Editor’s Note: This is a series of recollections written by Shelby Paul Horn, who was raised in Estill County and went on to become a successful attorney. He now lives in Joplin, Missouri. At the urging of a friend, he wrote down many of his life experiences, some of which we will share with our readers.
By Shelby P. Horn
I do not know much about the childhood of my own father. Neither he nor any of his siblings, Caleb, Russell, Robert, Callie and Carrie, ever told us much about it. Perhaps my older sisters learned more about it, but I do not know it if they did. From all I gather, his childhood, like mine, was not a happy one. He did not have a good relationship with Grandpa Sid. His mother, on the other hand, was revered.
It was not unusual, I have found, in a Kentucky backwoods society as it was in those times, for boys to have a somewhat reverential love for their mothers, while fathers might not be elevated to quite that status. That is not to say that most boys didn’t love their fathers, merely that their mothers held a special place in their esteem. Perhaps it was some holdover sentiment from colonial life or even further back. But it seems to have been a rather general sentiment in the mountains.
It was always evident to me that my father felt a special way about his mother, but I saw just how deep his feelings were when we visited his mother’s grave at a small cemetery atop one of the mountains in Lee County. In late 1972, I drove my father to visit his mother’s grave. I had never been there, that I could recall, but he gave directions as I drove. I could not have found it otherwise. When we arrived, and as he stood before his mother’s tombstone, he began to lament her death at age seventy-two. She was too young, he said, and he blamed someone-I don’t remember who, probably Grandpa-for transporting her in a boat on the foggy river while she was suffering from pneumonia. That dampness, he said, aggravated her illness and resulted in her death. (From her headstone I noted that her birthdate, in 1872, was a hundred years before our visit.) Suddenly he broke into great racking sobs and could not finish what he had begun to tell me. I was taken aback, for this was the hardest man I have ever known, who never cried, who, to my knowledge, had shown little softness or gentleness to man or beast in my lifetime. To have him break down in my presence caused me to feel very awkward and embarrassed. The feeling was like witnessing something obscene. I could say nothing ameliorative, of course, so I was silent.
I was surprised to see how deep his feelings for his mother had been. I wonder now why that capacity to love stayed bottled up inside this man, walled off from normal expression, and what had prevented it from being shown to others likewise deserving.
I have always had difficulty calling my father by anything but his given name Pryse. The relationship I had with him was not what I consider close or of normal warmth. While I am certain that, until some point in my development I must have loved him as a child normally loves a parent, along the way to my adulthood that changed. Later, I will try to speak to what caused that change, but as a result, it always felt somehow wrong to refer to him as, for instance, “Dad.” I cannot bring myself to do it. I could certainly never call him “Daddy,” indicating a special relationship. Since I did not have that kind or relationship with my father, it would be an adulteration of the word to call him “Daddy.”
At best, it would be disingenuous to pretend a close relationship by use of what I consider a word of endearment.
Pryse, as I shall refer to him here, is the name he was given and the name by which I call him today. As much difficulty as we came to experience, I do not mean it disrespectfully. It is merely the lack of emotional warmth that makes it the most of which I am capable.
Pryse, by the way, is a Welsh name. I have not idea why my grandparents chose it. There are, to my knowledge, no people of direct Welsh descent in the immediate vicinity. Our family, on that side, is German and Irish, basically. I know that there is a place in Estill County, downriver from them, named Pryse. Whatever its origin, it was his name, singularly his name, like no other I knew, as he was like no other man in my life.
Pryse was born on June 29, 1899, in Lee County, the eldest of Grandpa’s and Grandma’s second family. Though my knowledge of his childhood is scant, I do know more about his life after age eighteen. He went to work sometime around that age. I don’t know his initial job position, but ultimately he became a dynamiter with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, helping to build whatever line the company was constructing in eastern Kentucky. The dynamiter set the explosive charge needed to dislodge large masses of stone, so that equipment used to move it, probably a dragline, could clear the path for new cross ties and rails to be laid. He was always proud of his prowess as a dynamiter. This is one thing he liked to talk about. There seemed a certain wistfulness in his voice when he spoke of it, as if he would have liked to be working at it still, but that is a thing that is not clear to me. He left the railroad job voluntarily, to begin farming. If I am correct about the wistfulness, still I don’t know what he may or may not have felt nostalgic about, or what his personal thoughts or motivations may have been about many things, or what caused him to do the things he did or didn’t do. In many ways, he remains unknown to me, as enigmatic now as then.
Though it is probably not unusual for the time and place, Pryse received very little education. What formal schooling he had was obtained in a one-room mountain school. I believe that he went to the third grade, not beyond. I know that teachers in such schools in those days were not required to have much formal education themselves, and doubt that much more than the most rudimentary subjects were taught. I observed that my father had very poor penmanship and hardly ever did more than sign his name to whatever might require it. I recall receiving one handwritten letter from him in my life, when I was stationed in Hanau, Germany, in the early 1960s. I do not recall its contents. I believer that he tried to say that he wanted a better relationship with me, but I remember no specific words to that effect. Thinking of that singular letter, I marvel that a father would not have written to a son in a war zone, for I later spent two tours of duty in Vietnam, but the only letter he ever wrote me was the one received in Germany. It did not occur to me to save it.
To be continued…