Here we are in the midst of winter with sickness and death all around us, and even though the Super Bowl game should temporarily alleviate some of the forces of darkness that makes one wonder if society will ever get back to normal, I just can’t ignore the losses of so many friends and acquaintances since COVID-19 veered into all of our lives, affecting everyone in one way or another.
From Lucky Jones to Tom Gagnon to Bob Weisner to attorney Joe Wagner’s more recent death, I have lost many friends, although not all as a result of COVID. However, the recent death of two former neighbors — Betty and Arnold Browning — has just about pushed me over the edge. You just could not find two better people anywhere.
The married couple, along with their four children, at one time lived directly across from the Island Creek Coal Company’s No. 16 store at Verdunville, the concrete porch of which I have previously written about as the “home” of the notorious “Porch Sitters.”
The former coal camp that I grew up in was full of kids that lived on both sides of the railroad tracks and the county road that split the community in half. Little did we know at the time that we were living in a paradise of sorts. The company store was our Wal-Mart and we had access to the Verdunville Grade School gymnasium, our own homemade baseball field, and other fields — including next to the grade school — where footballs sailed through the air in autumn.
In addition, we had our own basketball rim and backboard set up near the company store and there were Boy Scouts and Cub Scout meetings upstairs above the store, where also there were functions such as sock hops sponsored by the Verdunville Woman’s Club, as well as dances and carnivals at the grade school gym.
Of course, the hills were ours for the taking, and on one nearby hill a two-story cabin was constructed, which later caught fire and burned, illuminating the night sky over the coal camp and worrying many parents and grandparents because “we” were supposed to be camping out there. Fortunately, we were nowhere near the cabin when it caught fire from a pot-bellied stove that we left burning when we traveled elsewhere.
There are many names that can be identified as being a “Porch Sitter” at one time or another. There were Danny, Billy, Bobby and Tommy Hall, as well as Robert, Tolbert and Jimmy Marcum and their sisters, Gloria and Kay. Among others were Roger “Buddy” Hensley and his brothers, Jack, David and Bill Bo. Going right on down the line there were my cousins, Marvin and Phillip Burton, and their neighbors Mitchell, Rodney and Ray Vance and another neighbor, Roger Garrett. At various times, Porch Sitters included Dennis Butcher and Steve and Allen Thorn.
A little further up the alley were the likes of Kenny Johnson, Mike, Ralph and Pat Petroff, and their neighbor Dallas Frye. Getting back to my side of the coal camp were cousins Harold Lee, Freddy, Ralph and Gary Evans and their sisters, Connie, Bonnie, Candy, Tammy and Iva. More cousins in the camp included Sherry, Terry and Greg Burgess, although they could be classified as the more dormant of the camp crew.
The coal camp list continues with the like of Linda, Jerry, and Terry McCallister (both of whom married two of my sisters). Then, of course, also in the same coal camp were my cousins, David, Linda, Carol, Debbie, Sherry and Carlson Bowers. In addition, there were Larry Hicks, David Evans, Tillman and Pat Maynard, as well as their partner in crime, Danny Vance. Mixed in with all of the above names at one time or another was Teddy Hale, sometimes the mastermind of the Porch Sitters’ Halloween frolics, which are too numerous to name.
Of course, one didn’t have to live in No. 16 coal camp to hang out at the company store porch. Among the many souls who could be located there on any given evening were Delbert McCloud, Ronald Belcher, Bill Finley, Frank Workman, Bobby and Ralph “Fat Cat” Tomblin, and Tommy Vance, who was employed at the store, and Teddy Conley.
Since the No. 16 company store opened sometime in the 1930s, having burned down in 1938 and a new one constructed that later also met its fate by fire in the 1970s, there have been many other names that could be added to the list of the coal camp kids, including my uncle Sherman “Rudy” Williamson, Bill Hall, Frankie Dewitt, Billy and Danny Nelson, as well as a host of others that preceded my age group.
The reason I mention the above names is because there are four names not listed that should be and those include the children of Arnold and Betty Browning — Richard, Mike, Steve and their sister, Sandy. In addition, there were Robin and Deannie Elkins of the same family.
