I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~
A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky

The Transcript
Part III

Charles Hardy III & Alessandro Portelli

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Portelli: In Chester's talk there really is this strange contrast between this very sweet man, who's become sweet, and all this obsession with violence —well, obsession's a strong—all this fascination with violence. And then, of course, the stories they tell about being in Chicago.

Chester Napier: I mean I was as green as a gourd. I mean I had been to Cincinnati for a little while at a time. But I was green as a gourd about a city as big as Chicago. I mean I was used to here you didn't take nothing off of nobody. Anybody called you something, especially a son of a bitch, you would kill for it.

Well I always got along good with the Italians, Mexicans, Germans, and everything except for the colored. I mean I even got along with the . . . Well, I did have one tuffle with a Puerto Rican. I took my knife, what we call a hawk bill and cut his belly open. That was over, over a girl I guess. There were two sisters. They were from Tennessee, and I was seeing one of them, and he was seeing the other, and she had, you know, I guess they'd broken up. She'd throwed him out. I was going up to see my girlfriend, and he might have thought I was going to see his girlfriend. So he comes at me with his knife, and I bring my arm up, and he cut me across the arm. And by that time, I had my hawk bill out and I cut him in his guts. They were pouring out of him. I walked on upstairs to my girlfriend. I did have enough decency about me to call the cops and tell them this guy on the street, somebody cut a guy on the street and he's laying there with his guts all piled out. They came and got him. They took him to hospital. I found out where he was in the hospital. I go see him at the hospital. [Laughs]
Q: He didn't turn you in or anything?
Annie Napier: Oh, no, no. He didn't take any warrants or anything for me. And I told him, I said "Don't come back in the neighborhood no more. I will kill you." That's what I went to the hospital to tell him.

Portelli: . . . this strange contrast between this very sweet man, who's become sweet, and all this obsession with violence—well, obsession's a strong—all this fascination with violence. And then, of course, the stories they tell about being in Chicago. Those are also very powerful. 

Hardy:The one that stands out in my memory is when—he's in Chicago and he goes to visit a woman and there's somebody else there and he knifes the guy and he says—wasn't it something? "There's nothing personal, but if I see it, sorry it must have been—but if I see you again I'm going to kill you." And that to me really drove home that sort of Southern rural—what happens when the Southern rural culture makes its way to the city. And it was just so matter of fact. But inevitable. There was no question about what was going to happen if they met again.
Portelli: You know what that reminded me of? It reminded me of my grandmother, who came from the southern coast of Sicily. And in Sicily they had this code of honor. And my grandmother, I mean, middle class, but never talked about those things. You know, she'd been living in Rome for half a century. And there was a story in the paper about somebody killing someone in Sicily, and she says, "Well, of course. He'd robbed them of his honor and honor is washed in blood." And here was my old, sweet grandmother talking about honor is washed in blood in the fiftees in Terni as a matter of fact, because that's exactly the same thing. It's not personal. 

Chester: And I didn't really start school until I was 14 years old. That's when Dad was making whiskey, him and my cousin and his son-in-law. And I was on the lookout with the shotgun to shoot three warning shots if the revenuers was coming so, the revenuers they come. And I go to my spot where they could hear me fire the shotgun three times. I was just a small kid. Let me see, and I shot my three warning shots, but they were all sitting there asleep! [Laughs] So Chad Haird and Leslie Ball, that was revenuers, and some of the deputies, they walked up on them and they waked them up. Told them, "You're under arrest." [Laughs] But in the meantime I had run and I had shot at the revenuers, trying to kill the revenuers. I was just a kid, but I was using a shotgun. It was an old 1913 shotgun, J. Stevens, name of it. I still have it. And I shot the hard hat off of Leslie Ball's head. But they never did return fire at me. I guess they knew I was just a kid. So they bringed Dad and Daniel Wilson and Kelly Smith. 

