RIDING THE BLIND
The Great Depression still gripped the nation on November ninth, 1936 when I was born in the mining town of Dehue, seven miles from the city of Logan, West Virginia. I slipped into the world silently, and my mother thought something was wrong with me. Dr. Fred Brammer, the company doctor who delivered me in the front room of our house laughed at her concern, picked me up by the feet and whacked me on the butt. I wailed, assuring her I was okay.
Mother named me Dolores after a child she knew in her youth. Although the name means sorrows, to her it meant beautiful and delicate like that child. My middlename, June, was for our neighbor June Hatfield, the granddaughter of “Devil Anse”Hatfield of the infamous feud. My parents told me I walked and talked early, never sat still a minute, “could play any two kids down,” and was always filled with wide-eyed wonder.
My father, Emmett Riggs, came to the reputed Billion Dollar Coal Fields of Logan County from Kentucky in 1933 looking for work. For twenty-six days he marched his five-foot, seven-inch, 135-pound frame into the Youngstown Mine Corporation office at Dehue asking for any kind of employment. “I never saw anyone want a job so bad,”the mine foreman finally said. “So, I’m gonna hire you, Riggs, ’cause I’m plain tiredof lookin’ at you.”
Dad worked ten-hour shifts, one day a week, for twenty-three cents an hour. The company gave advances on his pay in thin copper coins with holes punched in the middle, called “scrip.” It could only be spent in their inflated company-owned store. Because of his meager wages he didn’t draw a paycheck for a year. He could exchange the scrip for cash, but a dollar only netted 60 cents in currency. Just like the old song says, he owed his soul to the company store. That year his wages were only $110.40, barely paying for food and lodging at the company-owned boarding house. At least he wasn’t eating from garbage dumps as he had seen many able-bodied men do. It was also better than when he worked in a Kentucky cornfield from dawn to dark for fifty cents a day, or from “can see” to “can’t see” as the long hours were called.
Dad felt the coal fields held job opportunities and he made many unsuccessful trips from Kentucky to Dehue, West Virginia. However, he grew tired of riding the blind (hopping freight trains) in search of work. Once he and a buddy, weary after another turndown decided to go home, and walked the 70 miles from Dehue to Huntington. On the way Dad saw a poorly clad elderly lady shivering in the cold as she picked up coal that had fallen from passing trains. His black wavy hair fell over his blue eyes as he dug into his pocket and gave her his last quarter. “God, bless you, son,” she said blinking back tears.
His friend asked why he gave her all of his money. “She looked like she needed it more than I did,” he shrugged as he trudged along the railroad tracks. As night closed in around them, a wildcat stalked them from above, screaming and occasionally scattering stones down the mountainside as it snarled and pawed the ground threatening to pounce down on them. Afraid to run, they struck wooden matches every few feet hoping to scare it away. Finally to their relief, at daybreak it slunk into the woods. Then the rain began to fall, chilling them to the bone.
It was late the next night when they arrived in Huntington and the temperature plunged, turning the pelting rain to freezing sleet. In desperation, they pretended to be drunk and threw rocks at the county jail hoping to get arrested so they could get a hot meal and a warm bed for the night. The authorities ignored them. Then, Dad saw a trolley car coming down the street and took off running, yelling for his friend to hurry. When the door swung open, Dad bravely climbed on board. “Mister, everything I own in this world is here in this suitcase,” and he held it up so the driver could see. “I’m on my way to my sister’s in Ashland, Kentucky. I’ve just walked 70 miles in the cold and rain, and I’m tired, hungry and all walked out.” The driver smiled as he listened. “I don’t have a dime to my name, but I aim to ride this trolley . . . or one of us is gonna take an ass kickin’.”
Dad was relieved when the driver chuckled softly and said, “Get on board, son.”
“I won’t leave my buddy,” he said looking back.
“He can ride too,” the driver said. Dad tried unsucessfully to leave his beat-up cardboard suitcase with the driver as good faith until he could pay the quarter fare. Dad borrowed the money from his sister, and went to the station the next morning to pay his debt. He was disappointed that the driver wasn’t there, and hoped they would tell him that he lived up to his word.
Dad could have stayed on the family farm and waited out the Depression. . . . But he was eager to marry Gladys Brickey, his sweetheart of five years, who he had left pining in Kentucky; the woman who would later become my mother. They could have married and moved in with either of their families as many newlyweds were forced to do in those days, but Dad was too independent for that. However, after months of not hearing from Dad, Mother became disheartened with the long-distance relationship and wrote him a “quittin’ letter.” Dad quickly responded by writing her a poem which he later said came to him almost faster than he could write it down. In part it read:
It was in the year of ’28
The night I remember well.
I met a girl so sweet and fair,
And for her I really fell.
A slender lass,
So lovely and fair.
With dreamy blue eyes
And curly brown hair.
For four long years we
Sometimes in peace and
Sometimes at the outs.
