Rock Candy Mountain by Earl Davis by Earl Davis - Read Online

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Rock Candy Mountain - Earl Davis

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The old man sleeping in the shadow of the railroad trestle had a long white beard. He awoke as I approached and said, Hi there, boy, with a twinkle in his eye. He looked like Santa Claus to me. I asked him where he lived. He said, For the moment, right here. It hasn’t frosted on me in forty years. I go south with the birds and return with them in the spring, and with that, he began to hum a little song. Come along with me, boy. I’ll show you the rock candy mountains, the lemonade springs, cigarette trees and where handouts grow on bushes.

After I went home that evening, I kept thinking about the old man and his travel talk. I hummed the little song he sang, dreaming of a better life waiting for me. At only thirteen, I told my mother about him and that I was going to travel. She didn’t pay much attention to me, ‘cause she didn’t think I was serious. I mulled the idea over in my mind for a few days and began to collect my clothes. I had a new suit, a pair of shoes Grandpa had bought me, a pair of overalls, three shirts, and a few other odds and ends. I collected all my worldly possessions, rolled them into one bundle, put a leather strap around them, and on that very clear beautiful morning, I stood before my mother, announcing I was going away. As I remember now, she seemed to be completely undone, her clear blue eyes filled up. She said, Son, do you think you can make it? I could see she felt powerless to stop me. I had 80 cents in my pocket and the world at my feet. Mom stood in the shanty doorway watching her son disappear down the lane.

While I was sitting down by the bridge waiting for a train, my much younger brother, Jim, showed up. He brought some lunch my mom made. She wrapped it up for me to take along. Just then, I heard the train. It stopped to take on water, and I climbed on under the end of a gondola. It was a long coal train, and as it began to move, I waved goodbye to Jim. I thought he looked so small standing there. I felt I was now a part of the railroad and even loved the smell of those old coal cars. I could smell the oily waste in the journal boxes as the train rolled on, and I was bidding the countryside, I was familiar with, goodbye.

I didn’t know where I was going, just going to ride as long as one rail connected to another one. I got into Ashland, Kentucky yards that night. There the train is made up again, I learned. Out of that yard, some go northwest and some southwest. I got on one that went northwest through Ohio to Columbus. When it got daylight, I could see for miles. The land was rolling green, its beauty was breathtaking. I could see just as far as I could from the mountains back home in eastern Kentucky. I spent that night trying to get to the other end of the Columbus yards and on another train. As I walked through the Columbus yard, all the trains were shifting, and I could see the lights from Columbus, but I was afraid to go toward the city. Those clothes in that bundle began to get heavy, so I found a spot, unrolled them, put on my suit with the overalls on top, and threw the rest away. I walked on then, light and happy, but hungry. I got on another train sometime before daylight, the Hocking Valley bound for Toledo, and arrived at the Toledo yards that evening. I went to a beanery where the railroad men hung around, going on and off duty. I could smell food long before I got there. The lunch Mom had fixed for me earlier, was long gone, and I was three hundred miles from home, though it seemed much farther.

I hung around the beanery until about nine o’clock, searching every man’s face that came in the door, trying to pick out one that I thought would like a boy well enough to feed him. Finally, the right face came through the door, but everybody else spoke to him too. From hearing them talk, I learned he was an engineer. His name was Charlie. I sidled up beside him after awhile and said, Sir, my father is an engineer. He said in a big loud voice, Where did you come from, boy? and before I could answer, and how old are you? With all my 85 lbs., I said, Thirteen, with a voice that was barely above a whisper. He laughed, set me up on a stool and said, This boy’s hungry! He ordered for me. I’d never eaten in a restaurant, and I ate like a frightened animal. I’d never had so much attention or been so hungry. After I’d eaten, several of them wanted to take me home, but I went home with Charlie.

Next morning, I sneaked away from Charlie’s while he and his wife were making plans to send me home. From that experience, I learned not to tell anyone exactly where I was from or who I was, except that my name was Earl, and I had no family. And that worked fine.

But I did have a family and had left the place of my birth. I think I was trying to run away from my mother as soon as I could walk. I thought I was old enough now, and had the means to follow through with it. She was a stern disciplinarian, making it a hard place for me to live. I started sneaking off as early as the age of four.

