For most of my life I have had a speech pattern that has mystified some people.
Many people have assumed that I am from Texas. A woman from Louisiana told me at a party years ago that we west coasters “have radio announcer’s accents”. When pressed, she said that no matter where you go in the country, they all sound “like us”.
That is, just about all of the west coasters.
Despite being a native Angelino (born in Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital), I have had a speech pattern of what I have termed the “Ya’lls”.
While I was being razzed occasionally for this accent as a child by school friends, it is a condition that I have carried proudly. As to how I acquired it, that too is a bit mysterious. Perhaps it came via osmosis from my mother in the womb, as she is a native West Virginian but was in California 2 years before I was born.
Or perhaps it was gradually acquired during the many summers I spent at “The Farm” – the home outside Huntington that the first Wilsons – ancestors of my mother – coming from Scotland made in 1790. After the Depression, when my grandfather had to sell off a lot of the land, it was down to about 100 acres.
This is a region known as the Tri-State area – with the borders of Kentucky and Ohio within a 20 minute drive. A lot of Huntington’s prosperity was driven by the railroad – the Chesapeake & Ohio, and the traffic along the Ohio River. Huntington is a relative newcomer to the area, founded by railroad tycoon Colis P. Huntington in 1871 as a hub for the C & O that helped move the coal.
But there are a number of small towns around Huntington that were founded in the late 1700s-early 1800s when West Virginia was the wilderness area of Western Virginia. Towns like Kenova (for Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia), Ceredo and Barboursville.
Right by The Farm is a narrow seemingly ordinary paved road, except that it is one of the remnants of the James River Turnpike. West Virginia was Virginia’s wilderness area but it wasn’t cut off.
And it is the area where the Hatfields & McCoys had their famous 30 year feud.
Only one family was from West Virginia, the Hatfields. The McCoys lived across the Big Sandy River in Kentucky.
I remember reading in Tom Wolfe’s wonderful book The Right Stuff that during the 1950s a lot of airline pilots tried their best imitating this particular speech pattern. They were trying to emulate another West Virginian, the first to break the sound barrier.
Chuck Yeager’s voice was the epitome of coolness under pressure, with the drawn-out syllables and the “ya’lls”. Yeager is from Hamlin, a town today of about 1,100 and 27 miles away from Huntington.
Many people seem to have a stereotype of West Virginians that is a bit misleading, even insulting. You probably know the stereotype. Backwards hillbillies.
But another stereotype exists for Manhattanites (just to pick a group out of the very large stereotype jar) – that they are supposed to be almost without exception loud, rude and too busy to help the stranger.
That, too, I found to be wrong so perhaps for those holding the stereotypes on any people it is more a reflection on them – having no interest in learning about them or meeting them. It is easier for some to hold onto preconceptions and prejudices.
My mother told me the story of when I was 3 years old and visiting The Farm, a similarly-aged boy whose family had very little offered me some of his candy.
West Virginians have, almost without exception, always returned my greeting of “Good Morning” or giving detailed directions when asked. They almost always have time for you. During all of the years I have gone there, I can think of only 1 acidic comment a West Virginian returned to me.
My uncle and I were at one of his construction sites and he was talking to an engineer on the project. The engineer just happened to have one of the then new Porsche 930 Turbos. For the time, it had raised the performance bar of street cars exponentially, and was the talk of the automotive press that year.
Since I have been a gearhead most of my life I had to ask him how he liked it.
“How do you think I like it?” he said.
I guess the reason the exchange has remained with me 38 years later was because it was so rare and unexpected. But it did show that jackasses exist everywhere. Or maybe he was just having a bad day.
Whenever I have come back here I have had the feeling that I am coming back home.
West Virginians have always answered their country’s call whenever they were needed. Probably on a per-capita basis, they are near the forefront.
There are small bridges and roadways all over the state that are named not only for Generals and Admirals, but Pfc’s and Seamen.
The humorous side in me has also noted so many buildings and public projects named after their late Senator Robert Byrd. I am not sure if this fact illustrates the best traditions of Congress, but when I recently asked my cousin Sara about this, she said that Byrd was a master politician who knew how to call in favors.
And everyone, I suppose, loves their politician who knows how to “bring home the bacon”.
If you want to get a glimpse of Huntington and her people without going there, there’s a movie that I believe shows them at one of the worst times in their history. I had driven the week before this event from school in Virginia to visit the Wilsons. My uncle took me to see their school, Marshall, play Kent State.
I can still see all of the players on that green field.
A week later, all of them were killed in the jet returning to Huntington Tri State Airport. Besides virtually all of the football team & coach if I recall correctly some prominent businessmen and civic leaders were on that plane. It remains 44 years later the worst sports-related accident in history for this country.
