Thumbing to Raven
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by Frank Shortt
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There are probably many terms for hitchhiking. During the 1950's in Southwestern Virginia
it was known as 'thumbing' a ride. Regardless, what
term is used, it is a dangerous and arduous task. Sunday afternoons demanded that
we 'thumb' our way to Raven, Virginia for a cowboy movie.
Our first obstacle was to gain
funding for our outing. Then, we had to somehow skirt around parents, who would skin us alive if they caught us attempting to leave
without permission. Their religious persuasion did not allow for such shenanigans. As I grew older I understood their reasoning.
As children then, we did more hiking than hitching. Our blind stupidity for the moving picture industry drove us to crazy ends. Traffic
was sparse, the roads rough and crooked, but we had faith that some soft-hearted neighbor would happen along any minute and take us
all the way to our destination, the small, red brick building known as the Raven Theater. This was home to Wilson's Homemade Ice Cream
as well as the best popcorn and chili dogs obtainable. This was a magnet for every small boy in the region.
To get to Raven, seven lonely miles away, we had to cross Shortt Gap Mountain, which ran straight up with only, seemingly, winding
cow trails leading to the summit. The alternative path led up by Jay Shortt's property. He kept a pack of baying hounds, mean as Satan,
trained to tear a raccoon to bits, and to scare off any unlucky trespasser. This trail was also infested with vile copperheads probably
lying by each rotting stump or behind each rock. It is very difficult to run straight up a hill while at the same time searching for
snakes and trying to listen for a blue-tick hound at your heels while jumping over downed logs and upturned rocks.
A nice four-lane highway later replaced this outdated serpentine route, filling in the deep canyon where once we toiled laboriously
to climb up to Shortt Gap. The road then followed Coal Creek almost all the way to Raven. The downward side was almost as winding
as the ascension. The possibility of obtaining a ride became greater after crossing the Tazewell County line. There would usually
be a cousin or two, who were fortunate enough to own a vehicle, heading out to Raven or Richlands.
After standing in the Gap for a
long time, without any activity whatever, we would ask ourselves, "Should we just turn around and go back home?"
Then one would say, "Not on your life, Lash Larue in playing today!"
This prompted us to
further waiting and hoping.
Sometimes early, sometimes late we would arrive at the theater.
Twelve hard-earned cents it took to see the movie, five cents for popcorn, five cents for a coke, one cent for some red-hots, this
took care of our precious quarter.
Although Gert, the ticket taker wanted our money, she
would invariably ask, "Does your parents know you came here?" I did not know until later that she was a cousin of my dad.
Inside, the theater was dark as a dungeon, with only bare concrete floors, hard wooden seats, and stench from years of use. Rats could
sometimes be felt crossing our bare feet picking up dropped popcorn or bits of our precious hotdogs. All this did not deter us from
cheering on the hero or hissing the villain. Never mind the vile vermin!
Ah, a breath of
fresh air as the movie ended with scads of ill-dressed, barefoot kids making their way out into the fast-approaching dusk. Some lived
nearby in the company owned houses. Their fathers had to work for the mining company to live there.
The rest of us had to once again 'thumb' a ride home. The town was deserted, the sidewalks rolled up at sunset, silent as a graveyard.
Who in their right mind would put themselves through this? Not knowing if we rode or walked the long miles home. If we were fortunate
enough to obtain a ride it was usually one of our cousins who wished to impress us with his great driving skills. This consisted of
sliding around the most dangerous curves, screeching the wheels at even the smallest turn, or reaching high speeds on the straightaways.
The two worst curves were the ones by J.B. Howell's store and the horseshoe turn at Irby Altizer's store. To a small boy, this was
breathtaking and stupefying.
My brother, Wendell and I, have walked the whole seven miles
from Raven to our home on Grassy Creek below Shortt Gap. Mountain lions, screaming in the night, was not an uncommon event. I sure
loved my brother much more at those times. We knew that we were in for a tongue lashing when we arrived home. Mom would always anxiously
await our arrival, good mom that she was.
Did all this hardship deter us from trying this
stunt one more time? We doted on punishment! Cowboy movies must be seen!
Sunday, there we stood with our thumbs upraised!