This desire to leave my Kentucky home came from my experiences as a young boy. I loved adventure from my earliest recollection. I can best explain this by taking a look back, where it all began. The world as seen by a little boy with all its glorious freshness, captured only once, is written here, including the unhappy moments.

My father was a railroad engineer, a big man with a kind of perpetual smile, who was good natured and liked his drink. My mother was tall, dark Irish, deeply religious, and very quick tempered, and my father’s placid attitude didn’t help it any. She directed everything, washed the ears, mended the clothes, mended the cuts and bruises, cooked the food, cleaned the house, washed my father’s feet, had ten kids, and prayed. I spent a great deal of time with my grandfather simply because my mother and I didn’t see eye to eye.

I was the oldest of ten children, born to Sarah and Allen Davis, a marriage that was not popular with my mother’s people, because mom’s people had more property and were considered the upper class of that mountain country. It was in Pike county in an area known as Esco, Kentucky. My father came from another section about thirty-five miles away. He was one of nine boys. His father, John Davis, died when he was five. My grandmother, Rebecca, remarried, but they lived very hard, and dad left home early searching for work. He was working at a saw mill over on one of the small creeks near where my mother lived. She had a beau when my father put in his appearance. His name was Munroe, and his father owned miles of land that joined my grandpa’s property, so naturally he was the choice. But my father’s charm and good looks overcame property, position and money. So they were married, and soon I was conceived. I was in danger from that moment on. My father wanted her to get rid of the pregnancy, but my mother’s deep religious training and maternal instinct would not permit this.

When I was six months old, my father took my mother to Virginia, so I stayed with my maternal grandmother. They were gone a year and a half, and another child was born, who died before they returned. When they returned, I didn’t know them and wouldn’t go near them. A short while after, my restless father took my mother away again and another child was born. It also died in Virginia someplace. By now, I was four and they returned once more and took me with them to a small eastern Kentucky town, called Jenkins, where coal mines were opening up, and the B&O railroad was building a branch line there. My father was to become the first engineer on that line.

I think they moved thirteen times in the first four years of their marriage. My mother loved my father without reason and with all her heart till the day she dropped dead. He was a big, handsome man with a carefree, placid attitude, but a very sentimental heart that he managed to cover up most of the time. My mother was about 5’7", dark skin, blue eyes, and black hair that was slightly wavy, and it touched the floor when she sat in the chair combing it. She had an iron clad will, and there were only two ways, right and wrong. She fought fiercely all her life to make a beautiful thing of their marriage and raise her children to be highly respected citizens. Her high ideals and stern discipline made it very difficult for me, since I would not bend.

I didn’t look like either of my parents. I was skinny with hair that looked like the bristly end of a brush and not two hairs laid together and wild as a deer. Guess my first view of life had put me on the defensive, and I was like a high strung animal hard to get near.

It wasn’t long after we moved to Jenkins my brother, Bud, was born. He was a beautiful child with blonde, curly hair and looked exactly like my father. All the neighbors made over him. The Stevenson’s next door kept him half the time. Soon after, my sister Opal was born, a beautiful baby with black hair.

The town we lived in was on the foothills of Cumberland Mountain. The railroad had built part of the town for its employees, and the coal company had built the rest of the town for its employees. Most of the houses were painted a slate color, two rooms down and two up. All had a front porch and small back. The very front row of houses had six rooms with inside plumbing that we were finally to live in for a while. The railroad yard occupied the only level land, which was below and in front of everyone’s home. The roundhouse, where the engines were kept, were across from our house. The noise was constant. One-half mile across the way were coal conveyors running twenty-four hours per day loading coal into the steel railroad cars. All this was nestled between the mountains with about three hundred yards of level land in the bottom. Everything had a layer of coal dust and smoke. This was the rail head of the B&O Railroad. Our home was about a mile from the depot, post office and company store. There was a dam for the power plant, and this formed a beautiful lake. This was called Lakeside, with beautiful homes surrounding it. I never got inside one of them, but I often wondered why I didn’t live there where it was so beautiful.

I guess I was conscious of beauty from the very beginning. My brother and sisters were good looking, and everyone said so. People constantly made a fuss over my younger brother, Bud. The Stevenson’s next door idolized him. If they ever said anything about me, they would say, Earl is a nice boy, but he is so mischievous.


