The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Lumbago Machine

By Mel Tharp © 1987

Issue: May, 1987

The Ford Model T was surely a magnificent machine. Henry Ford's dream introduced the mass production concept to American industry and literally put America on wheels. Up to the time of the model T, cars were a novelty plaything of the idle rich. When the Model T became available in 1908, it changed the mode of transportation for thousands of working people in this country.

As a boy growing up in Kentucky, I developed a close affinity for the Model T. Even though, we never owned one, I gained extensive knowledge of its versatility from our neighbor, Mr. Herschel Mayberry. Herschel ran a blacksmith shop in our town where he shoed horses, ground plow points, repaired farm machinery, and did general fix it work.

Herschel was also the town miller. This is where the Model T played an integral part in his work. If you needed a bushel of corn ground into meal, he would simply jack up the tin "lizzy," remove the back wheel and attach a belt to the axle, then to a fly wheel on the grinder. The car furnished the motive power for grinding the corn. In return, Herschel would take a "multure" of meal as a fee for his work. But central to this scenario is the memory of the Model T being the catalyst in one of the funniest, most bizarre incidents of my boyhood.

Since the Mayberry's were our closest neighbors, it was only natural that Herschel's two boys, James and Duane, should be close friends of mine. James and I were the same age with Duane being two years behind us. We shared our comic books and traded our collection of athletes' pictures cut from Wheaties boxes. But I suppose what really drew us together was living in the never never land of popular radio programs of the era. We never tired of discussing the daring do feats of Jack Armstrong, the all American Boy, The Lone Ranger, Gang Busters and Terry and the Pirates. Since these programs were broadcast between school dismissal time and bedtime, late afternoons usually found us together.

On this particular evening, I was eating supper with the Mayberry's, having received permission to stay late to listen to a boxing match on radio. We were all working on second helpings of Mrs. Mayberry's blackberry cobbler when we were interrupted by the uninvited appearance of Joe Rooksey.

The Rookseys had made an impromptu move to our area from some place over in the eastern part of the state. Joe claimed that he had worked as an overseer on a big tobacco farm near Covington although he never produced any credentials to substantiate his claim.

Point of fact; Joe showed little aptitude for farming and absolutely no stomach for anything that remotely resembled labor. When Harry Gatton, a local planter, agreed to allow Joe to sharecrop on his land, the Rooksey family quickly moved in their meager possessions, but showed no inclination to produce a crop.

Collectively, the Rookseys looked like a gang of tatterdemalion gypsies. Some joker in the community once remarked that the Rookseys looked like they had been whipped out of town with a sack full of soot for stealing horse manure.

Harry Gatton was a patient man, but his tolerance was not infinite. He eventually grew tired of Joe's indolence and in no uncertain terms, directed his tenant to either go to work or vacate the premises. That was when Joe came down with lumbago.

Harry had not accrued a sizable fortune by being naive. He delivered Joe an ultimatum. "If you're too ill to work, I'll expect some certification from a doctor," he said.

Since Harry didn't specify that the doctor had to be an M.D., Joe took his problem to Dr. Denton in Rumsey, Kentucky. Dr. Coop Denton was a self styled naturopath. His treatment consisted of electrical shock therapy which he applied liberally for everything from hangnail to rheumatism. However, there was one problem. Joe had limited financial assets, and when Joe ran out of money, Denton ran out of electricity. This precipitated Joe's visit to the Mayberry residence.

Joe refused Mrs. Mayberry's invitation to "pull up a chair." This was in itself unusual. As a rule, any member of the Rooksey family took whatever was available as do their corvine namesakes. It was frequently asserted that the Rookseys found a lot of things before they were lost.

"I ain't got time," Joe said frantically. "Herschel, I need you to give me a treatment. Dr. Denton says you can wire up a Model T to make a shocking machine. I ain't got no more money for treatments, and Harry Gatton says if I ain't being treated for lumbago, I got to go to work or get out. You know I ain't able to work."

Herschel walked to the cook stove and poured himself a cup of coffee from the big enamel percolator. "Now simmer down Joe," he urged. "There's nothing I can do tonight. I don't have lights in the shop. What I have to do is run a wire to the magneto. Now you go on home and I'll drive over to your place in the morning."

"In the morning" was Saturday, and I was up and over to the Mayberry's before they had finished breakfast. I was eager to see the lumbago machine in action. James and Duane had already petitioned their dad to let us go along. At first Herschel refused. I am sure that he had reservations about subjecting us to contact with the Rookseys and their mule skinner vocabulary. But the pleas of three healthy growing boys can be a powerful force. At last, with Mrs. Mayberry interceding in our behalf, Herschel relented and consented to let us make the trip.

We watched with fascination as Herschel ran the wires to the spark and the magneto. Before we left for the Rooksey place, Herschel tried out the shocking machine, warning us to stay in the car where we would be grounded.

It was mid morning by the time we rolled into the Rooksey yard. Despite the lateness of the hour, the entire household was still abed. Herschel called several times before Joe poked his head out the window and waved. Suddenly the door flew open, and there was a stampede of kids of all ages in various stages of dishabille. Briefly, I feared for our safety as the half naked urchins attacked and tore at the Model T like a pack of coyotes harrying a wounded antelope. Our lives were spared when Joe made his appearance.

"Get away from there!" Joe yelled, struggling to buckle the frayed end of an overall suspender. "Get away from there you dang kids!," he repeated. To emphasize his point, he picked some rocks up off the ground and tossed them in the general direction of the predators. Gradually, the turmoil subsided enough to allow Herschel to give Joe instructions.

"Just jump up on the fender and have a seat Joe," Herschel instructed. "Just lean back against the hood and let me know when you're ready."

Joe took his seat on the fender and was immediately followed by every kid who could find a place to sprawl on the hood. Some had to settle for a hand hold on the bumper or a headlight. In deference to his pet, one Rooksey kid kicked his younger brother off the hood and replaced him with a gaunt looking hound.

Joe gave the signal and Herschel touched the wire to the spark. There was an immediate explosion of animation. Joe let out a "whoop" and leaped straight up in the air. He came back down on the fender, only to receive a second dose. This time, he leaped horizontally and plowed head first into the dust and chicken droppings that littered the yard. The old hound gave a bellow and headed straight for the house, clearing the front steps, and zipped through the screen door, knocking over an un-emptied slop jar that had been left there from the night before.

Herschel revved up the Model T and tried to maneuver the car through a flock of fluttering chickens. Joe's wife, aroused by the hullabaloo, rushed out of the house and started swinging her broom at any and everything that moved, and there was plenty of movement. Herschel finally navigated the car through the milling mass of chickens and children and reached the open road. We got away, but not before being subjected to a diatribe of profanity and verbal abuse from the Rooksey woman.

Joe never returned for a second treatment of shock therapy. Surprisingly, he went to work and raised a fair crop for that summer. Perhaps he thought that in considering the option of the treatments as an alternative to work, choosing work would be the lesser evil.

That fall, the Rookseys moved to Bald Knob, an adjacent community. Before moving Joe made this final remark to Harry Gatton:

"I reckon I'm moving. I reckon people round here got us right where they want us."

However, I think Joe over estimated his popularity in our community. I don't think Bald Knob was where they wished the Rookseys.