Of all the names listed above, there were many of them very talented athletes in one sport or another: some like Ronald Belcher, simply more gifted than others. From two-hand touch to tackle football, games were played ferociously — no helmets, pads or “sissy” cleats. Baseball and basketball competition were just as intense.
Being a little older than the Browning boys, I watched them grow up and witnessed Mike suddenly explode into a tremendous athlete, while I later coached Richard in an independent basketball league and played softball with or against all three in league and tournament competition. Arnold, the boys’ father, was an avid sports fan, and despite a long and decorated military career, encouraged his children to participate in athletics.
I worked at The Logan Banner with Betty Browning, and she was a sister to two of my then-brothers-in-law, Jerry and Terry McCallister. So it is that I have had a long connection to this particular family.
Some readers may know that Steve and his son, Stevie, both were all-state basketball players at Logan High School, with both going on to play college basketball — Steve at King’s College and Stevie at Marshall, where he is now a graduate assistant. Stevie’s father has been the subject of the local COVID crisis, as he is the Logan County health director.
What might surprise you is that there are those persons — Mike Watson and probably Bob Kolovich included (two former talented Logan Independent League players) — who would argue that Mike Browning was more talented at basketball than Steve or Stevie. As for myself, I would settle for their older brother, Richard, who was the scrappiest of the bunch, in any pickup game.
There are some things in life a person can look back upon and realize the importance of matters that otherwise would seem trivial to other people. In reality, some of those “little” things can determine the future of a person’s life. Such is the case with me. For you see, not a single person knows that Arnold Browning and his brother, Roger, are the reasons why I was able to go to work at The Logan Banner, which ultimately led to my position now as a Logan County magistrate.
It all goes back to 16 Camp and the ballfield we simply called “The Bottom.” During summers growing up we would gather nearly every evening and choose teams for baseball or softball games to be played on that rocky field that now is a community playground. One evening when I was about 16 years old, I noticed two men settling in behind home plate. I recognized one of them to be Arnold Browning and assumed he was there to watch one of his sons who was on the field. The other man I did not know. And, as it turned out, it was that person who was there scouting for players who might help the softball team (West Virginia Cable) for which he played.
Being the competitive guy I am, I played hard that day and must have made some impression upon the Browning men, for when we finished our contest, I was asked by Roger Browning if I would be interested in playing league softball.
I loved sports, but with my family not owning an automobile, I had never even considered such things as Little League baseball, or any other sport that required to and from transportation. So, when Roger told me to be sitting on the railroad tracks across from the Verdunville post office the following day at 5 p.m. and that he would stop and get me on his way to softball practice, I was elated, although not knowing what to expect.
Once at Midleburg Island in Logan and introduced to the likes of Manager John McCloud and players Larry Lodato, who was sports editor at The Banner at the time, Alex Nagy, L.J. Mathis, Chipper Porter, Bob Seakelly, along with some other men who were considerably older than me, I felt like I had made it to the major leagues; therefore, I tried as hard as I could to impress those gentlemen.
I made it as a member of that team and went on to play or manage softball for well over 20 years, participating in competitive tournaments in various places, both in and outside of West Virginia. It was through softball that I became friends with Logan Banner Circulation Manager Bob Kolovich, Lodato, and Banner Editor Earl Lambert, and numerous other people. With Lodato leaving the newspaper and with the encouragement of Kolovich, Earl Lambert gave me a chance with the newspaper, where I later became sports editor and even news editor. From there, my career took off in various directions and I met many outstanding people along the way.
To shorten a long story, I am certain I would not be in the position I am today without that fateful summer evening when two brothers sat down on a dirty old drain pipe to watch a group of young guys on a dusty ball field play a game I still love.
The moral of this story is that one person’s actions, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time, can shape the life of another in so many different ways.
I’m sure I speak for many people — and all of the “Porch Sitters” — in extending my condolences to the entire Browning family, who buried their mother January 24th, the same day their father succumbed. Arnold Browning was laid to rest beside his wife yesterday.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.