|OFF TO JOIN THE NAVY
was on state U.S. Route 23, about three miles west of
Norton. In the
of 1916, the Virginia Coal and Iron Company opened the
No. 8 Josephine
mine just a short distance from our house.
I took a job with them that spring,
Haunted by the
events of the past two years, I could no longer put my
heart into coal
mining. I dreaded the trip down into the mine every
prayed secretly but earnestly as the
jostled down through the dark tunnel that the good
Lord would deliver
safely and in one piece to the topsoil again. At
night, I often had
in which I saw Cot Stuart and Elmer Boles and the
others who had been
and I imagined myself and other friends being mangled
by runaway cars
entombed by cave-ins.
Then one day, after
few months in the Josephine mine, I decided that I had
run my luck far
enough. I was going to quit the coal mines, by God,
even if the
only alternative to mining was
it damn near was, in that country. With that thought
in mind I worked
all afternoon, and did an especially thorough job of
cleaning up my
at the end of my shift.
It was customary in
single-shift mine for a man to leave his tools at his
work station. But
when the last car came by that day, I loaded my tools
My friend Roger
ready to ride the same car
out, looked at me quizzically.
"Where you going,
"I'm going to join
United States Navy, if they'll take me."
"Wait just a
Roger said, "I'll go with you."
as easy in 1916 as it is today. There is a Navy
recruiter in every town
in the country nowadays, trying to sell every clown
who'll listen on the idea of a Navy
It didn't used to be
In July of 1916 I
goodbye to a lot of good friends in leaving home to
join the Navy.
Pop (to whom you'll
that I may refer from time to time as "the Old Man" or
me to the train. I saw in his eye that day the first
and only tear I
saw him shed.
Accompanying us to
station were my friends Frank Kelly (later killed at
camp) , Bill Kelly (now retired, and a neighbor of
mine in Florida),
Prader (who was to die of gunshot wounds after killing
two men), and a
host of other boys whose names I can't recall at this
of course, went with me to the Naval Training Station
Let me point out
that Roger and I traveled the 460 miles to Norfolk at
our own expense,
on the chance that we would be accepted by the Navy
once we got there.
Roger was accepted right off, but I was three lonely
weeks getting in.
When I was finally
by the Navy, I was put aboard an old wooden ship that
was out of
but being used as general court martial brig. I was
mess cook on her
three months and about one thousand hypodermic shots.
There was no such
thing as formal organized basic training in those
months as mess
cook at Norfolk, I was transferred to the battleship
USS Connecticut in
Philadelphia. Roger Farmer was assigned to her sister
the USS Vermont. I was seldom to see
during the next few years.
At the time of my
I was given a 10-day furlough to go home. Let me tell
you, I was really
Norton's Boy About Town for those few days! That
was really the stuff. War was brewing
Kaiser Bill, who was threatening to kick hell out of
and feeling was running high.
One day while I was
there was a flag-raising ceremony in Norton, at which
time all eligible
young men were registered for the draft. They called
for all servicemen
and ex-servicemen to please stand up--so there were
Uncle Billy and me
standing side by side along with several old vets,
the Flag pretty proudly. Then they
for all men in service to please fall in line. well, I
was it--the only
active serviceman present. And I'm sure that ninety
per cent of the
there had never seen a sailor in uniform before !
I'm sorry that so
of my friends who were present that day will never
read this book. We
in our fourth war since that time, and many a fine
Navy man has walked
the streets of Norton since then.
I was ever so proud
be an American fighting man--but oh, Lord! What was in
store for me in
those next four years!
When I got off
at Norton, home from the war, one of the first people
I saw was my
Sam had an
so you know he was stepping high. Owning a car at that
time was roughly
equivalent to owning your own airplane today. Besides
it was one hell of a status symbol.
The joy that
in a close-knit family feel on such a reunion is
something that demands
a spot of good whiskey, even when Prohibition is the
law of the
land. It didn't take Sam and me long to
a bootlegger on Norton's South Side, and we had a
pretty good "glow" on
by the time we reached home that evening .
As we neared the
Sam came up with a suggestion for having a little fun
with the Old Man:
All of Wise County
worked up right at that time over a race for sheriff.
was a fellow named Johnson, from Big Stone Gap, and he
was waging such
a hell of an aggressive campaign that he was beginning
to look like a
bet to unseat the Democratic incumbent. Knowing the
Old Man felt toward any and all Republicans, Sam
suggested that I go up
to the house and try to pass myself off as Johnson.
I was an inch or two
and twenty pounds heavier than when I had last seen
the home folks in
My voice had deepened considerably, and I was wearing
I was pretty sure I could pull off
"How do you do, Mr.
" I said, when Uncle Billy came to the door. "My name
is Johnson, and
running for sheriff of Wise County."
"There's not a damn
I can do for you, sir," the Old Man said, very
"You'll find no votes in this house."
"But you don't
Mr. O'Neill. I have a little proposition to make.
"One of your boys
a little boisterous in town today, and got himself
locked up. Now, if I
know I can count on your and your wife's votes in the
up, I'll see to it that the boy is released and the
charges against him
Old Man Billy's eyes
"You son of a
he said. "Do you aim to walk off this porch right now,
or do you want
to blow you off?"
Never taking his
off me, he yelled back into the house. "Katie, bring
my pistol! "
That cracked me up.
to keep a straight face any longer, I leaned over the
porch rail and
laughing, and when Sam came out of hiding and joined
in, Pop knew he'd
Only then did he
his grown-up son.
We pulled the same
on "Old Grandma"--my maternal grandmother, Clara
Beverley Nickels. I
myself to her as an official of the Stonega Coal &
Coke Company, a
firm with which she had long been at odds in a
After getting the
lady all riled up over deeds and property lines, I
dropped the act and
told her to give her favorite grandson a welcome-home
kiss. She refused.
When old mountain
get a notion in their head, it's hard to reason with
concede for several days that I was really Dave. She
thought I was an
sent there by those arch-villains, the Stonega Coal
& Coke company.
"The face is not there, " she said.
the voice is not there, and
I know it ain't our Dave! "