It was one of those blazing hot summer days in July when it was simply too darned hot to do anything but sit on the company store porch and watch the cars go by. However, some of the guys had decided to “thumb” a ride to go swimming at the Holden swimming pool. With their swimming trunks wrapped tightly inside a rolled up bath towel, it wasn’t long before the boys got a ride to the “all-white” public pool that was near the Recreational Building that, like the pool, was the product of Island Creek Coal Company, as was the very store porch we sat on—No. 16 Company Store—the lifeblood of the Verdunville neighborhood. The Logan Regional Hospital Cancer Clinic has replaced the Recreational Building, the swimming pool is long gone, and the company store burned during the 1970’s.
On this particular day, the rest of the usual “Porch Sitters” had decided they couldn’t afford to go swimming and also carry out the big plans they had for the evening. The admission to the pool was only 50 cents, but the five guys (whose names will be changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty) had saved their money for over a week and gallantly awaited the forthcoming sunset. Darkness was very often a welcome site in summertime back then when nobody had air conditioning in their homes and the window fans didn’t do much to help in the sweltering heat of the daytime. In fact, none of the “Porch Sitters” had even heard of air conditioning in homes, but most of us had heard that at least one movie theatre in downtown Logan had “air conditioning” because the ad in The Logan Banner said so.
It was around noon when the remaining “Porch Sitters” went inside the store and for 25 cents each got a small coke, a bag of peanuts and a moon pie. After returning to the lunch table that was the porch, Billy and the gang—as usual—dumped their peanuts in their cokes. As for myself, I never would even try that. To me, it was disgusting. And besides, I preferred Double Cola to Coca-Cola.
The passing of a Trailways bus and the distinctive smell of the gas fumes it left behind broke the boys’ hillside gaze. It was a gaze at their finished product that took two months to construct, and was located upon the hill and across the road behind the No. 16 coal camp at Verdunville. Long hours had been put into building what could have been described as either a two-story or a one-story with a full basement. Either way, it was OUR cabin. Hidden behind the greenery of the hillside, few knew of its existence. It was our best kept secret— constructed out of used lumber found along the creek banks, and maybe a few other locations.
Thanks to “Worm,” who was a little older than the rest of the crew, and did most of the carpentry work, our cabin even had real windows in it. And, to the keenest eye on a sunny day, one could see the sun’s glistening reflection through the trees that surrounded our hideaway.
At one house across from the store, two girls could be seen playing “jacks” in the shade of a maple tree, while the smell of fried chicken was distinctive as the aroma poured out through a screened kitchen door of the home. The smell of chicken brought up the subject of food that was to be on the “menu” that night for the cabin. A potbellied stove was a fine fixture that was contained at our cabin. And we all knew for sure that there would be corn on the cob to eat; as once again we planned to raid old man Hill’s corn field and place the unshucked corn in the ashes of the stove until it was done. Potatoes would be done the same way.
We also knew that breakfast the next morning would consist of donuts because we knew how early the Sunbeam bread truck delivered to the store. Donuts, cakes, pies and all breads were stacked high near the entrance long before the store was ever opened, and we helped ourselves to the donuts. But it was not the food that we so much looked forward to that particular evening. It was the beer.
None of the “Porch Sitters” were anywhere old enough to purchase alcohol, so it was that they paid someone (who shall remain unnamed) $2 to drive to Gene’s IGA Foodliner, which was located on the Holden Road where Rite Aid is now, and buy the liquids that would likely put us into limbo. Blatz beer was on sale there for $5 a case, and we desired two of them. Falls City, Strohs and Burger brands of beer were just too expensive, and we didn’t know the difference anyway.
As the afternoon wore on and the paneled truck stopped at the old post office to let several coal miners out (including my grandfather) when they came from their daily chores the black-faced men had performed underneath the earth, we knew the evening would be coming upon us soon. We also knew that in a couple of hours those same miners, after they bathed and had dinner, would be joined by other men in the coal camp and make their way to the railroad tracks to sit and whittle with pieces of cedar wood. I’m sure there were many worldly problems solved amidst the “knat smoke” generated from the cedar shavings that were burned. A sharp pocket knife was essential at the time for any man.
On some occasions— when the miners were not so exhausted, I suppose—the ringing sound of pitched horseshoes clanging against iron pegs echoed throughout the two camps that were on each side of the county roadway. Still, at other times, some of the men could be found behind the very small post office that used to set beside the company store. The men played poker behind the post office or the store and took their chances that no Constable would catch them in the act, which was a popular and common thing around all coal camps at the time.
