DAVID KIRBY'S PINE CRIK TALES - "The Whole World Blew Up, Like Getting Hit With A Sledge Hammer"

(03/15/2017)

A Pine Crik Hollow Home

2016

Former Pine Creek resident David Charles Kirby, the son of Roy and Eva Buck Kirby, recalls his life and times growing up in a remote Pine Creek hollow and in Calhoun County.

He attended a one-room school taught by his mother and graduated from Calhoun High School in 1954, with a BS degree in agricultural engineering from WVU (1959).

Professionally he is a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator and Professional Engineer in WV, OH, and PA, having worked 22 years as Loss Prevention Engineer with Factory Mutual Engineering; 20 Years as Process Safety Engineer with Union Carbide in South Charleston; 12 years a Sr. Principal Engineer with Baker Engineering & Risk Consultants of San Antonio, TX.

He is married to the former Betty Estep of Mt. Zion, their children, sons, Dr. Kris N. Kirby, professor at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts; and Gregory D. Kirby, of Parkersburg, Safety Engineer at Cytec, Willow Island, WV.

Kirby's recollections reflect life from the Great Depression to the fabulous 1960s, earlier tales can be found under People, Humor and History.

1945 to 1950

Dad got on the winning side of politics for the School Board, and so Mom got assigned the Pine Creek School. It was nice because we could stay at home. The school was just two miles away and you could get there in a forty-five minute quick walk.

Sometimes I would go ahead and take the 22 rifle and hunt squirrels on the way there and back. We always had to unload our guns and leave them in the cloak room. Mom had to stamp down on some of the hunting because some of the kids (especially Deb Smith) would come to school smelling so strong of skunk you could hardly stand it.

Mom typically had somewhere between twelve and twenty students, but not always all eight grades. She did not believe in double promotion, but would let the kids work at whatever level they could perform at. Some of the kids, like Cline, never performed above second grade level.

If you were in the seventh or eighth grade and finished the material she would provide high-school level material. I passed her in math while still in the seventh grade, and worked on harder stuff. Unfortunately, I did not know about calculus, so I didn’t get a crack at it.

In the summer of 1945, after first-cutting hay season, Dad took Mom and me to Parkersburg and we caught a train to Baltimore to visit Aunt Bess. That was really an exciting trip. Buck (Aunt Bess’s boyfriend) took us all to Washington to see some of the sights. The end of the War was announced while we were there and it was the darndest celebration you ever saw.

It took us about five hours to get out of Washington and back to Baltimore. Service stations on the way back were putting out large signs that said “fill up with gas.” Rationing was over.

Farm Electricity

In 1948 we got electricity to the farm. I was fascinated with it. Aunt Bess had given me Russ’s electric train (he was a tail gunner and was killed in ’42 in a B-17 bomb run over France. The train transformer soon blew up, but Uncle Elby had given me a very large Philco Radio. It did not work right off the bat. We probably shook the filaments out of all of the tubes hauling it up the holler.

However, I recognized a big transformer with three outputs. I did not have a volt-ohm meter, but I checked by trial and error how far sparks would fly (and how violent the whole process was) when I touched a pair of electrodes to tinfoil.

One set of leads would generate really violent zaps, and (again by trial and error) I found that those leads would boil water. I taped those over, and tucked them under the transformer. Another set seemed about right, and I wired them up to the train track through a make-and-break switch.

It worked great. It was somewhat higher voltage than the original transformer, and the train would jump the track unless I let up on the make-and-break. I played with it for hours seeing how fast I could go without jumping the track.

I had unwound all of the wire from the train transformer that quit working. The train had a small electric bell and I wired that up to the new transformer, but it wouldn’t work. I tried the leads that I had been afraid to use on the train, and it worked great.

In fact, I could string the wires all the way from the back porch to the front room, and the bell would work in there. I blew up my make-or-break switch, so I had to plug in the transformer and then unplug it to turn the bell on and off.

One day at noon Dad came in from cutting with a scythe. He was wet with sweat and was sitting on the back porch glider reading a paper, waiting for lunch.

I decided to show off my new bell contraption, and I stepped up to the wall receptacle to plug in the transformer. Unfortunately I was barefooted, and I happened to be standing on the two bare wires.

When I plugged it in it was like getting hit with a sledge hammer. I fell backwards and stepped on one of Dad’s feet. He jumped to his feet and flew to cussing — I had shocked the hell out of him too.

Fortunately as I fell backwards it unplugged the transformer. Dad soon cooled down, but my right foot didn’t. I had two nasty gashes burned through the bottom pad of my foot that hurt for weeks. For some reason, I thought that all transformers stepped down the voltage. I learned later that one section of coils in the transformer were step-up to 650 volts, and that was what I was dealing with.

Electric Fence

When we got electricity Dad bought an electric fence. This consisted of a “clicking” box with one hot terminal and a ground. The electric fence was just one wire, and when you touched it you became the ground, and it would shock the heck out of you every time the thing clicked. To save effort, Dad used the telephone poles down the creek to distribute the main feed down to where he branched off to protect the haystacks.

We had two sets of telephone poles up the holler. One line served our house (twenty people on a party line), and the other set of poles was the Hur Trunk Line, connecting Hur Central to Grantsville Central.

To make a long distance call anywhere from the Hur-Joker community you went to your phone, gave a big long crank on the ringer, and the Hur Operator would answer. She would then patch you through to Grantsville on the trunk line.

