The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

All For The Love Of Bessie Mae

By Robert G. Back © 1987

Issue: January, 1987

Editors Note: Robert G. Back is the author of the book "Hear My Laughter, See My Tears." It is available by writing Robert G. Back, Box 123, Rt. 1, Medarryville, IN 47947.The price is $7.50 plus $1.00 for postage and handling. There is only a limited number still available.

Buster Blevins and Jake Crawford had one distinct thing in common, they both steadfastly contended that one was stronger than the other. There was an abundance of evidence to support both men's claim, making it impossible for the folks in Bulane, Kentucky coal camp to give the nod to either. That being the ever-present case, Buster and Jake were constantly being put in positions requiring that they prove themselves. In coal camps where there was never enough of the extraordinary, the reputation of the strongest man in Perry County had to be maintained at all cost.

Buster was a man of average height but weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. He possessed wide, sloping shoulders from which extended massive arms and enormous hands. His waist was a mere 32 inches around while his thighs were as large as medium tree trunks. He was 19 years old, had blue eyes and a thatch of corn colored hair, and he drove a coal truck for a living.

Jake Crawford, Buster's rival to the title of Perry County's strongest man, was a year older and worked as a motorman. In contrast to Buster's average height, Jake stood 6'3" tall, weighed better than 250 pounds and was built like the kind of boxes used to ship refrigerators. His shoulders and hips were in perfect alignment and he already had a substantial paunch. While Buster was extremely muscular, Jake was the thick bulky type. Finally, instead of wearing a full head of hair favored by Buster, Jake kept his jet-black hair cropped as close to his skull as clippers would cut.

Jake and Buster weren't modest or hesitant about demonstrating their tremendous strength. Quite the contrary, they actively sought opportunities to display their brute power. Buster's pride soared and his ego ran wild when open-mouthed witnesses gasped whenever he lifted the back of a Model-A Ford off the ground. Jake was no less pleased when people marveled at his capacity to hoist 300 pound "Fats" Wilcox over his head without breaking a sweat.

As fate would have it, Buster and Jake were also in competition for the affections of the same girl. Bessie Mae, Cash Moore's sixteen year old daughter, got all fidgety and googled-eyed in the presence of both young men and was perfectly willing to marry either at the drop of a hat.

Crafty Cash, however, viewed his daughter's future with a more practical eye. He figured Bessie Mae was plenty old enough to marry but not old enough to wisely choose a husband. He assigned that important task to himself. After all, he had three other girls younger than Bessie Mae and it was important that a good example be set before them.

"Which one of them young bucks ya sweet on, honey?" Cash asked his daughter at the supper table one January night.

"Oh, I like 'em both Pa. I'd marry either of 'em in a minute." His raven haired, brown eyed daughter answered with a moony look on her face.

"That's what I'se 'fraid of," Cash muttered, more to the soup beans and fried potatoes in his plate than to anyone around the table. "I guess it's up to me to find out which one's deservin' of ya. I'll see 'em at work tomorra and ask 'em to come by after work so'se we can talk about it."

Late the next evening, Jake and Buster showed up at Cash's camp house. Both were spruced up to impress Cash and his eager daughter. With the intent to make a better impression and even though the temperature stood at 10 degrees, Jake showed up without a coat and wearing a short sleeved shirt. Goose bumps stood up on his bear arms like rows of popcorn on the cob.

"Jake, what ya doin' out in this weather without a coat on?" Cash asked, screwing up his craggy face.

"Ah, a little cold ain't gonna bother me none. I'm too tough fer it," Jake chuckled trying to add credence to idiocy.

"Tough and stupid don't mean the same thing, Jake. To tell you the truth, I reckon I might worry a right smart 'bout Bessie Mae marrin' up with a fella to dumb to wear a coat when it's cold enough to freeze spit 'fore it hits the ground. I 'spect a goat's got more sense 'n that."

"Well, I reckon I'se jus' tryin' to show off some," Jake said, shifting gears and trying to salvage something from a bungled gesture.

"Then why did'ya come inna clown suit? At least I'd figured ya had brains 'enough to try to keep warm," Cash snapped.

Buster was grinning like a satisfied possum until Cash turned on him. "Whatta ya grinnin' 'bout, boy? Ya ain't a whole lot smarter. Ya ain't wearin' no hat an' ya wet ya hair down 'fore comin' over hyar. Ya got icicles hanging down over ya big ears."

Cash shook his head and continued. "I jus' don't know 'bout either one of ya. One of ya show up dressed like somebody lookin' fer a cold glass of lemonade in July, an' the other's carryin' 'round a full head of ice. Whatsa matter with you two donkeys, anyway?"

Jake nor Buster uttered a word.

