V.C. and his puppy, Benji, relax at their home in Wise County recently. Photo by Stephen Igo.
WISE — A granddaughter, a home health assistant, a concerned neighbor or two, four friendly dogs and an adorable puppy provide some lively company for 78-year-old V.C., all a godsend considering how lonesome things could otherwise be at his humble abode in a remote but ruggedly lovely corner of Wise County.
Pretty much confined to a wheelchair these days, there was a time when V.C. journeyed across the country in pursuit of work as a machinist, from Cleveland to Dallas to Los Angeles and more than a few other points in between.
Born in Fleming, Ky., V.C. started to work at age 14 and didn’t stop until 1987, but even then it took a full six years after he “shattered” a leg in 1981 to even consider thinking about surrendering to that thing called retirement.
At 14, V.C. crossed the mountain into Virginia to work in “dog hole” coal mines starting with “doing what they called dummies to shoot coal out with, at a whole penny apiece,” eventually working his way up to laboring on kneepads using a chest auger to drill holes in a coal seam and using a No. 4 shovel to load coal cars that ponies pulled out of the mine.
About 10 years of that convinced V.C. there had to be a better way to make a living, and so he struck out as a machinist, fathered seven kids by two wives (six with one, one with the other) and all but two of them are “scattered all over” as far away as Alaska these days.
His two kids who do live in Wise County check on him regularly, “just to see if I’m still alive,” he said with a joyous laugh. If there’s another thing to know about V.C., he’s about as jovial, chatty, witty, open and friendly a character as one can find next to a roaring wood and coal fired stove.
Everybody thinks they know all there is to know all their working lives, he said, but it’s in retirement, reluctantly and increasingly dependent on others, that one can reflect.
“I’m just realizing what life is all about. And it’s a mixture,” he said.
“Now, you can sit and brood about things you can’t do nothing about, and it’s no use at all doing that. Now I’m shot down and drag out, and maybe for some it won’t hit until your 90s. The Lord gives us the days we live. I’ve been close to death many a time, but I’ve driven everything from a bicycle to a tandem semi-trailer, been all over and worked all my days I could, seen good times and not so good, but it’s all good when you still draw a breath and see another sunrise.
“When they say ‘retirement,’ what that means is a fixed income and that’s just what it is. I know one thing, if they hadn’t had (Social Security) we’d all be dead. That’s been one program that’s kept people going for many years after they couldn’t keep going themselves. It takes quite a bit these days to get by, especially out where I live where we do.”
His dutiful home health assistant does much of the housework and cooking, he said, “and before I did everything for myself.”
Nowadays he’s mighty thankful for Mountain Empire Older Citizens, Inc.’s public transportation that enables himself and his two-woman entourage to get around for groceries and other necessaries, not to mention a fresh load of coal for the stove, and the Junction Center for Independent Living that “set me up on hearing aids” and a wheelchair ramp, and a pair of eyeglasses from the annual Remote Area Medical Health Expedition held at the county fairgrounds every summer.
There’s his “double first cousin, I guess you could just call him a good neighbor” checking in regularly to see to other needs like hauling off the trash or other necessaries.
“They have all been real good about helping people here,” said V.C.
“I never thought I’d get in such shape and not able to take care of myself like I used to. And them dogs. I love ’em. I got four runnin’ around outside and this (pup) here, he’s becoming part of the family. I didn’t want to go to no rest home, I want to live in my own home. I never had to depend on no one, never.
“I always had my own job, my own work, my own ways of taking care of myself and my family. But it was gettin’ so I couldn’t help myself anymore. Why, if you don’t put in nothin’ else, you just tell ’em I appreciate everybody. I surely do. I’ve had a lot of help from my neighbors. I sure have.”
V.C.’s home doesn’t have a lot of elbow room, so the quarters are cozy, but it’s all his and where he is determined to stay to the last of his days surrounded by his dogs and all others who love and care for him.
“I’ve been all over, working,” he said. “But this is home. It’s a hard livin’ but it’s home. I always wound up back here, even when I left.”
V.C. is just one of many individuals and/or families in Wise County and the Kingsport Times-News readership area who can be blessed with a food voucher this holiday season.
Last year generous readers provided around $60,000 for food vouchers distributed to needy individuals and/or families across the six-county area. Vouchers will range from $20 to $55 this year, depending on the size of the family. Tax deductible donations can be made to the Times-News Rescue Fund at P.O. Box 479, Kingsport, TN 37662.