SFX: Dogs barking

Q: (left channel) You got caught in the belt line?
Chester: Yeah, I got caught in what we call the head piece of conveyor belt. When I was in the hospital they told me the next morning, they said the way they put me in traction they couldn't get me in the room. They had to take, remove part of the door to get me in the room. They left me out by the nurses' station. And they told me it took three of 'em to hold me in bed. The phone rang the next morning, it took three of 'em to hold me in bed, keep me from gettin' out, goin' to work. I was tryin' to get outta bed and go to work. And like I said, 'bout two weeks later I really started remembring things. Lotta times I couldn't talk about it. Now before that I remember the doctor and my wife standing at the foot of my bed.
Annie: (right channel) [Coughs] I've stayed in the hospital with Chester, but now, he was in Pennington, and basically they done—they done pretty good, considering. They had one aide and one nurse for 20 surgical patients. So basically what they did was just—the nurse, she was constantly busy giving them shots and stuff like that, and whoever was there took care of the patients. But now, that's changed.
Q: What did you do when you were in the hospital with Chester?
Annie: I done everything for him. I bathed him, shaved him, talked to him, kept him out of shock, the whole nine yards, you could say, for—to tell you the truth, I think it was about—he got hurt the seventh of May, and 17 days later, Sherry broke her arm. So the doctor that took care of him wasn't there that night. I had to bring her over here to a doctor. And it was about 21 or 22 days that I wasn't never in bed. I'd come home long enough to take a bath and change clothes and go back.
Annie: And then when Sherry broke her arm, I was over here with her every night. I'd go back and feed him of morning and bath him, and come back over here and take care of Sherry, and then go back and feed him supper. 'Cause see, he was in traction. He couldn't get nothing.
Q: And they didn't have the staff to help him? 

Chester: I remember the doctor tellin' her. He was, uh, from Iran, and I remember him a-tellin' her that they, the doctors had done all they could do, and it'd be just a matter of two or three days 'til it'd be all over, and I'd be gone.

Chester: (left channel) And I went to raise up, hit the doctor and cuss him. But I couldn't raise up and I couldn't talk. [Laughs] I wanted to tell him, well, I'll tell you the words that I wanted to tell him. I wanted to raise up, tell him, you sonofabitch, I'm not ready to die yet, and I'm not goin die. And I guess if I hadn't had that attitude I prob'ly woulda died. And I had two small kids. You know, they just [snaps fingers]. Well, granny, she stayed with me. Day and night. And the kids could come in, sit on my bed or whatever they wanted to. And I had a pitcher o' my two babies there. And I guess really them two kids is what, what I really lived for to get outta there.
Annie: (right channel) They didn't have the help to do it. And down here, they really—you can have a child in there, they prefer a parent to stay with him. But, thank god, Sherry wasn't down there but two nights . . .

Q: How does it feel to be unable to work?
Chester: Well, I still get up in time to go to work every day. I would love to be out there driving one of these coal trucks or doing, you know, in the log woods or doing something. I would love to be doing it. But I may go work one day, and I might be down on my back now for the next two weeks. So I, well, I still, you know, keep busy with the boys. Boy Scouts. I help out. I keep busy with them and football. I still keep busy. Got my grandchildren here, raising them. I hunt and fish with them. I don't just sit down and do nothing now, that's for sure. I can't. I stay active. 

SFX: Rain 

Q: People used to take teeth, ears, pieces of the enemy's body? Did you do that?
Bill Gent: Yeah, I did. There were several incidents where we captured some prisoners and during the interrogation I was present, but I didn't actually on 'at. Anyway they cut him, trimmed him. Cut him.
Q: What do you mean, "trimmed him?"
Bill: Took a knife, cut his balls, pulled them out, stuck him, hit him in the gut, sticked him in there and made him swallow. Cut their ears off. And cut their ribs from the backbone, pulled them right out the meat. And them alive. Torture, you know, heavy, that I've done. But I didn't like it none, though. Still don't. Many a time when I got home I'd have nightmares about it. Mom, she uh, "What's the matter with you?" "I'm just having bad dreams." I'd never tell her, you know. She didn't know what it was there in the service. Or seen something like that. She'd seen the change in me, but things I'd seen, you know, smells and around me.

