• A visit to Union 2013. If you grew up in Union, West Virginia and you have not been able to return to Monroe County recently, chances are you will enjoy a little tour of Union and the area.

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“Stories I Heard from Leonard” by Willis P. Simmons

There is more in the telling of a story than in the story itself, and Leonard Houchins could tell a story.  His stories had a subtle sense of humor, woven throughout with threads of truth and exaggeration, and one could never be quite sure which was which, but that was what made them interesting.  As I have said, it’s the telling of the story that matters;  the spirit,  not the letter,  if you will.

Leonard’s stories lose something when repeated by another person, and will perhaps lose even more when put in writing. Nevertheless, I will be bold and try a few, but I can only tell them in my own way; and, in so doing, I have woven a few threads myself.  It is a difficult task that may or may not bear fruit, but I will leave that judgement to the reader.

In Leonard’s day a favorite form of amusement was practical jokes, some of which could become rather rough.  Such pranks did not cease when they reached manhood; however, wedding bliss would soon accomplish what maturity did not.

It seems that Leonard, along with his brother, Charlie,  Cyrus Mann, and a few others, were walking home late one night from a party at Lowell.  In addition to whatever exertions they had made at the party, they had also walked three or four miles along the rutted gravel road, and the long trek up Poplar Holler Hill still awaited them.

They had no more than started up it, when Charlie fell down in the middle of the road in a dead faint. Everyone thought it was a joke, and continued on up the hill. Charlie stayed where he was. After some distance they returned and told him the joke was over, they were tired, and it was time to get on home. Charlie didn’t move. They rolled him over, poked at him a few times, and started back up the hill again. Charlie remained in the middle of the road.

Determined to put an end to the prank once and for all, they returned, grabbed Charlie by his feet, drug him to a brush pile in the nearby pasture, and tossed him in the middle of it. Charlie never moved. They set fire to the brush pile and the flames rose up and Charlie’s clothing began to smoke and he still didn’t move. When his trousers started to burn, everyone began to take things a bit more seriously. They pulled him off the brush pile, beat the flames from his trouser legs, and carried him back to the road.

There was nothing to do but haul him home, and there try to determine what the problem was. Taking turns, two men at a time lugged Charley a long hard mile to the top of Poplar Holler Hill, and a good portion of another to his father’s house. With sore feet and aching backs, they finally laid him on the porch. When they sat down for a well-earned rest, Charlie jumped up, thanked them for the ride, and walked into the house.

I was in some of  Leonard’s classes at Greenville. He didn’t keep strictly to the textbooks, but I learned more than had he gone through them sentence by sentence. Leonard did not teach geometry, but that didn’t stop him from giving us a memorable illustration, although it would probably not pass muster in today’s politically correct classroom.

The formula for calculating the longest side of a right triangle, the hypotenuse, is C2 = A2 + B2 (i.e., the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.) I have never had many occasions to use the formula, but I have never forgotten it, because Leonard put it in an unforgettable form.

As he told it, there were three Indian braves who gave their wives gifts. The first gave his a buffalo hide, the second gave his a moose hide, and the third presented his wife with a hippopotamus hide. The women were all proud of their gifts, and promptly spread them over their beds. In due time, the woman on the buffalo hide gave birth to a fine boy, and soon thereafter the woman on the moose hide did likewise.  Finally, the woman on the hippopotamus hide gave birth to twin boys. Leonard pointed out that we need only to remember that the squaw on the hippopotamus was equal to the sum of the squaws on the other two hides.

Leonard was an educated man, but he knew that education and intelligence did not always come in the same package. He illustrated this to me with a story about a man who went off to college with the intention of majoring in agriculture. When he found that too broad a field, he changed to horticulture. That, also, proved too broad, and he changed his major to vegetables, and later to cucumbers; finally, he was awarded a doctorate in gherkins. Leonard ended his story with the observation that the good doctor was a brilliant man, and an excellent conversationalist, so long as the subject was confined to pickles.

