Back in Logan High School’s basketball heyday, I enjoyed the rivalry between Coach Sam Andy’s Wheeling Park Patriots squads and Willie Akers’ running Wildcats. Most people think of it as having been simply a basketball rivalry between two always talented squads.
Being a history-inclined individual who speaks with that southern West Virginia dialect that even a New York City resident can appreciate, I must say there has nearly always been somewhat of a rivalry between Wheeling and Logan and perhaps Charleston, too. Let me explain.
It is likely that you know, of course, that Wheeling was the first capital of the state of West Virginia. You may even also know that people from the Wheeling area have what I like to refer to as that “Ohio dialect.” They sound like my older sister Margaret and her husband, Paul, who live in Pataskala, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Wheeling people just do not sound like the typical hillbillies that we proudly are. In fact, I doubt if those people even refer to themselves as hillbillies. Here’s the proof.
About 1973, a friend of mine from McConnell, who was a fellow 1971 graduate of Logan High School, Melvin Fowler, met up with a gal from Wheeling who was, like he and I, a student at Marshall University in Huntington. Now, Mel kind of fell “head over hills” with the girl who spoke that funny language neither of us were used to, and they began to share an apartment, perhaps learning a new language together.
One Friday afternoon, Mel and his newly acquired roommate excitedly asked me and the girl I was dating at the time to come over to their pad for a special dinner: pinto beans, fried potatoes and cornbread. While Mel and I had probably eaten many such meals in our respective homes while growing up in Logan County, neither of us had been back home in a long while and the thought of the so-called backwoods meal was very inviting.
In addition, my girlfriend had agreed to try the meal she had never experienced in her life. Unfortunately, not only had Mel’s girlfriend not ever eaten pinto beans, she had certainly never cooked beans before, or fried potatoes, or baked cornbread. In fact, I just don’t believe poor Mary had ever cooked anything in her life. But she was excited. It seems that Mel’s mother via telephone had given her the exact ingredients — not that there are many — and cooking directions for the entire meal.
The mile or so walk on a Saturday to their 5th or 6th Avenue apartment allowed me to explain to my female companion that even if the meal didn’t turn out too well, we should try to make the best of it, at least for Mel’s sake. I also explained how well a slice of onion and a hot pepper were so much a part of a good bean dinner. I chose not to relay any possible after-effects from the meal. Perhaps, I wanted that part to be a real surprise.
Excitement was in the air that blessed evening, along with the noticeable smell of good ol’ “soup beans.” The table was set, and Mel and Mary seemed so happy that on her first attempt at cooking this special dish, all appeared well, and it certainly did. The potatoes looked fried to near perfection and the cornbread was fine. Mary and Mel even ladled the beans into bowls and served their guests with the steaming brown beans — beans that had been cooked with salt pork as its rightful seasoning.
With the four of us all seated at the dinner table, all eyes were on Mel and Mary’s guests as the duo beckoned their friends to try the beans. Yes, the very beans that were made by following the directions of an expert country cook, Mel Fowler’s dear mother, who made sure to declare the salt pork as an essential element to the beans.
As I volunteered to be the first to spoon the beans into my desiring mouth, it was quickly apparent the rookie cook’s miscue. Have you ever tried swallowing a large spoonful of salt?
I could feel my blood pressure swelling just as the beans were surely doing inside my gut. I watched as Mel and my special guest took bountiful bites. “How are they, honey,” asked Mary of her mate.
“They’re good, honey,” replied poor Mel, as his eyes and face turned a brilliant red. “Just a little salty.”
I knew this was a terrible first-time experience for my date, who like myself, somehow managed to chokingly swallow down a bowl of beans each by smothering them with the cornbread.
I don’t know just how Mrs. Fowler’s recipe was confused by the Wheeling master chef. However, what I was able to determine afterward from what I will now declare as the scientific experiment in which I, along with Mel and my date, were the sacrificial mice in determining that you do not use four large pieces of salt pork in one kettle of beans — at least not where I come from.
We were supposed to spend the night at our friends’ apartment, but it wasn’t long after hitting the sack that grumbling salt-filled bellies forced us to determine that a midnight journey back to our 4th Avenue apartment was the better choice, sneaking out the door like thieves in the night.
As for Mel and Mary, they later wound up getting married, and both went into the military from college, ending up somewhere out west. I don’t really know if Wheeling’s gift to the Fowler family ever did learn the correct way to cook our delicious southern dish.
What I do know is that Mel divorced her for some reason. Perhaps they had even become military rivals.
I really have nothing against Wheeling residents, but the reason I pick on Mary today is because of a newspaper editorial that appeared in the Wheeling Register way back in 1921, the same year a guy we all identify with as Devil Anse Hatfield was laid to rest in Logan County.
When it was announced by his family that a great marble monument had been ordered from Italy to be placed at his grave site to forever honor their legendary father, the Wheeling newspaper joked about the proposed monument honoring a person it described as a murderer.
The Charleston Gazette was quick to respond with defending Hatfield, describing him as a “grand old man of courage and action.”
“He was as gentle as a mother to friends and relatives,” said the Gazette article. “It took much to arouse in him that which provocation brings out in most of us. He defended home, fireside, children and friends; and used only such force as was necessary.”
“As Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone had to shoot to defend their ‘castles’ and their earthly all, so Anse Hatfield had to shoot. And like Alvin York, when he shot, he shot well,” the Gazette explained.
Yes, there’s always been a little bitterness between West Virginia’s northerners and our southern sympathizers.
I know a couple of things for certain, though. One fact is that folks down this way sure know how to cook their pinto beans. And, just like Crockett and World War I hero Alvin York, when it came to rivalry basketball back in the day, the Logan Wildcats shot well, too, winning nearly all of their heated contests.
Here’s to Mary and Mel, wherever they may be.
And to Luck’s beans, of course.