Friends and Family

      No man ever had a finer, more loyal friend than John Shepherd.
      John was a big, powerful, silent man, the kind of man who will never be forgotten by his friends nor by those who knew him but were not his friends. It has been said, without too much exaggeration, that in the mountain John could outrun a deer, out-climb a squirrel, outfight a bear, and outwit a fox.
      What's more, he made the best whiskey in our part of the country.
      John was no penny-ante moonshiner. His father, Cal Shepherd, once operated a government distillery, and John learned the art of making whiskey from him. John made good whiskey, plenty of it, and sold it for a top price. And he never had to go out and peddle it; the best citizens in three counties were numbered among his customers, and they all came to him.
       John and I were close friends for many years, and I could fill this book with John Shepherd stories. But we'll have to make do with just a couple.
      There was the incident at the Bent Place (named for Bent Laney, and also known as Pole Pence Gap), above Big Cherry Lake.
       Shepherd and I had been on a coon hunt, along with Eddie Carter, a clerk for a wholesale hardware company, and a very gentlemanly, old-fashioned Negro named Jim Crockett, and John's dog, Old Trail. After hunting all night, we topped out early the next morning at the Bent Place, where we came upon a big, stout-looking man with a wagon load of apples.
       John had that whole area--including the several small apple orchards that dated back to early-settler days--leased from the Patrick Hagan estate. So, without question, those were really his apples in that wagon!
      When John asked the man who had given him permission to take the apples, the fellow became belligerent--definitely the wrong thing to do when you were dealing with John Shepherd. It wasn't long before the two of them were going round and round in one hell of a fist fight. In spite of the fact that John had been up all night romping through that rough mountain country and had every right to be exhausted before they ever started fighting, he was giving the big man a pretty good pasting--while the rest of us whooped and hollered and cheered him on.
       Suddenly, in the midst of all the excitement, the stranger got hold of John's shotgun. It could have been a very, very bad situation, had it not been for Jim Crockett.
        "White folks," said Nigger Jim, aiming his .22-caliber rifle at the apple thief, "I'se goin' have to kill you, if'n you don't lay down that shotgun right now!"
       The man set the gun down, and after John had finished whipping him, he made him empty the entire load of apples on the ground.


       John Shepherd's wife was a nice, gentle girl, a minister's daughter from over near Appalachia. When she married John, she moved into a world very different from the one in which she'd been raised. She herself adjusted to it quickly enough, but her family never did.
       The Shepherds lived a very pioneer-like existence in their isolated home far back in the High Knob country, and they had trouble adjusting to the "civilized" ways of the lowlanders when, once or twice each year, they went to visit John's in-laws.
      Before one of those visits, John and his wife did their best to coach their oldest boy, who was about eight or nine years old, in table etiquette. The use of knives and forks, the saying of grace, the polite table words like "please" and "thank you" were all strange to him. He made it pretty good through the rehearsals, on their way to Appalachia. But after Sunday School and church, when the big fried chicken dinner with all the trimmings was set on the table, the boy mysteriously just clammed up. He may have been starving, but rather than make a mistake at the table, he just sat there with his head down and his plate bare, self-consciously shaking his head at each offer of food.
      "Have some of that good chicken, Johnny."
      "Won't you have some chicken ?"
      "Huh-uh. "
      "Well, how about some green beans ?"
      "Huh-uh. "
      "Have a biscuit, and some jelly, then."
      "Huh-uh. "
      "Not even one biscuit?"
      "You don't want anything at all?"
      The boy sat and stared at his plate, as the others ate. Finally, he raised his head and looked hungrily at the platter of fried chicken at the other end of the

      "Hey, John," he said to his father. "Gimmie some o' that goddam ground hog!"


        In later years, John Shepherd lost his mind and became a menace to everyone, including himself and his family. It was I who finally persuaded John to have himself committed to the state hospital at Marion. I did so at the urging of his wife. He wouldn't listen to her, but he listened to me.
        John did some harsh and unreasonable things in his final year or two at home--things that only a crazy man would do. But I prefer to remember him as he was when he was still himself.
       Like the time in August of 1934, the day after France died. Someone knocked at my front door at daybreak, around 5 a.m. It was John Shepherd, holding his hat in his hand.
      "I can't come in, Dave, " he said. "I heard about your wife, and I just wanted you to know that my heart is with you."
       With that he shook my hand, slipping something into my palm.
       "This ain't a loan, Dave. You're going to have alot of expenses to meet, and I want you to have this because you're my friend."
         I looked in my hand and found a tight little roll of one hundred dollar bills. Ten of them.
      I couldn't accept the money, of course--but the story illustrates the kind of friend I had in a moonshiner named John Shepherd.


