Shameless plug for my dad’s new book

cover-kindle.pngSince he retired from teaching almost 20 years ago, my dad’s embarked on a second career as a writer. He followed my into journalism and began writing a column in our hometown newspaper that was eventually syndicated to a handful of other weekly papers in Eastern Kentucky.

Then, he started writing books. His latest came out this week. It’s called The Overnight City: The Life and Times of Van Lear, Kentucky 1908-1947.

Van Lear was a coal-company town, and if the name rings a bell, it’s probably because you’re a fan of the country singer Loretta Lynn. She sings about Van Lear in her song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

“My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines….”

Van Lear was founded in 1908 by Consolidation Coal Co. and fell into decline when Consolidation Coal sold its holdings in 1947. The town itself survived, but with a dwindling population and only a handful of businesses, the city government was dissolved in the 1960s. Van Lear is an unincorporated community now.

In its heyday, though, it was something else.  It had stores and churches and schools and a movie theater and a coal-fired power plant that provided electricity to a big part of the Big Sandy Valley. There were murders and fights and moonshiners, but there were also baseball games and 8th-grade graduations and “society news,” which was really just a list of who visited whom.

Dad went through 40 years’ wrote of old newspapers to find everything he could about the life and times of Van Lear, and when you read these hundreds of clips in chronological order, you get a real sense of what it must have been like to live there in the first half of the 20th century.

Anyway, that’s my shameless plug. The book’s at Amazon and in the Kindle store. If you’re from that part of the country, you might enjoy it. If you’re from someplace else, well, we won’t hold it against you.


Santa is kind of like FedEx

Thing 2 (who’s 7 now) is having doubts and asked me the other day whether Santa Claus is real.

I asked him what he thought, and he said he wasn’t sure but that he didn’t see any way that one man on one sleigh could deliver all those toys to every kid on the planet in just one night.

I said that’s not how it works.

I explained that Santa used to deliver all those toys personally. back in the old days, when the population was a lot smaller, but that he uses a lot of helpers these days.

Santa is kind of like FedEx, I said. One truck couldn’t possibly deliver all those packages to all those homes and businesses in all those countries in one 24-hour period, I said, but a fleet of trucks and planes certainly could.

I said Santa runs the operation. He’s like the CEO. The toys are made by the toy companies, not elves. These days, the elves run the warehouse and oversee distribution.

The toys are delivered first to Santa’s headquarters at the North Pole and then, on Christmas Eve, they’re flown on big cargo planes from the central warehouse to regional distribution centers all over the world and then to local distribution centers, where the toys are placed on trucks and driven to people’s homes.

That’s a lot easier and a lot more efficient than trying to pile all those toys on just one sleigh, I said. The delivery truck drivers drink the milk and cookies and send any leftovers to the North Pole, where Santa shares them with the elves.

Thing 2 thought about it for a moment or two. “I don’t get it,” he said.

That’s OK, I said.

In this 1927 photo, Santa Claus (left) receives his pilot’s license from William P. MacCracken (seated) and Clarence M. Young of the U.S. Department of Commerce. PHOTO: Library of Congress

Remembering Uncle Cecil, the Apple King

IMG_0125This weekend is Apple Day in Paintsville, Kentucky. Officially, it’s the Kentucky Apple Festival, but everyone calls it Apple Day.

It’s basically a county fair. There’s a carnival, a parade, a book signing and a lot of food, like apple pie, caramel apples and apple butter. There aren’t really a lot of orchards in Johnson County, but there are a few, and every year, the farmer with the best apples is proclaimed the Apple King.

When I was 8 years old, my Great Uncle Cecil Meek was Apple King because of his Minerva apples.

Cecil was Granny’s brother. He and Aunt Minerva never had kids, but people adopted them as surrogate grandparents. They lived in a log house they built themselves on a small farm up a hollow near a place called Meally.

They bickered a lot. Minerva was a little hard of hearing, and Cecil sort of mumbled. He’d say something, she wouldn’t understand him, so he’d say it louder and louder until she understood or accused him of yelling at her, but they loved each other deeply.

Cecil was kind of a hacker, in the DIY-sense of the word. He loved taking things apart and seeing how they worked and trying to make them do things they weren’t meant to do. He tinkered with old radios, model trains and Aunt Minerva’s hearing aids (which he could never figure out how to put back together), and he tinkered with his apple trees.

I don’t know a lot about horticulture, but he would take stems from one kind of apple tree and graft them onto another one, and after many years, he came up with a hybrid he called the Minerva apple.

Minerva apples were yellow and big and perfect — crisp, not mushy, and a little more sweet than tart. When he finally entered the Minerva apple in the Apple Day contest, the other farmers didn’t have a chance.

I don’t remember the last time I had a Minerva apple. As he and Minerva got older, Cecil let his orchard go, and, one year, there simply weren’t any more.

Minerva passed away in 1995, and Cecil died in 1999. I went to see him a few months before he died. He was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching CNN on the little TV in the corner. We were making small talk, and I asked how he came up with the Minerva apple.

He grinned but wouldn’t tell me, because, really, those apples were always just Minerva’s apples.

Originally posted, in a slightly different form, on Sept. 29, 2011