I think the movie, We Are Marshall, portrayed that time and the people well, although a few of the characters are composites of the people they portrayed. The city had its heart cut out. Saying that the mood at the time was “somber” doesn’t really convey the feeling. The feeling in the town was more dead than alive.
But they decided to come back. Talk to any long-time Huntingtonian today and chances are they either suffered a personal loss in that tragedy, or knows someone else who did.
West Virginians are tough.
My time at The Farm started when I was 3 or so – while my father was recalled to Korea my mother took me back there to see her brother and his wife.
I really didn’t come to know it until I was 12 – my parents thought I should go back there for the summer. That was the beginning of my Big Adventure, and my destination for the night was some relatives of my aunt in Cincinnati. The next morning Aunt Bernice picked me up and along the 2-3 hour drive to Huntington took me along US Rt 60, which followed the Ohio River and went through some historic old towns along the river from the 1700s.
My uncle ran a construction company and rented out the “Farm” portion to a family that had been dairy farming for generations. The grounds of The Farm were my uncle’s headquarters – and storage site – for all of his equipment, from a huge P & H mobile crane, to a boat or 2 (used when he was working on river locks, I presume).
Over the years and visits, it became a formative influence on my life. For over 50 years I have wondered exactly why it became such an influence. Why did I love it so?
You know when you love something or someone, but can’t explain why? A recent talk with Sara during my time there last week – to bury our last uncle Peter, unveiled the mystery, I believe.
My uncle Willis & Aunt Bernice allowed us to thrive under what Sara called “supervised freedom”. If this phrase seems contradictory, let me elaborate with a story.
When Sara and her best friend Cassie were young girls, they happened to wander across a fence into a pasture. In the pasture happened to be a bull, and before the bull could charge them someone from the farm saw them and got them out. They were allowed to roam the grounds to explore, despite the presence of potentially dangerous machinery and animals.
There were eyes everywhere, and certainly some rules (as anyone successful in life has to follow) but we were free to explore and make our mistakes. As long as it would seem we wouldn’t repeat the mistakes, particularly mistakes that would harm us or others, we were free to continue. We were to learn from our mistakes.
When I was about 13 and driving a jeep, I did something stupid that could have killed me. If I hadn’t had a presence of mind to avoid what could have been a bad accident, I wouldn’t be typing this. Even then, having a presence of mind doesn’t always save you. What I did will have to wait for another story. .
My uncle, upon hearing this, just laughed and shook his head. And my near-accident made for another story that was told for many years. I made more than a few family stories, all at my expense. All came from over-confidence and a lack of humility. But at least they provided humor for my aunt and uncle.
It was obvious to him that I had realized my mistake. I got a green light to continue driving. Had I repeatedly shown the same stupidity and lack of judgment, I am sure that the keys would have gone. He would have had my parents to answer to!
There were times when even my stubbornness got to him. Stubbornness has in my life, been both strength and a weakness. There are times in one’s life when it is stupid to proceed on the same path. There is a small sign above my wet bar at home, proclaiming that “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell him much.” My last name is Brandt, after all.
When your mother’s side of the family has a lot of Scottish blood with a bit of German and your father’s side has a lot of German blood with a bit of Scottish, it’s a mathematical probability that in the hand dealt you, there will be a stubbornness card. Maybe I got a pair or even three-of-a-kind.
“Billy knows best”, he would say. He would let me continue on my errant ways, and as long as I wasn’t a danger to myself or others, it was fine. I guess I am still doing that, but that is a theme for another essay.
Sara recently told me an amusing anecdote a few days ago when she was 8 years old, and entering the 3rd grade. She had just returned from summer vacation, and her new 3rd grade teacher asked the students to write an essay on what they did over the summer. Eight year old Sara wrote a paper entitled, My Gun My Jeep and My Horse. The commas are omitted because an 8 year old didn’t know how to use them.
The teacher thought little Sara had an over-active imagination until her mother had to come in and explain that she had really experienced all of these things.
To me, The Farm was a near magical place. It was a place where a 12 year old boy from urban California could learn how to drive a jeep, ride a horse and shoot. It was a place to explore. My aunt and uncle were a 2nd set of parents to me.
Knowing how some have had to grow up, I was very lucky.
It was a place where an uncle, while running a large construction company, had the heart of a little boy. Although he has been gone for 16 years I can see some of his traits in me. Whether that is from my time there, or I am hard wired I cannot say.
There was an old hook & ladder fire truck at The Farm, because my uncle Willis saw it at an auction and had to have it. There did not have to be a reason for having it other than he wanted to add it to his menagerie. The collection also included at one time, a donkey named Kisma (think about it), about 10 golf carts, gas and electric, for one’s personal use and of course, The Jeep.
The Jeep was a genuine WW2 jeep made by Willys in 1947. My uncle bought it new at a surplus auction when Willys was fulfilling their government contract even though the war had ended 2 years earlier.
