Authors: Howard Fast
To the memory of my mother and father
Ida and Barney Fast
In 1920, I was working for the New York
, I had the world licked and rated, I was cynical and certain of myself, and I was probably as unpleasant and arrogant as a kid of twenty-two can be. I believed that I was good-looking, I kept count of the women who went in and out of my life, and since I had served two years with the A.E.F., I considered my score of experience to be fairly complete.
This is in the way of identification, and it will do for the time being. This is not a story about myself but about Benjamin R. Holt, and while I have pieced together in my mind all the events and incidents that go toward the recollection of him, my own view of myself is less clear and less pressing. I would like to see myself as Oscar Smith saw me on that May morning in 1920, when he called me into his office, but the time is too long ago and too much has changed. Oscar Smith, the managing editor of the
, was then in his late fifties, white-haired, tired, his voice flat and dry, very much the kind of newspaperman that the time and circumstances produced. He has been dead these many years now, remembered by a few people, myself among them. I remember his tolerance and his knowledge of kids like myself, and his slight smile when I played the cock of the walk, and the trace of amusement in his voice when he asked me how I would like to cover a war.
“You're kidding!” I said to him.
He looked at me over the top of his glasses, put a match to the dirty black pipe that was a part of his face, and shook his head.
“You sending me to Russia? That's the only war worth looking at.”
“Not Russia. West Virginia.”
“Joke. I'm laughing.”
“I don't joke, Al,” he said softly. “I got no sense of humor.”
“There's no war in West Virginia.”
“There will be. Maybe a small war, but I want you to work on it. If you do all right, it could be that we'll send you to Russia. Who knows? Anyway, I want you to go down to Hogan County in West Virginia and look around a little and then get yourself an interview with a fellow called Benjamin R. Holt.”
“I never heard of him.”
“I think you will.”
“Who is he?”
Oscar Smith looked at me for a moment, coolly and thoughtfully. I suppose he could have said that the world and this city in particular was filled with young punks who worked on newspapers and believed that the world belonged to them; but he didn't have to be specific. His expression said the same thing, and then he told me about Benjamin Holt.
“He's the new president of the International Miners Union.”
“What do you know about coal mining?”
“Not a damn thing.”
“It doesn't matter,” he sighed. “Draw your expense money and take a sleeper tonight.”
“How long do I stay there?”
“As long as you have to.”
To me, then, he was an old man with notions, and I decided that twenty-four hours would satisfy his notions. That evening, I left New York for Clinton, in West Virginia.
I stood at the station and watched the train jerk to a start, pick up speed, shunt away from me, and then crawl into a green valley cleft, as narrow and dark in the morning shadow as the gateway to hell. It is an old, lonely, beautiful and nostalgic sound, the tearing, straining motion of a steam locomotive getting under way, and the memory of it is as passionate and lost as the memory of a place like Clinton then, a dirty, ugly town in the bottom of a valley the angels made and the devils captured, but gentle now at half past five in the morning, full of spring mist, with the sun hitting the mountainsides in a blaze of springtime glory and leaving the valley bottom full of mystery and shadow.
I was all alone at the station after the single bag of mail had been hefted and taken away by a man in blue overalls. If history was at the point of being made here, then Oscar Smith was singular in his perception of the fact. I waited there at the station a few minutes, to see whether any place could actually be as silent and empty as this one; then I picked up my bag and walked across the street, past the little station building, to the main business section of Clinton.
There was one long street of stores, a hotel, and a dirty red brick, three-story office building facing the railroad station. In back of this, a twisting dirt road clawed at the mountainside, and there were the dwelling places of the town, rectangular, one-story boxes, six homes in each box, six entrances, red brick and tin roof, ten, twentyâperhaps fifty of them here and down into the end of the narrow valley. Up where the homes were, some windows flickered with light; the sun caught the top row of houses.
The Acropolis Cafe was in the process of opening, a short man with a black mustache sweeping the sidewalk in front of the place. I named him Nick and greeted him, and he looked me up and down with no pleasure and told me that it would be twenty minutes before he had coffee ready. I said I would wait.