I said earlier, that I was trying to run away as soon as I could walk. As young as four, I wandered off to a place where they had outside toilets with six foot deep concrete bases and a lid raised up on the back. There were colored fellows, with a wagon that was closed over top, who would clean them, and my mother sometimes would find me sitting on the wagon with the driver sharing his lunch.

I ran from my mother again, when I was five. I ran and ran, and she chased after me until she was out of breath. Then she called to a seventeen year old girl, who ran on after me. On I ran until I was in a strange new world where mostly Hungarian coal miners lived. Finally, I ran into a dead-end alley. There seemed to be no way out, so I ran into one of those outside toilets. The girl, with some help, broke in the door and captured me. Then, back home I went. By this time, my mother was at her wits’ end. She took me upstairs and locked me in a small clothes press (closet), announcing she was going next door with the other kids and having ice cream. It was July and very hot. This small closet didn’t have any ventilation. So I surveyed the situation, put my back against the wall and with my feet, pushed with all my might, and one of the panels in the door jumped out. I put my head out and listened. There wasn’t a sound, so I crawled through. This time, I was going to go far away. I knew my mother kept her money under the head of her bed, so I found it, and I only took one bill, not knowing the denomination, but it turned out to be a dollar. With this money, I was on my way, barefooted in a little one-piece suit. I went uptown and into a store where I bought a whole blackberry pie. After eating the pie, I went over to the railroad station. The passenger train was standing there about ready to leave. I passed the engine, a big steam monster, panting away like it was excited and ready to run at any moment. I scampered along back to the coaches and climbed on while the trainmen were looking away. The wonderful smell of those coaches – I thought that was the smell they brought from the other side of the world – and I was going there. I took a seat by the window on the side that would pass by my house. Soon, I thought, I would wave at my mother as I passed, and she would be surprised to see the boy she had locked in the closet flying by. But I was not to experience that, because there was a big man with a brass strip on his cap standing by me, the conductor. He knew me and wanted to know where my mother was. I told him she was home, but I would wave at her as I went by. With that, he took me off the train.

Back home, my mother had discovered my escape and had several people looking for me. Soon, two boys appeared that were looking for me, and they returned me to mother. At first, I guess she was relieved that I was alive, because I could have suffocated in the closet she said, remembering later. But then, to make sure I didn’t escape anymore that day, she tied me hand and foot and then tied me to the foot of the bed. I sat tied for about five hours until my father came home. He turned me loose and gave my mother a little lecture about tying me, then I rested for a fresh start next day.

The houses were fairly new where we lived, and they had boardwalks all over the place. The town was on a hill and one side of the walk was very high in places, and the carpenters had lost a lot of nails. So there was work to be done finding them and driving them into the walk.

Electricity was also new, and when I wanted an excuse to go to the store, I would get under the house with an old umbrella and blow the fuses. Mom couldn’t understand why so many fuses blew out or why she always got such short weight in sugar and coffee when I went to the store. (The short weight was for the candy she never knew I bought).

As I got to be about six and one-half, I discovered the mines were a nice place to play. The entrance to the mines was high on the mountain, and they didn’t expect to see a boy my size up there. So I had fun. I would sneak into the empty cars, and the motor would hook on and take them back into the mines close to where the coal was being loaded. Sometimes, it would be two and three miles back, then I would get between the loads and ride out. I was finally discovered by one of the motormen, and that ended my rides where I could smell burned powder and cool water dripping.

Every place I went seemed to have an odor that I remembered and was enchanted by, from the river, caves, and mountains to the fields, horses and cows -- all were distinctly different and beautiful.


When I wasn’t in trouble, I’d sit and daydream. I always wondered what was over that high mountain. I’d seen men going hunting, and they always took along a lunch. So early one morning, I got a couple of biscuits with jam, wrapped them up, and started out to see what was on the other side. Up I climbed among the trees. I reached the timber line, and as I got above it, I could see all over, and I began to feel all alone. I was the only living creature up there, it seemed.

In my haste to leave the house, I forgot one thing – water. I found little springs on the mountain as I went up, but the higher I got, the less water I could find, and near the top, there was none. I was getting very thirsty, and the only thing I could hear was the pounding of my heart.