My people came here from a strange planet, a dark and bloody ground the original warlike inhabitants called Can-tuck-ee.
Kentucky! Land of beautiful horses and fast women, its dark hollers (I was half-grown before I realized the proper pronunciation, “hollows,” which I immediately discarded) sheltering coal miners and distillers, preachers and bootleggers, hard-drinkin’ men and longsufferin’ women. Nobody denies that alcohol has a prominent place in Kentucky lore—and in even more Kentuckians. As one ol’ boy said, “We don’t grow corn around here. We make it.” If Krypton revolved around a great red sun, the planet of my birth sometimes seemed to revolve around a great red nose.
Speaking of Krypton, three out of four of my grandparents didn’t live long enough to tell me what they made of this strange visitor from that other planet that starts with a K. They knew I liked “funnybooks,” as they called them, but that’s all I remember. However, I do recall the reaction of my maternal grandmother, Lyda Conley—“Mam Maw” to me. She alternated between amusement and exasperation, not so much with Superman, but with her grandson. Superman just sort of got caught in the crossfire.
We frequently visited her home deep in Bear Holler. For my sister and me, the primary perk—and peril—of these visits was the well at one end of the concrete porch. It was deep, dark, a source of endless fascination to a six-year-old. We delighted to send the bucket down, down via pulley into the water, and haul it back up. The danger came from our constantly leaning over the edge and peering down into the well. There were chairs on the porch and, of course, a swing. One summer evening, I was sitting on that swing when something awful happened.
No, nobody fell into the well, although we kids would’ve loved to have seen that. Something even worse happened. Wanda Lee, the youngest of Mam Maw’s eight children and, thus, our youngest aunt, sassed her mother. I don’t know how old Wanda was at the time. I’m guessing she was a teen-ager. I don’t remember what she’d said or done. I only remember that, when she did, something awful happened—Mam Maw beat her with my funnybook.
I’d left it someplace on the porch, out of my reach but, unfortunately, quite within hers. If I recall correctly, it was a Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. Not sure which one, but I think it was the one where Jimmy stupidly drank what he thought was pop and turned fat over night. And here was my grandmother, no small person herself, whacking her teen-aged daughter’s bare legs with my rolled-up property! I’d never heard of Mint, Fine, or Good condition. It would be another decade before Mylar plastic was invented. But, even in this dark age on a benighted planet named Kentucky, I knew this was no way to treat a comic book! Better Daddy used the belt on me than Mam Maw use my cub reporter for corporal punishment!
As Mark Twain would say, let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene, leaving two young’uns a’squallin’ on Mam Maw’s porch.
Skipping ahead a few years, Mother had to go into the hospital. It was probably only for a week or two, but then it seemed like she was gone for a month. That’s because, in her absence, Mam Maw Lydie stayed with us kids. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. The upside was that Mam Maw was a Pepsi addict who drank the stuff at all hours. She couldn’t bear to drink it, though, in front of Patty and me without offering us a taste. With Daddy at work and Mother out of commission, we got to taste it a lot! Naturally, this had an effect on our young bodies; you might even say we gained superpowers. Before Mother got home, removed the caffeine and restored sanity, Patty and I were vibrating faster than the eye could see. We couldn’t pass through walls like the Flash, but, like Spider-Man, we sure climbed them!
The downside to Mam Maw’s visit was her fear of thunderstorms. It was hot in southernmost Ohio, as it usually is in the summer, and the air was thick with electricity. Thunder rumbled out of the oppressive haze every afternoon, usually late afternoon—just about the time I was flicking on the TV to watch Superman. While visions of super deeds danced in my head, Mam Maw’s imagination was alight with electrical fire. She was sure lightning would strike the antenna, go ripping through the TV, and destroy us all.
Every day, then, around 5 p.m., the tug-of-war began:
Thunder in the distance.
“Gary, turn that thing off and unplug it.”
Gary, cross legged on the floor, looks deeper into the screen.
“I said, turn off the television and unplug it.”
“Huh? What, Mam Maw?”
“There’s a storm a’comin’. You turn off that television now and unplug it.”
“Aw, Mam Maw, nothin’s gonna happen!”
“You heard me.”
“Soon’s I see lightnin’!”
“I’ll tell your daddy. He’ll whip you.”
Gary buries himself deeper into this particularly powerful Adventures of Superman episode, studying its social and political ramifications.
I don’t know how I managed to get away with this, day after day, especially when it did storm one afternoon—thunder, lightning, buckets of rain—right in the middle of Part Two of “The Unknown People.” You can bet my grandmother did some rumbling and flashing of her own. But none of these things moved me. I watched every bit of that episode. The big eye before me never blinked and neither did I. Mam Maw, long since defeated, had retired from the field.
Several years later, she moved from Bear Holler to Chesapeake, OH. First, she took an upstairs apartment. Later, as the stairs began to take their asthmatic toll, she moved into a ground level apartment. I spent a lot of time with her in those days, enjoying her cooking (she’d never gotten the knack of preparing meals for less than eight), savoring the comfortable silences between us as she watched her afternoon “stories” and I read the comics I’d only just bought off the rack at Edwards Cut-Rate down the street. I read the marvelously goofy Action Comics #388 in the upstairs apartment (the one with Supergirl on the cover throwing spaghetti at the newlywed Superman and Lois and Bizarro hollering, “Hooray for Superman! I like him!”), also a brand new book by Don Thompson and Richard Lupoff, All In Color For A Dime.
Of course, as the saying goes, don’t get old; you’ll live to regret it. I watched as life slowly squeezed the fun out of Mam Maw. I watched as she grew whiny and self-pitying. I didn’t understand at the time. I think I do now. Fear, the greatest of super-villains, accompanied by his sidekick, Loneliness, had discovered her weakness and turned it against her. I visited her but a few times in college. They weren’t long visits. She died in April, 1974.
I hadn’t thought about the Thunderstorm in over 40 years, the epic battle between Kal-El of Krypton and Ly-die of Kentucky. I’m sorry now that I allowed it to happen. I’m sorry I disrespected her so. I’m even sorry she didn’t roll up one of my funnybooks and beat me with it.
Of course, she couldn’t do that. I was her beloved grandchild. She couldn’t deny me my favorite hero any more than she could deny herself her favorite beverage. But I think there was another reason she didn’t pound me into the carpet where I sat. My mother’s mother had never completely forgotten her own childhood.
Look, here’s a picture of her with her false teeth jutting out, chasing Patty and me like that alien did Sigourney Weaver.
And here’s Lydie out in our yard smacking a softball with us, trotting the bases.
This is her happily surrounded by her children and grandchildren at one of the birthday parties they used to throw for her at my Aunt Imogene’s place.
And here’s a recording of her voice on a fall afternoon, circa 1967: “I like Superman better than Batman.”
Now how could you not love and respect a woman of such good sense?
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