Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of recollections written by Shelby Paul Horn. Horn was raised in Estill County and now lives in Joplin, Missouri. He went on to become a successful attorney. At the urging of a friend, Horn wrote down many of his life experiences, some of which will be shared with our readers in this new series.
By Shelby P. Horn
Charles Dickens began David Copperfield with these words: I am born. One’s birth is as good a place as any to begin a life story. This is mine.
I was born in Estill County, in east central Kentucky, a few miles north of Irvine, the county seat, on a small and hilly farm that my father rented as a sharecropper. My birth did not occur in a hospital, but at home, without benefit of an attending physician, with only my maternal grandmother and aunt, informally acting as midwives, to assist my mother in the delivery. I have never heard that my entry into the world was especially difficult: therefore, it must have been rather easy and uneventful, as childbirth goes. I am told, however, that I was born with part of the birth membrane covering my face. This is called being “born with a veil,” and those present at first thought that I was stillborn. I am also told that folklore has it that those born with a veil have some particular destiny, if one is inclined to put faith in such tales, which I am not.
By July 12, 1943, my mother had had more than a little experience with child birth. My sisters and brother, seven of the former and one of the latter, were at home that day, but were conveniently distracted. My sisters had gone or had been sent to a pasture to pick blackberries, it being mid July and the season for them. My brother was only a toddler, too young to know what the fuss was about.
I became, rather unremarkably then, ninth in a group that ultimately would number eleven. On the day I was born, one of my sisters received a whipping from our father. She was fourteen and the child whose weight kept her from farm work and made her the family babysitter. She had had enough of that, and announced that she would not be the sitter for this newest sibling. Our father cruelly flogged her for her bold (though perhaps unwise) declaration. It was neither the first nor the last time he used corporal punishment to suppress signs of independence or individuality, for he lacked many parenting skills, even human empathy, and was unwilling to tolerate any act or expression of insubordination, however slight. Physical force was his only parenting theory. The threat of it usually sufficed. On that occasion, apparently it did not. Such is individual courage.
My oldest sister, Juanita, then nearly twenty and dating the young man she later married, came close to suffering a similar punishment related to my entry into the family. Fully aware that our father wanted only my older brother to have a middle name, Juanita secretly added her fiance’s name as a middle name on the documents sent to Frankfort, the state capital, to record my birth. When the birth certificate arrived in the mail some time later, my father became irate, but apparently was powerless under the circumstances. Not only was Juanita of age, but she also had a healthy young boyfriend as a safeguard, and her audacity succeeded where others might have failed; thus, I have a middle name. In the South, where, culturally at least, Kentucky certainly belongs, first and middle names are often used together in oral communication, especially if the situation is serious. I can verify that in childhood when I heard “Shelby Paul” called by persons of authority, it usually indicated that my situation was serious and that I might well suffer dire consequences.
The family life I had just entered was one of much turbulence, and perhaps not unlike existence in a totalitarian regime, that of a tempestuous, explosive, and unpredictable despot. There could never be negotiation concerning anything of importance, for bargaining presumes that the parties each have a voice, and in our family, only one individual could express an opinion, our father. In this republic that boasts of democratic principles, we knew only autocracy. There was no representation; there were no committees; there was no compromise. There were only rules, not always clear to us, and consequences of rules broken, whether known or unknown. Under the dictates of that autocracy, I would find little happiness or contentment, and in it I never felt safe. In fact, like most of my siblings, I would eventually feel forced to escape.
It would be many years before I began to know possible causes for the demeanor of our father and what we had to endure as children. If I said that I am certain about them now, it would be disingenuous, and I shall reserve my opinion.
The locus of the physical world that I had entered was one that somehow nearly made up for what I now know to have been an abusive childhood. Its name, the name of my state, Kentucky, has always seemed lovely and magical to me. Though I experienced many unhappy events there, I have pleasant memories, as well, and have neither blamed the place in any way nor associated it with unpleasantness. To the contrary, I love my home state beyond all places on earth.
Wherever I have been in the world, I have felt some cosmic yearning for the place of my birth and childhood. True contentment only exists for me there.
(To be continued.)