Today’s guest post was written by John Carlton Templeton.
Photo – Archives of the City of Kingsport
“The Pit of Christmas”
By John Carlton Templeton
December 13, 2014
A railroad is a cold being—cold, hard and noisy. Its steely guides run for miles through rural paradises and the backsides of big cities and never speak, never turn to catch a scarlet maple ablaze on a fall morning, never slow to comfort a sodden vagrant asleep under a stack of damp cardboard. The snarling blaze of its of its steam boiler never warms a raggedy mountain family but dismissively urges its massive engine onward through the next crossing, into the next station and beyond. A hissing, spouting, growling, titanic engine drives past flat-footed onlookers splashing icy terror onto their faces. Its pounding pistons and thrashing drive arms can tear through a stalled pickup truck and not slow by a single mph. And yet . . . and yet the merciless chill of an unthinking beast can be turned by the mind and hand of a caring people into a means of hope, a moment of joy and an opportunity for kindness.
At no other time on the calendar are loneliness and deprivation felt more sharply than at Christmas. The season itself for much of America is one of dark, short days, bitter winds and frosty awakenings. For the denizens of Appalachia, despair is a daily battle. Despite the spiritual trappings and rewarding introspection of true Christmas, it is difficult to understate the heartening effects and the psychic warmth generated by modern decorations–tall buildings hosting giant, luminescent stars, parks displaying huge lighted trees and electric reindeer drawing a frolicking sleigh across suburban rooftops.
Such sights are not so common in the isolated mountain communities of Appalachia. Families are large and, though love abounds in such broods, scarcity is often its companion. So it was with my family. Seeking lower rents, my father, a factory worker, had moved Mama and the seven children to a comfortable but spare frame house on a hill overlooking the Holston River in Hawkins County. Uphill about 50 yards, the tracks the Clinchfield Railroad coursed past our house on its way to Kingsport and points south. The winter routine of arising early, getting dressed and trudging across the tracks and over Clark’s Hill to the local three-room schoolhouse two miles away quickly became the order of the day in our new home. A child of eight, of course, does not evaluate the plumbness of walls, the pitch of the floors or the R-value of insulation. A roof and four walls, if it is hosted by a comforting mother and dutiful father, is enough. In winter, childhood friendships and recreation are centered on the school and the weekly gathering at church. School was also the focus of community activities and information. And so it was that from a schoolmate I heard a most fantastic revelation.
“Are you going to meet the Santa Train when it comes?” he asked with the casual assuredness that almost removes any doubt.
In 1953, the Santa Train had already been making its magical journey for ten years. Between Christmas Seasons, the primary purpose of the Clinchfield Railroad was to haul coal out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky to as far south as Spartanburg, SC, from its beginning in Elkhorn City, KY. On its northward journey, it carried, among other things, woven goods from the mills of the Piedmont. A profitable and socially useful enterprise demands no other validation for, as is said in the law, res ipsa loquitur. And yet, the owners of the CRR were intimately aware of the plight of Appalachia. They could see from the coaches of their passenger trains and from the cabs and cabooses of the freights the poverty, the lack of opportunity for jobs and education, the absence of infrastructure and the frailty of the hardscrabble farm culture. Joining with other industrialists and the chambers of commerce of the towns along their route, they undertook to bring a ray of light to the mountaineers. Each year they would run a train along their route featuring Santa Claus dispensing candy, toys, yuletide music and, of course, the polar laughter of the jolly old elf himself. After consulting with the extroverted eskimo saint, a date near Thanksgiving was chosen for the excursion to avoid cutting into Santa Claus’ busiest month.
I quickly absorbed the history of the Santa Train and promised myself to take part in this enchanting ritual when it next arrived. As the date approached, I grilled friend and family about the details—what time, where to stand, which side of the tracks, how best to pick up the loot, carry a bag or wear an pocketed apron, competition from others—I wanted to know it all and be prepared.
Even at 8 years I was familiar with the railroad bed. The tracks came out of Sensabaugh Tunnel about 300 yards to the right of the path and between the mouth of the tunnel and the crossing at Detour Hill Road, the tracks made a swooping curve that ran about half a mile. There was no room to stand on the high side of the track as the bed was cut into the side of the hill. As the coal-laden trains came out of the tunnel and hit the curve, they were wont to shed a few of the larger lumps of coal that rode uneasily at the top of the load. Over the life of the railroad, this ebony jetsam formed a thick layer of coal along the outside of the tracks giving rise, in turn, to a minor industry for a few of the locals. They dug up the coal placing it in burlap bags to carry home to fuel their fireplaces and Warm Morning heaters.
