Mingo Corners, Kentucky, is the tiny town I grew up in. Actually, to call it a town is mis­lead­ing. It’s more like a vil­lage  — or, as some folks say dis­parag­ing­ly, a wide spot in the road. Today, there is scarce­ly any­thing to dis­tin­guish it as a place wor­thy of a name. But when I was grow­ing up there in the late 60s and 70s, it was a thriv­ing lit­tle place with three gen­er­al stores, a post office, a school, sev­er­al church­es, a cou­ple of sawmills, and about a hun­dred or so hous­es strung along an east­ern Kentucky ridgetop known as Mingo Ridge.

Naturally, I attend­ed Mingo Ridge Grade School, a kinder­garten through eighth-grade cen­ter of learn­ing just across the road from the largest of the three gen­er­al stores. Built in 1964, MRGS was housed in a mod­ern brick build­ing that was the pride of the com­mu­ni­ty. The school had been pre­vi­ous­ly housed in a row of ram­shackle wood­en struc­tures locals called the “hog pens.”

The store’s offi­cial name was Mingo Corners General Store, but every­one I knew called it Uncle Zeke’s, and it was the cen­ter of life in Mingo Corners back in the day. Serving as the source of gro­ceries, gaso­line, cloth­ing, hard­ware, and pret­ty much every oth­er dai­ly neces­si­ty of life, it also housed the offi­cial US Post Office for the town. But the pri­ma­ry func­tion of Uncle Zeke’s store, as with so many lit­tle gen­er­al stores in rur­al America at the time, was to be the cen­ter of social life in the community.

Everyone in town called the pro­pri­etor and post­mas­ter “Uncle Zeke,” but he real­ly was an uncle to me, my broth­ers, and a whole pas­sel of cousins. Zeke was my mom’s broth­er, born in 1924. He was a WWII vet­er­an and a reformed heavy drinker and smok­er. Gruff and stern on the out­side, Zeke was actu­al­ly a ten­der-heart­ed man who was the mas­ter of “ran­dom acts of kind­ness,” long before that was a thing.

Zeke ran the store in the ear­ly morn­ings and evenings, and dur­ing the day when he was han­dling the cor­ner of the store devot­ed to the post office, his wife Madge and sis­ter Irene would run the store. 

Every morn­ing my par­ents would drop off my broth­ers and me at Uncle Zeke’s store on their way to work. It was usu­al­ly around 6 a.m., and the school didn’t open until 6:45, so we would have 45 min­utes to kill.

Inside would be an eclec­tic mix of stu­dents, log­gers and sawmillers, farm­ers, and loafers. It was a great place to start the day. Some of the best con­ver­sa­tions and fun­ni­est inci­dents in my mem­o­ry hap­pened in that store. I was in the sixth grade in December of 1973 when what came to be known as “the great flan­nel shirt inci­dent” took place at Uncle Zeke’s store.

As was always the case, that morn­ing when I entered the store with my broth­ers, there were a half-dozen or so stu­dents and about twice that many men hang­ing around the store. There was a large com­mon area in the front, on the oppo­site side of the store from the check-out counter. Along the front win­dow were three “pop cool­ers” full of all the favored local sodas: Pepsi, RC Cola, Nehi grape and orange, and of course the local favorite, Ale-8-One, bot­tled in near­by Winchester.

On the oth­er side of the com­mon area from the pop cool­ers was the “nail box” — a long wood­en bench that served as a seat­ing area and stor­age for the sub­stan­tial selec­tion of nails in var­i­ous sizes avail­able for pur­chase. Typically, the young folks would hun­ker around the pop cool­ers, while the men would sit on the box or stand near­by and shoot the breeze.

The nail box was a leg­end in itself. Basically a very long rec­tan­gu­lar wood­en box with a hinged lid, it was just the right height for sit­ting and chew­ing the fat. Inside were com­part­ments hold­ing the var­i­ous sizes of nails avail­able. If any­one came in the store need­ing nails, they had to clear the loafers off the bench so they could raise the lid to get to them.