Omy Gent: [rooster crows] But now the one that first died that I took care of was like a mother to me when my mother died. She was always there when I needed her. They took both of her legs off though.

Bill continues: She'd seen the change in me, but things I'd seen, you know, smells and around me. My own boys, how they look when they get hit, blowed up or whatever and you know. And the enemy, too. Much of it I inflicted on them, you know. Blow them apart.

Omy continues: It was pain to take care of her. But I's glad I was able to do it then. Right after they both died I got till I couldn't walk or get around. So if it wasn't for Billy I don't know what I'd do. Just sit here, I guess.

Bill: And I had to drop out for a while. Mom had a light stroke in her side, she had no use of it. I had to drop out for a couple of three years on count of that, help her, you know, stay with and take care of it. And then when I did go back to school . . . [cross fade]

Omy: So I say if it wasn't for Billy I don't know what I'd do. He cooks for me. [Laughs] Well, I guess it all comes out. And then I worked there in Michigan until one of my sisters got sick. And she wrote me a letter and I come home. Stayed with her till she died and wouldn't. How long was it until Mel got bad? 
Bill: Uh, let me see. Less than a year. 
Omy: The other got down. I kept both of them until they died. 

Bill: After the first few kills, in a way it gets a little easier. It don't get real to loving it. But it gets easier to pull the trigger. Slash one throat or whatever, you know. And you just turn everything off. Stay alive. You know. Do your job to the best of your capability and the way you was trained for it.
Q: Survival.
Bill: Survival.

SFX: Rain 


Becky Ruth Brae: Which one you think now? "Don't Cry for Me"? Now this one I'll probably fade out to. Want us to do "Don't Cry for Me" the one we did for Aunt Liddy? This one was for my aunt that was here today. 'Cause this is one of her sayings. She goes around all the time saying, "Now don't cry for me when I'm gone." She says, "If you have prayers that you want to give to me, give them to me now." This song was hard for me because it was so personal. It is the hardest song that I have ever done to try to perform, that I have ever wrote. 

Becky Ruth Brae:
"Don't Cry for Me" (music)
Don't cry for me when I'm gone
The train is waitin', now it's time to turn it on
Jesus paid for my ticket a long time ago
So don't cry for me when I'm gone. 

I've had friends who have done gone on before
Leavin' me to carry on in this old world
But they'll all be waiting when I reach home
So don't you cry for me when I'm gone 

Don't cry for me when I'm gone.
The train is waitin' now and I must journey on
Jesus paid for my ticket a long time ago
So don't cry for me when I'm gone. 

To the ones that I'll have to leave behind
All I leave for you is this sad rhyme
Just remember how we can meet again
Life's never over, time never ends. 

Don't cry for me when I'm gone
The train is waitin' now and I must journey on
Jesus paid for my ticket a long time ago
So don't cry for me when I'm gone.
Don't cry for me when I'm gone. 