       Most of my brothers and sisters had good-size families of their own. By actual count, I have thirty-seven nieces and nephews, and I love every one of them. If I had the time, I could tell you a little story about each one. But that would be another book, in itself. Let's just throw in one or two in this one:
       From the time he was just a little bit of a fellow, John's boy Eddie was one of my favorite companions. Eddie loved to go with me wherever I went in the mountain on hunting trips or looking for game law violators, and I enjoyed taking him along. He was little and red-headed, handy as he could be, and not the least bit afraid of hard work. There weren't many grown men in prime physical condition who could stay with me on a hard drive through rough country in those days, but Eddie could.
        One night in the winter of 1932-33, Eddie and I were running our dogs along the upper reaches of Little Stoney Greek when a sudden turn in the weather caught us by surprise. It started to rain like hell, turning the thin layer of snow that covered the ground into a blanket of ice. And then, within minutes, the temperature dropped to below freezing, as the cold, icy rain continued to fall. We were in real trouble, several miles from the car and with little in the way of food or provisions.
       I decided against trying to make it back to the car, for fear we'd bog down and freeze to death along the way. Picking out a spot at the base of a big rock that offered partial shelter from the wind, I decided to make "camp" there. I managed to get a fire started from twigs and pine bark, using rhododendron bushes to shield it from the rain and snow. It wasn't much of a fire, and I had
to work at it all night to keep it going. But it kept us from freezing to death.

       Our four dogs were every bit as cold as Eddie and I, and they crowded as close as they could to that fire. Anyone who has ever had the experience of trying to stay warm by an open campfire in really cold weather knows that while you're warming one side of your body, you freeze to death on the other side. I took care of that problem for Eddie by bunching the dogs up together and squeezing
him right in among them. He may have picked up a few fleas during the night, but you can bet he stayed warm.

       By morning, the steady rain had melted the ice and we brought 'er down out of there without much trouble. But you ask ol' Ed, when he's eighty years old, about the night he slept in the middle of a pile of hound dogs, and I guarantee you, he'll remember!


       I always made a point of telling all my nephews, when they were little fellows, what fine-looking boys they were. I even went so far as to suggest to Vera's boy Randy, when he was about a six years old, that he could make a small fortune just selling pictures of himself.
       Well,  Randy thought that was just about the finest idea he'd ever heard of. So I borrowed somebody's Kodak and snapped a picture of him head-on, from waist up, and it turned out to be a pretty good likeness--pug nose, face burned brown by the sun, hair uncombed, wearing bib overalls a couple of sizes too big. I took the negative and had a couple of dozen prints made, and gave them to Randy.
The rest was up to him.

       So Randy went down the main street of Kingsport, stopping every important-looking person he saw and giving them his sales pitch: "Hey, mister; want to buy my picture? Only a dime!"
       With that kind of super-salesmanship, it didn't take Randy long to sell every picture he had--and he was ready to take part of his profit and have another batch made!


