One of my oldest and best friends died today – and he was just a kid, only 62. In the prime of his life, and yet I know he led a very full life and had no regrets when he passed on to that highway in the sky — somewhere where he will hopefully not have to ask directions, because neither one of us was very good at that. Indeed, in our youth, both Gordy and I were GPS-challenged long before GPS was a gleam in Dr. Parkinson’s eye.
I first came across Gordon F. Oates, Jr., and his future wife Valerie at a private media party more than 40 years ago. Gordon was the nephew of Warren Oates, the famous actor — who was a regular on the Gunsmoke and Rawhide westerns in the late 1950s — black and white television ring a bell? Warren Oates was certainly known to have a wild streak in him. As I grew to know Gordy, I always suspected he inherited a bit of Warren’s independent DNA. But I digress — Gordon and I teamed up one summer while I was attending the University of Kentucky, both as a student and as the managing editor of the Kentucky Wildcat newspaper, and Gordon was attending the University of Louisville, also in Kentucky. Our common theme when we met was we were both working for the Courier Journal newspaper at the time. Not that we were well-known columnists or writers — no, we were just two young men of the South from two of Kentucky’s finest universities trying to make a few extra bucks during the summer break. Over the two summers of 1970-71, I think we visited every city, tiny berg, holler, village, and wide spot in the road that existed in eastern Kentucky.
After the Courier Journal paired Gordon and I as a team, assigned us to cover eastern Kentucky, they then notified us we would need to provide our own transportation. I had a 1965 Fiat Spyder that I had brought home after attending college in Europe a few years before, which would barely fit my six-foot-one frame and a suitcase. Gordy, although two years my junior, was a few inches taller, loved basketball, and outweighed me by fifty pounds, so the Fiat was not an option for the both of us. But Gordon’s mode of transportation — Wow! Gordy had a brand-new 1970 bright red 320 Boss Mustang with a huge spoiler. The specs state the original Boss Mustang capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds. The quarter mile took 14.6 seconds at 98 mph and we routinely and brazenly tested those specifications in the mountains of Appalachia — fog, rain, snow, coal trucks, slow-moving farm tractors, blind curves, thousand-foot sheer drops and all. The Dukes of Hazard had nothing on us “City Slickers” (more on that appellation shortly) from the Courier Journal. We visited Hazard and Walker Town, Kentucky, several times those two summers, and although we never met Daisy Mae, we met a young lady whose story changed both our lives.
Lost? Never. Bewildered? Maybe.
When I say we visited several places several times, our repeat visits were not always planned or even generally on purpose. You see, Gordon always drove the Mustang, and while he loved that car and he loved to drive, he was also always a happy soul and not overly concerned with directions. Even when I gave him directions, he could not always hear me because we listened to whatever country station he wanted — driver’s prerogative, of course, and there were few choices — for sure Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were on every station singing as loud as the volume knob in that Mustang would take them. Plus, as the driver in charge, it was also Gordy’s privilege not to ask directions. That’s right, it’s a guy thing, and yes, I said not to ask directions. Many of my masculine readers will be familiar with the concept. After all, how could two college boys from the big city of Louisville, the biggest city then and still today in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, ever admit to being lost in the mountains of Appalachia? And how could we ever stoop so low as to ask directions, especially since every single time, rain or shine, we stopped for gas, which was frequently at those speeds, a huge crowd gathered to gawk at that bright red Boss Mustang? Now, just how could we lower ourselves to admit we were lost? Horrors! I can hear the snickers now — big city slickers are lost! So Gordy drove like a bat out of the proverbial nether regions and I attempted to read the map. Ever try to read a Texaco map while careening around curves in the mountains of Appalachia, while avoiding coal trucks and trying to keep your lunch down? Losing your lunch in the Mustang was not an option, just as it was not such a good idea to look down at the rusted hulks of automobiles strewn along the mountainside or at the river gorge so far below you could barely make out the water.
I did not have an inkling then that anything like GPS (Global Positioning System) would be commonplace just 20 years later, but it would have been merely one of the many things I would have been praying for had I known. So we made do with Gordon’s Positioning System — which invariably failed, except for the day it took us to a tiny mountain village in far eastern Kentucky.
We rarely spent more than 30 minutes in one of the tiny hamlets or hollers in Kentucky’s eastern mountains, better known to the world as Appalachia. But I know Gordon never forgot and I will never forget the cold and rainy late fall day we stopped in Pikeville, pronounced proudly by the young lady in the café that day as “PYKE-vull” as in “Howdy gents, water you two city slickers adoin’ in Pikeville?”