"Ya both thank ya're purty tough, doncha." Cash added

"I'm tough 'nough 'an strong 'nough to make Bessie Mae a good husban'," Buster found the courage to say.

"So am I," countered Jake.

"Then do somethin' to show me how tough ya are," Cash challenged, crossing his thick arms across his chest and tilting his chin.

"Alright, I'll show ya somethin'," Buster said. "Have all ya girls git on top of ya kitchen table an' I'll lift 'em off the floor."

Cash's four daughters, ranging in ages from 8 to 15, climbed atop the table. With the exception of Bessie Mae, all of the girls were big-boned and quite chunky.

"Squeeze in there too, Cash," said Buster.

Cash wedged his thick body between two of his giggling girls. Buster bent forward and eased his back under the table. Gripping the sides of the table with both hands, he gave a mighty grunt and lifted the table and its occupants a foot off the floor. He set it down and stepped back. "There, let's see Jake top that," he crowed.

"Shoot, that's too easy," Jake scoffed. "I really got somethin' to show ya. Let's step out on the porch. Bessie Mae, you stay inside and hold onto the door knob as hard as ya can. Don't turn loose fer nuthin'. I'm gonna open the door with my teeth while you try with all ya might to keep me from turnin' the knob. Remember now, hang on fer dear life an' don't turn loose no matter what."

Bessie Mae nodded and smiled her sweetest smile. The others followed Jake outside to witness his incredible show of strength.

Once outside with the door closed, Jake yelled to Bessie Mae. "Okay, Bessie Mae, take a good holt an' don't let go!"

Jake bent down, opened his mouth as wide as possible, and wrapped his teeth around the door knob. He gave a slight turn of his head and stopped abruptly. A noise that was a cross between a groan and a deep chested whine came from him. He opened his mouth wide and tried to back away from the doorknob but quickly discovered he couldn't move. The bitter cold had welded his tongue firmly to the metal door knob, and he couldn't pry it free. His grunts and whines gave way to loud, angry growls of frustration.

Bessie Mae heard the awful sounds and yanked the door open to see what was causing them. A piercing yell exploded from Jake as he toppled backward onto his behind and watched a layer of his tongue skin ride the door knob inward.

Bessie looked down at Jake and the blood that quickly covered his mouth and chin. "Oh lordie!" she screamed. "I done yanked his tongue clean outta his mouth! I didn't go to do it Jake! I'se jest doin' whatcha tol' me to do!"

Cash helped Jake to his feet. "Ya still got most of ya tongue left, aint'cha, boy?" he asked.

Jake shook his head up and down, wiping his mouth on a cloth that one of the girls had fetched for him.

"That was 'bout the dumbest thang I ever seed," Cash said, steering Jake back inside the house. "Didn't nobody ever tell ya what happens when ya stick ya tongue on ice-cold metal?"

"Teth, oh lorth, lithin to th' ay I thalk!" Jake whined, his eyes wide with fear. "I thalk thunny!"

"What'd he say?" Bessie Mae asked, still a bit agitated.

"He said he talks funny," Buster said, trying hard to keep from laughing.

"Don lath, Buther, leth ya wan' a thlug inna faith!" Jake fumed.

"I ain't laughin', I wouldn't laugh at ya, Jake," Buster lied.

"Will I thalk lith ith thom now on?" Jake asked Cash.

"I reckon not," Cash said. "The hide'll grow back in time. If I'se you, though, I wouldn't be tryin' none of ya daddy's moonshine fer awhile. If ya do, ya'll more'an likely invent a whole new kinda dancin'."

"I've made up my min' which one I want to come callin', Pa." Bessie Mae blurted out.

"Tell us, honey."


"What made ya pick Buster, darlin'?"

"He can talk plain, an' I can't understan' a word Jake says."

"Ya mean I loth halth my thung fer duthin'?" Jake moaned.

"Looks atta way, boy. Orta be a lesson to ya. Don't go 'round stickin' ya tongue to cold door knobs," Cash chuckled.

"Don' do thith thoo me, Bessie. My thung'll gith bether inna foo daths," Jake pleaded.

"What'd he say?" Bessie Mae asked again.

"He said his tongue'll get better inna few days," Cash interpreted

"Can't wait that long, Jake. I ain't gittin' no younger, ya know," Bessie Mae said and turned to smile at Buster.

As it turned out, Jake nor Buster won fair Bessie Mae's hand. By the time his tongue had healed, Jake had lost interest in her, and Buster lost out when he sustained a huge hernia while trying to push a loaded coal truck in order to win a two dollar bet. Cash wasn't about to allow his jewel to marry a man who was stupid enough to give himself a hernia for a measly two bucks.

Bessie Mae eventually married the owner of a secondhand furniture store.