As I walked into This ‘N That at Benham earlier this month, I saw a few people seated at a table at the back of the store, drinking their morning coffee and enjoying the day’s conversation. Within no time at all, I had asked them three or four questions and learned a particular piece of information that made me sad.
In a modern American literature class I taught recently, one of my students encouraged me to try to connect with two of my childhood friends, Norman and Sonny Williams. As luck would have it, one of the ladies at the table was the widow of my friend’s brother, Osam Williams Jr. She informed me that both of my friends had passed as well as their sister, Jewel, who taught me how to blow bubbles. Why was I thinking about Jewel and bubble gum? The day before my seven-year-old niece, Kaylee, had been demonstrating that she had just learned the technique of blowing bubbles, and I told her how I had learned it from Jewel Williams, sitting on the railroad tracks above what is now Parker Street (no longer are there railroad tracks as that is a walking trail).
While my husband went off with Elvis Gregory to examine Elvis’ collection of old 78 records, I determined that interviewing Huburt Payne, 93, of Blair, might be interesting. So he and his wife, Belle, invited me to sit on the back porch of the store where we would not be disturbed by customers coming and going. The back porch was quiet with a view of beautiful foliage and a nice breeze coming off Looney Creek.
Payne was born in Exeter, Va., and although he knows the date of his birth, Oct. 10, 1920, government officials don’t seem to know that. All his efforts to make corrections have resulted in ongoing delays and governmental requests for more processing fees.
His father, James, was a coal miner, and against his wishes and that of his mother, Huburt dropped out of school in the sixth grade. He says, “I liked to hunt and fish better than to go to school. I kept pestering dad, and he finally let me drop out. I hunted squirrels and rabbits, brought ‘em home, and Mother cooked ‘em. I went to the mountains and chopped firewood, got 10 cents a basket or three baskets for 25 cents.
“I married at age 20 and had one odd job and another until I was 32 when I went to work with my dad on a coal machine. I worked seven years at Derby and 27 at Benham. I ran a coal machine, pinned top, shot coal and ran a shuttle car.”
Huburt has Black Lung and reports in regard to his treatment plan, “I don’t know what all I take. It’s eight kinds of pills a day for breathing, for my sugar, for pain in my feet, and to thin my blood.
“I get out and try to move around. I got four kids: Jerilee in Georgia, Howard Ray here in Benham, Linda Gay who is deceased, and Huburt Jr., who’s in prison. Huburt’s wife was in a relationship with a feller, and Huburt killed the man. My son was sentenced to 27 years. If that had happened in Kentucky, he would have been out a long time ago.”
When asked about the war on coal and all the miners being out of work, Huburt gets a troubled look on his face. “I don’t like it at all. They’s too many little children going hungry. There ain’t nothin’ I can do about it, just pray. Harlan County is gonna be a ghost town, ain’t nothin’ for them.”
He notes differences between Cumberland and Benham: “Benham looks better. It’s better managed. The liquor in Cumberland is a problem, and we got people there who don’t want nothin’ to come in. That way they can charge you what they want, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.”
Huburt became a Christian 25 years ago, “turned my life over to the Lord. It’s wonderful to live a Christian life. My wife, Belle, is a good woman. Before she came into my life (his first wife died of diabetes), I could hardly walk. I needed somebody. I was having car wrecks. She’s my maid, picks up after me, washes and irons my clothes, cooks. She gets my love in return. She’s someone I can come home to and love. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d been dead a long time ago.”
Of getting old, Huburt says, “There ain’t no fun in getting’ old. Go or stay, I’m ready to go, and the Lord is waitin’ for me. Heaven is gonna have everything we ain’t got down here: no sickness, no funeral homes, and I’ll be able to breathe good. It’ll be just perfect.
I expect there’ll be corn bread, soup beans, okra, buttermilk and fried chicken. There I can hunt in the mountains from daylight ‘til dark. Whatever it’ll be, it’ll be all right with me.”
As we conclude the interview, he asks, “Do you know where they got the name Benham from?”
“Not really. Was that the name of the man who was the head of the International Harvester Company?”
“No, I’ve been told this area was plumb full of Benham apple trees. And another thing about heaven, I won’t have to mess with all those people who can’t get my birthday straight.”
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