Lonnie Ray was all gangly arms and lanky legs and big ears and toothy grin when he lit out across the Ohio River looking for work. His big brother in the driver’s seat put his mind at ease and they had some food to hold them over till their first payday: a couple fried baloney and biscuit sandwiches, six Cokes, four whole Hershey bars. The Skaggs boys weren’t strangers to growling bellies. That grumble and a little gnawing on their backbones didn’t intimidate them boys a bit.
At nineteen, Lonnie Ray was a newlywed, with a pretty little gal to have and to hold. Everybody said she looked like Kitty Wells and he loved it when she’d sing to him. They’d only been married a couple days, and he was leaving her behind with her mommy and daddy in the holler. His new wife offered to share with him the family he’d only dreamed of. Their kitchen was always filled to the brim with the sounds of laughter and the radio playing something country. The house smelled like hot coffee and meat frying. A part of his heart broke to leave that kitchen, to see Kentucky in the rearview mirror as gravel roads wore down to smooth asphalt. His heart hurt but his horse sense told him there was no work here at home in Eastern Kentucky. No way to earn a living except to bootleg or break your back growing burley tobacco. He’d need more money to pay for all the babies they’d talked about. Besides, his big-hearted, bull-headed, hillbilly bride quietly longed for a ruby ring.
I like to think of my Papaw that way, young and hopeful on the highway. Lonnie Ray Skaggs, who cried so much when I was born that one of his names stuck to me. Maybe for the first time in his life, he was looking down the road at the future with the sun on his face. What he left behind when he married Mamaw and got brought into the Blankenbeckler brood might’ve broken other men. The first half of his life was marked mostly by abuse and hunger and watching the women he loved die. I’ve wrestled with how much of it to write here, how many dark Stark Ridge secrets to drag out into the daylight. And I’ve decided that Papaw would’ve expected one thing from me: to tell the truth. And the truth is, the kind of shit he survived might’ve made another man hard.
Instead, it made my Papaw intensely aware of right versus wrong. Love was the unfaltering and unconditional foundation of his moral code. He believed in the pure power of kindness, and would give a stranger his winter coat in the worst January weather. He also believed in righteous vengeance, in protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. If some drunk neighbor slapped his kid or kicked his dog in front of Papaw, he’d get his ass whipped. Papaw wanted to save the world from what he’d suffered. He wanted to give the strays a home, four legged and two. He was a complicated man who loved hard. We used to eat cherry pie filling with our fingers, straight out the can he opened with his pocket knife. He choked a fellow patient near unconscious in a psychiatric ward because that nasty grown man groped a girl he was locked up with. A girl I went to grade school with. Her name was Misty, too. Maybe violence doesn’t solve everything. Or anything at all. But in my Papaw’s hardscrabble world, sometimes it got results. The neighbor would never kick his mangy dog again. The neighbor’s daughter would never show up on his door step with a cut lip and a black eye. Never again.
Lonnie Ray and his brother found work at a lumber mill. It was more a faceless factory, a big hollow building designed to process as much fallen timber as time and labor would allow. It wasn’t like the sawmills back home in the hills where men took their time and told big tales and talked about where each board had grown. Here the lush woods he loved buzzed through the saws, barreling to meet production. But Lonnie Ray caught on quick and moved up a pay grade, and then moved his pregnant wife up to Mansfield. She took to it well. She learned to drive and learned where all the good junk stores were hiding. She planted a garden in the yard and used every available inch to grow food that tasted like back home.
He worked hard and earned every penny, but his big brother did better at getting ahead. Lonnie Ray never really knew how to say what people wanted to hear. Instead of finding a place at the boss man’s Sunday table, he found his voice among the frustrated men who talked Union behind the boss man’s back. In the East Kentucky logwoods, accidents happened. But here, people got hurt. About ever’ day. He got sick at his stomach when he thought of blood wiped off blades nonchalantly. The men haunted him, the ones who were cut deep and crying out. The ones that got carted off the floor, never to be seen again. The saws and their brutal teeth gnashed through his thoughts in bed at night.
