Eye-Opening Perspectives for Heroic Hearts

Eye-Opening Perspectives for Heroic Hearts

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hanging An Elephant Leads to Unique Marriage

East Tennessee Family Man
Reflects on American Culture

by Winsip Custer CPW News Service
Our trip to the Matewan, West Virginia near the fork of the Tug River would lead me out of the Hatfield and McCoy battlefield to East Tennessee near Erwin.  It was there that I found Jeremiah Ezekiel McCoy who had married a Hatfield descendant, Betsy Jean Hatfield McCoy.  I came here to see if they could remember what caused their historic family feud and just how they came together in marriage.

"The McCoys were on the south side of the Tug River.  The Hatfields were on the north.  The Hatfields were wealthier than their neighbors across the river and I suspect there was some jealousy involved.  Then the Civil War broke out and it seemed to legitimize their growing hatred and so the killing intensified," said Jeremiah from the porch of his small, but neatly maintained log cabin with green metal roof just outside of Erwin, Tennessee.

"Betsy Jean and I met at a community hall south of Big Oak Mountain on a Friday night.  She was the best dang clogger you ever saw and her legs moved so fast she could'a churned butter," said Jeremiah reflecting on their beginning together.  "After that we knew if we were going to be dance partners for life we better know something about what made our two families such bitter enemies.  Well, we discovered that it all had to do with greed.  The family patriarchs, like the kings and queens of England were nothin' but gall durn fight promoters.  They'd grab the lesser ones in the family, and believe you me they were all lesser ones, by the nap of the neck, shake 'em up and push'em into the ring and say 'go get 'em tiger or you can kiss your grits and chitlin's goodbye.  Go kill 'ya something and drag it home and make sure whatever you kill belongs to a Hatfield.....or to a Mccoy if you were a Hatfield.....it's the mountain man's way.  The Hatfields and McCoys started out friends, some of them anyway, and they even worked together, but you can't live in a battle zone encouraged by the elders and expect it to be sane and civil.  You eat with the devil and you better have a real long spoon.  It was like we's fighting over scarce resources.  All that was compounded by periods of shortages of corn or catfish or moonshine," said Jeremiah "and the grace and civility got thinner with the eggin' on," he said.

He explained that while both familes were Southerners, those on the North side of the river were Lincoln Republicans and those on the South side were Democrats....Jacksonian Democrats with a Jeffersonian love of the land. 

"We lived off the land and knew that we had to keep up the family farm or else we'd starve.  Everything had to be renewable.  You kill the last two goats and chickens and you'd kill yourself.  The Hatfields in sidin' with the North and the Republicans sided with the Northern industrialists who had us Southerners at a huge disadvantage.  So long as they had coal and iron and sulphur and lead they'd kick our butts, but they didn't worry too much about sustainability.  Industry seemed to have no shortage of resources, but that's a misnomer as we all now know.  Slavery was rare among us mountain folk.  Mostly did the work ourselves," said Jeremiah as he looked to Betsy Jean as if to pass the conversation over to her.

"I was in the library reading about the poor elephant," said Betsy.  :"And once I read about that sad story I knew I'd marry Jeremiah and we'd make our marriage a living testimony to the power of love over the power of hate," she said.

"The Elephant?" I asked.

"There was this elephant in the circus.  It had a temper....and who wouldn't being chained up all the time and having people pokin' at 'ya and kids throwing rocks at you.  Well, anyway, the elephant broke loose one day and went on a rampage and killed a trainer so they sold her to another circus and while it took a while, she did the same thing again.  This was in East Tennessee where the Republican party was strong and they supported Lincoln and the Union during the war.   So anyway, some damned fight promoter saw an opportunity to make some money and so he bought the rebellious elephant and went to a town on the county line between the Republican part of Tennessee and the Democratic part and sold tickets to see the poor elephant executed.  First they tried to electrocute her.  Shot fifty thousand volts through her, but she didn't die, but it was quite a show and so they kept the execution thing going. They sold more tickets and this time it was to the elephant hanging down at the rail yard.  Hung the poor elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, from a crane mounted on a rail car.  It took a long time but the poor elephant finally died," said Betty Jean.  "Democrats came cause they hated the Republicans and the Republicans came to witness the shame of it all and just like in the Civil War the poor elephant was really the side show and still remained in her agony and torment 'til she died and they were all too stupid to see that they were just killing themselves in the killing of the poor old elephant," she said with tears in her eyes as Jeremiah reached over and patted her hand.

Actual photo taken on September 13, 1916
 Mary the Elephant
was hanged from a crane on a
rail car in Erwin, Tennessee

"We know how brutal people can be when they don't think about what they' re doing and our marriage is a way of asking people to stop and think about what they're doing.  The old Hatfield and McCoy patriarchs used to shake up the little ones by telling them to buck it up and go out and kill something and drag it home.  You gotta think long and hard about killin' else you end up killing the very ones you love and need and the only thing you're draggin' home is pain and sorrow," said Jeremiah.

A sunburst Martin twelve string guitar sat in the rocking chair at the other end of the front porch.  "You're a musician?" I asked

"Everyone in East Tennessee is a musician," said Jeremiah.  "Would you play something for me?" I asked.

"Sure I would," he said smiling as he walked down the porch, retrieved the guitar and returned.

"When the New Englanders were sending their boys, mostly poor Irish from Boston to fight our Southern boys in places like Shiloh and Gettysburg, they were reading Thoreau's book on self-reliance.  Thoreau lived at Walden Pond when he wrote that book that helped the readers to buck it up and walk with a prance in their step right into the canon fire.  I always believed that pride cometh before a fall and I remember reading that when Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond he first had to borrow a hammer from his nearest neighbor.  Betty and I never forgot that about Thoreau's borrowed hammer and how he was so gall danged bent on self-reliance.   And we never forgot that poor elephant either," said Jeremiah.  'And here's a song I wrote called "Living On Borrowed Time," he said while tuning his guitar.  Afterward I wrote down the words with his permission to print them here:

Livin' On Borrowed Time 
by Jeremiah Ezekiel McCoy

I don't owe nobody nothin' and I cut up my last credit card.
I don't owe nobody nothin' and I can't say it ain't been real hard.
I don't owe nobody nothin' and I don't owe nobody a dime.
I don't owe nobody nothin' but I'm still livin' on borrowed time.

I lost it all back in '92 but won it all back to just to impress you.
I did it all again back in '99 but threw it all away cause I was feelin' fine.

I rolled a lucky seven on the Vegas strip and hit it big again on my second trip.
Paid old Uncle Sam his required dues then threw away the rest just to impress you.

I built a little fortune in the Baghdad sun just to lose it all again when the job was done.
I turned around that winter found my legs again just to throw it all at whiskey and some bathtub gin.

But I know I owe my teacher back in Middle School.  Mrs. French, she tried to teach me 'bout the Golden Rule.  And  I know I owe my coach for teachin' 'bout the pain, sometime you 
grin and bear it just to play the game.

And I know I owe you baby for the way you stood
Right beside me in the fire when they said 'he's no good'
You said it says 'a lender nor a borrower be'
So we sucked it up to pay to cut them shackles free.

And now we don't owe nobody nothin'
We don't owe nobody a dime.
We don't own nobody nothin',
But we're still livin' on borrowed time.
(used by permission)

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