Kentucky author signs second contract Less than three months ago, Earl Lowell “Robbie” Robbins, Jr., a.k.a No Sweat,” formerly from Irvine and Ravenna, signed a contract with Old Seventy Creek Press giving the rights to publish and release his first novel, These Precious Days. This week “No Sweat” signed a new contract with ITOH Press giving them the rights to publish and release his second novel, Nefarious. “I went for over thirty years and could not find a publisher that was willing to invest in my work,” Robbins said. “I had more than a thousand rejections. And now, in less than 100 days, I’ve been able to sell two different novels to two different publishers. The only request I made in this new contract was that I got to keep my pen name, No Sweat. Nefarious will be sent to the 2013 Pulitzer Committee in New York. The fact that I will have two different novels before the 2013 Pulitzer Committee feels good.” Nefarious is based on the life of Edward Hawkins, the first man legally hanged in Estill County, Kentucky. The two main characters in NEFARIOUS are Ed and his uncle Moses. Uncle Moses is a traveling preacher that teaches Ed bad things in a funny way.
Estill native’s book is published, sent to Pulitzer committee Robbie “No Sweat” Robbins with his grandson Lance By Rhonda Smyth CV&T News Editor Estill County native Earl “Robbie” Robbins Jr. realized a lifelong dream recently when one of the seven novels he has written was published. The book, “These Precious Days,” was published under the pen name “No Sweat” and was released across the United States and in Europe. Robbins received word last week that the book has been submitted to the Pulitzer committee for consideration for the prize in 2013. The book is available through Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble. Robbins said he wrote the book as a journal with each entry having an introduction and given the name of a song popularized by Billie Holiday. “The entries vary in form, sometimes being a letter or even a poem. It is set in a mythical place in eastern Kentucky called “Aopehh” in the year 1982,” he said. Robbins, a 1969 graduate of Irvine High School, has been writing since he was a boy attending Irvine Elementary School. “I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember sitting alone in a chair in the corner of my parent’s apartment with a big pencil writing stories just to please myself,” Robbins explained. Robbins is the son of Earl “Rob” Robbins and the late Nancy McClanahan Robbins. He said he won an essay writing contest at school on the topic “Why I Love America.” This was only the beginning. He went on to write feature stories alongside Darrell Richardson for the Irvine High newspaper and later became feature editor for the Irvine Times-Herald before it was purchased by Guy Hatfield to become the Citizen Voice & Times. Robbins wrote articles about the swim team he was on for the Eastern Progress while attending Eastern Kentucky University. Over the years he wrote for pigeon and archaeology magazines and other areas in which he was interested. “When I turned 30 I set out to write my first novel. I completed the work four years later. I have had more than 1,000 rejections from literary agents and editors before one of my poor novels has surfaced,” Robbins said. “You must have a dream before one can come true.” Robbins is quick to mention people he has come in contact with who helped him to become the successful author he is today. “For 17 years while I lived in Ravenna, Dave Cox lived on one side of me and Lindy Yeager on the other side. Lindy had a singular influence on my conviction to become a writer. He was relentless in beating me down to write about the things others would not,” Robbins said. “He influenced me to write in painful ways that in some strange way made me come clean with my worst secrets. He was nothing short of a genius and a saint rolled into one. I was fortunate to be near him,” he said. When Yeager committed suicide, Robbins said he and Cox remained friends. “Dave was always giving me positive reinforcement, laughing at the same things I laughed at, seeing the same things that I saw. He stuck by my side. Friends like him are worth their weight in gold,” he said. Robbins credits his wife, Chesteen, for the support she has given him for the past 45 years. “She has been incredibly patient and sensitive toward my desire to become an author. I know I have driven her crazy,” he said. He also mentions two other friends who have stayed with him through the 30 years it took him to get “These Precious Days” published. They are Howard Farris and Eddie Woolery. The book is dedicated to these two friends as well as his family. Robbins goals for the future include having the novel “Nefarious” published. “It’s the story of a traveling preacher and his nephew and is set in Estill County in the 1800s. I think the people from my hometown would enjoy it,” he said. He said his dream was to see this novel in a theater since he grew up in one. “My mom sold tickets in my grandpa’s theater. I can still shut my eyes and describe every inch of it. I had the best grandfather in the world, so humble and kind. His theater will always remain inside of me.” On amazon.com the book is described in this way: ”No Sweat has painted a portrait of a man caught in the web of his times, a victim turned survivor, a player in the eponymous reality show of hand-to-mouth grubbing and a victor who has circumvented conventionality.” The book may be previewed and purchased by going to amazon.com and searching for the title.
