Growing up halfway to Heiskell

Marvin WestOur Town Stories, Powell

Hillary said it takes a village.


Where I grew up, halfway between Powell and Heiskell, on Old Clinton Pike in the Bells Bridge community, it took a grandmother.

Ella Bishop coaxed me forward from toddler times. The former teacher taught me to read and write and do numbers before I went to school. She encouraged me to see things, ask questions and think for myself. She actually fed my imagination. What do you suppose is around that curve or beyond that hill? What will you be and where will you go when you grow up?

For 20 years, she was the most important woman in my world. Sarah sped past her in 1954. Ella gave her a hug and said, “He’s yours.”

Grandmother Ella Bishop had lived on the edge of the ridge in Heiskell for a time, until Grandfather Alan was killed in a train wreck. She moved to the big city. She moved again after Oneta, her only child, married Alvin, the good young man who became my dad.

Ella Bishop helped them buy the land and build our little halfway house. She had her very own room. I was welcome. I was an only child. I have always insisted that I was not spoiled but I was told, more than once, that I was more than enough.

Back then, Powell and suburbs were a sanctuary. Neighbors tolerated me. Witt Sexton allowed me to help run his farm. I could ride on his hay wagon and drag his plowed field and sucker his tobacco crop – when I had time.

Fishing in Beaver Creek

Fishing in Beaver Creek was time-consuming. There was the task of digging worms or catching crickets or grasshoppers for bait. I caught a lot of bream and a few bass and two catfish. Fish for dinner was a treat until Mother tired of cleaning fish. After that declaration, I became more selective in what I threw back and what I brought home.

I missed the first day of school. I was ill. I missed instructions to newcomers. After my first lunch, I took my tray and plate toward the kitchen as I did at home. I remembered the precise route back to my classroom but I was overtaken by Iris Johnson, principal. She grasped the back of my shirt and belt as I was going up the stairs.

“You will do as you were told,” she declared in no uncertain terms. I seriously considered crying.

She ordered me to be seated and wait until my class departed as a group. I regained just enough composure to think that sure was a waste of time. Fortunately, I did not say it.

Later, when Grandmother excitedly asked how was my first day at school, I said it was a disaster. Yes, as a first-grader, I knew the meaning (well, somewhat) of such words. I did not yet know unmitigated.

Ella listened patiently, went to the phone and called Mrs. Johnson. They were in the same Sunday school class at Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church. My grandmother was the teacher.

She explained that I had missed the rules of order. Mrs. Johnson was immediately transformed from intimidating dragon to dear friend. She stepped in to solve a serious problem when I was in second grade.

I already knew what that teacher was teaching. No matter what the teacher asked, I had the answer. My grade card reflected the problem. I did not receive “excellent” in conduct. My grandmother was troubled. I was told to behave. I tried, but I think I went right on failing.

At midyear, the principal stepped into the dilemma. She promoted me to third grade with the hope that I might find that more challenging. I did. I was the youngest and smallest in the class. For years to come, most thought I was a toy.

Running away from home

I may as well confess that I once ran away from home.

I made a formal request for a steak dinner. Mother used the idea as a reward for some small something, perhaps cleaning my room. She purchased a nice cut of round.

Once I saw it, I wanted it then. With gravy and a biscuit and a slice of tomato.

Alas, Mother and Grandmother were busy with some other project. That did not dull my enthusiasm.

A little later, I wanted the steak again. I got the same non-response. That was all of that I chose to put up with. I decided to take my steak and go out on my own. They’ll miss me when I am gone.

The Wests’ modest estate was a narrow acre and a half. I went through the weeds and scrub bushes, as far as the back boundary. I intended to cook the steak to a sizzling brown over a Cub Scout campfire. I gathered a few twigs. Oops, I had no matches, no fork or knife, no plate, no salt or pepper.

I had created another problem. I was poorly prepared for running away. I pondered. Eventually, after maybe an hour in the half shade of a small tree, I surrendered. The prodigal son returned home and apologized for being a brat. It was a humbling experience. Mother and Grandmother didn’t know I had been gone.

The newspaper business

Long ago, when The News-Sentinel had a hyphen and was a newspaper, I had a distribution route. One of my customers was the distinguished Dr. Nathan W. Dougherty, former Tennessee athlete, former engineering professor, former dean, co-creator of the Southeastern Conference, the man who hired Bob Neyland.

I didn’t know anything about his accomplishments, but he stood out because he presented a nickel tip each week when he paid his bill.

I sold many other subscriptions. I won flashlights, canteens and a handsome plastic camera. I sold more subscriptions. Delivery became a problem. Bulky papers would not all fit into my bicycle basket or saddle bags. I divided the route in half and reloaded. On some days, there was still an overload.

My father got up before dawn on Sundays to assist. We drove the route in our 1936 Chevrolet. He applauded my success but wanted me to find another business. I did. I actually sold the delivery route for $7 and became summer manager of Dick Carpenter’s little grocery store, corner of Old Clinton Pike and Beaver Creek Drive.

Mr. Carpenter, new in the real estate business, would hand me the cash box at 7 a.m. and pick it up a little after 5. I could eat whatever I wanted for lunch. Customers often phoned in orders and stopped at their convenience for pickup. Orders were always ready. I carried boxes and bags to their cars. I got smiles, warm words and sometimes dimes. It was public relations 101.

Fighting snakes

I digress. My best friend, growing up, was Don McConnell. His grandfather, Charlie Mays, owned a pair of mules. They didn’t work very hard, and we were allowed to ride them through the fields, in the woods and on the ridges. What a treat!

Ridge adventures evolved into squirrel hunting. My father gave me a Winchester 20-gauge shotgun for my 12th birthday.

Don and I co-owned a wooden, flat-bottom boat on Beaver Creek. Investment was $12. We put out a trotline. We hunted frogs at night. Don paddled. I hung out over the front with a strong flashlight and gig. Some consider frog legs a delicacy.

One hunt did not end well. We went under a low-hanging limb. A snake dropped into the boat. Don sounded the alarm and went into the creek. It took me three seconds longer. I had to turn out the light and put down my equipment.

Each July 4, Bells Bridge boys played Bells Bridge men in baseball. The men always won until the astute manager of the youth (me) recruited a pitcher friend from Dante. I don’t think the men got a hit. But I did. I broke a hard shingle on the side of the house beyond right field. It was the best and worst hit of my baseball life. I was very proud. I feared reprisal. The property owner, a good sport, congratulated me on hitting the ball so far.

Growing up was so much fun.

Precious people in this story are buried at Mount Harmony church, not far from Heiskell. For years, we retained ownership of Grandmother’s little place and went there for our Christmas trees. I never thought the community changed all that much.

Old Clinton Pike at Bells Bridge changed. The giant holly tree and our house are long gone. The ball field is full of bedrooms. Thress Nursery is where Dick Carpenter’s store used to be.

Editor’s Note: We asked Marvin West to write this account of growing up “halfway to Heiskell.” It’s the cover story for our Powell mailer (10,000 newspapers to homes in 37849), which will be delivered this week.

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