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They were poor, but never knew it

Dec. 02, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

James Lewis never lived near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. And as pretty as the view was from the hilltop near his old family home place, he admits it was never as breathtaking as the television view appeared to be from the top of Walton's Mountain. But Lewis says there is nothing he would trade for the memories he has of growing up in Lincoln County on 87 acres of farmland.

Born May 2, 1931, Lewis was the fourth child in a family of six brothers and five sisters. Raised along W.Va. 10 between Ranger and Midkiff, he said the closest thing to any resemblance of civilization was the old service station and post office located six miles up the highway.

"I believe it's true," said Lewis. "Families with large numbers of children seem to be closer than those families with one or two kids. We sort of lived like 'The Waltons,' sharing the responsibility of farming chores, helping each other, wearing hand-me-downs and the joy of just looking back at a life that really wanted for nothing. We even crowded around the radio listening to the Grand Ol' Opry much like they did on 'The Waltons' TV series. We didn't have a country store like the Waltons, but we dressed like those kids. I believe I was 6-years-old before I had a new pair of bib coveralls."

Not only did the Lewis brothers share the responsibilities of farm life, they also shared the $20 they earned each month at school. The boys had taken on the responsibility of keeping the one-room schoolhouse clean. They washed the blackboard, kept the floor swept, emptied trash, cut the summer grass and had the old potbelly stove going before the bell in winter. Come payday at the end of each month, the brothers felt like millionaires after splitting $20 among them.

"Our parents never spent much on toys," said Lewis. "Our father was quite handy at making wood guns, sailing boats, dart games and even a few board games like checkers. Even today, I enjoy making different types of birdhouses and giving them away."

Getting to Guyan Valley High School was not nearly as simple for the Lewis kids as getting to grade school. On good days, the kids took the shortcut, rowing across the Guyan Valley river. When the water was too swift, they walked the few extra miles along the railway track to Midkiff where they caught the bus.

"I wanted to play football in high school," said Lewis. "Even after I broke my arm during practice, I wanted to continue after it healed. Practice made getting home from school too late, so I just gave it up."

Lewis said bartering was a way of life in his family. Money was so scarce, it was just something to be used as a last resort when an item couldn't be traded for.

"We often traded some of our honey crop for groceries," said Lewis. "Mom would even take chickens to the grocery store and exchange them for other food items. When a neighbor had something of value for sale that we needed, Dad would always come up with a trade."

Much like the Waltons, the military draft finally found a way to disrupt life for the Lewis family. One by one, the brothers went to serve their country. All but one of the Lewis boys went into the Navy or the Army. Even though their father had recently passed away, the boys were not spared their service obligation. James was drafted almost three years after his father's death.

After his enlistment oath in the big city of nearby Hamlin in March of 1953, Lewis was off to Camp Pickett, near Blackstone, Va. There was the usual introduction into Army life. There was also additional training on medical procedures of treating causalities in the field of combat.

After a few weeks of medical training at Company A Medical Battalion at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Lewis was assigned to Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., for helicopter mechanic school on the Bell H-13 helicopter. This aircraft was made popular by the TV series "M.A.S.H."

Brooks Air Force Base became the final stop for Sgt. Lewis. Assigned to the 57th Medical Helicopter Ambulance Company, Lewis would finish out his military obligation while training air crew members on the repair and upkeep on the H-13 helicopter.

"We were a small Army group assigned to an Air Force Base." said Lewis. "We only numbered 24 men, of which seven were pilots. There was one supply sergeant, a radio repairman and 15 mechanics to maintain five helicopters. We only lost one aircraft during my tour, and that was due to pilot error. Lucky for the crew -- no one was killed."

Lewis returned to his Lincoln County birthplace in 1955 and recovered his old job with the railway -- a job that lasted for 33 years. He married a girl who may have crossed the Guyan Valley River with him on the way to school; he isn't sure. They stayed together for 33 years until cancer claimed her life.

The old farmplace was eventually sold and divided among the children. The homestead no longer resembles those days when the family gathered around the old RCA Victor battery-powered radio. He remembers how happy his mother was the day natural gas line came to the farm. It wasn't too long after that he bought her a new gas-powered Servel Electrolux refrigerator.

"Mom lived to be 91," said Lewis. "She worked her whole life. Never remember hearing her complain about anything. I guess in a lot of ways, we lived at the foot of our own Waltons' Mountain. We were a self-sufficient family who really never wanted for nothing. I've a lifetime of memories growing up in that old house. We were poor, but we never knew it."

Clyde Beal is a freelance writer looking for those willing to share their wishes for 2013, your new year resolutions, and your ideas to make our world a better place. Write him at archie350@frontier.com.