Written by Jerry Wilson
September 1940, I entered my freshman year at Nicholas County High School in Summersville, West Virginia, a town of approximately 1500. [1990 census listed slightly over 2900] Arising early in the morning, I and other students of Muddlety Valley walked three miles to catch a school bus for the ten-mile ride to school. The bus driver was a fair but stern individual who didn’t cut any slack for those arriving late at the bus stop. You may have been fifty yards away, but he would not wait. His reasoning, if he waited for every straggler the bus would arrive long after the first class had begun. Definitely, he didn’t tolerate any foolishness or loud talking. On more than one occasion a problem student was evicted miles from home, to make it the best way he could.
The dirt road up Muddlety Valley had only two conditions; choking dust when dry and sticky clay mud, knee deep when wet. In the winter the ruts were so deep that an automobile could go a great distance without anyone touching the steering wheel. Thank goodness, “wind chill index” had not become part of our vocabulary. So off we trudged into the snow, sleet, and wind without the benefit of knowing how miserable we were supposed to be. One morning, with the temperature near zero, the biting wind quickly turned our faces bright red. Then our breath began to crystallized, covering our head, ears and surrounding area with a billowing layer of white frost. Everyone on the school bus said we looked like Santa Clause. That afternoon a neighbor, Mr. Gawthrop, met us at the bus with a horse and sleigh. Bundled up amid warm blankets, we had a beautiful and joyous ride home. High water over the road was the only deterrent that may have prevented us from reaching the bus. If that occurred, I do not remember it. Fall was my favorite time of the year. Warm balmy days, a bright blue sky, and the surrounding mountains cloaked in an array of brilliant colored leaves, were in the words of a popular song by John Denver, Almost Heaven, West Virginia.
Participation in extra curricular activities presented a real challenge for the students who rode a bus. Prudent judgment dictated- don’t participate-play it safe and take the school bus home. With gasoline and tires being rationed fewer cars were on the road, which made hitch hiking unreliable Being a believer in the old adage, “if there is a will there is a way” I played the Sousaphone in the Band for three years, acted in two plays, helped construct, and paint stage sets, and was active in a couple of clubs. If I didn’t have a ride home when the activities were over, the kind Lady Manager of the Rader Hotel permitted me sit in the lobby until she locked the doors at eleven o’clock. An Uncle, living near me, working in Summersville got off at midnight. After completing my home work, I would leave the nice warm hotel, locate his car parked on the street, stretch out on the back seat, and freeze for an hour. This arrangement worked fine until the evening of the final dress rehearsal for a play I was in. Unfortunately, my Uncle didn’t work that day. Around 10:30pm, confident someone would pick me up, I started walking the 13 miles home. The few cars that came along whizzed by as though I was invisible. Hungry, discouraged, and exhausted, I crawled into bed around at 2:00 in the morning. Sleeping late was out of the question. We were scheduled to give a morning and afternoon performance for the students who road buses, and an evening performance for students and citizens living in the immediate area. I played the part of a Father whose hair was beginning to turn gray. My wife had suggested that I have a private talk with our young daughter, who was madly in love with a boy. The scene called for me to get up from my comfortable chair, light my pipe, and after a few casual puffs, dispense Fatherly words of wisdom. For the student shows everything went well, but for the evening performance the pipe became entangled in the pocket of my coat, A seasoned actor would have nixed the pipe routine, but I was determined to follow the script. The longer I fumbled for that #%* pipe, the more visibly upset, and nervous I became. By the time I had retrieved it, my hands were shaking so badly each time I struck a match the flame went out. Naturally, the audience enjoyed the unplanned humor, but I immediately determined the stage was not for me.
Mr. A. A. Bryant, and Mr. Malcolm taught several courses in modern and scientific methods of agriculture. I don’t believe there was any restriction prohibiting girls attending, but only boys were enrolled in the program. Although not mandatory, everyone enrolled in a course was eligible to join The Future Farmers of America, a National Organization. The school sponsored a Chapter, and. I was President for a year and Parliamentarian for two. The dictionary describes a Parliamentarian as an expert in the rules and procedures that govern proceedings of deliberative assemblies, and other organizations. Unfortunately, 99 % of the members of most organizations have little interest in learning parliamentary rules. I may not always agree with his political philosophy but, I am amused when Senator Byrd from West Virginia, a nationally recognized Parliamentarian brings deliberations in the United States Senate to a screeching halt by insisting parliamentary rules be adhered to. I may not have achieved the status of expert, but I was fairly knowledgeable of Robert’s Rules of Order. When deliberations become emotional and tempers heated, a Parliamentarian cannot be thin skinned. Verbal abuse is an occupational hazard, and on more than one occasion it was suggested I spend eternity in a warmer climate.