Wood pile axes were not sharp. They didn’t need to be sharp to split slab wood, but Leonard’s was probably duller than most. When Cyrus Mann’s dog ran something into a hollow tree down in Uncle Everett’s woods, he needed an axe, and Leonard’s house was closest. With his dog standing guard, he climbed the hill, pulled Leonard’s axe from the chopping block and went back over the hill, determined to dislodge whatever his dog had chased into the tree.

When Leonard came home from work and went to the wood pile for his evening supply of wood, his axe was nowhere to be found. After searching about for a time, he heard the sound of chopping over in the nearby holler. It sounded more like a sledge hammer pounding on a log than the crisp ring of a sharp double-bladed axe.

Leonard knew it had to be Cyrus Mann. He crossed the road and walked through Everett’s alfalfa field to the rail fence, where he saw Cyrus and his dog climbing up the hill. He called out to him, “Cyrus, do you have my axe?” Without his quarry, and without much breath, Cyrus lifted the dull tool over his head and shouted, “You ain’t got no axe.”

It was a long-held tenet in our part of the country that a skunk was unable to use his scent unless both hind feet were planted firmly on the ground. Therefore, he could be rendered helpless by merely picking him up by the tail. Most everyone agreed with this, but no one tried it – except Leonard Houchins.

Squirrel season had arrived and Leonard had been sitting in the same place since daylight, and nothing was stirring. When he heard a rustling in the leaves, he turned toward it with anticipation, but it was merely a skunk making his unhurried way through the woods. It was rather unusual for a skunk to be about in the daytime, and since little else was happening, Leonard watched as the animal investigated rotten stumps and other likely food sources.
Skunks live in their own world and do not pause in their activity and look about every few seconds, as is the habit with squirrels. He took no notice of Leonard, and soon located something behind a nearby log. Intent on unearthing whatever was living there, he started to dig. Leonard was young enough to become restless when the squirrels were not stirring, but he was old enough to know better than to do what he was about to do.

As the skunk dug deeper into the soft dirt, his tail protruded above the log. Leonard saw a perfect opportunity to test the age-old tenet, and to be the only person with a first-hand knowledge of the matter. Quietly scooting along the leaf-covered ground, he worked his way to the log and grabbed the upturned tail. Standing up with his trophy at arm’s length, he quickly learned the truth. As for whether a skunk is helpless in this position, we have Leonard’s own testimony: “Don’t believe it.”

I have always felt that my failures in hunting made for better stories than my successes. I suppose Leonard felt the same way, since I never heard him speak of his hunting prowess. Squirrel hunting required very little preparation; one merely grabbed his hat and his gun and a handful of shells and headed for the woods. That was how Leonard did it, and he had barely settled down when a squirrel presented himself broadside on a limb, no more than fifty feet away. Leonard raised his shotgun and fired. Both limb and squirrel fell to the ground, but the squirrel scrambled away unscathed. Somewhat puzzled by the severed limb, but not really surprised at the miss, since such a thing happened to everybody at one time or another, he reloaded and waited.
Soon another squirrel ambled into close range. This time two shots were fired with no better result. Leonard inspected his front sight, made himself more comfortable, and waited for the next one, wondering how anyone could miss two squirrels at point-blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun. When the next one appeared, he took careful aim and fired. The squirrel disappeared, and a cloud of fur floated away in the breeze. As he put, there was not enough squirrel left to pick up. He finally thought to examine his shells. Sure enough, he had been using rifled slugs, or “punkin balls”, as we called them.

Although this gist of the following story can perhaps be traced back to Cook’s Run….no doubt, such a thing happened more than once…Leonard told it of his brothers and his youthful companions.

They had found an old ox yoke in Clint’s barn, and decided to yoke one of his steers to it. He didn’t say how old they were, but if they were old enough to get a good-sized steer into an ox yoke, they certainly were not children. When they finally got him hitched up, there didn’t seem to be much to do with him; it was a rather one-sided affair, and there were no more steers in range. To remedy the problem, they hitched one of the boys head and shoulders into the yoke alongside the steer. Whether he had volunteered for the job, or been pressed into service, was a question Leonard left open. When everything was ready they opened the gate and turned the team loose.

