ross d. martin
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The Life and Times of Joe Gordon
(to the best of my recollection)


My father, Joseph Gordon Martin – or just “Joe Gordon” as he was universally known in his youth – had a Tom Sawyer childhood.  His enchanting stories about growing up in the tiny coal mining town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia were a ready source of entertainment at social gatherings for as far back as my memory serves.

His was a colorful childhood, full of mischief and adventure, played out in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  What makes his early years even more vibrant today is the way in which he recounts each tale – as if it were a passage from a classic book rather than a distant memory.  Wonderful names – like Dutchy Morris and Coach Fitchko, and places – like the Kopper Kettle and High Knob Hill, became familiar characters and magical settings in his lushly detailed stories.  And without a doubt, my father knows how to tell a story.

He isn’t the kind of guy who will dominate a conversation or demand attention from others.  Especially as he’s gotten along in years and his hearing isn’t what it used to be, he never tries to take center stage.  But eventually, he’ll hear mention of some memory trigger and jump in with good-natured, almost boyish, enthusiasm – “Say!  That reminds me of the time when…” and begin spinning a yarn that, without fail, has us all howling by the time he’s finished.  Then he’ll go back to playing solitaire or watching TV or just listening to everyone else, the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face fading ever so slowly.

In his stories, my father often plays the country bumpkin, the simple, hillbilly boy – never meaning any harm, but always seeming to get himself into some mix-up that quickly veers toward disaster.  Just when you think he is finally going to get it, a bit of cleverness or dumb luck saves him yet again.

In reality, though, he’s a very smart man and will confound many with his mastery of crosswords, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit.  He still plays the simpleton card on occasion – often for a good-natured joke.  Like when someone who is too big for his polysyllabic britches pontificates, “Life is full of vicissitudes,” my father might counter, “Well, I don’t know about that, but it sure has its ups and downs!” – leaving the listener to do a mental double-take: is this guy really an idiot or did he know that “ups and downs” is the definition of vicissitudes?  That eye twinkle is the only clue he’ll give you that he’s just danced a rope-a-dope around his verbal sparring partner.  Whether at his own expense or his opponent’s, the grins and guffaws of the witnesses are his well-earned reward.

Seems like I’ve heard all of his stories a thousand times, but it never seems to matter.  He somehow manages to make every telling a treat.  It is as though he is hauling the memory out of some old, forgotten locker for the very first time.  He’ll be in the middle of one of his recollections, perhaps introducing a new character. “Now what was that fella’s name?  Now, wait thar…”  He’ll close his eyes and rub his hands up over his forehead. “It mighta been Hanes or Holmes or– Johnny!  Johnny Holmes! Yeah, that’s it!”  A big grin will fill his round face.  Then he'll start into his highly infectious laugh and say, “Ol’ Johnny was quite a character.  One time when I was about twelve and he musta been fourteen…”  Then he’ll start off on some completely different story as if he’s forgotten his place.  But sure enough, he gets back to the original one, made all the better now that we know about ol’ Johnny and that time when he and Dad…

Sometimes I’ll just sit back and forget about trying to hear the words.  Instead, I’ll just listen – listen to the flow of the story as one looking through a camera with the lens out of focus.  His style is one of playful excitement – rolling storylines and thoughtful pauses are interlaced with rich dialogue and punctuated with the laughter of his audience.  I admire greatly his ability to weave a tale at a delicious pace – unhurried but never dragging.

If only we could find a way to preserve these wonderful stories in some fashion.  In 1997, I conjured an idea for a novel that was loosely based upon Dad’s youth.  I started making recordings of his recollections – even traveled down to Big Stone Gap with him for his 50th high school reunion.  Life got the better of my good intentions as marriage, fatherhood and career forced the project onto the shelf.

Then a few of months ago, I received a message from Dad asking me to call him at his office – not at home.  He was cooking up a surprise for his “first wife, Sonia” – as he often introduces her – for their 50th wedding anniversary.  He got a legal secretary he knew in Fairborn – Janet Potts – to transcribe dozens of stories he had written out longhand.  (Thank you, Janet!)  Would I be willing to edit them and maybe help him put them all together in a collection?  You bet!

He said, “Now don’t say anything about this to anybody.  Janet is the only other person who knows about it.  Your momma doesn't like a few of these stories, so I'm keeping it a secret for the time being.  It's a whole lot of paper, so it doesn't make sense to mail them all to you since you all are heading this way in a couple of weeks anyway.”

Then we started into this puzzling conversation about the logistics of me going over to Janet’s office so I could read the stories there.  He was making it sound as though he only had one copy of the manuscript.  I asked him whether Janet used a computer or a typewriter to transcribe them.  He was pretty sure it was a computer.  When I suggested that Janet just email them to me, he was reluctant.  I couldn’t quite figure out why until he finally said he didn’t want her to have to type them all over again in an email.  I said my father is a very smart man; I never said he’s a computer genius.

I finally convinced him that this was a good idea and that Janet wouldn't have to do any extra work.  He gave me one of those “Well I’ll be damned”s of his.  I told him that he was about the last person on the planet who didn't have an email address.  He said, “That's true, but I'm happy and I don't worry.  You should have seen your mother when her computer died and she lost all her stuff.  That never happens to me.”

So maybe my father is a computer genius.

Computer genius or not, Dad sure knows how to tell a story.  I was amazed at how well they read on paper.  Still, there was a decent amount of editing required and I’m indebted to my sister, Missy Martin – now Melissa Hamilton, for helping out with some of the work.  But it was mostly just getting the quote marks in the right places and filling in some blanks.  The essence and pace of the stories were all there and in great form.

I added some final polish to this collection by sorting these random snapshots in a roughly chronological order and grouping them into sections that reflect the major chapters of Dad’s rich and colorful life.  To provide a little context, I’ve added some brief commentary at the beginning of each chapter.  The stories, though, stand on their own and can be read in most any order.

Thank you, Dad, for making this magical thing.  I look forward to the day when your grandson, Taylor, is old enough to enjoy these stories (for a few of them, he will need to be at least 18!).  It is a great and precious gift.

Enough with the introductions and on with the tales, which my father swears are all true – to the best of his recollection…

Ross D. Martin
January 1, 2007

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Ross D. Martin, MD, MHA
Copyright © 2007 Rockin' Doc Media. All rights reserved.
Revised: June 10, 2007.