He saw even more red when he thought about them bloated men in ties and shiny shoes who walked around trying to avoid stepping in the sawdust that he could feel lining his lungs. They looked at their workers blankly, like they were machinery that had learned to speak. They looked at their workers like equipment, cheaper to replace than invest in. People knew Lonnie Ray and he knew them. At the mill and in his blue collar redneck neighborhood. They liked his easy smile and his honesty. His blue eyes beamed and he spoke his mind, bluntly. Before he knew it, talking to the folks he worked with about the Union was the highlight of his day. The men in ties noticed and made threats on his job. Even his big brother tried to talk him into shutting up. And he thought about his kids, three at home and one on the way. He thought about a house that was a little bigger. He still thought about Joyce’s ruby ring.
But he thought about the children of his friends who disappeared in a wake of screams and a trail of blood, too. He held out and he kept talking, for the people he could hear and no one else could. He held out and so did the Union. And somehow he managed to get a promotion along the way. Lonnie Ray was a foreman when he got cut. The Union made sure he got good insurance that covered all the surgeries.
“Bless those boys hearts,” Lonnie Ray would say.
My Papaw couldn’t read much beyond his Bible. But he could look at a building and tell you how many two by fours were in it. When I was a little girl, we all lived together in a house he designed and built with my family from the basement up. When I was a little girl, he signed up for night classes and we read my story books for practice, sounding out the words together. I remember tears trickling over his cheeks when he told me I was just the smartest girl in the world and how I tried to wipe them away with both my chubby hands. We cried together a lot of times. Like when I found a kitten drowned in a five gallon bucket of rainwater, puffed up and floating face down. Papaw dug the tiny grave under a bed of moss and he held me and we cried and cried and didn’t feel ashamed.
His fingers were mostly gone, especially on the right. There weren’t nails, just nubs that stayed smooth while the rest of his hand was rough with calluses. Papaw said they didn’t hurt him much. There were bits of bone that didn’t bust to pieces against the whirring blade.
And there was cartilage and skin stretched and stitched and molded into shape by the surgeons at Mansfield general. He was first committed at the same hospital. Papaw rounded up all the plastic in the house and started a bonfire on the front lawn at Lennox avenue. Mamaw told me. She’s still mourning her first good set of Tupperware.
Lonnie Ray had what people around here call bad nerves. He hid it all so well until he got hurt. He was a father of four, a working man who took pride in providing a better life for those small souls he helped bring into existence. The best life. When he thought about his babies going hungry, the bad times came rushing over him like muddy water. His brain was crowded by voices and fogged by visions he couldn’t sort out. His sister said it was because he got the call to preach and didn’t answer Jesus right. And since his right hand offended him, sickened him, he tried to cut it off with an axe.
He came back to himself when he came back to Kentucky. Joyce took him home to the holler. Lonnie Ray didn’t remember the ride. His big brother couldn’t afford a day away from work, so the kids and a box full of kittens piled into the backseat and his tough-as-nails but cute-as-a-button wife took the wheel. When he came to himself again, he was in the back bedroom of his in-laws’ house. Somebody was singing a sad old song. And the house still smelled like coffee and meat frying. His blushing bride was as beautiful as ever, but she looked tired and pale and worry lines bloomed across her forehead. She cried when he called her by name.
My Papaw’s earliest memory was the passing of his mother, Edith, when he was three years old. For three days after she was buried, he stood in a chair at the window of their ramshackle home, watching and waiting for her to return from a trip down to the well. On Memorial Day in 2010, my Papaw died. He went to visit his Mommy the way we did every Decorating Day. He went to deliver her favorite flower, yellow roses. And he fell to the ground beside her headstone and his big, gentle, heart stopped there in the graveyard.
The funeral home was so crowded. The parking lot was parked plumb full and ripe with young’uns running, falling, scraping knees. Smokers paced outside the entrance and loitered on hard benches and smacked backs and swapped stories. All those people would’ve made him nervous. They would’ve made me nervous if I hadn’t been drifting through the motions in a daze. I remember music. I remember reading a poem. I remember that they forgot to put in his dentures.
The procession went all the way from town and out the Ridge with blue lights blaring. My Papaw would have laughed to see the neighbors scrambling.
Misty Skaggs, Rabble’s Appalachian Features Editor, is an author, artist, and activist from Eastern Kentucky.
Follow her on Twitter @mistymarierae.