I was born in Decatur, Texas, also known as the Lone Star State. As an
infant, my family moved to the coalfields of West Virginia. My dad was
also born in Texas. My mother was born in what most people refer to as
“West by God Virginia or Hill Billy Heaven”. The story goes that my
mom and her sister came to Texas to escape extreme poverty. Mom and dad
met at a café somewhere in Fort Worth. I never did ask too many
questions on how they met and probably wouldn't want to know anyway, but
I can only imagine. Both my mother and dad came from very large
families. Mom had five brothers and four sisters while my daddy had four
brothers and four sisters. Daddy said his family was so poor growing up
they had no windows in their house. His mom would fan the flies while
the kids would eat.
In our family there were four kids. I had one older brother and two
sisters. Momma would refer to us as four little mountain rats. Daddy
moved to West Virginia to work in the coal mines and to be closer to my
mother’s family. Also, my Dad was living with the guilt of what
happened to his parents the day he was leaving for the military. While
still at the train station and waiting to leave for boot camp, the
police pulled up and informed him that his parents and precious dog had
perished when their house caught fire and burned. Somehow he thought it
was his fault and he carried that guilt for the rest of his life.
Daddy thought that moving to West Virginia would give him a new look on
life. I don’t remember much about my life from the age of one to
three, but I remember starting school at the age of four. I was so young
when I started school I spent two years in the 1st grade. The school was
a little white wooden schoolhouse that had only two classrooms. I was so
small that while the other students were saying the Pledge of Allegiance
outside by the flag pole, I was told by the principal to climb the steps
and go into my classroom. I had no idea why my parents sent me to school
that young, but it was probably so they both could work. We lived in a
holler which had a dirt road that a car could barely get up in. The road
was nothing but holes and rocks and there was just enough room for one
car at a time, which is much the same way today.
Life was very rough being a coal miner back then and raising a family,
too. That was the era when miners worked like dogs and were paid very
little. I can remember my dad telling me he got paid three dollars an
hour and that coal mining work was probably the most dangerous job in
The men mining the coal actually used a pick and a shovel. Mining is
still very hard work, but big machines cut the coal now. Miners today
make a pretty good living, mainly because men like my father paved the
way. Besides being very dangerous, coal mining can cut a man's life span
as much as 20 years. Many miners developed Black Lung disease from
breathing coal dust for years. At the time nothing was done to stop this
injustice. Jobs were scarce and a man felt lucky to have any kind of
employment regardless of the conditions.
Many miners and their families lived in coal camps, the name given to
the groups of houses built and owned by the mines. The houses were three
to five feet apart, poorly built and never insulated. If you were a
miner, you could live in the homes very cheaply. It was just another way
the coal mines “owned you.” Many mine companies even had their own
money that was called Spence or Script. Miners were paid with the script
and the “money” could only be spent at the store owned by the coal
I was very young when Dad decided to buy a beer joint in Salt Rock, West
Virginia, a little town on the Ohio River next to Huntington. My mother
would work the beer joint during the day and dad would help her after
getting home from the mines at night. I can't imagine how hard it was
trying to drive 100 miles a day and then coming home and working till
midnight in the beer joint. There were four of us kids then, two boys
and two girls, and we lived in the small apartment upstairs over the
beer joint. One morning I remember falling through the ceiling and
landing in the kitchen of the beer joint. It’s a wonder I didn’t
break my neck when I hit the iron stove.
To earn a little spending money, my older brother and I would fist fight
for the drunks who would pay money to see us fight. Naturally I got the
worst of it. It wasn't long after moving there that mom and dad started
having marital problems. Mom was pretty friendly with the patrons and
that soon caused a lot of trouble in their marriage. My dad was a very
good man, but also very jealous and he had every right to be. Things
went from bad to worse and we being young children all saw a part of
hell that none of us would ever forget.
I guess all that turmoil left a lifetime mark on all of us. The marriage
became nothing but daily screaming, cursing, and fighting. It was a
horrible way to live, but I’m sure growing up that way was preparing
me for what was to come in my later life. Finally, when my dad and mom
endured all they could, a divorce was the only thing left. I can't
remember exactly how the massive blowup started but mom was leaving and
dad was trying to stop her. She was trying to take off in the car and
dad was hitting her through the window and we four children were
sobbing. My sister went up to dad and hit him in the back with her fist
and dad thought it was me. He turned and backhanded me, knocking me into
a pile of wood.
