November 23rd, 2006 by The Lexington Herald-Leader
DSTEPHENSON@HERALD-LEADER.COM
AWILSON1@HERALD-LEADER.COM

Once the morning fog clears enough, you see Turkey Creek. It's all blue-gray and dead still, though resting mighty high on the bank looking for all the world like icy glacial runoff, which it can't be because, jeez, the steam rising off it is rising ever so fervently toward the naked trees. The creek is backed up with Kentucky River wash, which means it's not flowing this way or that but just kind of lying low till the river works out the details of what exactly it needs to do.

It's sort of like the shocking absence of turkeys, which you'd think should be everywhere doing a kind of November jig on the clearings along the creek and in the burg the birds are responsible for naming.

It seems the settlers were tired of naming towns when they got to this part of Kentucky. Where they saw a big, oversize white turkey, they -- thankful for the divine inspiration -- wrote Turkey on the map. Where they lay in to fix the canoe, Canoe. Where they saw on an old buck, Old Buck.

All this makes you kind of reassess the turkeys' intelligence, and the settlers'.

Makes you thankful for divine inspiration as well.

Down the one-lane road about 8 a.m. come Arch and Louise Johnson, brother and sister. She's in her nightclothes, shuttling Arch to his truck because who else but your sister would oblige you with a lift at this hour?

The Johnsons -- Arch, Louise and all their kin dating back to the 1830s -- own all that looks like Turkey on the map. They are Turkeyans, Arch confirms. "Us Johnsons came in and we're staying forever," he says, smiling, though it should be noted Arch is always smiling, in a genuine way.

Louise reminds that their daddy used to always wonder aloud "why the Johnsons came to the narrowest part of the narrowest little holler" to plant themselves and their crops.

"Must have been bootleggers," says Arch, who is kidding, we think.

"Why not squat in Fayette County, where there's bluegrass?" Louise asks Arch like he can even answer that without hurting his newly found political reputation. He was just elected Breathitt County commissioner.

Not boxed in

The Johnsons pretend to complain about their landed legacy but this creek runs through their veins faster than it does down to the Middle Fork Branch and on to the great Kentucky.

Arch and Louise have never felt boxed in by the narrow holler.

Right here, the river slows a lot. It used to be called "the jumping off point," the place in the creek where loggers used to freely drop their logs and not worry they'd float away before the men could get in to lash them together for the ride downriver to Beattyville and beyond.

There are no more loggers now, though the river hardly notices. Not many tobacco farmers, either, Arch notices.

Arch has been stripping tobacco non-stop for days, what with the selling starting soon. A look around the roadside reveals spent stalks that have flung off trucks. Puts nitrogen back in the creekbank, thus explaining the depth of color in the trees.

Arch bemoans that the opening-day ceremonies for tobacco selling don't amount to much anymore but, heck, he says, there's only 10 guys left in Breathitt County who still grow the stuff.

Times change.

And, sometimes mercifully, they change back. Louise left Turkey for Lexington right after high school and spent 16 years in the Horse Capital, what with college, medical school and an obstetrics and gynecology practice that settled her in the Chevy Chase neighborhood for a time.

Arch kept bugging her to come home.

"I thought people who lived in the city did it because they couldn't find a place in the country," he says.

Lone gynecologist

Louise had a place in the country. She and Arch had gone together in 1977 to buy up some acreage the relatives were leaving behind.

She is now the only gynecologist in this and six other surrounding counties.

Louise who had left her Turkey name behind when she left -- folks in Fayette County know her by her first name, Eunice -- came home 10 years ago but not before her daughter, Emily, had acquired a city girl's familiarity with and affection for credit cards. she says.

"Emily called one day and told me the credit card broke," says Louise, who quizzed her daughter further.

"Like it broke in two?"

No, mother.

"Like when you were scrapping ice?"

No. Emily had tried to use the card and the card didn't finish the sale.

"Oh, so it was out of money," said her mother. "I get it."