God help any poor fool born in Kentucky named, Earl. It doesn't begin to matter that an Earl is something over in England that was suppose to be something. It doesn't matter that DUKE OF EARL was a big hit. There's just something horrid about the name. I reckon Earl Scruggs had a lot to do with it. If you are from Kentucky and named Earl, well, you simply must be akin to Earl Scruggs. You must be at least a third cousin to Lester Flatt and Mother Maybelle Carter and The Foggy Mountain Boys and know every word to "PEARL PEARL PEARL."
I've always ran from the name. The only time anyone got by calling me such was my old swimming coach, Don Combs. His father's name was, Earl. Earl Combs batted on MURDER'S ROW with a couple of fellers, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. That made everything OK. Besides, my coach was that indominatable sort that could call you anything. You owned no choice but to like it.
And there was Errol Flynn. His name really wasn't, Earl. But when you are named Earl you'll grasp for anything.
All this Earl stuff cursed me from day one. Why did Earl Scruggs have to be so damned popular? Born in Kentucky and named Earl. Talk about handicapped. Nobody with a lick of sense would hire someone with such credentials. I am proof. Even if I snuck off and caught Bin Laudin it wouldn't matter. Somewhere down the line some investigative reporter would find out what my real name was and that would be it. I'd be made fun of. They'd probably let Laudin back loose and give him another chance to be caught by someone with a respectable name.
The truth is, this damn name has cost me millions. If I had been named, John, Sam, Tom or any number of other names I'd be out on my 60 foot catamaran somewhere in the Caribbean. I'd have fresh lobster soakin' up butter. Something in a bikini would be in charge of navigation. And I'd have a brute of a man hired. If anyone mentioned, Estill county, Kentucky or called me, Earl, they'd be whooped within an inch of their life and unmercifully thrown overboard.
You want proof?
Anyone that was a lobster catcher appreciated the third weekend in July. That was "Opening Day." A religious moment. My tribe always went to the Keys to lay waste the spiny challenges. One Saturday afternoon on July 20th, 1985, I was with my red headed wife, Chesteen, in Key West. I'd already gotten triple the limit and we found ourselves back on land in an old building talking with a little lady named, Grace. Grace told me that she was married to a man named, Earl.
I continued listening. She allowed her bunch had raised chickens in California before they'd come to the Keys.
I'd raised pigeons all my life. As bad as they were, they beat chickens. Only a numbskull fooled with chickens.
Then Grace came on. Wanted money. A thousand dollars.
Did I look like God's Own Fool?
"Oh honey," said Grace. "Today is the day."
"Look," I said. "If your son hasn't found anything in sixteen years, why do you think today is the day?"
"He's close. I just feel it."
Grace didn't know it. About ten years ago I had sent an application to work for her son. I knew he looked at it. When he saw it was Earl from Kentucky that was enough. It didn't matter that I had my degree in anthropology and was a certified diver. All he saw was Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. "What do I get for my thousand?" I asked. I didn't have fifty dollars but I didn't let on. It felt good her thinking I was a something.
"Your money will make you a stockholder in our company. It's good for six months. If my son finds anything during that time you will get a share of what is found."
"It depends on how much is found and how many shareholders there are."
"So, you're telling me, after six months, my thousand is no longer good?"
"That's right. But you can do it again."
"Ma'am, I can't sling thousand dollar bills here and there just because you have a feeling."
Grace looked at Chesteen. "Can't you get your husband to invest. I'm trying to make you two a fortune. You'll never have to work again the rest of your lives."
Chesteen looked at me with a straight face. In her pocketbook was the rest of my pigeon money that was to sustain us for another month. If I shot fish and caught lobster for most of the rest of our meals we'd have just barely enough to make it back to Kentucky. "I can't tell him what to do," she said.
"How long did you say your son has been treasure huntin'?" I asked. The place we were in was grave dead and miserable hot.