My mother took off in the car at a high rate of speed and I can still
today see my dad with so much hurt in his eyes and heart. He was looking
down to four little children who were scared to death because their
mother had just left them. In addition to being terribly upset about mom
leaving, he seemed to realize he also had to deal with four little
children, a beer joint, and a mining job. They had come to the breaking
point and Mom had gotten pretty friendly with a so-called preacher. Dad
told all of us to go upstairs and stay until he went and found mom.
Instead of going upstairs I slipped in the back seat of the car and hid
in the floor board.
Dad wasn't aware I was in the car as he drove off searching for his
wife. He went looking for mom and found her in the car with the
Dad forced them off the road and into a ditch.
The man started running and dad chased and caught the man in the
pasture. Dad began beating him with his fists and rubbing the man's face
on the barbed wire. After watching dad beat this man, I ran up to him
crying and screaming, "Stop! Dad, stop!!" My dad turned and saw me there
and just went limp and threw the man to the ground. He started coming to
me with tears in his eyes and as he picked me up, he looked back at the
bloody man who was in bad shape and just squeezed me pretty tight and we
started back to the car. My dad was hurting so much in many ways.
First of all, he didn’t want me to see what had just happened. I'm
sure everything that was running through his mind centered on his wife,
his kids, his job, and the beer joint. I don’t really know everything
that happened that night, but I do remember that my dad and mom sat in
the car port for what seemed like hours. I'm sure happy they did because
mom and dad came back in the house together.
Immediately after that fiasco, mom and dad sold the beer joint and we
moved to a small town called Uneeda, West Virginia. We moved up another
holler called Gerald's Branch. We lived a little over a mile up the
holler, but it was paradise compared to the beer joint. We could barely
get a car up the dirt road, but basically it was heaven to us. We had a
big garden, a two bedroom home and the mountains to play in. Often when
it rained the whole holler would flood out, meaning the creek was like a
raging river and it would be a week or two before we could even get a
car back up that holler. During those times we had to walk in and out to
the main road.
We would walk to the mouth of the holler and catch the bus to school.
Of course before going to school we would feed the chickens and hogs,
and bring kindling and coal from the shed to heat the house for our mom.
As young kids we had no idea we were poor. We just figured everyone else
did the same things and lived the same way we did. Our walk out to catch
the school bust included crossing the creeks by walking across the split
logs. Dad had bought 12 acres of land, eleven of which were mountains
that had apple orchards and a lot of pear and peach trees. We grew
strawberries and mom canned a lot of the food from the garden to prepare
Winter wasn't so pleasant, especially when all the pipes in the house
froze. Dad would get my brother and me to help thaw them out. We had a
well outside, and many mornings it would freeze before school. We would
try to get some water into the house. I sometimes loved the snow because
we would get out of school. My brother, sisters and I would have the
greatest snowball fights with our neighbors, plus all the kids in the
holler would get garbage can lids and sleigh down the hills most of the
day and into the night. We also liked to rabbit hunt in the snow because
you could always see their tracks, although I honestly don't ever
remember killing one. The creeks would freeze overnight and a lot of my
friends and I would skate on the ice. Then at night, we would all pile
up in the living room floor and watch a great western on the television.
Mom would usually give us crackers and cheese. Sometimes she would make
hot chocolate. We only had a black-and-white TV, but usually all the
neighbor’s kids would wind up in our living room.
Living in the country had its perks. We loved hunting and playing in the
mountains, and we even had a basketball hoop. We were too naive to know
that a net was supposed to be attached to the basketball goal. We would
play on hard rough ground while constantly chasing the balls in the
creeks. In the summer time we would also develop our field of dreams.
We would cut out a baseball field with a push mower. It was as serious
to us as the World Series.
Dad would take us down to the highway on weekends where we would sell
bushels of pears and apples. We would get a dollar a bushel and of
course that money would go to buying our school clothes for the next
year. Most of our clothes came from the Goodwill, but that was life back
then. My Dad made $3,000 a year working the coal mines. Dad had a charge
account at the only grocery store and sometimes I would slip in and
charge a bottle of Coke or candy, knowing full well I was going to get
my butt busted once mom or dad found out. At night, my running buddies
and I would steal pop bottles and milk jugs from other’s porches, and
then go buy a RC Cola and a Moon Pie. Occasionally my dad would bring
home a six-pack of Coke and I thought that was Christmas every time he
did! I would hide my Coke in the refrigerator so my brother and sisters
wouldn’t get it and sometimes it would last me three days. I had no
idea that the change in taste was due to the Coke going flat… it still
tasted good to me.