We were there merely to have lunch at the only café in the entire village. It featured six tables with mismatched cane-bottom chairs, sawdust on an aromatic, weathered and stained (with what, I did not want to know) pine floor with knotholes every few feet, and a menu that seemingly the locals and our waitress knew by rote, since we never saw one. We, of course, according to our very young waitress, would have the Blue Plate Special, consisting of “burgers, fried ’taters with catch-up, cola and pie.” She “allowed” as we could have a fried egg or gravy on our burger for an extra five cents. I think we both passed.
It was actually the life story our waitress haltingly related that caught and held our attention that day. She said she was 14 years old — our best guess was twelve. She wore a flour-sack dress that could only be described as threadbare — but if you looked carefully, you could still read “50# lbs of bread flour by weight” right on the back of her dress. She wore no socks or shoes, and this was in late November, just the week, according to her, afore Thanksgiving in 1970. Come on back next week, she said, and we could have turkey with all the trimmin’s. Which we hoped meant more than a fried egg and gravy.
Although she spoke with a strong Kentucky burr, she obviously knew the limited menu by heart, as we never saw her write down an order. When she spoke to the cook in the kitchen, her strong accent made her almost indecipherable, even to two Kentucky boys. And, without a doubt, she was clearly the one who gave us the handle “Big City Slickers” and informed us that she “hain’t never read no ‘pepper’ from the big city.” We talked while we were waiting for our food, as everyone else in the café was, as she exclaimed, “out pawin’ and fawin’, over the big red car in the rain with’n the horse on it, parked right in front.” That is, except for an old gentlemen sitting in the corner by the roaring fireplace, who was chewing and spittin’ tobacco. Obviously a favorite appetizer for folks in Pikeville. But I digress — our obviously underage waitress wanted to talk, and she told us about her life back in the holler, living in a log cabin/tarpaper shack over a hog pen. Her daddy was a part-time coal miner and moonshiner, who could get us some shine (moonshine) iffin we wanted it — the cops didn’t make no never mind, she said. She reckoned she was one of eleven children from her Momma, who were livin’! She did not say how many of her brothers and sisters had passed on, but it was obvious the number was not small. She went to school when the truant officers caught her and made her go, but her family needed the five dollars a week plus tips she got from the cafe.
Consider that back in 1970 regular gasoline went for about 36 cents a gallon in Appalachia, cheaper than in Louisville I remember, and it took just about six dollars every time we filled the tank on the Mustang. And this young lady worked as a waitress at twelve years of age so she could make $5 a week plus tips for her family. Of course she said she also received her meals “free” and could occasionally take some food home “if’n she could carry it the five miles yonder to the holler.”
Please don’t get the wrong impression; neither Gordon or I ever made fun of this young lady, of Pikeville, Kentucky, or of Appalachia. We had just never encountered anyone like her or her circumstances previously. After all, we were “big city slickers,” university men, newspapermen, and this young lady was proud of her story — there was not a single “woe is me attitude” on her behalf ever in the short time we knew her. Quite the opposite: she was obviously responsible, and very proud to have her job. She was forthrightly proud of her Momma and her family, and as she said, she respected her Daddy. She was getting a new dress for Christmas, but her only lament was that she had never owned a pair of shoes. But then she said, “It is hard to miss something you never had.
Prior to visiting this particular café in Pikeville, Gordon and I never ate more than one meal in any one restaurant or café for the entire two summers. Moving from town to town several times a day was the name of the game in the newspaper business. However, somehow Gordon kept “getting lost,” and we ate nearly every meal at the same café in Pikeville for three days straight, until it was just too far to “get lost to” anymore. Our meal receipts were always about a dollar, and yet I know we both quietly left five one-dollar bills underneath our plate every time we ate there. Years later we both commented on the fact that it was snowing the week after Thanksgiving, which was the last time we were in Pikeville and in that little café. Our waitress still had no shoes, but she proudly showed us her new wool socks.
Gordon and I have since discussed that we could not find that little café or that waitress in Pikeville ever again with or without a GPS, because hopefully they no longer exist, at least not under the same circumstances. Pikeville is certainly still there, and has grown from a population of less than 5,000 souls in 1970 to just about 7,000 inhabitants today. Our little waitress would be 56 years old today, if she is still living, and believe me, living in Appalachia in a tarpaper shack, longevity is not a given. But her memory still lives in our hearts, along with the highways and byways of Appalachia, and who knows, Gordy may be speaking with her today, because every time we left that little Café she would sing out, not just a wholehearted thank you for the tip, but a loud and obviously heartfelt “God bless y’all! Come back, ya hear!”
Until next time, happy holidays, happy navigating and pick up the phone and call an old friend today — you just never know. Hope to see you right here next year.