Almost two years ago my wife and I were driving home after having dinner in a Knoxville restaurant with former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and his wife. It was the Monday night before Thanksgiving, and I decided to call my then 90-year-old Uncle Joe, a retired judge, to see if he and my aunt wanted to have turkey and all the trimmings with us that coming Thursday.
My uncle and I often trade stories in these occasional conversations, and that night he told me about walking with my father to Reason Cecil’s Grocery in Helenwood to pick up some things for my grandmother.
My father and my uncle were 2 of 12 children (the first two, twins, died at birth) of Flem and Cassie Duncan. They grew up in what would be considered bitter poverty today. My grandfather was a subsistence farmer, carpenter, and Presbyterian lay preacher. My grandmother taught school in years when teachers made $60 or $75 a month.
Their home was between Huntsville and Helenwood in Scott County, Tennessee, on the Kentucky line below Somerset. Pure Appalachia, this was one of the poorest counties in the United States. My dad used to say that they lived out just past the “Resume Speed” sign.
Uncle Joe said their visit to Mr. Cecil’s grocery store took place when he was 9 and my father was 14. After the boys made their purchases, Mr. Cecil came out and sat on the front porch...