Principal among the coal-baggers was one Earl Roberts. Earl was the only son in a peculiar family that included three sisters, a mother and a father. To call Earl’s father, Amos, eccentric was to demonstrate the shortcomings of the English tongue. Today’s designation of “weird” comes no closer to being adequate. The reclusive and odd behavior of the family quickly made 14 year-old Earl the butt of many jokes and the victim of a volume of dirty tricks and minor abuse. Chief among the tormenters was my older brother, Ted. Nonetheless, Earl suffered the bullying quietly and almost good-naturedly. He was a tall, somewhat S-shaped lad with black hair that usually hung over one eye causing him to repeatedly sling his head in a circular motion to send it back to the top of his head. His teeth were white but large yet not easily contained by his bulbous lips. Earl was the ultimate outsider. Local hearsay had it that his family was Melungeon. Despite the inconsiderate treatment by Ted, he was not reluctant to stop by our house as he trekked up to or back from the coal pit on dark winter’s days. Many times he would arrive conveniently at suppertime and, though we had precious little food to spare, Mama would cut a large block of cornbread and butter it. Earl would eat it as he warmed his hands by the cookstove. Refreshed, he would thank Mama quietly and head for the front porch where his coal sack awaited. Then, heaving the sack of coal over his shoulder, he would trudge into the night disappearing down the hill to the Roberts homestead by the river.
The Santa Train was scheduled to arrive at our area between 9:30 and 10 AM on November 28th. On the designated day, my brother, David, and I rose early, got dressed and with much anticipation made our way up the hill to the Clinchfield tracks. A thin layer of snow covered the ground. To our right, near the tunnel’s mouth, a small gaggle of folks was already in place. Another larger group had gathered to our left near the crossing at Detour Hill. While David moved to the left, I reckoned that, if I got closer to the tunnel but on the outside of the crowd, I’d get a good shot at some of the first bounty thrown from the caboose. After a brief wait, I could hear the flat black steam locomotive hutcha-hutcha-ing into the tunnel. The quavering wail of the whistle echoed through the tunnel and, suddenly, an ominous storm-cloud of black smoke cut by a streak of pure-white steam issued from the vent and out of the cloud the rounded end of the engine emerged lustily clanking and puffing from the tunnel.
Though it seemed to move at a crawl, it had soon loped past the first crowd. I saw a cloud of small items—Yuletide manna—spew from the back of the caboose as the crowd seemed to concentrate into a single being near the tracks. In my eagerness to get my share, I ran toward the crowd instead of holding my chosen spot. Running against the flow of the train, I suddenly realized that the caboose was swooshing past me. Still no goods! I whirled on a heel and gave chase but Santa Claus was already turning his attention to the next crowd at the road crossing. I sprinted after the shrinking train, quickly reaching a blazing pace and then, Whap! The ground disappeared from under my feet; a ragged, lumpy, black maw swallowed me up like a circus seal quaffing a fish. In my lust for loot, I had forgotten Earl’s coal pit. Disgusted, defeated, deflated, wet and covered with a black film, I dragged myself out of the pit and started for home disconsolately carrying an empty sack. Up ahead, the jubilant crowd began to turn its attention away from the receding train and toward their Christmas loot. Smiling and moving with an agitated pulse, they compared bags and held up items I could not identify from afar.
I realized that I was not so much disappointed as I was angry . . . with myself. It wasn’t the failed planning. It wasn’t the dropped pass. It wasn’t envy of the others. There was something else. As I searched my mind for a definition of what I was feeling, I saw a form separate from the crowd and walk toward me. At first, I thought it was David but, no, I had already seen him start down the path for home probably thinking I was ahead of him. By the bobbing gait, I soon realized that it was Earl Roberts. He drew near, the crowd had largely disappeared, and stood in front of me.
“Johnny, I seen you fall. That there was my pit. I shor am sorry. Did you hurt yourself?” He asked.
“No.” I stammered. “I just . . . I don’t know. I guess I just got caught up in it. I made too much of it. I don’t know.”
Earl had already gone well beyond his usual word count. Thrusting a brown paper bag at me, he continued.
“Here, you take this. Hit ain’t now use to me. My daddy calls sweets foolishness an’ I reckon they are. He won’t let ‘em in the house. I’ll just take a few pieces in my pocket for my sisters an’ you can have the rest. You can have that tin pistol, too. My daddy’ll just say I stole it. You okay to git home?”
“Yeah, I’ll be alright. Thanks, Earl.” I said absently.
I was stuck in my shoes. Something big had just happened and my meager try to understand it wasn’t getting anywhere. But I knew it was something I’d remember.
He turned and set out for home with no further comment as I stood and watched his peculiar gait carry him to the path and down the hill empty-handed.
Christmas, 1953. St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Santa Train . . . St. Earl.
I hope you enjoyed John’s writing as much as I did!