      My brother Paul had lived for many years in Kingsport, Tennessee, where, until his recent retirement, he was employed by the Tennessee Eastman Company. During the Forties, he used to come on visits to Norton several times each year. As a rule, he'd drop off his wife and children at her folks' place (Lucille's parents, the Ewen Gilleys, were old friends and neighbors of mine in West Norton), then come over to my place in search of a drink or a poker game or, hopefully, both.
       On one such visit, Paul was thumbing through his wallet, preparing to buy into a poker game, when he ran across a raffle ticket.
       "Lookey here, Chief," he said, clenching his ever-present cigar between his teeth. "A chance on a Piper Cub they're raffling away over in Kingsport. Having the drawing today. Wouldn't it be something if I win that?"
        Grunting a reply, I pretended to be more interested in my cards than in Paul's ticket. But I made a mental note of the number, and a few seconds later when he wasn't looking, I jotted it down on a slip of paper.
       Later that afternoon, Paul happened to be away from the table when the Norton Laundry Company's delivery truck pulled up outside. Suddenly, an idea struck me, and I hurried outside for a conference with Fred, the Negro delivery man.
        "Fred, " I said, "I want you to help me play a little joke on my brother..."
         A few minutes later, Paul and I were both back in the game when Fred stepped up to my front door with his load of laundered clothes.
      "You know, Mr. Dave," he said "this is my almost lucky day. "
       "What do you mean, almost lucky day?"
       "Well suh, I almost win myself an airplane, in that drawing they had today over in Kingsport. I have No. 876538, and No.876539 win the airplane."
       "Just a minute!"  Paul yelled, fumbling for his wallet. "I've got a ticket in that drawing, and I swear that sounds like my number--PRAISE BE TO GOD, IT IS!!"
        Paul turned to the Negro. "Are you sure 876539 was the winning number?"
      "Ain't no way I could mistake it , " said Fred, playing his part perfectly. "I just missed it by one, and I had No.876538."
        "Whoopee! " said Paul. "This is the greatest day of my life. I don't want you fellows to think I'm running out on the game but I've got to pick up 'Cille right now and run back to Kingsport to claim my plane."
      "You ought to at least shave and comb your hair before you go," I told him. "They'll be wanting to take your picture and interview you for the newspapers, you know."
      "By God, you're right," Paul said. "I hadn't thought of that!"
         Well, the drive from Norton to Kingsport in those days took about three hours, over some of the crookedest, dustiest roads in the country. And there was Paul, just a few hours after arriving on a Saturday afternoon for what was intended to be a stay of two or three days, gathering up Lucille and Paula, their baby, for a wild, fender-flapping ride back through the Wildcat in their old

        "Baldy, " said Paul, grinning from ear to ear behind that big cigar, "I'll be back over here tomorrow in my plane, and I want you to come over to the airport to meet me.
     "I'll sail over your house and buzz you, so's you'll know it's me."
      When Paul and Lucille reached Kingsport late that night after stopping for a drink here and there along the way, Paul was surprised to find no brass bands out to meet them. Obviously, the neighbors just hadn't heard the news yet. The only way to remedy that situation, by God, was to wake them up and tell them!
       Pretty soon Paul was on the phone, talking to someone at the night emergency number of the Kingsport newspaper office.
      "My name is O'Neill. Paul O'Neill. I live here in Kingsport, and I'm the man who won the airplane in the raffle today. I've been out of town, but I just got
back--aren't you going to send a reporter and a photographer out here to see me?"

        "Mister,"  said the man on the other end of the line , "I don't think you won any goddam airplane. If you did, we might be interested in the story in the daytime. But not at one o'clock on a Sunday morning"
      Needless to say, it was years before Paul got over that one. Even today, all I have to do to make his neck turn red is spread my arms and say, "Just look up at the sky tomorrow, bud; I'm going to sail over your house, and buzz you as I go by."


      Following France's death in 1934, I put Bernice and Nancy in a Catholic boarding school in Philadelphia. They remained there until their graduation, as prim and proper young ladies, in the late Forties. France's sisters, Mame and Ann, and her brother Eddie were good to the girls and always welcomed them into their homes during vacations from school. I visited them once or twice
each year, or had them come and visit me. But being a widower during their formative years, I couldn't show them any kind of home life. I'm thankful to God, and to the Connors, and to the sisters at Gonzaga, for helping my daughters to become such perfect young ladies. Both are now married (Bernice is Mrs. Francis Corning, of Trenton, New Jersey; Nancy is Mrs. David Reisig, of Feasterville, Pennsylvania) and both have fine families of their own.

      My son Bill, at whose birth France died, had a more fortunate upbringing. My brother John and his wife, Ellen, took Billy into their home the day he was born
and raised him as their own child. They loved him every bit as much as they did their own seven children, and if he grew up a little bit "spoiled" it may have been

because he had John's whole family catering to him all the time. Bill, too, is married--to a beautiful Southern belle, the former Shirley Farrar Stevens of Birmingham, Alabama, and Long Beach, California.

      I remarried in 1946, and if ever two people were perfectly mated, it's Luella and me. In our twenty-four years of marriage, we've never had an argument. (Not
that things have been dull; it's just that each of us is so well attuned to the other's thoughts that we can reach decisions or compromises without any harsh words

being said. Lou and I discuss things, and we voice our feelings to each other. But we never argue. Neither one of us even knows how to argue!)