Life was really rough growing up in West Virginia as a poor young boy. I
remember one evening coming home from school and as I walked into the
living room my mom confronted me that she heard I was stealing from the
local Kroger grocery store. Before I could deny it and explain that
wasn’t true, she hit me with a board across my back and shoulders. I
tried to run, but couldn’t escape her anger. I was lying in the floor
when my dad walked in the door from the coal mines. When he saw the
bruises he went into a rage and questioned my mom as to why she was
beating the hell out of me. She told my dad she’d heard I was stealing
from Kroger’s. Dad calmly asked, “Son, did you steal something?” I
told my dad I hadn’t stolen anything. He told my mom she better have
proof and if she was lying she better not be there when we got back. He
loaded me into his old truck and off to Kroger we went.
With his hand on my shoulder, my dad and I walked in to confront the
store manager and a few of the assistants who worked there. My dad told
the manager that he’d gotten wind from his wife that his boy Jimmy was
said to be stealing from the store and he wanted to know if the story
was true. The store manager said he didn’t know where my mom got that
information, but it certainly was not true. He said, “He comes in here
all the time selling papers with a few of his friends and one of the
boys does steal from the store, but not Jimmy.” Daddy shook the store
manager’s hand, thanked him and said, “Jimmy, let’s go home.”
Dad was very quiet all the way home and I knew he was fuming about what
happened. I used the opportunity to tell him about all the whippings mom
had been giving me when he would leave for the coal mines at 4:30 in the
morning. She would always say, “You look like a Damn Grundy!” as she
would pull me out of bed and whip me. We pulled up into the driveway and
daddy told me to go in the house and get some clothes because he had a
few Damn things to say to my mom. During the confrontation in the
kitchen my dad slapped my mom and demanded that she never lay a hand on
me again. Daddy took me to a friend’s house at the end of the holler
where the only place for me to sleep was in a baby bed. I was nine years
old and to this day I can remember how embarrassing that was for me.
After a few days, when things settled down, I went home. Mom said she
was sorry and was glad for me to be back home.
On Friday mornings I would get up early and walk out of the holler and
thumb (hitch-hike) to town to sell newspapers for the Coal Valley News.
I would buy them for three cents each and sell them for five cents.
I would try to sell enough to make a dollar for lunch money the
following week and hurry to get to class by 8:00 am. Back then we rarely
went to a barbershop. Dad would set us on the porch and cut our hair.
You could always tell who the holler kids were by the way their hair was
cut. One time dad cut my sisters’ hair and, needless to say, it was
bad. They cried and cried most of the night.
We didn’t really know what a dentist was either. If we got a
toothache, dad would take a long string and tie the string to our bad
tooth and then to a doorknob. When he closed the door, it pulled the
string and out came our tooth. Dad wasn't being mean, but it was the way
he was raised and the only way he knew to take care of a tooth. I think
my Dad attended school through the sixth grade and mom rarely went to
school at all. The best I can remember, at breakfast in the mornings,
mom would get us up at about five a.m. and we would either have biscuits
with chocolate gravy or homecanned blackberries. I can tell you they
were good! Maybe the chocolate gravy made me hyper in school because I
saw the principal enough.
Dad would not allow us to take any crap from anyone. He bought us a pair
of boxing gloves for Christmas one year and, as much as I disliked it a
lot of the neighbor’s kids would come around and we would box in the
backyard several times a week. If we didn’t fight every bully, my dad
would whip us with the mining belt. You didn’t want to get a whipping
from a dad that was 6'7" tall and weighed about 250 pounds.
Even though there was very little money to go around, we still had lots
of fun. When I reached the age of 10, my dad bought me a 410 shotgun.
The first day of hunting season came in September and it was like
Christmas all over again! I would stay awake all night anticipating the
next morning. During my very first hunting trip I was sitting under a
clump of trees and suddenly I saw three squirrels above me in the tree.
I waited quietly, silently shaking with excitement and hoping I could
get all three!
Finally I shot and two squirrels dropped to the ground beside me! Then,
this man out of nowhere started yelling, “You little s.o.b.! I’m
going to kick your little ass!!” I was not aware of the man who had
also been keeping an eye on the squirrels and planned on getting them
for himself. I was scared to death!! I reached down, grabbed my kill and
off I ran.
