by Shelby Horn
Perhaps in the beginning it was all right. They were youthful; she was eighteen, Pryse was twenty-three. He had the L&N dynamiter job. They moved immediately to live on the railroad. I do mean to say that they lived on the railroad, for workers lived in railroad cars (camp cars) placed on side tracks in the location of their work, in their case in southeastern Kentucky, in the most mountainous region of the state.
Living on camp cars meant a cramped lifestyle, but when couples are newly married, inconveniences such as that don’t matter much. Sometimes, as late as when I had come along, Mama would speak of those years and people they had known with a certain nostalgia. Thus, I am certain that at first, married life was better for her than what followed. Later, when the children started coming along, it was different; their quarters became more cramped. At some point after two children, Juanita and Mavis, were born, Pryse quit his railroad job and took up farming. Cramped quarters notwithstanding, it has never been entirely clear to me why he left a job that paid a working wage to begin something that was at best a gamble and at worst a disastrous certainty. There could have been many examples to dissuade him, had he investigated, and he had a rapidly growing family to support. The dynamiter job meant security, but also that he was not independent, and he never liked taking direction from anyone. Of that I am certain. That was hardly reason to leave the security of railroad employment; however, I believe that it was the primary reason for the change. In any event, he left the railroad for farming in Estill County.
Although he had sent money home to help pay off Grandpa Sid’s farm, he had no land of his own and had to begin farming on a share-crop basis; that is, after he grew the crops—corn, tobacco, hay—half of the harvest belonged to the landowner. The farms he rented on this contractual basis were small, from one hundred to two hundred acres usually, and his half did not provide much in the way of necessities. A line of credit at the local grocery store had to be paid in the fall when tobacco, the only cash crop, was marketed. Usually, that took all the cash, and in the spring a new cycle began. It was always a hard life—for him, for Mama and for their children. We took our places in the fields as we reached an age that allowed it. By comparison, a railroad job seems luxurious.
The babies kept coming too, nearly every two or three years, compounding the deficits and Pryse was caught in a financial quagmire from which he was never able to extricate himself or the family. Never satisfied, he began a never-ending process of moving us, from one farm to another, either hoping to improve things or because he had argued with the landowner, which nearly always happened. We moved as regularlry as we gained new siblings.
The houses on the farm were hardly ever more than adequate, with no inside toilet facilities, no running water, nothing but bare rooms. They were always simple wood frame houses, poorly insulated, often drafty. The only heating source was a fireplace or stove, burning either wood, which was plentiful, or coal, which was costly and seldom available. Cooking was done on a wood-burning stove. If the fires were kept lit, in the winter, some rooms might be rather warm and comfortable, but with wood fires burning the kitchen was nearly unbearable in summer. In those days, no one around us had cooling fans, and most of the time we had no electricity to run them if we had them. At night, we used kerosene lamps for lighting, but we went to bed early. Even kerosene was costly, a luxury, and there were not books or magazines to read, no television to watch and Pryse zealously monitored radio time, because batteries cost money too, and didn’t last long. Farmers needed to be up early in the mornings anyway. Mama often repeated the old saying that early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, but I saw little evidence to support it.
Over the years, the atmosphere in our family became increasingly tense, sometimes violent, as Pryse became more autocratic and humorless. I am certain that he worried, as anyone might, about how he would make ends meet, but there could have been solutions, had he explored them, or had he been willing to accept them. Some of his acquaintances maintained their work for the L&N, and did so until they reached retirement age. Perhaps he might have regained employment with the railroad if he had tried. To my knowledge, he never attempted to do so. Sometimes he worked at the U.S. government’s Bluegrass Ordinance, near Berea, but only sporadically, seasonally. His work had nothing to do with the Ordinance’s mission, but was an adjunct to it. The government’s grounds were extensive, and crops of tobacco were grown on them by contractors. Seasonal workers were hired to harvest, or “house,” the tobacco in the fall, and Pryse sometimes hired on. Outside jobs such as this were rare; most of the time, he was strapped for cash, humorless, short-tempered, and as far as we knew, dangerous. He could become at least verbally abusive at a moment’s notice, actually without noticed. On some occasions, he became physically violent, either to his children or to his animals. Almost any frustration could trigger it. Once he shot his horse, Prince, with a shotgun, admittedly from a distance, because Prince ran to the far end of the pasture rather than be caught. To a small child-I was five-such violence is frightening enough that the image of it can never be erased, and I still have the memory of a trembling Prince, standing with nostrils flaring and sides heaving and with blood trickling from small spots on his withers and rump. This, simply because he was an animal that didn’t want to be caught at that moment. Later, given a chance or some enticement, he would have quietly walked into his stall. Pryse kept a plaited leather whip for use on the horses, and sometimes he used it. He was not averse to threatening its use on children either. With the ever-present threat of awesome violence, there were few happy moments in our home.
One of my two eldest sisters relates an image of a father who brought home candy and swept them into his arms upon his arrival. She says that at some point there was a great change in his personality. The other sister doesn’t have quite as warm a memory, but at first, Pryse may have been that kind of father. If so, something happened of tragic proportions, and before the Forties. My brother, Vernon, never knew that gentleman, nor did I. The man we knew was the one whose absences—for example, when he worked at the Ordinance—were blessed relief. We did not want freedom to create mischief, for we were too disciplined to depart very far from our normal conduct, but to have a few hours without threat of violence or harsh criticism. We still did our chores, but with lighter hearts. We could laugh—one of the triggers of his anger—when he was gone. We had to stifle it when he was present.
Our mother tried her best to keep the peace. She often cautioned us, rather than him. Perhaps it had something to do with her memories of the man she had married. She had known him before the radical change. It could not have been easy to disavow the love she had first felt for him and she may have known underlying causes as well. But some of her emotions must have been very conflicted, for she was a mother, as well as wife, and she instinctively wanted, needed, to protect her children. Once triggered, Pryse’s anger knew no reasoning. If Mama protested too loudly in her protective role, she ran the risk of inciting further and uncontrolled anger in him. That often happened. Many times she probably would have chosen to take us and leave, and some attempts at that were made, but in her day it was not so easy to accomplish. Not with so many offspring to feed, clothe and shelter. When all was said and done, she, like countless other women of the time and place, was trapped in her circumstances.
These were our parents. This was their life together, and this was our childhood.