        My second son, Michael Shayne, was born in Norton in 1952. Shayne has spent most of his life along the east coast of Florida. He, too, has taken a bride--the former BaBet "Tink" Scott of Fort Pierce. Their first child, Michael Shayne O'Neill, Jr. , was born Dec. 15, 1969.

A blessling late in life: Michael Shayne O'Neill 
born to Dave and Luella O'Neill in 1952. In his mother's words, 

Michael Shayne's arrival "suprised the hell out of everybody!"

        Riding through the Shenandoah Valley on their way to a summer vacation in Norton, Bernice and Nancy were excited at the sight of a cluster of young calves in a field.
       "Oooh, Dahddy" said Nancy, who must have been about five , in her peculiar Philadelphia accent. "Lookit the sheep! "
      Bernice was incensed. "Those aren't sheep, you dope," she snapped. "They're goats!"

        Billy, age six, sat on a rock at the upstream end of a deep pool on Big Sandy Creek, hauling in big trout that had been stocked there by his old dad, just a few hours before. Each one that he landed, he would dislodge the hook from its mouth and then try to pick it up by its tail for the transfer to his creel.
       After spending an hour checking licenses of other fishermen up and down the stream, I went back to see how Number One Son was faring.
        "Well, Spike, how many have you caught?"
        "Eleven," he drawled. "But nine of 'em got away!"


        I visited with my daughters as often as I could while they were growing up, going to see them in Philadelphia and sometimes taking them back with me for a
few weeks in Virginia.

        On one such trip I was accompanied by a friend named Bill Davis, a Philadelphian who had migrated to Norton. We were crossing the Potomac River when Nancy, still just a tot, stood up in the back seat and looked out the window of the car.
         "Hey!" she yelled. "Lookit the wada.! Lookit the wada! Lookit the wada.!"
         When nobody paid her any particular mind, she grabbed Bill Davis by the hair and gave his head a good shake.
       "Hey, you big palooka! Lookit the wada!"


       I was driving past the recreation area near the Josephine coal camp, and tapped my horn in greeting to the group of kids playing out in the field.
      "There goes old Dave O'Neill, " said a Collins boy, a fourteen-year-old second-grader. "I hope to hell he has a wreck!"
        Wham! A rock crashed against the side of the boy's head, sending him sprawling.
       "I"ll have you know that's my Daddy you're talking about, you s.o.b.!" said Bernice O'Neill, age nine.


         The year after Bernice was married, Billy came in for a visit from California, where he had moved with Ellen and John. He and I then drove to Philadelphia to
bring the girls and Franny back for a summer vacation.

         On the return trip, we had planned to spend the night at Suffolk, Va.--only to discover when we arrived there, long after dark, that there were no motels available. We kept driving, looking for a "No Vacancy" sign. Before long, we were out in the middle of Great Dismal Swamp and I was worn out from driving all day, and so were the kids.
       Spying a picnic table off to the side of the road, I pulled over and called for a vote. We decided to stretch out there and have a snooze--Nancy and Billy and I on a sleeping bag spread out on the picnic table, and Bernice and Fran in the car.
        In the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by Billy's elbow, jabbing me in the ribs.
      "Hey, Dad," he said. "I hear something, over there by that trash can!"
       Raising up, pistol in hand, I saw the prowler: a good-sized black bear.
       "It's just an old dog," I said. "Go on back to sleep."
       He did, and the bear soon wandered off. But when Billy saw the "dog's" tracks the next morning, he called my attention to them. Confronted with the evidence, I had to confess that our nighttime visitor had been a bear. The panic that resulted then--several hours after the fact--convinced me that I had used good judgment in just letting Mr. Bear go his own way.
       That brings up a very basic law of the outdoors: You leave a wild animal alone, and you can bet he'll leave you alone. Almost all wild animals are afraid of people; and those that are not afraid (such as bears) won't bother you, if you don't bother them.


       Michael Shayne O'Neill, age about four, tied the biggest plug in my tackle box on his line and began casting into Claytor Lake, off the Rock House Boat Dock where we lived and ran a marina in the mid-Fifties.
         A big walleye pike struck the lure as Shayne reeled it in, almost pulling him off the dock, in full view of thirty or forty people. Bracing himself, he struggled to keep the tip of the rod high.
       "That's it, son!" I yelled. "Hold on, boy, you've got a good one there!"
       "Okay, Daddy, don't worry," Shayne replied. "I've got the bastard!"