Coffee took a half hour, because he was not in a hurry and whenever he looked at me he told me plainly that he was in no hurry and that he did not like me. Finally, he served me with coffee, fried eggs, and bread, and then he leaned on the counter and watched me eat and hated me.
“You come in on the train?” he asked me finally.
“That's right. I'm a reporter from the New York
I nodded, and he stopped hating me and told me how rotten business was, and how it used to be at this time in the morning, every seat at the counter filled, himself cooking and a man to help him and a girl to serve the counter.
“Now,” he said, “business stinks, only there ain't business. There is nothing. When coal ain't mined here, there is nothing! Nothing! It is dead and it stinks dead.”
“No coal being mined?” I asked.
“There must be something else people do in a place like this.”
“What's the hotel like?” I asked him. He was a Greek. Then, in those days, there was a Greek restaurant more or less like this one in half the towns in America. Maybe in all the towns in America; I hadn't been to all of them by a long count, and this was the first one in West Virginia and my first time in West Virginia too.
“The hotel stinks,” he said. “What do you expect in a place like this?”
I finished eating, paid forty cents for the breakfast, and asked his opinion about trouble. I made some stupid remark about the possibilities of a war, and he looked at me the way he had looked at me when he first saw me, a look full of hatred and distrust.
“Guys like you,” he said, “they make me sick.”
Then a baby began to cry from the back of the cafe. He dismissed me from his mind and his world, and went to the back of the store. I picked up my suitcase to leave, but paused to watch him open the door that led into a room behind his place. Through the open door, I caught a glimpse of the room, just a glimpse but enough to see that the room was filled with women and children sleeping side by side on the floor.
“The son of a bitch keeps a harem there,” I said to myself, and I walked out.
Years later, I repeated this story to Ben Holt, and I made no attempt to spare myself or depict myself as anything else but what I was. He nodded and said that it figured and was more or less what might have been expected in the way of my thoughts.
“Because,” he said, “you knew nothing. It wasn't that you were ignorant as sin, but you wallowed in your ignorance. You loved it.”
“I was a kid with the limitations of a kid.”
“What's a kid? Twenty-two years old? Is that your definition of a kid? You could be an old man carrying all the misery of the world at that age. What stopped you? It just happens that George Skopus, who owned that restaurant, had a heart as big as a house. He had the women and kids of five families sleeping in that back room of his, and eating out of his larder and wiping him out. And all you could think with your little mind was that he ran a harem. Six months later he closed up the restaurant. A year later he was dead. He was a saint.”
“I never knew you approved of saints.”
“I don't. But I don't approve of ignorant punks either,” Benjamin Holt said.
But that was five years later, years after this first time I went down to West Virginia to see him and write about him.
The room at the Traveler's Mountainside Hotel was three dollars and dear at the price, but there was a sink in it; and I washed and shaved before I set out to find Benjamin R. Holt. As I came down into the lobby, an argument was in progress between the hotel clerk and three men. The hotel clerk was a skinny, bent man in his middle fifties. Obsequiousness had eliminated his features, his looks, his individuality. I suppose I knew what his name was then, but I have forgotten it; on the other hand, the name of the man who faced him, standing a little in front of two others, has been written down on the record as a small, hard part of the history of those times. His name was Jim Flecker, and he was the last local survivor of the famous Flecker-Curry feud that had helped to depopulate West Virginia for almost half a century.
This I learned later; now I saw a man six feet and some inches tall, lean, with a set, hollow face and an oversized underjaw that appeared to rest on the juncture of his collarbones. He had tiny blue eyes as cold as ice, and he wore the silver star of a peace officer on the flap of his left shirt pocket. He wore a large revolver in a holster on his right hip, and in his left hand he carried a double-barreled shotgun. The pockets of his brown denim pants bulged with shotgun shells. His age was somewhere between forty and fifty.
Of the two men who stood immediately behind him, his deputies, one was fat and middle-aged and the other was very young, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, with a face that reminded me of a snake. They both carried double-barreled shotguns.