CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Livin' Real Life On Barbecue Run

By Jack Cawthon 2001

I was born so far up a holler in Gilmer County that it took radio waves from high-powered WSM Nashville five months to reach us with the Grand Ole Opry. By the time they got there so much of the harshness had worn off Roy Acuff's voice traveling over the twists and turns and scraping along crick bottoms that we couldn't tell him from Eddy Arnold.

About the time of my birth, natural gas was discovered in the holler. Two wells were drilled on our property, which from then on distinguished us as affluent with our $600 annual income.

The greatest change came, however, with the unlimited free gas, which meant that my dad, being a hill farmer genius with his inventions and innovations, converted us to an all-gas home in the twinkle of a pilot light.

The only electric lights I saw were on the drilling rigs, as the drillers made their own electric with generators, or on trips to the big city of Glenville. A prized possession for us holler kids was a burnt-out light bulb which the drillers passed along to the favored kids.

That and a stick of chewing gum also given by the drillers to a kid sitting spellbound watching the walking beam of the cable tool rig and hearing the bang, bang, pause, pause, pause, bang, bang of the gas-fired engines produced a magical world.

Even today when I pass near a drilling operation I sniff the gas in the air and breathe heavily. My wife thinks it's just another one of my eccentric traits, but I tell her it is the smell of money-or maybe memories.

To have free gas meant no more loads of coal hauled from the other side of Glenville, a close to 40-mile round trip that took the better part of two days with a road wagon pulled by horses.

We had gas heat, gas lights, an outside gas burner to heat wash water, a gas refrigerator, and wonders of all, my dad converted a Model A Ford engine to run on the free gas to charge batteries for our radio.

We had the only radio for miles around that always had good batteries, although that l6-tube Silvertone slurped juice like a UFO at a high-tension substation.

We would have one battery in the radio and one on the charger, as the old Model A engine ran almost day and night. Talk about energy conversion! And free! Mechanics told my dad that he would burn up the engine running it on natural gas, but he always said Henry Ford had made a mistake when he designed it, making the valve stems too long. He proceeded to grind them down and modified the engine both in the charger and in our car. They both purred like kittens, tiger kittens, if you have ever heard a well-tuned Model A purr.

A high-powered Silvertone would pick up the farthest stations, which meant soap operas for my grandmother, my mother and me. I would run many times the full two miles from my one-room school after my mentally disturbed teacher had kept me in hoping to be in time for Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.

Then, I got the standard fare for kids in the evening like Jack Armstrong. My grandma was addicted to my programs, and she would sit enthralled with me, proving, perhaps, that the old and the young meld at some stage in life.

Then, at night it was Lum 'n Abner and other fare for the whole family, after Lowell Thomas for my dad. I still remember the famous broadcast where he broke up on the air and laughed for almost the entire 15 minutes.

But the big events were the prize fights. People came from hollers miles around to our place, most of them hoping for Joe Lewis to get his head knocked off, which wasn't so much racially motivated as the country people didn't like him because he always won. We would serve popcorn, apples, peanut butter fudge and other homemade goodies.

Our radio was the only one that was always ready for the air with fresh batteries. Many sets used dry cells which couldn't be recharged, and they cost too much for most folks back then to replace regularly. (Soaking them in hot water would gain a few more listening minutes.)

I was often called on in school after the new teacher came to show off my knowledge of world conditions and the then raging war. I still remember the day of Pearl Harbor as I ran terrified out to search the sky for bombers coming to our holler to blow us all to kingdom come. For months afterwards we always observed blackout rules by hanging heavy blankets over our windows.

Fortunately, the Japanese never found Barbecue Run until a good 30 or 40 years later, then not with bombers but with their cars.

We fooled them, however. We had all moved away.