Dad strung fence wire on both sets of poles, depending on which ones were the closest to the haystacks. When he plugged in the fence our phone made a rather loud clicking noise, but we didn’t pay much attention.

About two days later a couple of rather distraught guys came walking by and hollered at Dad. They had been walking the Hur line all the way from Grantsville.

I recognized one of them as a Roberts cousin from Hur, from the large birthmark on his cheek. He said “Roy, you have to unplug your fence. Hur Central is ringing in two times every three seconds.”

Dad had to set separate posts for the electric fence line.

Dad and the J. C. Higgins

Right after the war Dad bought a 12 gauge, J. C. Higgins, 32-inch barrel, full choke, shotgun. He tacked a newspaper up on the toilet door, stepped back thirty-five yards and fired. Dad always wore a felt brimmed hat with the front brim safety-pinned back (so he could see up if a tree was falling).

I was observing from the front porch, and when he shot I noticed that the brim was rotated about 45 degrees. He would straighten up his hat, step up to the toilet and observe the shot pattern, then step back and shoot again, every time with the same results.

After about six shots he came strolling back to the front porch rubbing his shoulder announcing that the damn gun shot a good pattern, but would kick the hat off of your head.

Not long after that he was squirrel hunting in front of the house and was standing on the top of a six-foot rock cliff shooting at an angle uphill. He came back to the house carrying the shotgun in two pieces. He had broken it at the small of the stock. He swore that the gun kicked him over the rock cliff.

He first said he did not know anyone he disliked enough to give it to, then thought some more and said “Yeah, I do, I am going to give it to Eagle.” Eagle was an older guy that married my Aunt Opal, and he would go out of his way to not tell the truth on just about everything.

Dad hated people that would lie to him, and Eagle was near the top of his list. Some Elmer’s glue and a few days later we visited Aunt Opal, and gave Eagle the shotgun.

A few months later we were visiting again and Eagle pointed to the other hillside about a hundred yards away, telling dad how many groundhogs he had killed with the shotgun.

He would spin a big one, and then say “Isn’t that right Opal?” She would grunt, and he would go right on. He talked in a twangy voice and said “But Roy, it keeks a little bit, doden’t it?” Dad said that was the first time he had known Eagle to tell the truth.

Muskrat Ramble

Nineteen-forty-eight was a big year. With some help from the Federal Soil Conservation Service Dad built a half-acre farm pond about 150 feet from the house. It was an extension of the yard. I used a push-mower on the top and Dad kept the sides looking like green velvet from frequent scythe mowing.

The pond was our pride and joy, and gave Dad some sort of bragging rights to all of those too timid to make the five creek crossings up to our place to see it. It did set off the three bedrooms and a path with an air of distinction.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t many months until mysterious holes began appearing just below the water line on the inside bank of the pond. The consensus was that muskrats had moved in. Muskrats are nocturnal, elusive varmints, seldom seen, and therefore difficult to shoot.

I trapped a few with the old “Victor” double-spring steel traps, but the muskrats were growing in population at a power-of-two geometric rate. It soon became apparent the trapping battle was lost.

Dad was told to raise the water level so that they wouldn’t have enough room to build their tunnels. They build tunnels about half flooded, with the entry below the water line. They then build their brood chamber totally above the water line, but in a controlled-level farm pond this could be only a few inches above the water.

At any rate, raising the water level didn’t work. It did move their maze of tunnels higher, so that now when I mowed the top I could feed soft spots where there were only a few inches between them and me. Once in a while my foot would break through, and splash in one of the half-submerged tunnels.

One day I got a bright idea. Dad had a gallon can of calcium carbide that had been bought years earlier for a carbide light. I knew that acetylene gas was produced when the carbide was mixed with water. I figured that the acetylene would smell bad enough or be poisonous enough that it would run the muskrats out.

I got my semi-automatic 22 out and leaned it against the nearby telephone pole. I went around the perimeter of the pond bank with a spud, tapping on the ground. Every once in a while the spud would break through and hit water in the maze of tunnels.

I marked the holes that made a splash, got the carbide, and poured a handful in each of the marked holes. I knew it was reaching water, because I heard a hissing noise each time I dropped in the carbide. After I had used all of the carbide I hurried back and got my 22 and sat down for muskrats to come out.

But nothing happened.

I waited and waited, and nothing happened. After several minutes I realized that nothing was going to happen. It then occurred to me that the acetylene gas was flammable (I reasoned that it was because it would burn in a carbide light). I went to the kitchen and got a box of strike-anywhere matches. Mom was cooking. I don’t remember whether or not I told her what I was up to. Dad was in town. Anyhow, I went back to the pond, and everything was still quiet.

I was a little bit apprehensive as I approached one of the holes I had “dosed,” struck a match, and threw it toward the hole. It didn’t light, so I moved closer, still turning my back as I threw the lighted match. After three or four tries I gained more courage, moving still closer.

Suddenly the whole world blew up.

I still recall the heat, followed by the blast, followed by mud, water, sod, and muskrat parts raining down all around, whilst I traversed several yards in the general direction of the barn.

The top of the pond bank along the entire north side was gone down to the water line. Mom thought a thunderstorm was coming. Dad got home sometime later and saw the bank. I don’t think I ever saw him get any madder.

I spent the better part of the next two days with the wheelbarrow putting back sod, where I could find it, and shoveling in dirt to make the bank look respectable. It was several years before muskrats were again a problem.

Read earlier Pine Crik Tales under People, Humor And History


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