After mailing the poem, Dad hitched a ride to Kentucky in the back of a pick-up. Once there,he borrowed his father’s horse and rode the eight miles over a rough mountain path to the white farm house where his true love lived. They sat up all night and with the dawning of a new day she had accepted his proposal of marriage. When he left, his sweetheart ran upstairs onto the top porch, leaned against the railing and listened to her betrothed singing “I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes.” As his deep baritone voice faded into the distance she knew it could be months before he came back to her. Times were hard and it was another two years before the mine worked five days a week, and they would marry. Years later Dad joked to a friend that Hoover wouldn’t let him get married for seven long years.”Old Herbert let me get married,” the man laughed, “But he nearly starved us to death.”
The song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” aptly described the nationwide despair of the Depression. When the stock market crashed on Black Thursday in October 1929 the joke was you had to stand in line in New York to get a window to jump out of. Thousands lost their jobs, their homes, and as banks failed, rich and poor alike, lost entire life savings. Soon 12 million people became unemployed and many destitute families lived in shacks nicknamed “Hoovervilles.”
People lucky enough to keep their jobs were forced to take huge wage cuts. You could buy a new car for 500 dollars, but few could afford it. Steak was 26 cents a pound, milk 10 cents a quart, eggs 29 cents a dozen, a 20-ounce loaf of bread cost 5 cents, coffee was 26 cents a pound, sugar 5 cents a pound, and gasoline 18 cents a gallon. Even in those lean years we always had a bountiful table of vegetables, fruit, meat, and milk. Dad loved the feel of soil in his hands, and always raised a garden. In the fall he butchered a hog he had fattened on grain all summer. Mom canned the pork, as well as vegetables and fruit to feed us in the winter.
By the end of the thirties we were far from rich, but we had a roof over our head, food on the table, and the future looked brighter. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would soon be sworn in for a second term of office. He had improved the economy with his many programs and public works, and kept the nation informed by radio with his informal Fireside Chats.
Even though times were hard, we were rich in family and friends. And as I grew older, Dad often entertained me and my friends by reciting the entire poem he’d written for Mom. After Dad’s death I had the poem copied by a calligrapher. It hangs in my kitchen where I am reminded of Dad’s love for Mom every time I see it. I especially like the last two verses telling of his fate if Mother wouldn’t accept his proposal.
I am back at the mines
And I guess I’ll stay
As long as I live,
If it’s till the judgment day.
I’ll just drift along and do
The best I can,
Live for Jesus
And be a man.
I was born eighteen months after my parents married, and much to Mother’s annoyance, Dad often woke me just so he could rock me and sing to me. “You’re gonna spoil that child, Emmett,” Mom would lovingly scold him. “There’s no use havin’ a baby if you can’t spoil it,” Dad would laugh. I can picture Dad rocking a little harder and singing a little louder.
Born: April 30, 1910 Died: April 27, 1981
Born: May 10, 1912 Died: April 18, 1994
GONE TO HEAVEN A SHOUTIN’
by: Dolores Riggs Davis
Dear Mother, I mailed two sections of the Dehue History Book to the publisher today. I know you would be pleased. It seems forever since I signed the book contract. Many of the Dehue seniors told me they hoped to live to see this book published. Never . . . did I think you would not be here to witness its completion.
I received word that you had a stroke to the brain stem on March 22, 1994. I was in Logan attempting to wrap the Dehue Book. I called the hospital, and the doctor pressed the phone to your ear for what would be our last conversation. He warned me you may not comprehend, but you knew where I was. You even asked how the book was coming. You told me you were really sick, and couldn’t take care of yourself. You were concerned they might send you home. I assured you they wouldn’t, and told you I was on my way. Your last words to me were, “I LOVE YOU.”
I barely remember the three-hour trip to the hospital. You were in a coma when I arrived. The doctor told me there was no hope, but I didn’t leave your bedside for thirteen days and nights. You lingered for twenty-eight days before you slipped away.
Your sister, Lorene wrote a poem in your honor long ago, and I think it is the perfect epitaph. “She possessed a gentle nature that was forever to be. She was always understanding. . . with love and kindness she was blessed. When God put her altogether . . . He used the very best.” Your daughter, Dolores – May 23, 1994
Oh! . . . where are our dear mothers? Where are our dear mothers? . . . They’re gone to Heaven a shoutin’. Day is breaking in my soul. (From the song Bright Morning Star)
POEM FOR SISTER GLADYS
by: Lorene Brickey Sparks Oliver
I have so many loved ones that mean the world to me, and among my many specials is my sister Gladys Marie.
I don’t know when it started or when our closeness began to grow. That I don’t remember, but it was many years ago.
She possessed a gentle nature that was forever to be. I always wanted to be like her but it was impossible for me.
She was always understanding with love and kindness she was blessed; when God put her altogether he used his very best.
