Raymond Browning, Disabled; Barboursville, West Virginia:
“I’ve been disabled [since] 2009-2010. I do a little woodworking, mow a little grass, do a lot of weed-eatin’ this time of year. In the winter, I stay in my woodworking shop a lot. Mary Ann [wife] works and I don’t; so I cook, that’s about it. I’m a househusband maybe, I guess. I’ve got the grandkids a lot.
[I was born in] Logan, West Virginia. We left there when I was two years old. I don’t remember it. We moved to Wayne County down out back of Cabwaylingo Park, across this mountain called Sweetwater Mountain on a little creek called McComas Creek. My dad built a log house and I basically grew up there.
We lived in [that] old log house he built with mud stuck in the cracks, [and] clay that we dug out of the bank. Him and mom had a bedroom, and there was three of us boys; we had a bedroom and two girls had a bedroom. [There was a] big ‘ole pot bellied stove in the living room for heat. [We burned coal and wood] Back then, everybody had a coal mine. We lived on top of a mountain and dad would go off the hill and help an old guy dig the coal out of a creek bank; enough for us, too.
I was twelve years old before I knew my middle name wasn't ‘stovewood,’ because mom would always say, ‘Raymond, stove wood.’ We cooked with wood, too.
One of the best games I remember, and the most fun we ever had, was we used to take an old bicycle rim without a tire on it and take a stick and put it underneath it and push it and run along behind it. I remember us kids would do that for days.
We had a thing we called, ‘jumpboard.’ We’d take a big ‘ole board and lay it across a log, and one kid would get on one end and the other one would take off runnin’ and jump on the other end and you would start jumping each other in the air until somebody fell. We didn’t break many bones.
I never knew neither one of my grandfathers, but I knew both my grandmothers. One we called Nanny, and the other one we call Granny. They were both little, bitty women and cooked all the time. Browning, my dad’s mom, she was always, ‘don’t let the kids touch nothing. Don’t do that.’ [She] had a real neat house and you couldn't do nothing.
My mom was a Ketchersid, spelled just like it sounds. Her mom, we called her Nanny, and she was just the opposite. When the kids come it was just, ‘Go ahead do what you want. I’ll clean up when you leave’ type thing.
My whole family is little bitty people. Both my grandmas was probably under five foot. My nanny, she died when I was about seventeen and my grandma Browning, she died when I was about ten.
[Dad] and my mom broke up when I was ‘bout eight or nine. He had his right arm cut off in a sawmill when I was two years old. He worked in a sawmill and lost his job when he had his arm cut off and they didn’t have worker’s comp back then. That was in ‘58 [or] ‘59. He had his right arm cut off at his elbow. He had a hook that he wore on his arm, ran a chain saw and we hauled logs with horses.
I joined the Army while I was still in high school ‘cause they wasn’t no work back in ‘74 [or] ‘75. I joined the Army and went to El Paso, Texas. I wanted to go to Australia, but they didn’t have no base over there.
Growing up, I read a lot of Zane Grey books and I always loved westerns. I thought, ‘Boy, that’d be cool.’ I had my choice of stations, and when Australia wasn’t available I picked El Paso. I was a pole climber. I strung two-wire telephone line. That was my job, climbing poles. I enlisted for three, did my three, and was happy to get out.
While I was in the Army I met a girl. We never was married, but I lived with her six or eight years, and she was a black girl. I had one kid before I got out of the Army, and when I got out, I couldn’t bring her back to West Virginia. Basically, this was in the ‘70’s. I could have, but it [would] had been a hassle. I got a job working security at a Billy the Kid clothing factory. The only thing I could find.
Before I did that, I came back to West Virginia and looked for work; couldn’t find nothing. No work, so I ended up going back to El Paso. That’s when a guy I knew from the Army, one of my sergeants, got me a job as a security guard. I kept that job for like two months. All you had to was sit.
My brother was a surveyor, and I worked with him sometimes in the summer, so I started looking through the paper and found a surveying job, and I just put a bunch of coal mines that I’d surveyed for that I knew the name of, as references. I didn’t figure they’d call them, and they didn’t. They hired me and I started surveying. I surveyed four or five years while I was down there.
Then I had another kid, and then we broke up and I stayed there about another year [before] I moved back up here again looking for work.
[The most tragic time in my life was] probably when my kids’ mother went out on me. That was probably the worst I ever felt in my life. It was pathetic. I was going to school at night and all day Saturday, plus holding an eight-hour job down through the day. She wasn’t working, and it was two or three days before Christmas. I got paid and come home and stayed up and had to go to school that night. Gave her some money, we had two kids at that time, and told her to go get some Christmas presents and this and that. I got dressed and went to school and didn’t get home till ‘bout eleven-thirty and she wasn’t home.
