August 10th, 2007 by The Lexington Herald-Leader
DSTEPHENSON@HERALD-LEADER.COM
AWILSON1@HERALD-LEADER.COM

hotspotter.gifIt is not yet 8 a.m. and it is not yet 80 degrees. But the coal trucks rumble through town like it is rush hour and hell needs more coal to heat the heathens.

Joseph Smith has been up since 5:30 to do some gardening and beat whatever heat is coming. Because it is coming. Smith hears that it's going to be 96 but the shadow of the trees over Ky. 160 is holding in whatever cool Tuesday night could come up with. Pleasant would be not a bad adjective to throw in here. Neither would be loud.

That's because the coal trucks are thundering past so that a person has to stop talking or turn up the TV for the duration. The stuff that's flying past Hot Spot all day, every day, is not mined here. Instead it's been parked at a kind of way station and all this commotion is from it coming from someplace else and going to someplace else.

Local coal has been played out here for decades. What the trucks are hauling these days is, nonetheless, flinging little black nuggets all over Hot Spot as they quickly round the turn at the post office. The ones that are empty round the turn even faster, flinging only fear through the heart of the postmistress Lana White (ZIP code 41845) who has a good view of the treacherous turn.

Lana has a lot going, what with the turn, 108 postal boxes and 106 route customers to tend to -- but she's the clearinghouse for all Hot Spot knowledge. On her desk is a memo to all concerned about how the town started out as Dalna (named after a coal company president's wife) then became Elsiecoal (Elsie being the daughter of another company prez), then morphed into Hot Spot because it just was, and ultimately became Premium (either because that was the name of a coal company or because that was the grade of the coal long-gone).

Let us consider the Hot Spot years, 1932-42. Those were the days when, the story goes, there were more people on this little shank of road than in all of Whitesburg. When three coal camps set up shop, two for the white miners and another for the black miners. When there was a barber shop, a movie theater, two liquor stores, two beer joints, cart-delivered groceries to every house in each of the three camps and more kids at the Hot Spot school than any other in Letcher County.

There was also a train that screamed through a few times a day and a you-can-count-on-it Friday and Saturday night shooting at The Flap Jack, and the requisite wailing at the funerals following. And there was that time the schoolhouse got burned down "by accident."

"It was one of the greatest, liveliest places in all of Letcher County," says Grant Caudill, who is 74 and was one of the few men in town who didn't have to eventually leave to make a living. He did this by being postmaster and groceryman from 1956 until Lana took over in '95. He did this by refusing to let the '57 flood, which took his house, take his home.

Guys like Jessie Frazier, a year younger than Grant, left when the local doctor helped him dummy up a birth certificate to make the 16-year-old appear old enough to work in places like Dayton and Detroit.

Guys like Corbett Hogg Jr. left to hobo on the rails, then went into the Navy, then saw the world, then went to Detroit to work for Chrysler, then came home with his wife to Hot Spot but she left him high and dry so she could be with her children and grandchildren in Michigan. So here he is alone in his mobile home, but he insists that's OK "because I'm almost done here."

He means on earth.

Corbett, known as Pig or Junior to those who figure Corbett is a mite formal, is 86 but hardly looks a day over 70. Which, strangely enough, brings up a unique Hot Spot phenomenon. Every man here looks at least 10 or 15 years younger than he's supposed to.

"We never did work in the mines, honey," says Jessie, "that's what kills you."

The three men start listing their dead peers. Too many to mourn properly.

Now Grant here did do some bucket mining, but that doesn't count because he never went under the ground. Jessie did security work later in life for the coal companies but, no, he never did go down into the mines. And Corbett was a miner for a total of 11 days before he thought better of it and now they all look sprightly even though Grant has only a bit of a lung and Corbett has three doctors' appointments this week alone.

Still, it is worth noting that what killed their friends was the coal. The dearth of same killed Hot Spot.

Nobody here is complaining, exactly. Grant's life was good. Corbett is glad to be home. And Jessie, who was successful elsewhere but came home in 1980 to run a store and then go bankrupt, can still show you the town's first refrigerator. It's a General Electric, circa 1945, and it's humming along in his smokehouse this minute. No one dares turn it off for fear it will lose its will to keep chilling.

But you do have to be careful, as it likes to freeze cabbage between the time you pick it and the time you get it into some sauerkraut. It can be, most days, the coldest spot in town.

Which would make a nice commercial if anybody from GE is interested.

These days, there's a bit of a move to change the name of town back to Hot Spot because, says Jessie, "Premium's a cracker."

They think it might be nostalgia talking. Or a desire for more local color. Maybe they liked it better when the town earned its name instead of getting it from somebody's best gal.

It is almost lunch time. The sun is high now and 96 degrees is looking very likely. Over that way, says Grant, is, ironically enough, a town called Ice. Between here and there, he says, there ought to be a Lukewarm.

There isn't. Instead, there is a town where the heat might find you but it wouldn't have a chance.

That's just down south a ways, toward the Harlan County line. In the oft-sought burg of Kingdom Come.

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