There was, of course, no guar­an­tee to the verac­i­ty of any tales heard around the nail bench. I remem­ber my broth­er telling me one day that he and his best bud­dy J.D. Henderson were excit­ed to hear from Uncle Zeke that the trout had been released ear­li­er that day while we were all at school.

The releas­ing of the trout was an annu­al event in ear­ly spring, when the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife deliv­ered a truck­load of trout from their hatch­ery, to be released into the Mingo Fork of the Kentucky River a few miles below Mingo Ridge. All the boys and sev­er­al trout fish­ing leg­ends would gath­er, shoul­der to shoul­der, and try to catch them — even though the fish were fed well and still sort of shocked from the whole stock­ing event. To be among the first to fish the fresh­ly-stocked riv­er was a prized achievement.

Anyway, when Uncle Zeke told the boys that day that the riv­er had been stocked, he added a dis­claimer: “Now boys, don’t hold me to that. It came off the nail box!”

From then on, when­ev­er one of us boys heard a tale that sound­ed a bit dubi­ous, we’d ask whether it came off the nail box. 

  

Johnny VanLear was a dandy. I mean that in the clas­si­cal sense. He was a real-life dandy. And that, along with his speech and demeanor, stood in stark con­trast to the group of men who would assem­ble on the nail bench at Zeke’s daily. 

Johnny marched to a dif­fer­ent drum. First of all, he was rich — by Mingo Corners stan­dards – and loved noth­ing bet­ter than flaunt­ing his wealth. He had made his for­tune in the coal busi­ness and retired in his 50s. Now in his ear­ly 70s, Johnny was trim and full of ener­gy. He usu­al­ly sport­ed a pas­tel polo shirt — the kind golfers wear, kha­ki pants, and loafers. His near­ly bald head was always cov­ered with a styl­ish Irish wool flat cap. Herringbone, naturally.

He had a nat­u­ral­ly high-pitched voice, almost like a woman’s. He was self-con­scious about it, and in his van­i­ty, he would inten­tion­al­ly speak in as low a reg­is­ter as pos­si­ble. When he got excit­ed or angry, he’d for­get, and his voice would rise comically.

Johnny drove a Cadillac and bragged inces­sant­ly about how much he paid for it. A brand-spank­ing-new Eldorado con­vert­ible coupe, it was the finest car any­one at the store could ever remem­ber see­ing, although nobody would admit to it.

“Aw, hell, Johnnie,” said Ron Combs the first day Johnny had brought his new acqui­si­tion by the store to show it off. “That piece o’ shit is just a Chevy with extra chrome! I’ll bet my old Ford quar­ter-ton would out­run that buck­et o’ bolts!”

“Yeah,” chimed in Rusty Sparks, “I seen them old Caddies in the junk­yard. They ain’t noth­in’ but rust and rot­tin’ rubber!”

“Well, hell!” said Johnny. “Of course, at some point, you have to put even a fine Cadillac out to pas­ture. It’s only natural.”

“I reck­on so,” replied Rusty, “But them Caddies was only two or three year old.”

That brought down the house. Every farmer and log­ger in the place erupt­ed in laugh­ter and slapped knees. Even Uncle Zeke, behind the counter, cracked a smile.

Johnny sulked for a minute or two, then changed the subject.

“Mort,” he said to Mort Spradlin, “When are you going to replace that tat­tered old shirt you been wear­ing every day for six years now?”

Mort Spradlin was a log­ger and sawmiller. He worked at his cousin’s sawmill, and like most of the oth­er work­ers, would grab a bite to eat at Uncle Zeke’s store and hang out there until day­light, when he would head to the mill.

Short, stocky, and stout, Mort had a face that said, “don’t mess with me,” though he wasn’t dan­ger­ous. He had an old-fash­ioned mus­tache and kept his hair cropped short in a flat-top style. Like near­ly all the oth­er “reg­u­lar guys” of Mingo County – the work­ing class – he wore the stan­dard-issue uni­form: Dickey’s work pants or blue jeans, a white T‑shirt, and a check­ered flan­nel shirt. And what is now called a trucker’s hat, but was always known back then sim­ply as a cap.

