, a movie theater, two barbershops, and many other stores. 

A cousin, Jean Plassard, who lives in Ohio, remembered that when they came to visit, James killed a chicken for Helen to fix for supper.  My husband, Larry, said he remembered that when Jean and her family came to visit, they called saying they were lost.  Larry rode his bicycle from Crichton to Leslie and waited for them.  Riding his bicycle, he led the car to the house in Crichton. After James died, Jean's son showed her a $2 bill in his wallet that James had given him when they visited.   

James and Helen at their 50th Wedding Anniversary
James and his grandson,
Years passed.  Children graduated and married.  Grandchildren were born.  James stayed involved with the Masons and Shrine organization and continued working in the mine.  Christmases were celebrated, and flowers were taken to cemeteries for those who passed from the family.  There was a son-in-law who was a POW in Vietnam.  Eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren were born.  A grandson was killed in a plane crash.  Thousands of biscuits were baked, and gallons of gravy cooked.  James retired in 1982, and he and Helen spent the remainder of their lives at the house in the coal camp of Crichton.  He occupied his time by serving with the Quinwood Volunteer Fire Department Board and on the Public Service District Board for water and sewer services.  But Helen became ill and required constant care.  James took care of her at home, managing home health care visits, medicine, and personal care.  He cooked chicken and dumplings. On 21 November 2011, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.  He stayed by her side until she died 8 February 2012.  Last week his broken heart could take no more. 

Sometimes people we love leave little surprises after they're gone.  When my husband, Larry, got in James' car to drive it, he turned on the CD player.  The last song to which James was listening?  Dolly Parton singing Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.  Amen.