As a child growing up in Florida, one would think my family vacations were to the beach or Disney World. My daddy, however, a country boy at heart, preferred to leave Mickey, sand and surf behind and head to the hills and hollers of Flat Lick, Kentucky in the Southeastern corner of Kentucky along the Cumberland Gap Parkway. If you watch FX Channel’s “Justified” think of that show’s Harlan County, Kentucky location (actually, Harlan County, Kentucky is only about 25 miles from Flat Lick!).
Anyway, daddy chose this particular vacation spot because it’s where his best friend Chuck, or as we called him Uncle Chuck, lived after retiring from the military. Uncle Chuck had returned to his family home on a mountain in Flat Lick to care for his aging mother and handicapped sister. My Uncle Chuck was a confirmed bachelor with no children other than his hunting dog Blue and he enjoyed our family visits to Kentucky.
On our first vacation to Flat Lick, Uncle Chuck took us to visit his cousin Ben and his family who lived several twisting, turning miles up the mountain. My younger sister and I rode in the back of Uncle Chuck’s pickup truck for what we thought would be an enjoyable ride. We were wrong!
As the truck made its way up the mountainside out of nowhere came a group of barefoot, shirtless, overall wearing teenagers who began to chase the truck apparently for the fun of it. Those boys scared the living daylights out me and my sister. Now, mountain folk chasing pickup trucks should have been an indicator of what was to come, but my sister and I were young (probably eight and five at the time) and dumb city girls.
When we finally arrived at Cousin Ben’s we saw his family lived in a rather large and newer looking home. So far, so good. Upon closer inspection, we noticed while the house had cutouts for windows there were no real windows installed. Seems Ben, who built the house with his own two hands, simply hadn’t gotten around to installing them. It was oddly strange to me then, but really quite funny now.
Ben, who looked like Festus from Gun Smoke, had a sweet wife whose name I cannot remember. They had three children; a teenage son whose name has also escaped me, a teenage daughter named Mary Jane and a mischievous, cigar smoking younger son who appeared to be around eight or nine years old. Yes, you read that right, the kid smoked cigars!
My sister and I took to Mary Jane right away, happy to have someone to play with. At some point during our visit, Mary Jane asked if I wanted to ride the family’s mule. Excited, I exclaimed I did and with my parent’s permission I climbed on the back of the mule with Mary Jane taking the lead. As we readied to ride, I noticed sneaky cigar smoking boy was moving a little too close to the mule for my comfort. Before Mary Jane could even prompt the mule to go that rotten cigar smoking brat stuck his lit cigar to the mule’s backside sending the mule braying and running like a Kentucky Derby horse across the open field.
Terrified, I clung to Mary Jane while the mule ran and cigar smoking boy laughed. As we were flying across the pasture I noticed a clothesline ahead and heard Mary Jane yell “duck.” The two of us lowered our heads just in time to keep from being decapitated by the taut clothesline wire.
When Mary Jane finally got the mule to stop, I jumped off crying while cigar boy was doubled over in laughter at his bad deed. After that terrifying mule ride all I wanted to do was go home to Florida and never return to Flat Lick, but that was not to be. Over the years, we made several more trips to Flat Lick, although we stayed away from Cousin Ben and cigar smoking boy. The last I heard of Mary Jane she had married a traveling salesman (no joke) and gotten the heck out of Flat Lick.
Looking back now, I can laugh at those Kentucky vacations and they make for great stories. I have also come to realize while it did not seem like much of a vacation for my mama, sister and me, it gave my daddy a chance to relax and catch up with his best friend while whittling, piddling and enjoying the great outdoors. It may not have been the Magic Kingdom to us, but I’m pretty sure it was the happiest place on earth to daddy.