"Sixteen years. Dolores and him use to pan for gold in California. But I'm not counting that. Do is his mermaid. She's got hair the same color as your wife's."
"I thought you told me you all raised chickens.?"
"We did. We also searched for gold."
When they weren't feeding chickens they were panning for gold. Grace wanted me to donate a thousand because she had a feeling. Nothing found in sixteen years. But today was the day. Her husband's name was, Earl. "Ain’t-cu all found ANYTHING?"
"Well, they did find an olive jar. It was busted up. Look, I want to help you. The best help you'll ever get is from strangers. I've got the contract right here. Read it. Sign at the bottom. That's all you have to do. If you don't have the money, that's OK. Just sign the contract. I'll make it where you have the next six months to pay. If anything is found during that time, you're contract is good. You'll get your full share no matter if you paid in full or not. Surely that's a good deal."
I began reading the contract. Grace handed me an ink pen. She sure seemed bad urgent. There was a lot of legal jabber. Being from Estill County it was hard to trust that sort of stuff. Finishing, I glared at the line where I was to write my name. "Where did you say you all originated?"
"We came from California. Before that, Indiana. My son had a dance band at The Lew Wallace High School in Glen Park."
"So, you all had a band and then fooled with chickens before treasure huntin'?"
"Yes. Look, I shouldn't tell you this. My son would kill me. But he paid a man named Gene to look over the old records over in Spain. Gene found a bunch of stuff and put him on the spot. It's just a matter of time. My son doesn't want anyone to know. He's really not wanting me to sell any more shares. But you and your wife, well, I just like you."
Yeah, right. What you'd REALLY like is my thousand dollars. Yankees that went west and snuck south. I handed the contract back. There was sadness in her eyes as she took it. She really wanted my name on the thing. Just then the phone rang. Grace's face was stunned. Oh god, I thought, somebody has died. "WHAT!" she said. "THROW AWAY THE CHARTS! YOU'VE FOUND THE MAIN PILE!" Grace put the phone down, going out the door, running madly down the street. She still had the unsigned contract in her hand.
I picked up the phone, it was dead.
The next morning the world knew what had happened. Grace's son, Mel Fisher, had finally discovered The Nuestra Senora de Atocha. A Spanish galleon of the 1622 fleet. Forty miles west of Key West, Mel's divers had discovered stacks of silver bars, chests of gold coins, gold bars and emeralds. Another King Tut's Tomb.
Jimmy Buffet flew down and sat on a pile of silver bars playing for the crew and all the investors.
I loped back to Kentucky feeling like Lee after Gettysburg.
Got almost home before we ran out of gas. Coasted and pushed to Grandma Freda's. She gave me three dollars to get on back into the hills.
Just a note to relay that the proof copy of THESE PRECIOUS DAYS was at the foot of my front door when I got home from work just now.
I stood there gazing at the box for the longest of time, afraid to move wanting to hold that moment forever.
A thousand "NO's" rested there before me, a million hours, 30 years.
I dared not touch the thing but eventually did.
To Whom It May Concern:
It is with pleasure I write to you of Mr. Robbins’ original compelling book. “These Precious Days”. It has been my honor to be witness to its development and conclusion.
First and foremost, his distinctive expository style grabs one’s attention from the outset. Terse, bare-bones and powerful, his voice rings with the authenticity of native experience combined with seasoned compassion. This is his world sung in the clipped jargon so distinctive to the region, an intimate and outrageous journal of a man stitched to his heritage but standing observer to the wholly unavoidable cycles of his lifetime. The author has stripped his soul to its basic components, allowing the reader to slip insides his skin, peering out through his heart’s eyes.
The No Sweat quotes and comments that lead into each entry are simply marvelous. I laughed. I cried. I shook my head in amazement. His use of family dynamics as background is superlative, richly confided with no apology. Mr. Robbins’ philosophy of life and its mysterious interweaving are encapsulated with such lavish cynicism and wry wit that I savored them like a fine appetizer to the main course. Pithy and acerbic they sway to the genre of poetic essay and social commentary in the infamous style of Mark Twain, yet expose a warm nature and generous spirit unmarred by aberrant events.
