Monday, November 12, 2007

A Tribute: Part I

Amid the deep gorges and sandstone cliffs of the Cumberland Plateau in Eastern Kentucky lies the town of Booneville, population 159. Named for frontiersman Daniel Boone, it sits along the south fork of the meandering brown waters of the Kentucky River and adjacent to the dense green timberland of the Daniel Boone National Forest. This rugged area was settled by gritty pioneers who had crossed the Cumberland Gap with land grants from Virgina. In Booneville and the other tiny communities that would eventually comprise Owsley County, these determined men and women built their cabins, raised their children, and slowly scraped out a living. This is where my grandfather, William Lee Venable, was born.

William was the eldest son of Matt and Verlie, salt-of-the-earth country folk who raised their six children to love God, Country, Family and Bluegrass music. He was a sickly child, perhaps because of the inexperience of his 17-year-old mother, perhaps because of the difficult conditions of living in Depression-era poverty in a drafty mountain cabin, but he was smart, he was hardworking, and he intended to make something of himself. William's serious nature made him the oddball among his fun-loving brothers, R.B, James and Ernie, but he also had a sharp wit which served him well when dealing with their pranks and good-natured jibes. He spent his time reading every book he could get his hands on and helping his mother manage the boys and his two younger sisters, Mavis and Vivian. In spite of their differences, the brothers were close. Life was hard, and in the backwoods of Kentucky, sometimes family was all you had.

William graduated with honors from his tiny one-room high school and with the encouragement of his teachers, headed off to Berea College and later, Lees College in the nearby city of Jackson. College was an unusual opportunity for a farmer's son with no money and no connections. He had nothing but a nickel in his pocket, faith in God and a desire to succeed. It was at Lees that William met shy, pretty Opal Adams. The valedictorian of her high school senior class, Opal was also the eldest of six siblings and had grown up in the hills of nearby Powell County. The two had a lot in common and eventually, they became sweethearts.

In the spring of 1941, America was just coming out of the Depression. FDR was President, Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart were box office stars, McDonald's began selling its first million burgers, and Germany invaded Russia. With the looming threat of war and few job prospects, William accepted a position as a school teacher back home in Owsley County. Teaching was a common occupation for educated young men and women at that time- all you needed was two years of college- but it was a job which did not particularly suit his temperament or his ambition. It was going to be a very long year. Meanwhile, America watched in fascinated horror as Hitler's troops marched unimpeded across Europe on two fronts. The question on everyone's mind was, "Will America enter the war?" The families of young men like William, R.B., James and Ernest anxiously held their breath.

To be continued...

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