Growing Up Out Proctor – June 9, 2021
Pap. My Dad, Thad Eller (1921-1999), was the youngest of nine children born to Charlie and Lizzie Eller at their homestead near Highland School where, like brother Fred and me, he attended elementary school. And as did Fred and me, Pap graduated from Magnolia High School.
Family lore says that five of his siblings each got to pick a name for the new baby and they came up with Charles Richard Shegogue Thaddeus Dayberry Eller. Thaddeus is on his official records and “Thad” is the common name that stuck. He married my mother, Virginia Louise Frohnapfel (1923-1911) in July 1946. Both were shaped by growing up on West Virginia farms during the Great Depression. Except for my Dad’s service in World War II, both lived their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born.
Pap was an excellent father who taught Fred and me lots of life skills by example. One of my early recollections was observing him build our new house after Grandpap Frohnapfel sold his place on the river where we lived until I was about four.
On Pap’s new property, part of the original C. A. Eller homestead, there was a large old house that the Kurt Cecil family lived in that had to be taken down. Uncle Yontz prepped the site with his bulldozer so new construction could begin. Watching Pap build and repair things showed me that if somebody else could do something, I probably could figure it out too. I remember that Fred and I had free reign on the pile of boards in our shed and Pap let us use his hand tools to saw boards and pound nails to our hearts content, never complaining about the mess we made or lumber we ruined. He didn’t like misplaced tools, however, but that was part of learning too. Pounding nails and sawing boards provided endless fun and there are far worse ways for young boys to spend their time.
Without a doubt, Pap transmitted his affection for dogs to Fred and me. Dogs were always part of our family, both house pets and working hound dogs (see Chapter 2). When I was twelve or so, Pap graduated me up from BB guns to a single shot .22 that I took along on rabbit hunts – a fond memory. And as described in Chapter 18, he was very supportive of my musical interests.
At age twenty-one or twenty-two, Pap was a U. S. Army truck driver at the gruesome campaign to take Guadalcanal Island in the South Pacific in World War II (1942-1943). This horrific event turned the tide on Japanese advances in the South Pacific. Like many combat veterans, Pap almost never spoke of his overseas war experiences so we don’t know anything about what happened when he was there though he did talk about training in Mississippi and Montana. When one of his military buddies was around, it always seemed clear they were having a private conversation so we didn’t learn much.
As was the case for so many young men from rural America who served in World War II, his service time was his first introduction to the world more than a few counties beyond his birthplace. After Pap “saw the elephant”, as we say in the West, he most of his life only half a mile from where he was born. A song I wrote and recorded about him, Appalachian Sons, tells part of this story.
I understand that after Pap came back from the war, he worked for a while at Uncle Yonce’s grocery store in Proctor. Perhaps that’s how he met Mom, who he married in July 1946. I came along a year later. Sometime around 1950, Pap started working at the PPG Chemical Plant as a painter. He became a PPG pipefitter and worked there until he retired over thirty years later.
My Dad had a conservative Protestant background and Mom was from a conservative German Catholic family. When I was young, people out Proctor sometimes had strong feelings against marrying outside their faith. The fork in the road at Antioch Church seemed to be a clear religious dividing line. I suspect there were repercussions on both sides of my family when they married. Since then, these kinds of feelings out Proctor seem to have eased considerably. My Mom and Dad were at the vanguard of the change. My Dad didn’t attend church much or talk about religion when I was growing up, so I didn’t think he was much of a religious person.
I found out I was wrong when, as he was dying of cancer, he gave his granddaughter Bethany (Fred’s daughter), who spent a lot of time at Pap’s place when she was growing up, a ragged pocket Bible that he got as a young boy around 1927. Pap no doubt carried that bible to the South Pacific and read it often through his life, but I don’t think that even my mother knew it existed. I wasn’t there when Bethany got the Bible but it must have been one of those rare family times when time seems to stop. To understate the case, he did not wear his religion on his sleeve. I wrote and recorded a song about this story too, Little Pocket Bible, on which my daughter Audrey sings harmony.
Pap was a strong proponent of education. He had seen the advantages of education in life and was always very supportive but not pushy as I wended my way through public schools, college at WVU, and graduate school at Ohio State. What he didn’t realize until it was too late was that the opportunities for someone with an advanced degree in chemistry are extremely limited in West Virginia and the odds were very high that my career would be elsewhere. As it turned out, I never lived in West Virginia after graduating from WVU. I did graduate and post graduate studies at Ohio State and Georgia Tech and then spent thirty years in nuclear science and technology at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a job that took me all over the United States and beyond. My Dad could never have imagined that career path, nor could I as a kid growing up out Proctor.
Although Pap was usually a quiet man, he had many good friends and liked small talk. People often stopped to “set a spell” on our porch in the summer and sometimes came in the house in cold weather. I didn’t fully realize how well Pap was liked until his funeral, when I was stunned by how many people attended. I learned a valuable lesson that day from my Dad, who worked fair eight-hour days but turned off the time clock when he left work. I went back to Los Alamos and told my boss that I would no longer work several full-time jobs simultaneously and bring work home almost every night. I asked him to tell me which job he wanted me to keep. He laughed and said – “No, you tell me which ones you won’t be doing”. That was a great boss … and thank you Dad!