His characterizations are superb, particularly the hilarious nicknames that summate these unique personalities with a decisive zing. These are people struggling on the bottom strata of the local social order, belly-crawling at times, but with a ferocious dignity. It is the story of survival at its basest levels, not just a meager getting-by, but outwitting the system using its own indignities and absurdities to mock it, provoke it and occasionally defeat it while living on the wicked edges of morality and legality. His actors are not elaborate analyses; rather they blithely hint at folks whose coping skills are jungle-acquired, whose adaptations are made to bizarre, unforeseeable twists of fate. Each player possess several faceted attributes of the composite complexity of the author, and when taken as a totality produces an intriguing, fully-developed profile of the Eastern Kentucky good-ole-boy persona; a marijuana grower/pigeon breeder/deep-sea diver, law-defying and touchingly poignant, a devoted family man and loyal friend marrow-deep.
Perhaps the standout feature of this novel is its extraordinary dialogue. Mr. Robbins is a master of this deceivingly difficult aspect, with his dialect hot-n-spicy and stropped razor sharp. His ability to convey the symbolic meta-meaning with brutal (often monosyllabic) brevity is beyond remarkable. To say it is evocative is an understatement. With practiced expertise he sets each scene with the somewhat anticlimactic off-handedness of just-another-day-down-home, only to render the reader surprised, and often shocked, at the outcome. The verbal punch is delivered with a visceral banter that says as much between the lines as outright. His ‘Black Hole’ is heart-wrenchingly relevant in scope and one of the finest psychological sketches I have seen in popular print. Their repartee brims with mutual admiration and a terrible, doomed camaraderie.
Mr. Robbins has painted a portrait of a man caught in the web of his times, a victim turned survivor, a player in the eponymous reality show of hand-to-mouth grubbing and a victor who has circumvented conventionality and apparent destiny to become a psychical congregate of paradoxical array. More than just being entertained, I learned from this book and felt immersed in it singular culture, as though I had spent years exploring his world. It has the distinguishing earmarks of a masterpiece – vibrant plot, memorable characters, bucolic setting, with the personal touch of the sensitive diarist. He is an intuitive and imaginative author par excellence.
I give this new work by Mr. Robbins my highest recommendation, both as a licensed therapist and voracious reader. I look forward to seeing future offerings by this exciting new author. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss its merits.
Sara L. Griffith, LMFT
Eagle River, Alaska
May 1, 2007
This is photo I took of Lance and entered in a photo contest. I shot it while he was in his plane flying; the same plane that was used in one of the scenes in "GOLDFINGER." Lance was married nine times and murdered on his ninth wedding day in a shootout in his front yard. He was a great swimmer, trumpet player, and story teller. He made me swear to put him in NEFARIOUS, I captured him perfectly in the riverboat races.
This is a self portrait sketch done by No Sweat while writing THESE PRECIOUS DAYS.
The next photo is an original (never seen or published) 11" by 14" black and white done (autographed and numbered for Will Lang) by Larry Burrows, one of LIFE'S greatest photographers. This is a photo that Burrows took while escorting and following Ernest Hemingway through Spain as Hemingway was writing his last story for LIFE magazine, "The Dangerous Summer." This shot is of Luis Miguel Dominguin, arguably the most handsome and bravest of all bullfighters, ever. Hemingway was confident that the rivalry between Dominguin and Ordonez would lead to one of the two being killed in the ring.
IF ONLY IN A DREAM is chapter 42 in my first novel, THESE PRECIOUS DAYS. I spent 4 years on TPD almost 25 years ago. I went well over 100 rewrites with the work. After it was completed and rejected all over NY, I little by little resigned to put it away. In a way I surrendered to the world. I lost myself. I went through a long spell in my life where I gave up writing. Two years ago the affliction snuck back. I'll never quit again. What's anything worth if it is easy. I lost sight of my youthful dreams. But they are back. In force. I will never quit again. I have to have meaning. I have to leave something. I am now into my fourth rewrite with TPD since lifting it from the ashes of 25 years ago. My hopes are to have it back into Robert Loomis' hands at Random House before the end of this year. TPD was originally 1,400 pages. I am chiseling it to 400 pages. Using all my instincts. What's important is that I tell the truth. TPD was Guy Davenport's favorite work of mine. Lindy Yeager's, too. Lindy was such a special friend for me. I think we both knew he was going to commit suicide. In the 17 years before he took shot himself in the head, he gave me so much. Instilled the importance art. Showed me what it was to be honest. Gave me his time and his secrets. After his wife had killed herself she had all but killed him. One evening before Christmas I went to the VA hospital and fetched him. He was being monitored for lithium. After graduating from West Point and being one of the top pilots in SAC his wife had committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with manic depression. His baby sons were taken from him by his mother-in-law. He was happy that I came for him. He had no one. That night, I read him my Christmas story, IF ONLY IN A DREAM. He kept his back to me by his fireplace as I read. When I was done he turned. His eyes had tears. He said the work was beautiful. Such was praise from Caesar. And remains so.