       Billy came to live with us in the summer of 1955, working weekends at the boat dock while going to college at VPI. He and my sister Kate's boy, Glen Peters, handled the boats, and Mammy Lou ran the concession stand. But it was Michael Shayne who became our super salesman when it came to hustling bait.
       "Hey, mister," he'd say, when a fisherman pulled in. "Want to buy some wums?  Big night cwawnuhs (night crawlers)? Want to buy some pretty minnows? Spwing wizards? What are you going to fish with? Huh?"
      And whenever a carload of pretty girls would pull in, Shayne would give them the live bait routine, and then do a little hustling for his big brother :
      "See that feller over there? The big, handsome one, with the curly hair? That's my Brother Bill, the middleweight champion of Virginia. Wanta meet him...?"


        We left the mountains in 1960, after Shayne had lost the vision in his right eye in the unfortunate aftermath of a playground accident.
       Lou, Shayne, and I headed south in a big camper truck, looking for a home in a warmer climate. We stopped for a few weeks at Orange City, Florida, before moving on down the coast to Ft. Pierce, about 115 miles north of Miami. We bought a home there, and never looked back.
       It's a place where the fishing and hunting are good, the weather is mild, and--if you aren't scared of a few bugs and a little hurricane now and then--the living is easy.
       We're still in easy reach of our folks in Virginia and Tennessee, and we do our best to visit Lou's mother, Maxie Dillon, and her sister, Catherine, in Norton each summer.
       My old ticker acts up on me every now and then, but I have a good doctor who has introduced me to a lot of pills that make it possible for a man to grow old without feeling too damned old.
       So I can lay back in the warm Florida sun every day now and have an occasional highball, and admire the pretty girls as they pass by. It may not be the best life in the world, but it sure beats the hell out of loading coal.
       I've always said if a man ever reaches the point where he can't enjoy a drink of good liquor and the sight of a beautiful girl, you'd might as well throw him in a grave and start shoveling dirt in on top of him--because the son of a bitch is already dead!


       My wife, Luella, answers to the name "Mammy Lou"--and I always enjoy telling the story of how she got that name:
      One day a few weeks before our wedding in 1946, I was waiting outside the Royal Laundry in Norton for Lou to get off work. I saw a couple of little colored boys playing outside the laundry a minute or two before Lou's shift ended--one of them the cutest, blackest, wooliest little fellow you ever saw.
      It didn't take me long to get acquainted with the kids, tell them what fine looking young gentlemen they were, and sell them on the idea that if they'd help me greet a certain young lady when she came out of the laundry, I'd take them to
the Passmore Pharmacy and treat them to all the ice cream they could eat.

       Well, that little fuzzy-wuzzy didn't need much coaching. All I had to do was point out Lou to him as she came out of the building, in company with a half-dozen of her friends and co-workers. I, of course, was lurking just out of sight.
        "There's mah Mammy Lou!" the little fellow yelled out, right on cue, making a bee-line for her. He threw his little arms around her neck, pulling her down to his level and squeezing for dear life.
       " Oh, Mammy Lou! Mammy Lou!" he cried. "Where you been, Mammy Lou?"
       "What the hell's going on here, honey?" Lou asked, when she finally found her voice.
       "Ah loves you, Mammy Lou!" the kid sang out, squeezing Lou's neck tighter than ever.
       Finally, it dawned on Lou that she'd been set up.
"Hey!" she hollered. "Where the hell's that Dave O'Neill?"


        Wherever a man goes, and whatever he does, a part of him must always remain where his roots are. For Luella and me, it's Southwest Virginia. That's where we were both born and raised, and many of our people still live there. (Lou came from a fine pioneer family of long standing in Wise County. Her widowed mother, a wonderful lady named Maxine Vest Dillon, and her sister, Catherine, share a home in Norton, and we try to visit them at least once each year. )
         Luella and I have lots reserved in Powell Valley Memorial Garden, a few feet from where my mother was buried. From there, God willing, I'll be able to spend eternity hearing the hounds run in Stone Mountain, a place I love so well.

When Herietta O'Neill fell ill in 1957, her twelve surviving "children" gathered to lend moral support. Pictured outside Sam's home in Kingsport are Felix (Pete), Sam, Etta, Stallard (Curly), Jim, Dave, Paul, Clara ("Tad"), Kate, John, Tom, and Vera. Not suprisingly , "Mammy" rallied, regained her heath, and lived three more years.

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