G.C. (Red) Jones' first book is an absorbing tale told in vernacular language of the teamsters, farmers and miners in rural, mountainous Kentucky in the early decades of this century.
Turned out of home by his family at age 12, Red never went beyond the fourth grade. Life was rough, tough and often dangerous; buffeted by the ups and downs of the economy, his career was like a roller coaster ride. From hoboing in big cities, through looking for work, to success with modest comfort, the times gave him many jobs. Red was a farmer, teamster, miner, union organizer, road contractor and World War II sailor. Every few pages we are amazed at the man's gutsy fortitude and optimism -- he never indulges in a word of self-pity.
The narrative flows with the symmetry that comes naturally to the accomplished storyteller. There's a backdrop of the events of the times: rural America in the '20s, the peak days of coal mining, the bitter struggles of the Depression, the excitement and tedium for a convoy sailor in World War II and the booming aftermath of vigorous development; in the foreground is a husky young man who, on his own, can make his way at any job and at the same time reach maturity and manhood without a family's moral support.
There is a balance of good times and bad times as the economy of the mountain region moves from agriculture to coal mining. The grimmest years record the nightmarish war between the union and the mine owners. There was terrorism in the coal fields, with homes dynamited, miners murdered and wives attacked. To prevent the shipment of coal, a railroad bridge was blasted; roving groups of union men ambushed a truck and a car and shot three company thugs and 14 National Guardsmen. Dousing vehicles with gasoline, the rovers made a funeral pyre and fled to the hills. The shocking events seem like scenes of guerrilla warfare of a distant land -- alien to our American scene.
No account of Appalachia in the '20s and '30s can fail to mention moonshine. There's an affinity among mountain farming, coal mining and bootlegging. During his teamster days, Red Jones, his wagon and a team of Morgan horses hauled 400-gallon loads of moonshine over Pine Mountain. With the jugs carefully hidden in the more innocent cargo of lard, molasses, furs and hide, he was never caught. Fortunately, he was tipped off and escaped the revenue agents when they finally closed in. But his friend Ford, the prosperous farm owner for whom he handled loads of moonshine, was arrested and died of a heart attack on the way to federal prison.
The good times were simple pleasures -- often gastronomic: "a plate loaded with a big pile of real golden fried taters, two eggs that looked like two big eyes staring at me, four or five strips of good, lean, fresh bacon, and a big blue granite cup of steaming coffee," or "a big glass of cold milk with a large piece of dried apple stack cake."
Poignant are the descriptions of love and home -- comforts his family mostly denied him.
At one time of reconciliation, "Mom had fixed me a good bed. It had big springy corn shuck ticking on the bottom and a thick feather ticking on top of it. She had put two of her best quilts on for the covers. After being nearly froze the night before, getting to sleep in this warm bed is just something I can't describe to you, the comfort I got from laying there.
"As I laid there, letting my thoughts wander back to sleepless nights of cold camping on trips across the mountain and restless nights at Mrs. Walters' and Artie's, I got to wondering if the way I was growing into a man was the way the Lord meant it to be. I closed my eyes and thought a silent prayer of thanks for all the good things he had given me and for helping me over the rough places, to where I was now."
Always hoping his love would be returned, Red Jones persisted in his for his family; at Christmas time, it was like the soft light and the warmth from the back log in the big family fireplace. Only his sister, Artie, gave him a gift in return, but he still delighted in giving presents purchased with his teamster earnings to parents, brothers and sisters.
There's a small dramatic climax, well timed in the final pages. Red finally tells the whole story of the years of unhappy estrangement from his family. Compassionate and forgiving, he shows his love for his relatives and fellow man. This book is an outstanding oral history, and Red Jones displays a gifted storyteller's punch.