Q: How were you called to preach?
Liddy Surgener: Well, I guess you'd say when I first got saved. Now, a lot of people don't know what saving means, but that's to repent. You know, the Bible said, "Repent, believe, and be baptized." Well, you can say, "I've repented," and, "I believe," but 'til the work takes place in your heart, you can't live right. See, there's a lot of difference in religion and salvation. You can't live right without the spirit. And so one night I was sitting on my porch, and the Lord just moved on me to preach, so I preached. I don't know who listened.
Q: Well, how did you know that the Lord was moving you? What—what were the signs?
Liddy: Well, He just moved on me, and He just—automatically, you know, you just automatically—I just automatically started preaching there, and it's been there ever since.
Q: What is it like to repent?
Liddy: What, you repent? Well, you know, it's kind of hard to explain, but Jesus told Nicodemus, said, "You must be born again." Then Nicodemus said, "How can a man be born when he's old?" He said, "How can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus said, "That is born to the flesh is flesh, and that is born to the spirit is spirit." See, if you don't have the second birth according to the Bible, you'll die the second death. And see, a lot of people maybe never repents, but everybody should repent.
Q: But did you—you know, forgive me for asking, but what did you have to repent of?
Liddy: Everything. Everything that I'd ever done.
Q: What had you done wrong?
Liddy: Well, when you're born as a baby to a certain age, you'll be saved, but then, after you become a certain age and you know right from wrong, then it's left up to you to choose the Lord or reject Him. And I—for me, I wanted to choose Him.
Q: How old were you when you—
Liddy: I was around 20.
Q: Twenty when you were saved?
Liddy: Around 20.
Q: Now, is—does that have to do with testing your grace in different ways?
Liddy: What do you mean by that?
Q: Like—you know, doing things like handling snakes or—
Liddy: Now, you can't do that by yourself. It takes the Lord working with you. Now, you might see people, you know, have them and be careless. There's a careless way people does things and to get in trouble. But if you wait upon the Lord—because you can't do nothing without the Lord working with you—like that.
Q: Did you ever do that?
Liddy: Yeah. The Lord passed through me. Our mother was a strong believer, too, mine and [inaudible] and Becky's and Noey's and Hiram's mother. She was an angel mother. She got bit many times, and it never hurt her a bit more than—not as bad as a little burr scratch would.
Q: Did they call a doctor or anything?
Liddy: No. She wouldn't have went to the doctor for nothing, brother.
Q. Well I heard someone got killed over in Aegis. 

Q: Look, you really made Liddy's face drain the other night when you said you weren't coming to church, you don't like church. Why is it you don't like church?
Annie Napier: Well, I guess that goes back to when they had Mommy's funeral. You know, they had snakes at Mommy's funeral. And I don't know what happened to me that day, but Becky's little boy, Tony, he was about six, seven years old, and he was wild as a haint. But, you know, he was into everything. And I went in. I didn't know they had snakes at church that day. I didn't know that. I went in and sat down behind this row of chairs . . . all of a sudden he dropped down on his knees and went up under this seat, and that's when I seen that snake box. It had a lock in it, but it wasn't locked. It was just hanging in the hasp. And I don't know, from that day I don't know what happened. I remember getting to my feet. The only thing I thought about was Tony, get Tony away from that snake box, 'cause I knew it either had copperheads or rattlers in it, one, which is, both of them, poison. I remember getting to my feet. Beyond that, I don't remember nothing for quite some time. And ever since then, I've hated, even hated the thought of going to church. 

Church service: (Liddy testifying)

Portelli: And then Liddy comes over. And Liddy—well, Becky is Annie's half-sister. Liddy is Annie's sister. And Liddy is the one who talks about snake handling. She's a preacher. And then—I was just thinking about this—and Liddy asks us all to link hands and I'm naturally, just I'm not a believer, and she gives a prayer including me, you know, me, welcome to me. And raises "Amazing Grace." She's the only one who can't sing in the family, but she's a preacher so she gets to [??]. And of course, I join hands and I participate in the prayer and all these things. And I think it was authentic. Because I wasn't communicating necessarily with God but I was communication with them. I mean, I was speaking their language anyway. 

Portelli (at church): And I hope that everybody has their rights and what they deserve in this life . . .  

Hardy: The one other—and I'm surprised you haven't mentioned it, because the one piece of tape that has stayed with me, and that I've mentioned to other people was when you were interviewing, was it Liddy? About snake handling? And you asked her, "Well, what does it mean when somebody dies?" And she attributes that to a lack of faith.
Portelli: Well, we had talked about that before, so that's why it didn't strike me as much this time. But clearly there I was trying to get her to say on this tape things that I had on another interview.
Hardy: I mean, that just makes you stop in your tracks to think that, yes, that—I wish I remembered it better. It deals with that whole issue of relationship to death.

