I lived and worked in Kentucky for eight of the best years of my life. I learned to drink Kentucky bourbon, pronounce Louisville (Loo-a-vul), and give directions to Paducah (it's the big town between Possum Trot and Monkey's Eyebrow). With two or three mint juleps under my belt, I can almost sing "My Old Kentucky Home." And somewhere in a closet I have a certificate that proclaims me a genuine Kentucky Colonel.
Some of my most vivid memories about Kentucky are of Pikeville, a coal-mining center of about 5,000 in the southeastern corner of the state. Not because it is a particularly beautiful or hospitable place. It isn't. The people here are among the most intolerant I have ever met.
Pikeville is a rich city by Appalachian standards. it may have more lawyers (54 are listed in the telephone book) and millionaires per capita than any place in America. In the early '70s, its Cadillac dealership sold more Cadillacs per capita than any other in the state.
During the late 1960s, Pikeville was also a good news town. At a time when radical students all over the country were protesting against conservative administrations, the students of Pikeville College walked out of their classes to protest their liberal college president. He was a young man named Thomas Johns, who told the students "do your own thing." "I dont't know what my own thing is," one student told me. "And if I did, I wouldn't know how to do it."
In those days, the war on poverty was being fought in the trenches in places like Marrowbone Creek and Poor Bottom Hollow in Pike Country. A group of young anti-poverty warriors, called the Appalachian Volunteers, scared the living daylights out of the local power structure. Thomas Ratliff, the local prosecuting attorney, became convinced that the anti-poverty workers were part of the international communist menace and were hellbent on overthrowing the U.S. government from a base in Pike Country. Just why the international communist conspiracy picked Pike Country to launch this effort was never fully explained.
But the idea that mysterious forces were at work seemed plausible enough to many people in Pikesville. So one dark night Ratcliff lead a raid on the home of Al and Margaret McSureley, two young anti-poverty workers. He found a bunch of books, common to libraries of many students of the day, including The Poems of Mao and Catch 22. The McSureleys were charged with sedition under a law that was later declared unconstitutional. But then Sen. John L. McClellan (D-Ark.) and his Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations became intrigued with the witch hunt and carried it forward for years.
Returning to Pikesville after 10 years, the first impression is how much the place has changed. There are two skyscrapers in downtown; one the new eight-story home of First National Bank, the other public housing for the elderly. There is a giant new shopping mall outside town, and a new motel with racquetball court. Suburbia has come to the mountains.
But then I picked up a recent edition of The Appalachian Express, the local newspaper. There on the front page was the same Thomas Ratliff, now a coal mine operator and the county's largest homegrown landowner. He was once again seeing war around the next corner. This time he said it was coming from the United Mine Workers union, which has been on strike the last six weeks.
"Come Monday morning there's going to be a war," Ratliff was quoted as saying.
Monday morning, of course, came and went with no war.
But that's not the point of this letter. The point is no matter how much things appear to change in Kentucky they really don't. And this what has always fascinated me about the state.
Put another way, the damndest things happen here.
I was reminded of this when I stopped to visit friends in Frankfort on my way to the mountains. The hottest topic in town wasn't the then-upcoming Kentucky Derby, but a bizarre sex harassment case, now about a month old. The case centered on one of the state's great political names, Agriculture Commissioner yalben Barkley II, the grandson of the late vice president.
After a well-publicized hearing, Barkely, a young man with a once promising political career ahead of him was convicted of looking down the low-slung blouse of a secretary and suggesting, half jokingly, that he'd like to go to bed with her. The state public television network thought enough of the proceedings to broadcast them live, gavel to gavel.
Because of a quirk in Kentucky law, Barkley couldn't be penalized for his offense because he is an elected official. But the show made great television, and reading in state newspapers. For a week, the TV show "Dallas" took a back seat all over the state.
My next stop was Hazard, a rough-and-tumble mining town in the mountains. Perry County Judge Carroll Fugate couldn't see me my first full day in town. He had just been indicted for "a pattern of racketeering activities," including arson, and he had to be in court. It seems Fugate had a falling out with a former county employe, Darrell (Frog) Cole.
Cole was accused of plotting with Fugate to burn down a county garage to collect on a $210,000 insurance claim. The plot went off without a hitch, according to the indictment. On Nov. 21, 1979, Cole allegedly "by use of gasoline, willfully set fire to the garage, resulting in its total destruction," while Fugate, the indictment said, lured a county road foreman elsewhere.
The plot didn't fall apart until Cole was fired from his county job. Then he decided to squeal. "Carroll should have been indicted for dumbness, not racketeering," the guy who filled my car with gasoline said.
Like I said, the damndest things happen in Kentucky. It felt good to be home.