Sometimes we would get up about three o’clock in the morning and drive
maybe 50 miles away to Lincoln County to hunt. At daybreak we would
separate and head into the mountains. The night before I would steal a
couple of dad's cigarettes and when I got by myself in the mountains, I
would light up. Man, that was a thrill, sitting under a clump of beech
trees just smoking and hoping I would shoot the first squirrel. Dad, my
brother and I were always competing. Around one o'clock we would all
meet at the car and my dad would go to the local grocery store and get
some baloney, cheese, bread, and onions. You talk about good – those
sandwiches were absolutely delicious!
Squirrel meat back then was like steak to us. Mom would cook the
squirrels, fix gravy and we thought we were in hog heaven. Even though
we didn’t have much compared to today, we sure thought we did. We had
a big garden and in the summer we would usually work the garden or pick
blackberries. I hated to go into the berry patches because it seemed we
would almost always run into poisonous snakes. On Sundays I would go to
the local golf course and caddie for the golfers. Sometimes I would take
or steal a few golf balls by throwing them into the weeds. After
caddying I would go find them and later sell them to another golfer for
a quarter a piece. I knew it wasn't right, but it was a way to make a
Every year I would go to the mountains with my buddies and we would pick
mushrooms, also known as molly-moochers, and huckleberries to sell. The
mushrooms tasted like chicken when rolled in flour and fried. One day I
was picking huckleberries at the top of the mountain with a couple of my
friends and as I reached down to pick some of the berries, I felt
something move under my feet. Being fall, there were lots of leaves on
the ground and I didn’t realize I was standing on a rattle snake.
I was scared to death and screamed like an Apache! I threw my berries
and bucket off to the side and hooked ass down the mountain thinking the
snake was chasing me.
In addition to stealing milk jugs and pop bottles, selling papers,
caddying for golfers, and setting pins at the local bowling alley I
still had my chores to do every day. My mom and dad would take us to
church on Sunday and sometimes I would throw paper wads at people.
Unfortunately my dad would catch me and I would get what was coming to
me when we got home.
I hated grade school because I only had one set of clothes and most of
the other kids had different sets of clothes to wear throughout the
week. I usually would get one pair of jeans and a cheap pair of tennis
shoes a week before school started. Walking up and down that rough
holler would tear a pair of cheap shoes up in a month. If we tore them
up we would usually get a whipping. It was very embarrassing to go to
school every day with the same clothes on.
My dad did the best he could, but kids would make fun of me. We didn’t
have running water in our house until my 8th grade year. I remember
running to the neighbor’s house to tell my friend we now had a bathtub
in our house. Before running water, we took a bath maybe two times a
week. We would carry water in from the well and mom would boil the
water. The girls took their baths first and the boys last. By the time I
got to bathe, the water was always cold and usually dirty. But still my
biggest hang-up was the same having to wear the same jeans every day.
Sometimes a zipper would break and I was afraid to tell mom so I would
pull my shirt down as far as I could stretch it.
For whatever reason, mom would favor my older brother and younger
sister. Mom was good as gold sometimes, then she would snap and you
wouldn’t know her. I didn’t realize what bipolar disorder was until
I was grown. She would go off on me and my older sister many times,
usually early in the morning after dad left the house to go to the
mines. Before Dad would leave, he would start the fire in a potbelly
stove and you talk about warm, there was nothing like it! After dad was
gone, and if Mom was mad at us, she would come into our bedroom with a
switch and jerk the covers down and whip the fire out of us. We only had
We boys and girls all slept in the same bedroom. Mom had her good
moments but to be honest, she was mentally unstable a lot. She would
usually let us know we were going to get a whipping the night before so
we could worry about it all night. I got so sick of the whippings that
when I heard dad leave for the coal mines, I would grab a pair of jeans
and my shirt and slip out the bedroom window and hide in the corn patch.
It wouldn't be fifteen minutes after dad had left that my mom would come
into the bedroom, turn on the light and then all hell would break out.
She was furious that I was in the garden hiding and she would scream at
me and say, “You little bastard, I’ll get you in the morning!” I
would go on to school and worry all day about the next morning. Dad
didn’t know this was going on for a good while. She would always tell
me, “You look like a Damn Grundy!” Mom never cared much for my dad's
family. His family lived in Texas, but when my mom was mad or she and my
dad were fighting, she would cut down his family to make him mad. Dad's
family were really good people and I think my mom was just so jealous of
them because her family was pretty rough. Dad’s family was much more
educated than my mom's family was.