The miners’ vacations, which came every July 1st, had come and gone and I was probably the only person around then that was glad of that. The dusty coal camp was a lonely place for a kid during miners’ vacations when everybody else was gone. Since my parents never had drivers’ licenses, we didn’t take too many trips anywhere. Being very bored and standing in the bottom that now is officially a playground at Verdunville that was constructed there by the Logan County Commission, I mastered the art of hitting rocks with a homemade bat. Whether hitting left-handedly or right, I sent the flat rocks sailing over invisible home run walls. And I know that I hit more than Henry Aaron. Unfortunately, you won’t find my name in the record books.
On this blessed day, the sun finally was beginning to set, and a sure sign of evening was when the Maynard or Vance boys, who were a little older than our version of the “Porch Sitters,” came strolling down the alley to await a ride to town, probably to go to a billiards parlor (pool hall), or meet some girl at a movie show. The mixture of Vitalis hair tonic and Hai-Karate after shave lotion provided an aroma that surely guaranteed the movies was their intended destination.
When darkness finally settled in, the “Porch Sitters” went behind the company store and retrieved their stash of beer they had hidden under the store’s back porch where it had been placed earlier that day. It was then time to “hit the trail.”
Years ago, coal camp people never even bothered to lock their doors at night, and parents and grandparents never worried about “kids” playing outdoors half the night since there was no school in session. So it was the same way for camping out: there really were no restrictions. A simple “Be careful” was all you heard from family. Of course, as I like to think: “One should never underestimate the underestimated.” And the “Porch Sitters” were certainly always underestimated.
Since our beds were already made up in the cabin on the hill and the beer placed on ice, once settled in, Pug and Speedy were sent to get a dozen ears of corn from Mr. Hill’s corn field. We didn’t think he would mind, since he had plenty. He generally shared it with the neighbors anyway; so nobody thought of it as stealing. The “Porch Sitters” didn’t steal anything. Well, maybe the bread truck’s donuts, but we didn’t think store manager Dow Thompson ever cared because he never complained; even when every now and then someone intentionally pulled the fire alarm just for fun.
Anyway, as the night went on and the guys returned with the fresh corn, the stove was lit and the beers started disappearing. Camping under the stars—we realized— and camping in a cabin is like living in two different worlds. None of us liked being confined, and the “Porch Sitters” became restless. We had to get into something; otherwise, why spend the night—simply to sleep?
Someone mentioned that the Workman boys and a group of other guys were camping out on this same night at a location about two miles up the Mud Fork Road. Like Indians attacking a white man’s settlement, we surprised them with our unexpected 3 a.m. courtesy call.
We had been there for a good while, when a familiar voice coming from the darkness was heard: “They’re looking everywhere for you. They think your dead.” It was “Worm,” who had volunteered to try and find us. Dazed and confused, we asked what the heck he was talking about.
“Everybody in the camp is looking for you all. They thought you might have gotten burned up in the cabin,” said our mighty carpenter. “The whole camp is lit up like New York City.”
This, of course, was not good news for the “Porch Sitters,” who suddenly realized it was time to accept a dose of reality. So down the road we went; not knowing what to expect.
“Worm” ran ahead of us and announced, “I found them. They’re ok. They weren’t in the cabin.”
The whole neighborhood was standing in the alley as fire continued to envelope our beloved cabin. And to think: we never even got to enjoy the roasted corn. Plus, our beer was no doubt becoming “fire brewed.” Also, there would be no company store donuts on this morning.
My mother, who I believe was one of the “coolest” people ever, never panicked, nor was she visibly upset with me. She simply wanted to know how the fire started. We assumed it started from our potbellied stove. None of the “Porch Sitters” got much of a reprimand, probably because everybody was just glad their children were still alive.
The following day, the “Porch Sitters” gathered again on the store porch to assess the situation. It could have been the heat, or perhaps the hangovers, but it was decided that another cabin would not be built. From then on, we would be sleeping under the stars when we camped out. However, it wasn’t long afterwards that we discovered an abandoned cave. It was a cave big enough to build a cabin in. Of course, we only used it on summer nights when it rained. And besides, we couldn’t build a fire and roast our stolen corn in the cave—at least not without suffocating ourselves to death.
This story is dedicated to the memories of Billy, Bobby, Tommy, Jimmy, and all the rest of the many ‘Porch Sitters” who grew up in coal camps throughout Logan County and all of West Virginia— all of whom, I’m sure, could share similar stories.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.