The “Porch Sitters” were more than just a group of coal camp guys (and a few gals), who nightly gathered at their central meeting place—Island Creek Coal’s No. 16 company store during the 1960’s and 70’s. Although unique to themselves, they were not unlike most other coal camp citizens in Logan County and the rest of the southern West Virginia coal fields—they were “dreamers”. Nestled in between two hills and a creek, the Porch Sitters all had one thing in common: coal. In one way or another, whether they realized it or not, they were soulfully connected. Every Porch Sitter’s neighbor was, or had been, a coal mine employee.
No matter what had went on during the day, be it ball playing of one sport or another, or perhaps building on a cabin somewhere, blackberry picking in the summer, sleigh riding in Winter, playing on a burning slate dump, or just exploring the nearby hills during Autumn, one could always expect the Porch Sitters to make their appearance at about dusk each day. Also each evening, although most noticeable in summertime, the locals could count on the slow moving and low lying cloud of coal dust that spookily made its way down the Mud Fork valley from Island Creek’s No. 28 coal tipple that was located up the narrow valley just over a mile away. Some people swept their porches daily to rid the dust, while other parents, grandparents and neighbors, failed to wage a war against the daily menace. Besides, (I suppose some thought) a good hard rain would come sooner or later, and that would at least temporarily take care of the dusty problem.
Most of the folks, who ventured into the store on a daily basis, were used to the creaky floors, but few knew the store was once a YMCA, or that the first company store there had burned sometime during the 1930’s. All that really mattered to the nightly gang was that there was enough light from the closed store to dimly illuminate the Porch Sitters’ concrete stage. Throughout the many years of the company store’s existence, there had been many players grace this isolated stage. Some had left to fight in far off wars, while others had found their ways in factories and other jobs in locales such as Detroit, Pontiac, Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland. The Porch Sitters alumni, however, nearly always found their way back to the company store setting; proudly, they roared in on vacations and holidays usually showing off their new muscle cars: Dodge Chargers, Pontiac GTO’s, Chevelles or Ford Mustangs—all of which were perceived to be signs of success by the new and younger Porch Sitters.
The younger Porch Sitters had learned to enjoy the new found entertainment of television, even if it were only one or two channels that were made vaguely visible by the running of an antenna line all the way to the top of a nearby hill. Storms, wind, and overall bad weather became a constant headache as those who had television sets would have to send someone to the top of the hill to adjust an antenna, or repair a downed line during these times. One had to be in fairly good athletic condition to enjoy television back then. Still, TV, like the nighttime musical sounds of radio stations like WOWO in Fort Worth, Ind., and a few others, gave the Porch Sitters a vision of that which lay beyond what the Appalachian Mountains seemed to want to mask.
Some of the Porch Sitters of my era included the names of people like Tommy, Billy and Bobby Hall, David “Pig” Hensley, and Chris Williamson, my brother; all of whom, in their own ways, made their marks in life, and now are gone from this earthly domain. Others now departed include the names of Mike and Pat Petroff, Jimmy Marcum, Kenny Nelson, Rod Baisden, Delbert Jay Williams, Paul Hughes, Michael Burton, Freddie and Harold Lee Evans, Jack Hensley, Harold (Stiney Pig) Evans, Frank Hanks, and Delbert McCloud, who was my wife’s brother and a best friend; all of whom would be named to the Porch Sitters’ Hall of Fame, if only one existed. Others who have sat on the store porch stage and just may have plotted out dastardly deeds, or otherwise succeeded in life in some way, includes, but is not limited to, the likes of Sherman (Rudy) Williamson, Danny and Linda Hall, Teddy Hale, Terry and Jerry McCallister, Robert, Tolbert, Linda, Brenda, Kay and Gloria Marcum, Dennis Butcher, Tillman and Pat Maynard, Kenny Johnson, Marvin and Phillip Burton, Ralph and Gary Evans, Connie and Bonnie Evans, Carlson Bowers, Ralph Petroff, Ronald Belcher, Roger Hensley, Frank Workman, Bill Finley, Elvis Belcher, Rick and Bill “Bo” Hensley, Danny Nelson, Faron and Jimmy Williamson, and a host of others, many of whom preceded myself. Oddly, the recent Oct. 9th birthday of Beatle legend John Lennon, who we all know was tragically gunned down Dec. 8, 1980 at the age of 40, is what motivates this particular writing. You see, it was the vision of one of the Porch Sitters that created the not so worldly famous group known only as—“The Junior Beatles.” This foursome did not make any recordings, nor were they widely known, but they did exist.