This lifestyle went on between the ages of seven through twelve.
Everything wasn't all bad though. I got to play Little League baseball
and basketball, but I often had to thumb for a ride some four miles to
practice and games and then walk up that scary dark holler at night.
Sometimes my dad wouldn’t come to my games and after the Little League
games were over, I would thumb a ride back home or to the mouth of the
holler. Then I would get really scared. That holler was pitch dark, and
even though it was about one and a half miles to our house it seemed
like ten miles to me. I would hear every noise possible, especially
since West Virginia is known for bears, panthers and snakes. It seemed
as if something was following me every night. I would run a distance,
walk a little bit and run again until I would get to our house.
I remember when I told my dad that something was following me up that
dark holler for months and my dad just laughed thinking it was only my
imagination. The following morning we were all walking out of the holler
to catch the bus and three doors down from our house we saw a group of
our neighbors standing in Mr. Wheeler’s yard. We had no idea what was
going on and as kids will do, we were curious about the crowd of people.
On the porch was a dead panther that had followed our neighbor’s son
home the night before. After my mom picked my dad up from the edge of
the holler that evening she told him about the animal that was hanging
dead on Mr. Wheeler’s porch. Stopping by to take a look, my dad and
mom were scared to death as they realized it was probably that panther
that had been stalking me up the holler at night as I was walking home.
Our neighbors were very rough individuals. The boys were always in
trouble with the law or the school. I guess that somehow rubbed off on
me and my brother. My brother was pretty good with his fist and would
take up for me a lot when I was downtown selling papers or at a football
game, especially when someone would try to take my money away from me.
At night we would make our rounds of the porches looking for those
treasured milk jugs. Twenty-five cents was just enough to buy a Coke and
Moon Pie. Running with the boys next door, we certainly spent our time
in the principal's office. My brother would usually take the blame for
me and I never did get a paddling in grade school even though I deserved
One day while walking home from school several of the parents of the
holler decided that the Grundy and Ashburg boys needed an ass whipping,
and maybe it was justified. I really never had much trouble with any of
the kids, but the boys we ran with were physically and mentally abused
by their dad and they grew up very tough. Really, there was a good side
to them, but their dad was the meanest man I had ever known. He
literally beat them daily and they were also made fun of, so I
understand why they were the way they were. Anyway, three car loads of
boys pulled up and their parents told them to whip us. I was fighting
several and my brother had, I'm not sure, maybe four or five guys and my
neighbor had the same.
My neighbor threw one of their “Tuffies” in the creek, flat on his
back and the others broke to running. Needless to say, we were in the
principal's office the next day and the principal was, for once, on our
side. He called all the people involved in the fight that day and got
the boxing gloves out.
He took us all to the gym and told the ones who jumped us the day before
to fight us one at a time. It was a total mismatch. We whipped every one
of them that would fight. The parents even got into it. My dad and mom
were furious. My mom approached all the women involved and it wasn't a
pretty scene. No fighting, but a lot of verbal insults and threats are
uttered. My dad was well-liked and a person that men respected. He would
fight a "circle-saw." Dad was well-known around Fort Worth, Texas for
his fist at a young age. I've heard many stories from his brothers,
sisters and friends about the many fights he had. I always believed he
could've been a heavyweight contender. He taught me how to throw a punch
correctly, but I was never half the man my dad was. I saw my dad whip
six men and clean out a bar one night in Boone County, West Virginia. He
was a gentle man and a very good father, but when he and mom were
arguing he would start drinking, and then I guess his past would show up
again. Dad wasn't a home drinker, just every now and then when he and
mom were fighting.
When he was drinking he would often let me drive his car. Of course this
was a couple of years later when I reached the age of sixteen.
My mom was a pretty woman who loved to tease people and she would do
anything for a laugh. I guess that's where I got my crazy personality
from. I love to tease and cut up. But mom would always help the
underdog, and then at times she would be a completely different person.
To other people, she was a big cut up and had a good personality, but in
the house she often had two personalities. Sometimes she would slip me
money, then other times, beat the hell out of me with a switch. She even
would get mad at the dinner table if we got an extra piece of chicken.
All of us kids knew that we had better not be in the refrigerator after
Excerpted from "From Hell To Heaven To Hell" by Jim Grundy. Copyright © 2011 by Jim Grundy. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.