Mort was just try­ing to enjoy his baloney sand­wich. He mum­bled as he wolfed down a bite.

“C’mon, Johnny. You been on me about this shirt since ol’ Zeke was in dia­pers. Leave me alone, awright?”

“But Mort, that thing is mangey as Dick Hollon’s old coon hound. Spring for a new one every cou­ple of years, man! Don’t you know you can get those two-for-five-dol­lars down at the dol­lar store in town?”

“In town” meant Swift City, eight miles up the ridge. The coun­ty seat, with an actu­al gro­cery store, a dol­lar store, a bus stop, a drug store, and even a movie house. I reck­on close to a thou­sand peo­ple lived in Swift City. It was big time.

“Hey!” Zeke called out, “Whatcha doin’ send­ing him into town to the dol­lar store? I got flan­nel shirts here in the store. Look in the back room. I got­ta whole pas­sel of ‘em. Ever col­or you can imagine!”

Johnny paused, then resumed his diatribe.

“Hell, Mort – I don’t give a fly­in’ fart where you get ‘em but get you some new shirts. Have some self-respect, for cry­ing out loud.”

Mort looked thought­ful as he chewed on the last bite of his baloney sand­wich and chased it down with a swig of RC Cola.

“I reck­on you’re right, Johnnie,” he said at last. “Maybe I should buy some new shirts. But I ain’t ready to be shed of this one just yet. It’s still got a few good years left in it. I reck­on I’ll hang on to it anoth­er year or two.”

That got anoth­er laugh out of the gang.

“Dang it, Mort! You beat every­thing, you know that?” Johnny’s rud­dy com­plex­ion got five shades red­der as he spoke. “Listen, you uncouth hea­then! I’ll give you ten dol­lars for that shirt, right here and now. You can go buy four new ones, or get two and buy Margie a new pair of Levi’s.”

“Ten dol­lars, huh?” Mort stroked his mus­tache. “Tell ya what, Johnny. Make it twen­ty, and you got your­self a deal.”

Flannel shirt

Somehow, Johnny’s face got even red­der. He looked like he was about to have a stroke. When he spoke again, the pitch of his voice had risen to where he sound­ed like he’d inhaled helium.

“Mort, you sumbitch! You expect me to give you twen­ty dol­lars for that rag you call a shirt? How stu­pid do I look?”

As soon as the words came out of Johnny’s mouth, he knew he’d made a seri­ous tac­ti­cal error. To invite an insult at the nail box was about as bad an offense a man could make at Uncle Zeke’s.

Before Mort could come up with a zinger, Caleb Bryant chimed in.

“Well, I reck­on if Johnny’s stu­pid enough to give him ten, he’s stu­pid enough to give him twenty!”

The place erupt­ed yet again. As the uproar­i­ous laugh­ter died down, Johnny just looked down at his loafers for a long minute. Then he slow­ly rose to his feet, pulled out a roll of cash from his pock­et the size of a soup can, peeled off a crisp Andrew Jackson, and hand­ed it to Mort.

“Give me the damn shirt, Mort.”

Mort didn’t hes­i­tate. He got up and prac­ti­cal­ly tore the shirt off.

“She’s all yours, Johnny,” Mort said tri­umphant­ly. He hand­ed the shirt to Johnny, who slapped the twen­ty-spot in Mort’s out­stretched hand.

“So, Johnny,” Caleb said, “now that we know how stu­pid you are, whatcha gonna do with that old shirt?”

“I’ll show you what I’m gonna do with it, Pee-wee!”

Caleb hat­ed it when folks called him by his child­hood nick­name. He knew Johnny was doing it just to get his dan­der up. He watched as Johnny wadded the up shirt, walked over to the store counter, and uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly tossed the shirt into the trash can next to the counter. Uncle Zeke, read­ing this news­pa­per from behind the counter, peered up at Johnny from above his read­ing glass­es as if to inquire about Johnny’s action.

“That’s where that old rag belongs,” Johnny prac­ti­cal­ly screamed. He smacked his hands togeth­er as if wip­ing off the grime from the shirt, walked back over to the nail box, and took a seat at the far end.