By the time I got there, unlike the familiar olive drab, The Jeep was painted a powder blue. When Sara and I were about 13, after a couple of hours of thoughtful deliberation we made an orange racing stripe down the length of the vehicle. We wanted to make it look like a LeMans contender.
When I was 12 years old, my uncle, after a lot of patience and grinding gears, had me driving the 3 speed jeep. For a 12 year old boy, I was in Nirvana. The keys were mine to borrow at any time.
The grounds of The Farm were my course. I suppose I should say race course because I think it was that year my uncle gave me the nickname of Tiger as a result of my driving habits.
Probably because of me, he had a sign installed at the driveway that said “Caution, children driving” with a painting of a child driving a jeep that was pitched over on two wheels, churning up dust behind it. I guess I had an influence on my uncle, too.
To quote a popular and humble scribe though – it wasn’t all beer and skittles. I learned about hard work there. It was hard physical work. Among memorable jobs was shoveling out horse manure. There was a lot to be shoveled. Add a nice hot and humid day in a stall, a cloud of flies that swarmed as if on command when the shovel hit “pay dirt”, and after an hour I could see the sign at the entryway to Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.
I couldn’t quit until it was done.
I was also a ditch digger one summer, helping to lay sewer pipe during those humid and sweltering days. I can still see my uncle coming by the site between the sweat dripping off my head. He had a straw brim hat and would talk to the foreman. No special treatment for the nephew.
But the work helped to form my life, too.
It was a place of still summer nights with the fireflies, the sound of rain and thunder on a summer night, and the sound of the screen door slamming on the front porch.
It was Thanksgiving in the darkened dining room, with light flickering off the walls from the candles in the Williamsburg glass globes. There were the Christmas parties with 100 people and dozens of conversations hitting your ear.
My uncle always wore his traditional Christmas trousers that were dark green with red holly berries on them. He had bought those in years earlier in Carmel while visiting my family.
And lest you think that their home was some expansive grounds similar to Gone With The Wind, it was pretty much the opposite. The house was actually a composite of old and newer.
The original portion of the house was made from the original 2 log houses the earlier Wilsons built in 1815 and 1825. The latter log house was only a few feet from the first house, and some years later a structure was built joining the 2.
Why a log house, and not a cabin? A log house has the logs cut and squared on the sides. It is a more finished log that gives conventional flat walls. And these 2 homes were among the first in the area that had second stories.
When my uncle and his bride moved there in the 1930s, he modernized the homes, using them as a basis for the living room and dining room, with the top stories being 2 bedrooms. He built a kitchen and 2 other bedrooms as an annex to the 2 homes.
Not only were there things to do at The Farm, but characters to know. And the chief character was my uncle Willis. But my Aunt Bernice had a great supporting role, along with cousin Sara, and there were others.
They had names and nicknames like Timer, Cecil, Mutt, Mr. Tipp, and Garlic Dick. Most had 2 legs while a few had four.
June 1, 1998 was one of those days you know is a milestone in your life. You know that what your life was before that day will be different after that day. And it brings some sadness.
It was the day my uncle Willis died.
My aunt knew at her age she could not live at The Farm by herself, and asked us if she should sell it. For me, The Farm was not only a place, but a time where wonderful people converged. Living there in the present would remind you of its emptiness but surrounded by good memories. Perhaps most importantly it cost a lot of money to maintain. Money we really didn’t have.
From what I have heard, a church bought the grounds.
While the idea of giving up a place that had been in the family for over 200 years would have horrified my uncle, the plans of the church would have made him happy. At least I have heard that they want to use the grounds to help children.
I went to school in Virginia on a suggestion from my aunt, and over the 2 years I was there, had to have made a dozen 700 mile weekend trips via US Rt 60 to see them. The memories I will always have.
My aunt lived another 8 years. My parents probably saved her life when taking her through the Kentucky horse country; they noticed that she seemed to be acting a bit strangely. Rather than leave her at her apartment at the retirement center, they called the hospital. And there is a story about that I’ll tell at a later time.
She was having a stroke. The stroke debilitated her for another 5 years or so, but I called her every night. In 2006, I decided to drive back to Minneapolis to attend my niece’s wedding, and thought nothing of driving another 800 miles to West Virginia to see my aunt.
I got to tell her how much she and my uncle had meant in my life, and despite the fact that her speech was off, I could sense that she understood me. When I left I knew that would be the last time I would see her.
Two months later a 2nd stroke stroke came, and she died. I believe that God, or Fate, whichever your choice, allowed me that last visit. Personally, I go with God.
The Farm and West Virginia are a part of me.
It was suggested that I record some of their stories, and in the coming months I hope to give you some.
Part 2 is here.