The difference between the city and the country, Louise says, is that since that day, the nice people at the bank in Breathitt County call Louise before Emily must experience, again, the ugliness of credit card breakage.

Arch built Louise's house here, right on the spot where the creek U-turns so beautifully. Her expansive front lawn is a field that everybody Johnson used to call the Boatyards because it would regularly flood before Buckhorn Dam started taming such things.

All the fields in Turkey have names. There's Jesse Bottom, named for old Jesse Johnson, and there's Old Stumpy because it had been such a bear to clear in the first place 175 years ago.

'That's uncle Arthur'

Looking out, there is much to be thankful for, many to thank.

It's a pleasant sharing of family memories when blam, a gun goes off really close.

"That's uncle Arthur,'' says Arch to Louise.

Blam again.

"He must have missed the first time," says Louise to Arch.

Uncle Arthur, found later on the other side of Turkey Creek, says he did not miss. Hit three gray squirrels. He's already dressed them and will eat them the following day. He's also up for hunting turkeys if the visitors need an escort, and up for talking about all the bounty of Turkey.

Arthur explains that you can eat only the breast of a wild turkey because everything else on the bird is just too stringy but the breast is mighty fine. He explains, too, that big-deal heart doctors have told him that game meat -- his squirrels, rabbits, deer and turkey -- "will clear the cholesterol right out of your veins." And he explains how his homemade molasses will "provide you all the iron your system could need."

Arthur is clearly an expert on life around here, and on turkeys. He says they gang up like children, have eyes like eagles and reward patience.

But he has nothing nice to say about coyotes.

Lifelong Turkeyans

There are other lifelong Turkeyans. The Noble family, for one. They produced Kash, now 66, who used to run a store here and gave out, yes, free turkeys at Thanksgiving. They were the store-bought kind because "people like the eating," he says. The Nobles also claim Larry, husband of Mary, the new Kentucky Supreme Court justice.

Kash says his sister-in-law Mary "likes to shoot big words" at him, which is fine because the people of Turkey have traditionally had wonderful educations despite their proximity to the backwaters.

They know what most of the big words mean.

And all of the things that matter.
-

Dressen: A Side Dish

AWILSON1@HERALD-LEADER.COM

Dressen hangs on the very close fringe of Harlan, just off Ky. 421, just after the railroad tracks and just before the exit to Ky. 72. It's so minor yet so flavorful a community that it is sometimes referred to as Upper Sunshine.

That's because Sunshine is the larger suburb and this collection of trailers, apartments and a strip mall are just upper of that, if you think south is upper, and apparently folks do. Oh, sure, 20 years ago the town's claim to fame was Jack and Denny Ray's Drive-In and a rundown K-Mart but developers got all busy "fixing Dressen" which led to all this progress.

Admittedly, it is now a cramped little town made up of lots more diverse parts -- a Western Sizzlin', a Save-A-Lot, a Do-It Center, a concrete company, a one-way bridge, a tennis court and a 4-year-old on a trampoline. Good ingredients, given enough attention.

It's kind of like Carolyn Pennington's Thanksgiving dressing recipe, which will fill the dozen or so folks who will drop by today to dine. Because some things don't need fixing, she'll prepare her family recipe -- a stale biscuit, cornbread, white bread crumble mixed with butter-fried onions and celery kissed lightly with sage and tossed with nicely cut up gizzards and then peppered and baked in the oven. Pennington considers anything foreign, like oysters or pineapple in dressing, to be progress in the wrong direction.

No, she isn't part of that crowd that calls it "stuffing" either. Something about that word screams "store-bought."

Which is another way progress went in the wrong direction. The native Dressenite has seen it all in her 59 years in this coal camp town. Carolyn used to have to walk to Harlan on a Saturday night for a good time.

Now she can get a pizza, a hammer and a loan without so much as losing sight of the grandkids playing on the swings.

The first three things might not always appeal but she'll take a big helping of the grandkids any time.

Comments are closed.