"My mother was the most beautiful woman in the world and I was blind."
IF ONLY IN A DREAM
December 25, 1982
Santa had on his t-shirt during this seventy degree record warm Christmas. He sat with Sensi watching Wide Eyes tear at packages. Santa sat quiet blinking his eyes, absorbing tears, smiling, trying not to destroy the moment.
Wide Eyes had gotten a Smurf sleeping bag, television, aquarium, rock tumbler, art-deco set, auto harp, dolls, games, books, candy and clothes. With each gift she had hugged Sensi, kissing, smiling in excitement.
Wide Eyes was thrilled knowing Santa had consumed her cookies and milk. Our home lingered with his fresh absence. A cherishable linger where we tried to cling to something we could not keep.
Wide Eyes was a day before her fourth birthday. At a time where she cried at the death of a flower, the thought of growing old, hunting a grouse, a doll being mistreated, or a melting snowman.
As the day moved I caught a sparrow in my pigeon loft. It had been eating my expensive mixtures of feed. Wide Eyes carefully watched. "What should I do with him?" I asked her. "Should I kill him?" "Let him go, daddy. So he can fly and sing."
I handed the bird into her moist hands. The sparrow's heart was nearly bursting. Wide Eyes released the bird. Her face glowed.
As we returned to the loft I noted a baby racing homer having died during the night. Wide Eyes' attention concentrated on the lifeless figure, stiff and saurian with skin and forming pinfeathers. Sorrow was in her brilliant eyes. "We will bury the baby," I said. As we finished patting the ground I looked to see a tear.
"Daddy, will the baby pigeon ever live again? If we dig it up later, will it be alive?"
"No. Death is forever. When we buried this baby we can never again expect to see it. Everything alive eventually dies. Let's be happy. You and I are alive. Your mother and I love you. We will always love you. You have given us life. You are my angel. Be happy you live in Aopehh. There's many places worse. Sweetheart, we have a lot more pigeons. Death is a part of having them. I am happy you are sad over the bird. Be afraid, it's alright. Oh Wide Eyes, you are precious."
That afternoon we drove two miles to the modern house on Main Street. The Cadillac and Lincoln were parked in the driveway. Knocking at the side door I found it unlocked. The house was empty. Then I saw mother. She was lying on the fake leopard couch next to the paneled wall and slate bar. Raising her bloated body upright she wiped mucous from her mouth trying to make a sentence. Her botched platinum-blond hair and unfocusing gray eyes then sunk back into the mohair. I looked for dad and True. Both were gone. The rooms were so familiarly quiet. That same quiet from my childhood. The house had that same stench of alcoholism. A smell of no love.
Coming back to mom I stood close at her side. A slight smile appeared over her face. Her little boy was near. The house was grey. All the drapes were pulled. I felt of gloom. I sensed death. Emptiness entered into my heart. Oh mom, you dear fool. You hurt wretch. You kindred spirit. I would tell you I love you. Say it a million times. But I cannot. I couldn't cry. I could only ache.
"Daddy," asked Wide Eyes, entering the door. "Are we going in?"
"No, baby. Your grandmother isn't well."
Sensi stood looking from the door.
There had been nothing of Christmas at that house. One set of elk antlers had tiny colored lights taped to them. All the other antlers were bare. There was no tree. Nothing. Just mom on that couch.
Several hours had passed when the phone rang.
"No Sweat, have you seen your mother the past two weeks?"