The steer and the boy left together, and it quickly became clear which one was the lead oxen. Dragging his human partner, the steer charged across the barnyard, into the pasture field, over a hill, and tumbled headlong into a deep gully. Fearing the worst, which was perhaps as much for the welfare of the steer as for the boy, they ran to the scene, where both lay entangled in the yoke. They started to disentangle the two, when the boy, also fearing the worst, shouted, “Get the steer loose first, I’ll stand.”

When Leonard was helping his father with some carpentry work on their barn, Clint had fussed at him most of the morning for choking up on the hammer handle and using it as though he were driving carpet tacks; a habit from which Dad never managed to completely cure me, although he never took such a drastic measure as Clint Houchins was about to do.

Just as Dad had told me, Clint told Leonard time and again to hold the handle by the end so as to get some leverage into his blows. Finally, in exasperation, he grabbed the hammer and sawed off a good portion of the handle, telling him that if he wasn’t going to use it he didn’t need it. For the rest of the day Leonard drove twelve-penny nails with a hammer having a four-inch handle. Although he was using it exactly as he had used it before, Leonard assured me that it was not the same thing. When the day was over he well understood the correct way to use a hammer.

A favorite practical joke was simply to scare the living daylights out of someone. Not only was it the easiest thing to do, it was also the funniest, and there would be no retaliation, since the victim never knew who did it. I heard this one from both Dad and Leonard, although Dad would neither admit nor deny that he was involved in it.

A certain man, who was boarding at Denny Thompson’s house, was courting a girl who lived some distance away, perhaps in the vicinity of Lowell. Men of that day did not visit their lady friends frequently, but they visited them regularly, usually on a Sunday afternoon. The visiting was over by dusk, the father saw to that; hence, a few hours of courting in the afternoon often ended with even more hours of walking home in the dark.

People lived throughout those hills and valleys, and there were paths and trails everywhere, some of which were no worse than the county roads, and a lot shorter. The shortest way to Lowell was to walk out the road that branched off across from the Thompson house and ran out to the old Herman DeHart farm, on which Earnest Huffman would later live. From there he could bear left, pass through Otter Holler, and come out on the road a few hundred yards above the Greenbrier River, a distance of little more than two miles; or, he could bear right and cross Spade Ridge to the Lowell road at the top of Hinchman Hill; a somewhat longer, but perhaps a less threatening route, and the one I would have taken had I possessed the fortitude to take either one. Otter Holler was spooky enough in the daytime, I could not imagine walking through it at night.

Not far distant from the Thompson house, the narrow road was pressed on each side by woodland and dense brush, forming a dark corridor before it opened into the less-threatening pasture fields. A large oak tree grew alongside this portion of the road, and stretched a long limb out over it. The pranksters well knew when the man would be returning from his weekly rendezvous, but they must need wait for the right time. There should be enough moonlight so their victim could see what they wanted him to see, but not so much that he could see them.

When the proper night arrived they assembled under the oak; which, henceforth, would always be known as the ghost tree. One of them climbed out on the limb with a large white sheet that had been rolled up and attached to a length of rope. The others hid nearby. They soon saw their intended victim making his way carefully along the red gravel road by the feeble glow of a kerosene lantern. They held their collective breaths and waited until he was almost underneath the limb. The sheet dropped.

Suspended from the rope, it unfurled not six feet in front of his face. He froze in his tracks, but when the sheet began to dance he quickly thawed, threw aside his lantern, and took to his heels. Cutting off the turns, and ignoring the gates, he made a bee-line for home. They heard his feet hit the front steps of Denny’s house, and the door slam behind him… a good quarter-mile distant. Throughout it all the pranksters had not made a sound. Ghosts don’t give themselves away by laughing, there was plenty of time for that after the door slammed.

Leonard didn’t say to what extent the experience affected the man’s courting habits, but if it didn’t make him favor daytime visiting and early departing, there is little doubt that he no longer favored the short-cut to Lowell.

Even so, there was another ghost tree on Hinchman Hill, and if he wanted to get to Lowell, he couldn’t avoid them both. In those days the pleasure of a lady’s company was ofttimes dearly purchased.

Willis P. Simmons   2004
Friend  of  UHS