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 Horn
Our mother sometimes sang a song called “Baby on the Doorstep” to Vernon when he was a toddler. As the title implies, it was about a baby that had been abandoned on someone’s doorstep, something that is rumored to have occurred with some frequency in America during the Depression when people couldn’t feed or care for their families. Vernon, it is said, would crawl under the kitchen table when our mother sang this song, so that no one would see him cry. This shows that he was doubly sensitive—having empathy for the child abandoned on the doorstep, while wanting no one to see that the story moved him to tears.
When we were growing up, at least in our part of the world, it was not considered masculine for a boy to cry. This odd social rule affected the behavior of most boys at the time. I was not immune from its restrictions, and even today, although I realize that it was at best silly and at worst a harmful restraint, it’s still so ingrained that I have difficulty allowing myself free expression. I suppose one could say that I’d rather appear unfeeling than a “softie.” Apparently, Vernon was somehow aware of this rule very early in his life. Indeed I seldom saw him weep.
When we were teenagers, however, I myself saw that kind of sensitivity in him. In Dayton, he and I went to see a movie, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” starring Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray and Sylvia Sydney. It was based on the famous John Fox, Jr., novel of the same name, set in eastern Kentucky and dealing with the relationships of mountain people to each other and to outsiders. Near the end of the story, a small boy (played by Spanky McFarland), is killed in an explosion. This part of the story affected Vernon in much the same way as hearing of a baby abandoned on someone’s doorstep, bringing him to tears. He tried to hide them, but I know that he couldn’t hold them back. Though my vision was a bit hazy, too, I noticed.
My brother was tough. But his reaction to a sad song and a sad story indicated that his toughness was only a defensive ruse.
Even as children, most of our time away from school was spent doing chores and farm work. Besides working in the fields, hoeing corn and tobacco and other field work, it was our daily duty to cut wood for the heating and cook stoves, to carry water from the well or spring, to feed livestock morning and evening, and to milk cows twice a day.
While our sisters lived at home, the latter chore was theirs, but when I was nine or ten, Emma left home for work in Ohio and milking the two cows fell to either Vernon or me. He was older and stronger than I, but when it came to milking a cow, he couldn’t seem to get the hang of it, getting only a pathetic stream from the udder. For once, I was able to do something he couldn’t, and I was proud of myself when I sat down beside the cow and easily and quickly produced a bucketful of milk.
“This is how it’s done!” I said, with some degree of haughty superiority.
So, from about that tender age, until I too left home at fifteen, I arose each morning-spring, summer, fall or winter-and milked two cows before Vern was out of bed. It was hot in the summer, sitting next to an 800-pound animal whose body heat felt like a furnace, and cold in the winter, for the cows’ udders had to be washed with water and dried before milking, and one couldn’t milk a cow while wearing gloves.
In the fall, the cows were turned into the corn fields, where their tails became matted with cockle burrs. Unless I tied their tails down, I would be bludgeoned across the face with an object that felt like a “cat o’nine tail” in medieval lore! Sometimes, when biting flies did their damage, the cow would kick and knock my bucket of milk over. Milking a cow is not an easy task. I had this daunting duty in the evening, too.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I had been tricked. I should have known that a boy as strong as my brother could have milked a cow if he had wanted. Too late, I knew the truth. But it was not the only time gullibility got the better of my reason. There were many, but I will only subject myself to one more revelation at the time.
Some of the boys at school smoked. Vernon soon joined them. Learning of this, I began to use blackmail whenever he didn’t want me along on his adventures. When he said I had to stay at home, I would simply say, “I’ll tell on you for smoking!”
That did the trick. I was in for the long haul.
When they smoked, the boys seldom had real tobacco or cigarettes, but that didn’t stop them. A weed that resembled tobacco grew in our area. Maybe it is tobacco’s cousin, tobacco itself being a weed. I don’t know its scientific name, but we called it “rabbit tobacco.” It burned like tobacco and had something of tobacco’s effect, I suppose. In any case, sometimes at recess, Vernon and his friends went over the hill by the school to a rock overhang that they called “the cave,” to smoke rabbit tobacco. I always wanted to go along, wanted to fit in, though I never took part in smoking.
One day, while I was at the cave with them, one of the boys said to me, “Why don’t you try this? Come on, you’ll like it.” He handed me a cigarette.
At first I declined, but almost in unison, they began to urge me on, Vernon among them, and ultimately I relented.
One puff was all I needed to convince me never to smoke rabbit tobacco again! I choked and coughed and could hardly breathe for several minutes. I felt as though I might vomit.
Worse than feeling ill was the embarrassment at not being able to smoke, as they could. I didn’t really fit in.
Then I realized what had happened. I had been tricked again.
Vernon growled, “Now, who’s going to tell on me for smoking?”
I knew I had, with a single puff of rabbit tobacco, lost the power of blackmail.