"I saw her a few hours ago."
"She's been falling down drunk all week. She's driving me crazy. Between her and True, I'm going broke. I'm going to have to sell my house. True hasn't been around in over a month. She's out doped up with some goddamn piece of shit. I can't give a bunch of bastards a couple a hundred a day to baby sit a drunk and a whore. It wouldn't do any good anyway. She's a goddamn fool. You wouldn't believe. I know you know. But you only know half of it. I've nailed our bedroom door shut so she wouldn't sneak off from me in the night to get a drink. I've tied her leg to mine at night. It doesn't do any good. She's got pills and booze hid all over the fucking house. She hides vodka in Scope bottles. She's got bottles hid in hutches, dried flower arrangements, under the sink, in the bathroom, in True's closet. Last time she was here, True found a quart of vodka in her dance chest, empty. Empty bottles are in every spot you can imagine. She takes valiums and unicons by the handfuls. You just don't know. The goddamn drunk is going to fall from the steps or OD. I'll get blamed for murder sure as Hell. She says she's gonna get in AA. Well whoopee. Fuck. Everything is great. Fuck. I wish she'd just go back on that religious kick. Get back with that goddamn family of hers. They don't give a shit about her. Never have. I drug her ass over to her mother's. You know what that damn old woman said? She said, 'There ain't nothing wrong with her.' I want you to come here. I want to show you how goddamn much your mom has drunk since Tuesday. I don't know how many pills. She drank two cases of my imported Liebfraumilch. She drank two cases of warm Budweiser. Come out here. You won't believe it. How many years do you think she's been drunk? Do you remember when you were thirteen years old and kept marking 'X's' each day on the calendar your mom was drunk? What did you mark? Eighty-nine of ninety days. Well, she'd been a drunk many years before you started noticing. I've done everything to get her to stop but she won't. We'll go to bed cold sober and two hours later I'll hear something. And she'll be stone dead drunk. I'll look at her and say, 'You're drunk.' And she'll say she's not had a drop. She swears she doesn't drink. I've grabbed her hand while it was full of pills and she'll swear there are no pills. That I am making it all up. Last month I sat a half gallon of Fitzgerald on the bar and said 'Hell! Drink to your goddamn heart's content!' Are you gonna come out?"
"We are fixing to eat dinner. Then we'll stop by. Sensi made a prune cake. We'll bring you some dinner. I wanted you all to eat dinner with us, but...
Later, we returned to a house as dark inside as it was out. When I first knocked no one came. But just as we were leaving dad opened the door.
A small light over the stove of the spacious chrome kitchen reflected a quiet man looking out toward the glass doors facing across Main Street to the gaily lit brick home of my grandmother. Without turning on the lights I knew mother rested on that couch. Tonight, her 'Robert Mitchum' was by himself. It was the last place on earth where he wanted to be.
Turning on the light, the coyote's face on the wall rug glared in anger.
The moose stared at the elk. Dad entered his den where mom lay.
"What would you do with that? What am I going to do? How would you like to go to bed with her?"
It was then that my sister appeared wearing one of dad's deer hide vests and jeans. She kissed everyone. "I'm OK. I haven't been shooting up." Her arms were bruised and her hands swollen. She was a youthful degree from mom. We all knew it.
Dad put his large palms to his forehead. "My God!" he said. Then he stared at me in disgust. "Can you believe this? Am I the only sane son of a bitch in the world.”
True rolled back her eyes, exhaling cigarette smoke. "I've heard all your shit before," she said, walking to the door. "I ain’t listening to it tonight." She left for the driveway. A car waited. A car always waited.
This is my closest friend that I had for 17 years, Lindy Yeager, my next door neighbor, West Pointer and SAC Bomber pilot and avid reader. This is Lindy when he was getting married. His wife committed suicide and eventually Lindy committed suicide, too. Lindy is "BLACK HOLE" in my first novel, THESE PRECIOUS DAYS.
E. Lowell " NO SWEAT" / "Robbie" Robbins, Jr.
Back in the 70's when I was writing for THE IRVINE TIMES-HERALD in Irvine, Kentucky, I heard about a man that lived out in the country that had a little grocery store on the Winchester Road. His name was Shirley King and he had been on the PT boat with John Kennedy during World War Two.