Liddy testifying in Church

Q: Well, I heard somebody was killed over in Agis a couple of—a few years back?
Liddy: Well, you know, a lot of things happens. A lot of things has happened.
Q: How did this happen?
Liddy: They was having a religious service.
Q: Pardon?
Liddy: Having a religious service.
Q: Yes. But, I mean, why do some people die and some people live?
Liddy: Well, you can figure that out for yourself.
Q: Well, if I could I wouldn't be asking.
Liddy: Well, I don't say much about the ones that dies because a lot of them seems to be real good people, you know. 

Liddy (in church): But one thing about it, it always pays off Sister Irma, because I'm glad that the Lord is good. 

Portelli: You know what it tells me? I'm not sure it's a correct interpretation. It's my reaction. It's like jugglers. And maybe it's because of this physical image of handing the snake. And it's like you're—when they have three balls and they have to keep them in the air. It's like you're doing this with your life all the time. At any moment you can fall. It can happen at any moment. And you have to sustain it. And I guess, that's what faith is, in that sense. 

And right now I'm also thinking of Jonathan Edwards, where he says in sermon, "It's only by God's will that the earth doesn't open." There's an active force that has to be active at all times to keep you alive. It's not just inertia. It's not that things go on naturally and then something happens. No. It's the other way around. You're always on the brink. You're always on thin ice. And you have to sustain it. You have to keep it up. I may be making it too neat, but I think— 

There are two stories about Liddy. And she tells it on that tape, but not as well she told it the first time, when the policemen go to her mother's church to arrest her for snake handling. And she says, "Get back. I feel like handling them right now." Is that on that tape? 

Q: Now, this is in the Bible, but like, you know, the police, the state, the government, do they try to stop it?
Liddy: Well—well, sometimes when people gets hurt, sometimes, they kind of go against it, but—
Q: I remember once you told me a story about the police coming into church and your mother was—
Liddy: Oh, yeah. He come to Pineville down there in—well, they called several of the cops in and, you know, just the police that's around Pineville, and took one of the brothers out, and my mother was there, and she went back and laid her hand on that man's shoulder. She said, "Son," said, "You'll remember this night," the one that was leading the preacher out. And so they took the preacher out, and they told him, said, "If you'll say you won't take them back to church," said, "We'll turn you loose."
And he said, "Step back, boys," said, "I feeled it right now." And so they just stepped back, and he got his serpents out and handled them, and it wasn't but just a few minutes 'til he come shouting through the door.
Q: The policeman?
Liddy: The preacher.
Q: The preacher.
Liddy: The preacher come shouting through the door. You talk about a meeting, we had it. Everybody was praying for him, you know, that they wouldn't keep him. Then, so my mother, after the service was over, that cop told the other polices, he said, "Now, don't never ask me to go to another religious church to bring in a preacher," said, "because I will not." Said, "I'll lose my job before I'll ever arrest another police." Said, "When that woman come shouting and laid her hand on my back and told me, "Son, you'll remember," said, "there's something went all over me." Said it like to scared him to death. I'll tell you, God's got a way, Sandro. 

Sound bridge: "Don't Cry for Me"

Liddy: A lot of them seem to be real good people you know. They's two or three things I could tell you, and one of 'em, maybe they don't wait on the anointing. See, I believe there's a real anointing. A real anointing to do that. And if you wait on that, there ain't nothing can harm you. When that anointing gets on you, lions can't eat it, fire can't burn it, water couldn't drown it, the serpent bite won't even take no effect. But if you just get up there and you try to handle one just because the Bible says to, you may get in trouble. 

Now, some people handles them by faith. I'm sure of that. Some waits on the anointing, and maybe some just goes ahead, you know, picks one up, and maybe it gets 'em, you know. I've seen them shake them down, you know, and I've seen them, try to keep them away from their face and keep them away from their body because they be just wild, and if they're wild, they're dangerous, and I don't care—
Q: How do people get the snakes to bring to church?
Liddy: Well, people gets them out of the mountains and brings them in.
Q: Do they sell them to the—
Liddy: Well, no. Now, most of the time people gives 'em and brings 'em in.

Song:"Don't Cry for Me"

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I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History