My Dad grew up in the Great Depression. I grew up reliving the Great Depression through my father's amazing storytelling ability. His vivid descriptions filled my hungry mind with color and depth and just enough facts to make me feel as if I was actually there.
My father was one of ten children, each struggling and starving in their own way. As one of the youngest and shortest of ten children my father grew up street wise, scrappy and hungry. Adventure was always the quickest way to distract him from his busy mind and hungry stomach.
One spring day my father, affectionately known as "Shorty," was traipsing through a wooded hillside that overlooked the rusting coal mining town of Coburn, Virginia. You don't get the nickname "Shorty" for being the biggest kid in the pack, so you have to be quick to action in order to keep from being lost and left behind. With his older brother PeeWee and his buddy Don Evans in tow, their adventure took them to the top of the hill so they could overlook the town. Almost to the crest of the hill, they saw it. They must have been up this hill a thousand times, but for some reason they’d never seen it—an enormous millstone, standing upright and just waiting for them to find it.
The three boys saw opportunity. A few ideas bounced among them as they surveyed the two tons of rock shaped for milling grain into flour. The grist mill that had once surrounded the grinding stone was long gone, leaving the stone standing silent and alone. Not being versed in weights and measurements, it never dawned on the three boys that this thing was heavy. Really heavy. So they took a rope from my grandmother's clothesline and secured the millstone. The plan was to knock away the stump that held the stone and let the mighty rock gently roll down the hill so they could salvage it and make a killing off its sale.
PeeWee took an ax in hand and barked out the question, “Ready?” Shorty and Don held the rope tightly, bracing for the slow descent down the hill. PeeWee sliced the dead stump with a whack, and the millstone moved for the first time in decades. It moved slowly at first, then when the rope snapped, it freely rolled down the hill. With the boys in chase, the millstone began chewing up trees and spitting them out both sides. Nothing could stop it. It smashed a fence as the boys ran helplessly along dodging limbs and falling trees. It kept rolling downhill, picking up speed and moving right toward a house.
At the foot of the great hill was a shack owned by a strange woman named Jane Hicks. The boys watched in disbelief as the stone rolled straight toward her house. Living next door to Jane was the Adkins family. Baldy Adkins was another friend of my father. When I asked my dad why anyone would name a kid "Baldy," he assured me that he was not prematurely bald and this was his nickname, he said the Adkins family was so poor they shaved their kids’ heads to keep from having to pay for haircuts—and that it also helped keep the lice population down. Baldy's mom was hanging clothes in the backyard when she heard the commotion coming down the hill. Jane was in her kitchen when Mrs. Adkins yelled, "Jane, get out of that house, all hell is breaking loose!" Jane dove from the porch seconds before the millstone slammed into the house and split it in two.
No one saw the Litton brothers or Don Evans for over a week. They just melted into the mountains until the heat was off. Upon their arrival back in civilization, they were just in time to watch a man with a team of horses pulling the millstone down the street to salvage. It would be years before the statute of limitations expired on the fear of these three young men. Thankfully for them, everyone found a huge distraction when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Within a few short years the three boys would be off at war and the world would never be the same.
The best part of this story is the part I did not tell you. You see, Jane Hicks made moonshine in that little shack at the bottom of the hill. My dad said that on Saturday night after she had finished brewing and taste testing her product, Jane was riding high. Alcohol can do strange things to people. Jane would climb the hill behind her house above the town and scream like a panther. Funny thing, after the Millstone Incident, no one ever recalled hearing the panther again. What the Federal Revenuers could not do, three hapless and hungry boys with wide eyes and big dreams did. I don't know if Jane was saved that spring day, but I know that whatever happened to her, the panther never screamed again and no one ever purchased old Jane Hicks’s brew. The Lord sure does move in mysterious ways.