The store got qui­eter than a boot­leg­ger at a revival meet­ing. No one said a word for what seemed like ten min­utes. Finally, Caleb got up from his seat on the nail box and walked over to the trash can.

“This here shirt still has some life in it, I reck­on,” he said as he retrieved it from the bin. He made a motion as if smooth­ing the shirt out with one hand as he held it out with the other.

“Yessir, this here’s a fine item. I reck­on it’s got anoth­er two, maybe three years left in it.”

Johnny jumped to his feet and stomped over to Caleb. He got right up in his face and snarled at him.

“Peewee, I bought that shirt! It’s mine! Now you give it back to me, you hear?”

Caleb turned to Zeke behind the counter.

“Uncle Zeke, you seen what Johnny did, didn’t you? He threw that shirt smack-dab into the trash buck­et. Now when a man throws some­thin’ in the trash, I reck­on he’s shed of it then. It don’t belong to him no more. Am I right?”

“Now, Caleb,” said the peace-lov­ing Zeke, “don’t go puttin’ me in the mid­dle o’ your feud. You boys work this out on your own.”

“Well,” said Caleb, “I ain’t givin’ it back, Johnny. You threw it out, and I picked it up. You got no claim on it no more, dang it!”

Johnny stared into Caleb’s eyes for a good long moment, then backed off. He drew up as tall he could stand and low­ered the pitch of his voice.

“Aw, you’re all igno­rant hicks as far as I’m con­cerned. Not a one of you ever been out of Kentucky. Don’t know how to dress or talk or act around a woman. You’re all noth­ing but a bunch of red­neck hea­thens. I’m done with y’all. Peewee, you can keep your damn shirt. I hope you enjoy it, you fool!”

At that, Johnny turned and start­ed to walk out the door, but he paused when he heard Caleb call out to Mort from across the room.

“Hey, Mort! Looky here what I just found. You mus­ta acci­den­tal­ly throwed this shirt in the garbage can. You want it back?”

Mort got up and walked over to Caleb. He start­ed to take the shirt from his out­stretched hand, then paused.

“Now, Caleb, that don’t sound right. Seein’ as how you found it in the trash, and seein’ as I sold it fair and square to Johnny for twen­ty dol­lars. I’d feel ter­ri­ble about takin’ it from you.”

Standing there with his hand on the door han­dle, Johnny squint­ed at the two men. I thought I heard him say some­thing under his breath like, “what the hell…”

Mort con­tin­ued. “Tell you what, Caleb. I reck­on I’d like to buy that shirt back. Would you take ten dol­lars for it?”

“Well,” said Caleb, “That sounds fair, Mort. You got your­self a deal!”

“Hey, Uncle Zeke,” Mort said, “Would you break this nice crisp twen­ty-dol­lar bill for me? Two tens would be good, if’n you don’t mind.”

As Zeke opened the cash draw­er and made change for Mort, I thought Johnny was going to explode.

Then he did.

Johnny’s voice rose to unprece­dent­ed heights of pitch. He let out a string of cuss words like I’d nev­er heard — and haven’t heard since. I had to sti­fle a laugh at hear­ing what sound­ed like an Oompa Loompa cussing like a sailor.

Then he stormed out the door, slam­ming it so hard, the “Rainbo Bread” sign fell off onto the floor.

Mort gave Caleb ten dol­lars and put his tat­tered flan­nel shirt back on, to a mêlée of laugh­ter and back-slap­ping from the group of men. Some of us kids even joined in the revelry.

“Dang, Mort!” Dale Hatton said, “You and Caleb just made ten bucks each off o’ that old fan­cy-pants for noth­in’ at all! You sure got his goat!”

Then we all ran to the win­dow to see what all the squeal­ing in the park­ing lot was about. I got there just in time to see a blue Cadillac con­vert­ible fish­tail­ing onto Mingo Ridge Road and near­ly take flight as it sped away.

To this day, you can still see the black marks on the high­way from the rub­ber left by Johnny’s tires.

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.