She was eight years older but didn’t seem to mind; she treated me so grown up like I was a year or two behind.
She dressed me up in her best clothes; her Mello Glo Powder, and jewelry, and I do believe it pleased her when people bragged on me.
That was just the way of sister, and when she would go away to stay, I was always very lonely until her homecoming day.
So we walked together in sunlight or clouds of grey, and shared each others secrets many times along the way.
We rode to church on Sunday with our fellows young and gay. That we laughed about on Monday as we worked the corn and hay.
We made our plans for dating, the sofa we must share, but it was hard on one ole boy to sit on the arm of a chair.
The daily mail highlight, a letter was our highest hopes, and we couldn’t wait to read the stories in the Cincinnati Post.
We cleaned house and cooked the meals, washed the clothes, and worked the fields. We dreamed about a future day when we would live in a city far away.
So through the years we were together, and I so enjoyed her company. But then one day along came her “prince charming” and said, “Won’t you marry me?”
She said I’ve waited seven years no other love could I find. So away they went together leaving me behind.
He was a young coal miner, and he took her far away to the hills in West Virginia where they were bound to stay.
It left me sad and lonely. I shed a tear or two, and just one year later out of the nest I flew.
I rambled from Kentucky, but always caught a train right back to Elliott County, to Dad and Mom I came.
Now we are both grandmothers, and the years have took their toll. We are still to young for pensions and for employment, we’re to old.
I try to take life easy, and often in my memory, I think of when we were together, me and my sister Gladys Marie.
Born: Feb. 26, 1920 – Died: Oct. 16, 1990
The Little Spirit Man
He was small in stature . . . he stood about five foot seven. His size was no worry, because God was on his side. There was never any doubt that God moved through this little spirit man. With his hand on the gospel he preached salvation was at hand. With love in his heart, this little country preacher said, “Friends” as he held his Bible high . . . “This book contains directions to a mansion on high.” His wife sat in the second pew with her lips moving in silent prayer. With tears in his eyes this little country preacher, stood tall in the pulpit as he preached how God hears and answers a poor sinners prayers. Many souls were brought to Jesus when they heeded the call. . . . There was no doubt about it . . . God moved though this little spirit man. This little spirit man was my father, Rev. Emmett Riggs, Sr. Dolores Riggs Davis
I took this picture December of 1965. My folks never danced a step in their lives, but dad was twirling mom around to make her laugh.
by: Lakie Dingess
In April nineteen sixty two,
A Preacher to West Fork came.
He was a jolly good fellow,
E. B. Riggs was his name.
He loved all the children,
Their Mom’s and Dad’s,
A better friend,
We never had.
He hammered and sawed.
He preached and prayed.
Many folks were saved,
As they heard and obeyed.
He visited among us,
Learned of our ways.
He told us of Jesus,
And his power to save.
This Preacher was active,
“Just couldn’t stop,” he said.
And now we miss him,
For he is sick in bed.
His “ticker” got tired,
And needed a rest.
Now we all know,
He is enduring a test.
But our Lord is able,
His grace to give,
He will strengthen and keep us,
Each day we live.
You’re receiving good care,
That much we know.
But the days and weeks,
Are going so slow.
We’ll try to be patient,
Give you plenty of time.
What is really important,
Is that you’ll soon be fine.
You’ll have to remember,
That you must slow your pace,
If you want to stay with us,
And run this race.
You’ve married our children,
You’ve buried our dead,
Entertained our young ones,
By standing on your head.
You’ve petted and scolded,
Laughed and cried with us too.
So when you’re not here,
we hardly know what to do.
You’ve spoiled us they say,
And maybe that’s true,
But my goodness gracious,
We REALLY MISS YOU.
Mrs. Dingess is a member of the Morning Star Freewell Baptist Church, where Preacher Riggs was the pastor when he had a heart attack in April of 1966. Dad received the poem by mail during the forty days he was recovering in the Logan General Hospital. God added fifteen years to his life and he continued to preach the gospel. He was laid to rest on his seventy-first birthday on April 30, 1981. My world still seems empty without him.
. . . excerpt from my book A Wife’s Vietnam: I can still hear the echo of Rev. Doug Young’s voice as he preached dad’s funeral. “He was a simple man. . . . A man who didn’t care for titles. He preferred preacher to reverend, and that’s what everyone called him, “Preacher Riggs.”
At the grave site, I stood in the warm spring breeze feeling the hot sun on my face. I marveled at the West Virginia mountains surrounding us, so full of color and life with pink and white dogwoods and yellow rhododendrons. Like the mountains, daddy’s flowers would soon cover his grave hiding the ugliness of death.
I felt a funeral in my brain,
An mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb. Emily Dickinson
Helen – born: 8/9/1920 died: 6/29/1972
John Pat – born: 3/31/1913 died: 8/5/1995
Married – 8/20/1938
Children: Imogene, Donald, Patricia Ann