When Beatlemania finally reached Mud Fork via the Ed Sullivan show, my neighbor Billy Hall, a true visionary artist in his own right, was ahead of the local game. He was the only person I ever knew who had and wore what was known as “Beatle boots.” I first noticed the shiny boots as Billy would almost tippy-toe down the muddy alley when headed to the post office or company store. My Uncle Albert, who seemed to always be seated on his front porch located across the alley from Billy’s grandpa’s house, liked to give Billy a playful hard time. Taking a draw from his Salem cigarette, Albert would bellow out, “Be careful and don’t get them fancy shoes wet, Pug.” Pug, which was Billy’s nickname, always took his neighbor’s remarks in good stride.
Billy’s grandparents, Linville and Mona Hall, took good care of him and his younger brother, Bobby. So it was that Billy had a nice record player and, of course, the first Beatle music I knew of in 16 coal camp. Billy, who I suppose idolized the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr, one day decided to form what he dubbed as the “Junior Beatles.” I was to be George Harrison, and fellow coal campers Tolbert and Jimmy Marcum, were either John Lennon or Paul McCarthy. Billy took his grandma’s sewing machine top and turned it into a drum. Tolbert and Jimmy both came from a known singing family and actually were pretty darned good singers and even played guitars. As for me, I had a kid’s guitar, and could neither sing nor play. However, after many practices on Billy’s back porch, he got the idea that we needed a stage. So, a rather large stage was constructed, under Billy’s direction, onto an outbuilding that once served as a coal house. An electric extension cord was extended to the stage, and almost overnight, the Junior Beatles were ready for their first concert. By this time, Billy had a real drum set and could play it fairly well.
Of course, a concert can’t be a concert if nobody is there to hear the band. So, we ended up getting the word out to all the young girls on both sides of the main road at 16 Camp. No guys were invited. After all, it was the young girls who had been acting “crazy” over the real Beatles on TV, and we did not need any competition.
When the big day finally came after about 10 previous days of getting the word out, we were nervously excited about taking the now decorated stage. The idea was for us to play along with real Beatle music to be played from a record player. Billy would actually play drums and Tolbert and Jimmy were to sing. I suppose I was just going to pretend to play George Harrison’s role. It was a good day for a concert; not too warm, nor to cool. Excitement was growing as we had been told that, not only were all the neighborhood girls coming, but many of their friends from other places were also going to be there. After all, it was a free concert, and Billy had plans of serving Kool-Aid to the guests.
A few local girls had found their way to the concert setting and we were told that many others were on their way, when suddenly, I believe God intervened. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of our sounds reaching the high heavens. We will never know.
The sound of an airplane was rare on Mud Fork anyway, but on this afternoon a sputtering engine sound could be heard close by, and all eyes were looking to the air when a loud crash was heard. No one really knew what was going on, as people ran out onto their porches to see what had just happened. The fiery crash was less than 100 yards from our homemade band stage. By this time, all the girls were scared practically to death and were running home. Parents and grandparents were trying to corral the neighborhood kids, thinking the plane might explode at any time.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been another airplane crash on Mud Fork. The newspaper said two men were trying to land a damaged plane on a road leading up a hill to Verdunville Grade School when the pilot lost control and slammed into a ditch line. The Banner related that both men survived with only minor injuries.
I wish to tell you that the Junior Beatles did not survive on that fateful day. For whatever reason, John, Paul, Ringo and George—otherwise known as Tolbert, Jimmy, Billy and Dwight—never got back together again; no doubt their images were tarnished in some way from the close by plane crash. However, much like the real Beatles, after they too split up in 1969, the Junior Beatles also had solo careers, and went on to play. Billy became a drummer in a local rock n’ roll band that played in many clubs and then he later moved to Ohio, while Jimmy and Tolbert went on to play and sing in different gospel groups. As for myself, I PLAYED every sport I could—none of which included a musical instrument.
This writing is not only to honor the life of a shooting star by the name of John Lennon, but also to honor all of the porch sitters wherever they may be, particularly Billy and Jimmy, who have gone on to play in the great “spirit in the sky.”
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.