I went to her sister’s house and picked the kids up and brought them home, and I figured, well she’s shopping. Next morning I got up and she had a big ‘ole hickey on her neck. That was probably the worst I ever felt in my life. I wanted to kill people. Makes you feel worthless you know? Here was somebody I just worshipped the ground they walked on, ‘purt near. That was probably ‘bout the lowest I ever was.
I went to school to study surveying. Because I was under the Vietnam GI bill, they paid everything. I’d go to school at night and work through the day. I was working for like $3.35, minimum wage. The Army paid me like four something a month to go to school, so I did that.
I went to North Carolina and got another job as a surveyor and stayed there about a year or two. Got in trouble with the law down there, long story, and had to leave there. Come back to West Virginia again and couldn’t find work nowhere. I strung barbed wire for like nearly a year for twenty-five dollars a day.
My sister worked for a cable company back then, and she knew a contractor that had the contract for installing and I got hired as a sub-contractor and worked the first week for nothing, to show the guy that I could do it. Then they hired me and I made piecework and I started making good money. A couple years later, met Mary Ann [wife]. Not a real interesting life if you think about it.
[What’s the difference in living in El Paso and living in the mountains] The way I was raised I trust everybody until you screw me. The different places I’ve been, you don’t trust nobody whether they screwed you or not. Where I live seems to me like everybody trusts you and likes you when they meet you, then you screw them over and you’re dead to them, basically. Other places I’ve been, they don’t trust you [or] like you from the beginning.
(What makes Appalachians special?) Knowing your neighbor and being able to just meet somebody when you’re out hunting, and be able to sit down and talk to them; both of you is carrying guns but you ain’t got to worry ‘bout him shootin’ you. He don’t got to worry ‘bout you shootin’ him. If you was in New York or something, and come up on the street with somebody, both of you had guns, you’d think twice, you’d back up instead of turning, you know what I mean? I think just trust and knowing your neighbor and just being good to people.
(Appalachian food) I love [to cook]. It’s mostly wild game. It’s what I grew up eating; we grew up eatin’ squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, ate a lot of groundhog. Back then, there wasn’t no deer, we very seldom had deer. My dad raised pigs and cows and we ate them. To me it’s mostly meat.
You got your ramps, but I ain’t a big ramp fan. Once you get past the smell you’re okay. I kill deer every year. Mary Ann won’t eat groundhog, but I kill a couple of deer every year. They eat the flowers, so I figure I can eat them. I squirrel hunt every year, and my grandkids, the two I watch all the time, I’ve got eight, but the two I’m closest to, they love squirrel. [My favorite thing to cook is] probably peppered steak, because that’s what I made Mary Ann first time I ever cooked dinner for her and invited her over. It’s easy and it always comes out good.
The happiest [times] that I [have had] is when I’m with my grandson. He turned twelve, so he outgrew me. I’ve had him since he was born [and] took care of him. He said, ‘Papa’ before he could say anything. He had a little sister, [and] his mom, Mary Ann’s middle daughter, used to say, say “Mama mama’ and Lyric, my grandson would say, ‘no Cadence, say Papa.’ He’s twelve now, getting ready to be thirteen so we ain’t as close, but I just loved being around him.
I think I am [a pretty good fisherman]. I got another camp up on Greenbrier River; I’ve got a thirty-two foot camper up there. Me and my brother and a couple other people go up there and float the river. Catch smallmouth all day long. That’s about my favorite fish, and I don’t catfish [or] trout fish. I don’t do none of that stuff where you sit and wait for a bite. I cast and reel. We use waterdogs a lot. People call them salamanders. I grew up calling them waterdogs. That’ll just slay the bass. That’s a fun time.
(The one that got away) I hooked one up there on the river in a big ‘ole deep hole. I got this rubber raft [with] seats across it with swivel on them that we made outta boards. I hooked probably the biggest fish I ever caught; had it hooked and was bringing it in, and my drag was just a poppin’ and goin’ on. I pulled it right up to the edge of the boat and it raised up and I saw it. About the time I saw it, it went straight down and my line broke and it sounded like a twenty-two rifle. That was probably the most excited I ever was. I’d hate to even try to guess [how much it weighed] cause I’d lie. [I called it] Basszilla.
(Perceptions by outsiders) That’s something that I hear people talk about, but to me I don’t care ‘cause I know what I am, what my neighbors are, I know what the people I know are. If I don’t know you I don’t [care] what you think. It just don’t matter to me.
By definition, I am a [hillbilly]. Somebody that lives in the hills and can live off the land if they need to, and somebody who can take care of themself. You got to have hills and trees involved. That’s where the name comes from, I guess, but I really don’t know where the name hillbilly come from. Why’d they add billy on it? Why not hilljoe or hillbob?
I’ve heard the redneck [story] you know with the red scarf. If people want to call me that, I don’t care a bit. I’m proud to be that. It’s just somebody who can take care of themself, basically.
I have lived a bunch a places and I always come back. Like Dorothy said, there’s no place like home.”