LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
It’s a sad time on Blair Branch, this week. It’s also a sad time, at least for me, here in Paint Lick.
I’ve just received word that my childhood school buddy and playmate, Truman Caudill, passed over to the other side last Friday.
Those of you who have kept up with this column over the last three decades may recall that I have mentioned Truman on several occasions, mostly having to do with getting into trouble with my elders by being hood-winked into breaking one rule or another or by doing something so patently ridiculous that it should have be against the rules.
Truman, in his youth, was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn rolled into a single piece of pie.
He was three years older than me. I was in second grade and Truman was in fourth when his parents, George and Lydia (“Lidy”) Caudill, bought the old Joe Adams homestead and moved from Richmond, Ind., back to the very head of Blair Branch and the roots of their raising.
My mom and Lidy had been childhood friends and they behaved like sisters. Dad and George became fast friends, almost overnight. Truman, however, was an only child and it showed. He had the only bicycle on the holler. He had an ultra-sleek, 6 feet-long, Western Flyer bobsled with steel runners and a steering apparatus. The rest of us had wooden sleds made from scrap lumber we’d scavenged here and there.
He had a vast collection of comic books which included the entire set of Classics Illustrated and the very latest issues of GI Joe, The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, Superman etc. But the thing about Truman was that he’d loan just about anybody anything he had. And for a period of some five years, he was literally my big brother. From second grade through sixth, we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes. He had an old guitar and I never ever tired of hearing him play “Wildwood Flower,” mostly because that’s the only tune he knew back then.
It was over a mile and a half from Truman’s house to Blair Branch Grade School, downhill all the way, and unless there was a deep snow on the ground, Truman rode his bike to school. It had a big basket between the handle bars for his books and lunch box even though I doubt that Truman ever took a book home from school in his life.
Truman was the polar opposite of “academically motivated” but a genius in his own right. The only thing he had to use a pedal for to get to school was to apply the brake and kids would draw straws to see who got to push his bicycle back up the holler. The best bobsled run on Blair Branch was from Truman’s house to just below John Adams, a distance of some 400 yards. Truman would ride his brought-on sleigh down the mountain and three of us would pull it and him back to the top so that we could have a turn.
Carlos and France Adams and I would take turns chopping Lidy’s kindling with Truman’s hatchet and we’d pack in his coal for a chance to shoot his BB guns. And we loved him for it.
My birthday is January 5 and Truman’s was January 8. For several years, Mom and Lidy would host a birthday party for the two of us. Kid’s on Blair Branch, in those days, were not expected to give birthday presents to one another. We’d just get together for cake and sometimes ice cream if the mines were working.
The summer after my sixth year of school, Truman and his Mom moved back to Indiana. George had already given up homesteading and gone back to the factory. He was home for holidays, vacations and frequent week-ends, but living mostly alone in the head of Blair Branch with an adolescent son was more than Lidy could handle. Their moving broke both my mother’s heart and mine.
In the mid 60s, George retired. He and Lidy built a new home and moved back to Blair Branch. In the meantime, Truman had become an 18-wheeler Jockey, running coast to coast out of central Indiana.
He went through a couple of marriages that didn’t work but produced a couple of boys, Georgie and Jimmie, that George and Lidy raised in their retirement.
Truman finally returned to Blair Branch to stay in the late 70s. The wives were gone and the boys pretty much grown. Somewhere along the way he had learned every truck-driving song known to man and he had become a very talented musician. His unique guitar style will always be known as the “Truman Lick.” His mastery of the 5-string banjo was sort of a cross between Ralph Stanley and Grandpa Jones.
He married my classmate from first through twelfth grade, Margie Blair, and she often accompanied him in that big rig as they rode across the country. He became fast friends again with all three of my younger brothers and anytime that I went home, we’d find time to play music until my fingers bled.
We started calling each other about 20 years ago late in the evening on Christmas Day. Sometimes those calls would last three or four hours, but over the last few years they became shorter and shorter. Neither one of us had done much to brag about and we’d pretty much worn the old tales out.
Last Christmas, when the phone rang about 8 p.m., Loretta winked at me and said, “That’ll be Truman,” and, of course, it was.
The call lasted maybe 30 minutes. I didn’t tell Loretta and Truman didn’t tell Margie, but he and I both knew that call would be our last one.