I arrived in Eastern Kentucky in 1968, perhaps expecting to stay a year or two and then move on to greener and better pastures. I’m still here, so I must have liked something. I’ve learned to love the hills and the streams (though we haven’t always taken the best of care of either), the changing of the seasons, the trees and wild flowers, the regional traditions and the stories which go along with them, and the local family histories, all of which still are here. I never again want to live in a place where redbud trees don’t bloom in profusion in the spring, and where native white dogwood doesn’t dominate some of the hillsides.
I like Eastern Kentucky because, let’s face it; it’s not like every other place in America. For me, there may be no greener or better pastures than those I’ve found in Eastern Kentucky.
I heard expressions when I came here that I’d never heard before, wonderful expressions combined with regional pronunciations. A woman bragged to me, the college professor, that her daughter was “making a doctor” at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I looked around to see if anybody was listening, although I was reasonably sure that some of that was going on in my hometown Louisville, too, but we didn’t brag about it to complete strangers! I later learned that “making” meant becoming, or studying to become.
A young man and his full-voiced friends came into a restaurant in Ashland, sat down near where I was eating and said, “You sprang your lag?” (“Sprained your leg?”). “No,” his friend replied, “a sprang, like in the garage door!” A student of mine informed me that he had “some tire on his car’s tar.” Only later was I to realize that what he had was tar on his car’s tire, a switch that some wordsmiths call “vowel reversal.” I also learned that “ranch” and “French” are often pronounced the very same way (“ranch” and “franch”), so you had to be a little careful when ordering salad dressing in a local restaurant.
“I wouldn’t care to,” replied a woman in response to a request I’d made. Where I came from, “wouldn’t care to” meant you didn’t want to, but here it meant, “I’ll be glad to do it. You just ask.”
I was also to learn that there were certain things that had “heads,” such as the “head” of the hollow, and I found that the “head” of the creek was where the creek “commences.” I didn’t know that. And, I found that we don’t pass around praise or compliments freely: “pretty good” is about as good as it gets! Now, where I came from, pretty good meant pretty bad, but not in Eastern Kentucky. Pretty good meant very good indeed! But! But! There’s always an addendum, an additional ending, to remarks like “pretty good.” I call it “the Eastern Kentucky addendum.”
Consequently, I learned not to say “thank you” too soon. “You’re not a bad (the equivalent of “pretty good”) looking man,” said a lovely coed to me in a hall at Ashland Community College. I said, “Thank you.” I spoke too soon! She said, “For an old guy!” “You were pretty good; no, you were really good,” said a man after I had spoken to his service club in downtown Ashland. I said, “Thank you.” Again, I spoke too soon. “In fact,” he said, “you were a lot better than you were the first time you spoke to us,” his idea of a compliment!
After I had spoken for about forty-five minutes at the First Baptist Church, an elderly man rose up and said, “Professor Tucker that was the best four hours I’ve ever spent!” I think he was joking!
A fellow whom I had never seen before came into a restaurant where I was having lunch and said, “You’re Ernie Tucker, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes!” He said, “I understand that McAdoo Williamson and you know everything.” I said,
“Thank you!” He continued, “You and McAdoo, I’ve heard, know a hundred percent of whatever there is to know.” Again I said, “Thank you!” He said, “I understand McAdoo knows 98 percent of it!” My friend McAdoo, who was named for Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Interior, died in 2003, and did seem to know almost everything.
I love stories and I’m a pretty good listener, too. If a story has a genuine ring to it, I try to jot it down. I’ve always loved to talk to people who are older than I, though for some reason, there seem to be fewer of these people these days, and if they came off the farm or from a small town or had worked in the mines, I wanted to talk to them. Their stories are wonderful, often loaded with humor.
Kentuckians are storytellers, almost all of us, from Pike County on the Virginia border to the Jackson Purchase in the west. We tell stories, and we expect you to like them. If you don’t like stories, or if you come from a place where story telling is not a tradition, my advice is that you pretend to like them, because if you give any indication you don’t like our stories, if you turn away, for example, or you attempt to change the subject, or if your eyes go to the top of your forehead, we will never, ever, speak to you again.