by Shelby Horn
We moved frequently from one neighborhood to another, usually within Estill County, but in and out of school districts. This could be stressful, for we not only had to get accustomed to new friends and acquaintances, but to new teachers and a new curriculum. I went to Harg for part of the first grade, then to Lower Bend School (a one-room school) across the Kentucky River, though still in the county. When I was in the third grade we moved back to the Harg district, where I finished the third grade and part of the fourth. We next moved to our Uncle Russell Horn’s farm at Evelyn on the Kentucky River in Lee County. I was there until halfway through the fifth grade, when we returned to Estill County and Harg. Not content for long in one place, our father next moved us to the Fox community of Estill County, where we went to Alexander School, a one-room school in the woods. I was at home for one more move, again across the river in Estill County, to the John Hovermale farm at the end of Sulphur Wells Road. Before that move, however, Alexander School was closed, and we again went to Harg. It was in the middle of my eighth grade year that we moved to the Hovermale farm, and I went to Irvine for the second half of the eighth and first year of high school at Estill County High.
Moving so much, losing what was familiar to us and having to learn it all anew, probably made us closer than we otherwise would have been. Our family was the one constant in our lives. Vernon and I hardly had “best friends” outside the family, as some boys do. In fact, other than Vernon, I had only one truly close childhood friend, Billy Wood. I don’t recall that Vern had any other confidante. No one stands out.
I can recall life and moving before I began school, of course, and believe that my earliest memory is of moving from someplace I cannot name to a place called Stump. (Kentucky has some colorful place names!) I was two. I remember sitting on my grandfather Sidney’s knee as we arrived at the gate to this new place, where large sycamore trees stood beside the fence.
Grandpa called out, “All off at Sycamore Station!”
I believe that was supposed to have some joke attached to it, for he laughed uproariously, but the humor escapes me.
I remember certain things that occurred while we lived at Stump, things that appear to me like motion picture vignettes, sharp images with nothing to frame them, with no point of reference to date them specifically. I remember best our dogs–shepherd mixes, Lassie and her puppies, Jigs and Speed. We didn’t have Lassie very long, because she kept having litters that we couldn’t support. Our father sent her away. Actually, he sent her away several times, but she found and followed the railroad tracks to the farm and kept coming back. In that, she was like the famous Lassie in the movie, but there was no happy ending for her. Unimpressed with her loyalty in returning to us from many miles away, our father had no mercy. He kept sending her away, until—finally—she was gone for good. We kept the two puppies. Vernon claimed Jigs as his dog. He was named, I believe, for a cartoon character. I claimed Speed as mine. He was a fast runner, thus his name. I noted a marked difference between the two, being always partial to my own. Jigs chased cars on the roadway and was hit by them several times. He was usually in a stage of recovery that would have been called “ambulatory” had he been human. In other words, he limped a lot of the time. Speed was too intelligent to chase cars, I thought. He was never injured. I can envision him today, a medium-size, short-haired, black dog with a thin white blaze on his face, a face that seemed to smile at me. I loved him.
When we moved to Evelyn in Lee County, Jigs and Speed were about five years old. Although the Louisville & Nashville line ran by the farm at Stump, it was not within sight or hearing, and we had never lived very close to the railroad. At Evelyn the house was within sight and about fifty yards from the tracks. In the evening of our first day I heard the whistle of an approaching engine, and was alarmed to also hear the barking and growling of a dog that could only be Speed. He must have thought that the train—coming so close to our house—was a danger to us. He had never before encountered such a threat. When I saw him I saw that he was astraddle a rail, facing the oncoming train, sounding his warning that it was too close to his family. I ran toward the tracks, shouting and begging him to get off the rail, desperately trying to get to him, but the train beat me there and I clearly saw what happened. It was like witnessing a relative’s demise. I can almost feel again that sickening despair as I write about it, for it brings it back to me. I was devastated.
When the train was past, I went about the sorry task of picking up the parts of Speed that remained. My uncle brought a cardboard box from Aunt Gladys’ store beside the post office (the Evelyn for which the place was named), for which I was grateful. I proceeded to dig a grave on the hillside above the tracks. I’m certain that Vernon came to help me, but this was my dog. Vernon would have respected that, and I was allowed to be in charge. Probably thinking that he needed to lighten the mood, Uncle Russell came up again as we finished digging the grave and began to “preach” a funeral service for Speed. I was infuriated! It was years before I could speak to him again and not recall that anger. Years later, I was asked to give his eulogy, and, while I tried not to speak directly of the fury I felt that evening, I did allude to it and said that I knew he had meant well, if he was otherwise misguided. I doubt that the life of a dog ever meant to him what it did, and does, to me.
I tried to get my revenge for Speed’s death, although I knew well enough that it was not the fault of the railroad or of the train’s engineer. But anger boiled inside me, the result of the pain I felt, and I took it out on the railroad, more specifically on its engineers. Once I had a Daisy BB air rifle, I would hide in the bushes on the hillside above the tracks and try to shoot the engineer of any train that came by. Their windows were open in summertime. I don’t know that I ever was successful, but the attempt salved my grief.
At Evelyn, our two-room school was a wooden structure within sight of our house, but across the Kentucky River. The river ran between rather steep banks at this point, and although it was wider both above and below Evelyn, it was perhaps one hundred feet wide here, a continuous stream, deep and calm—calm, that is, until the rains came. There was no bridge, so the only way for us to reach school was by boat. Our younger sister, Audrey, began school at Evelyn. I was nine, and Vernon was twelve years old. Each day our mother came to the river bank and watched as Vernon rowed us across for school. I rode in the bow, so that I could get out and secure the boat once we made shore. Vernon rowed from the center, and Audrey sat in the rear of the boat. We made that journey, to and fro, each school day for a year. In times of flooding—usually in winter after heavy rains—the river became a muddy, swift, swirling, and it seemed to me, angry torrent. Logs and trash and even buildings, or parts of them, came down that stream. I remember seeing horse and cow and other animal carcasses go past. I don’t know what our mother could have done, had either of us fallen into the water, or had we been struck and capsized by some of that flotsam, but she watched us cross each way. She always appeared to be calm. Now I can only imagine her tension.
In times of flooding, in the strong current, we ended up much farther downstream than our point of departure. Our father would go in the evening and bring the boat back upstream to our landing. In the morning we did it again.