A Mountain Boyhood
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 by Frank Shortt
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“Sook Jers”* wafted softly from a young boy named Wendell as autumn winds drifted through Shortt Gap in the state of Virginia. Dusk found him hunting his cow that had already lain down for the night.

Wendell liked to play with the other kids in the neighborhood and hated to break away to do chores as long as there was someone else to play with. This was the way with most children who grew up in the hills of Buchanan County back then. Pretending to be Lash Larue was more important than having to stumble over stumps and stones to find an old bovine that probably wouldn’t give much milk anyway.

The time was post World War 2 at Shortt Gap where the Edd Shortt family children barely eked out a living scarring the hillsides gardening, raising cabbage, potatoes, and corn as their father slaved in a small, dark truck mine to make ends meet. The mother, Stella, toiled over an old wood-burning cook-stove canning the meager crops in order to feed her large brood of ten children for the winter. As was the way with truck mines, coal was only sold occasionally. This was mostly sold to produce drummers who had emptied their trucks and hated to return home to Bluefield or Roanoke unfilled. Their precious loads went to produce centers into a special area provided by the owners for the dumping of coal. These yards were covered with silicon dust and soot. The final destination of the coal was to houses throughout the two cities where tired moms sent small urchins to buy enough coal to last the night.

When the old Jersey cow grazed all day foraging for grass, that she had been over many times, she had laid down thinking it was time for some sleep. Wendell called to her in a tone that was a mixture of fear of copperheads and loathing for the cow because she had silenced her bell by lying down. Mountain children wore no shoes from early spring ‘til late autumn. As was customary for the old cow she had chosen the most snake infested region to graze. Wendell hunted and hunted until he was fit to be tied and not one “sook Jers” caused the cow to rise.

Just as the boy became totally despaired, a faint tinkle reached his sensitive ears. As soon as he heard the bell, he knew exactly where the cow lay as she had chosen this place several times before. It was by the little Grassy Creek where greenery grew the thickest. It was also the most likely place to encounter a dreaded copperhead snake. Had not the Jersey cow shaken her head to dodge the swarming flies or to dislodge some that had taken refuge on her body, Wendell would have had a much harder time finding her.

After milking the little cow, splitting some wood for the stove, bringing in water from the spring, and finally washing himself, Wendell came to bed. I was already dozing and suddenly, without any warning, right smack dab in the center of my back came Wendell’s chilly feet! This was payment for not helping with the chores!

*Sook Jers is an old Irish or English phrase meaning, Come Cow!