Having grown up in the 50's and 60's it was impossible not to know who John Kennedy was. And my grandfather, DaddyMack, was the owner of our town's one picture show. I had seen PT 109 three times and doing something like that almost made me an expert on the Kennedys.
I grabbed my camera and some film that our poor newspaper afforded and jumped into my van and headed down through Main Street out past my high school and out along a curvy road leading off into into a late summer of goldenrod and goldfinches. The sun-and-shadows messed with my soul as I passed through the countryside until I came to a stretch where I spotted a grey, wooden building owning corrugated sheets of rust around its base, faded signs on its side and out front, "KING'S GROCERY." Entering, I found myself in the den of dim-lit wooden shelves loaded down in canned goods and on the floor stacked against the counters, burlap commodities that my beloved Estill County occasionally bought. Occasionally, as there were those nefarious mid-nights when begotten outposts such as this were delicious palaces to rob.
Back off in the store, in a corner behind the counters, a man in coveralls and a worn farmer's cap was messing around, acting like he was paying me little notice. A minute passed and then the man spoke, asking if I needed anything. I told him that I was a writer and that I wanted to do a story on Shirley King and what he had done with John Kennedy.
The man said that he was Shirley King and then grabbed a chunk of quiet. You could see I had hit on something that took a hold on him. His stare went straight out the door to a world of long ago.
Shirley walked back from behind the counter. Though he was dressed like some farmer just in from fixing fences, I sensed that there was more to him that a barn full of tobacco or a cow that lost her calf. I saw William Holden. Having grown up in a small apartment over the top DaddyMack's theater, I identified people by the way movie stars looked and acted. For me, Shirley King was a lonely William Holden.
"Kennedy was younger than any of us. We called him Uncle Jack. He might have went 120 pounds. We weren't on the 109. Ours was 59."
"Yeah, it came after the 109. We called her 49. Joked it would be 1949 before the war was over. PT stood for patrol torpedo. Motor patrol torpedo boats. They were suppose to get in close to torpedo ships. But it didn't take long before the Navy found out that PT boats were useless. They'd get blown up before they could do anything. Our boat was one of the few that ever torpedoed a ship. Unfortunately, ours. The Capella. It was an accident on a training run off Narragansett Bay."
"What was Kennedy like?"
"I liked him. Allowed he loved to hear me talk. Late in '43 we had our torpedo tubes removed and mounted machine guns in their place. The boys liked me because I was from Kentucky and kept a still on the boat. The Navy had this stuff called Pink Lady that was used to propel torpedoes. They put that pink stuff in it to keep us from drinking it. After '43 we never had any torpedoes. Kennedy knew that. But Uncle Jack kept right on requisitioning.. I'd run it through my still and what came out would make you slap your grandma. Made a smooth drink mixed with pineapple juice. Some liked it with coconut but I preferred it like Uncle Jack did --- straight. After we'd lower the flag in the eve it was Pink Lady time."
"Did he ever talk about the 109?"
"Said if he hadn't swam in college he'd-a never been able to save one guy. Some of our crew had been with him on 109. Kennedy's back hurt all the time. Allowed he'd had trouble with it before 109. After what happened never helped any. We'd go up in and around these little islands and he'd never let us go any place where we couldn't fast turn around. I guess 109 made him like that."
"What did you ever do on 59?"
"We saved forty marines one night. You should have seen them. Their boat had sunk just off shore. God knows what would have happened if we hadn't come along. The island was loaded with Japs. I pulled one in and he kissed me. Got 'em all on our boat and after we got 'em out of trouble we ran out of gas. Luckily, another PT Boat threw us a line and towed us back to Lambu Lambu. One of 'em died in Kennedy's bunk."
"I heard you saw Kennedy in Kentucky?"
"Yeah, during the presidential campaign. Kennedy came through Louisville. Spotted my sign: 'HELLO 49ER!' He had the motorcade stop. Sent two secret service men over to fetch me. When I came up to him he grinned and asked if I had any Pink Lady. I told him I might if I looked right hard. He bust out laughing and got me to ride with him."
"Did you have it?"
"I'll never tell."
And Shirley King never did.
Writing & Reviews
No Sweat Robbie Robbins