New members joining the FFA were subjected to initiation rites. By current standards they were very mild, but on one occasion a minor problem developed. Each candidate was required to enter the room blind folded, and take a drink from a container. In reality it was a child’s potty containing orange soda diluted to a nice amber color. Broken pieces of a Baby Ruth candy bar were stirred in for realism. You would have to agree, a very innocent prank. However, one boy after removing the blind fold, looked into the potty and threw up. He refused to believe our explanation of its contents, and the next morning his parents came to see the Principal. The potty initiation was scrapped forever. Each spring the National Office announced a broad subject for a public speaking contest. In l943 I was one of four participants at Nicholas High. My subject was Food for War. Winning first place meant I would represent the school at the regional contest. The next day I spoke before the entire student body  Picture in your mind how thrilled and excited they were, waiting with baited breath to catch every syllable of my pronouncements. More realistic they were probably bored. At least I didn’t see anyone sleeping. The morning of the regional contest, I awoke with the dreadful feeling it was not going to be my day. Looking in the mirror I realized I had the Mumps. Pondering my dilemma I noticed by pulling my shirt collar high, the swelling was hardly visible. Without saying a word to anyone except Mother, I went to Beckley determined to convince the judges that I had the answers and solutions for the subject under consideration. Apparently, they agreed with my position by awarding me first place and the opportunity to compete in the State contest at Jackson’s Mill. Jackson’s Mill, the State 4-H Camp, got its name because Stonewall Jackson’s Grandfather, Uncle or some relative had a farm, and a grist mill there in the early 1800’s. It was here little Stonewall spent a number of his boyhood summers. It is a beautiful place with many large stone lodges, rustic log cabins and conference facilities. The dining hall is a replica of Mt. Vernon. I fondly remember it for the abundance of excellent food served family style, and the tradition of finishing the evening meal with a large bowl of home made ice cream. In addition, we enjoyed a variety of educational activities, organized sports and nightly campfires with lectures, plays and singing. The evening program closed with singing, the State Song- Oh those West Virginia Hills, how majestic and how grand, etc. Sleeping accommodations were ten to fifteen cots or bunks per room. With all the horse play and foolishness that took place, there was little time for sleeping. It was a fun place to go.
What about the speaking contest? W-E-L-L, I didn’t come in first. As a matter of fact I didn’t place second or third. Since they didn’t announce forth, fifth or sixth place I was somewhere among them. Was I hurt or disappointed? Definitely not, I was happy to be free to enjoy myself. Unfortunately, it was short lived. The following day, rushing from the outdoor swimming pool, I started to cross the road when my wet feet slipped on the grass. With no protection except bathing trunks, I plunged head long across the paved highway on my chest, stomach and legs. Initially, the pain was secondary to the humiliation and embarrassment I felt as people rushed to help. The front of my body was a combination of raw flesh, blood, dirt and gravel. [I still have scars from that episode] When I arrived at the dispensary, the Nurse having changed from her white starched uniform was dressed ready to go home. The disgusted look she gave me telegraphed what she was thinking. “ Two minutes and I would have been out of here, and now I will spend an hour cleaning and bandaging the wounds of this dumb kid.” Horror of Horrors, without compassion or understanding, in a firm commanding voice, she said, “TAKE OFF THAT BATHING SUIT.” I died a thousand deaths, but not from the injuries.
Weekly throughout 1942 & 43 men were called to active military service. This created a tremendous reduction in manpower needed for industry, business, and other activities on the home front. Women quickly became a significant part of the work force. They became mechanics, welders, riveters, assembly line workers and a thousand other jobs. Working around the clock along side of men, they produced planes, ships, tanks and other items essential to the war. The rapid build up of the armed forces also created a wide gap in the average age of the civilian male population. [Under 18 or over the hill] A popular song at the time expressed the lament of a young lady desiring a date. Mournfully she sang, “They are either to young or to old–they are either to gray or to grassy green.”
Primary school children were called upon to do their part for the war effort. Example, for making life vests they collected the white silky fibers from the pods of the milkweed plant. Older students were excused from school, [full and/or half days] to helped farmers plant and harvest crops. Shortly after the beginning of the fall semester Mr. Malcolm instructed his students to bring old clothes the next day for working on a farm. As the bus departed, everyone was in a high state of anxiety as to what tasks we may be assigned.
There was a lot of laughter, kidding, and joking as to who would get the job of cleaning manure out of the barn, or other unpleasant tasks. Upon arrival some boys were assigned to repair fences, others to dig potatoes, shuck corn, etc. I along with three older boys was assigned to work with a kind, pleasant old gentleman. Our job was to castrate Pigs. No they were not cute little piglets as featured in a Walt Disney movie. These were barnyard wise adolescents who had no intention of giving up their birth right without a battle. The procedure-One boy would grab a pig. As it squealed, kicked and screamed the other boys moved in, grabbed a leg and flipped the pig on its back. As we firmly spread the legs apart the old farmer assumed the role of surgeon. With his sharp pocket knife, he quickly relieved the poor animal of his manhood. Or should I say his pig-hood? There was no bullet to bite, no anesthesia, no stitches. Two quick cuts, throw disinfectant into the incision and let him go. And did he go! There was no hanging around. When the last pig scampered away we were a muddy, bloody mess. After a brief wash up we returned to the school gym for a shower and a change of clothes. Joining our fellow students for the last class of the day, they imagined we had been out having fun, while they were studying Latin, Shakespeare, Algebra and other interesting subjects. Little did they know the extent of my patriotic duty, Castrating Pigs.
Within a few weeks of this youthful and carefree escapade, I turned to more serious things in life. October 16, 1943, I joined the United States Marine Corps.
Before leaving my High School Days, I must pay tribute to my English Teacher, Miss. Elizabeth Stevenson. An old maid, perhaps in her 50’s, she would never have won a beauty contest. But, daily she encouraged all students to achieve their maximum potential; to dream the impossible dream. She was demanding but in a helpful and constructive way. Without a doubt, she had the most positive and lasting influence on me of any teacher. One of my regrets in life is I never kept in touch to thank her for her tremendous guidance and direction.
THE ELIZABETH STEVENSON PUBLIC LIBRARY.
Summersville, West Virginia
My brother in law John Gawthrop, had Miss. Stevenson for Senior English eight years after I was her student. This is the assignment she gave for the school year 1951/2 as recorded in his mother’s diary:
300 pages on short stories by best authors
300 pages on classic novels
300 pages of drama
250 pages of essay, formal and informal
300 pages on travel
300 pages of biography
300 pages of autobiography
5000 lines of poetry
One magazine article each week-36 for the year on unsolved problems
Everyone knows the younger generation never had it as tough as the one before them; If John was assigned 300 pages I was probably given 450, and less time to complete the work.