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This book is written with a frankness rarely seen in autobiographies. Jim lets it hang out, warts and all. When he cries, we cry. When he triumphs, we celebrate. They say he has lived the life of twenty men. Pain and hunger, love and divorces, Marine coming home on crutches, Boxing champion, poor then wealthy, romance and heartache, sexual assaults, bitter custody battles and murder. He lived the life of twenty men. Even armed with this foreknowledge, you will be surprised and even shocked at some of the twists From Hell to Heaven to Hell takes. Open the book and hang on - its one wild ride.
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 nation.
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 company.
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 preacher.
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 for winter.
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 dollar.
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 on underwear.
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 to.
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 dinner.
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A native Texan, born in Decatur Texas the author grows up in the West Virginia's Boone County. This is where Jim spends his life from a small boy until graduation where he moves back to Texas with his family. The father of three children and two grand-children, Jim lives there still today.