Wednesday, April 7, 2021

I'm Reading a Book

It's When Cuba Conquered Kentucky by Marianne Walker.

Somewhere back in the comments archives of the HP--oh, how I wish those were still searchable on Google--I wrote about discovering this 1999 book while listening to the late, great Joe B & Denny Show. It was during a state basketball tournament, and they had on the author. Marianne Walker was a professor of English and philosophy at Henderson Community College, and I'm pretty certain this was her second book--after a book about the author of Gone With the Wind and Margaret Mitchell's husband. She had also written for The Courier-Journal's old Sunday magazine, but she was never a sports writer. I remember that she seemed a little uneasy about coming on the radio show with the coaches but then increasingly delighted as the program went on and it became clear that the hosts had absolutely devoured and loved the book, asking her detailed questions about deep-cut passages from it.

A friend got Marianne Walker interested in the story of Graves County's Cuba Cubs, the 1952 Kentucky boys' basketball champion, and it turned into a magazine story and then this book (and, since then, another book still, as well as one about Joe B). She's retired from teaching. Her husband is or was an attorney. My wife and I last night creepily looked up their house on Google Maps. It's a big place on the Ohio River in Henderson. It looks beautiful. I hope they are very happy, and I'll bet they are. She sounds like a happy person in her writing. It's hard for people to fake that when they're good writers.

Marianne Walker is a great writer.

She starts When Cuba Conquered Kentucky (brilliantly) at the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington after the Cubs had lost the 1951 state final to Clark County. The boys are back up in their rooms on the sixth floor:

Raymon, who had been brooding, stopped eating the peanuts he had been snacking on, brushed the crumbs off his shirt, and reared back in his tilted chair with his thick legs spread apart. With arms folded across his chest, he looked up and made rude comment about Joe Buddy's "forgetfulness." The two of them began swapping some rank insults until Doodle, stretched out on his back in his underwear, with one arm lying over his eyes, shouted, "Shut up! Damnit, y'all sound like a couple of plucked hens." He rolled over in the bed, swung his long hairy legs over the side, sat up, and yawned.

Then, leaning forward, he rummaged in the back pocket of his trousers that were lying across the chair and drew out a slender book of matches, a cloth pouch of Bull Durham, and a small packet of thin white paper. Carefully, he tore off a sheet, laid it in the palm of one hand, and gently tapped out a neat little row of tobacco. Doodle was an expert at rolling cigarettes, able to fix them so that they looked like store-bought ones. As the others were waiting for Doodle to say something else, he neatly rolled the paper around the tobacco, moistened the edge of the paper with his tongue, and with a flourish, struck a match on the underside of the end table. Inhaling deeply as if he was partaking of something divine, he blew out a cloud of smoke and said "Whew, that's good tobacco!" Then he looked around at each of them and dropped his voice to a whisper, saying, "I think we oughta quit crying about this year and figure on coming back next year and win the danged thing."

Chapter 2 is about the drive back to Graves County--a lunch stop at Horse Cave, the crowd meeting them at the Eggner's Ferry Bridge in Aurora, a transfer to Cadillac convertibles for the last stretch to the courthouse square in Mayfield:

A little west of Horse Cave, at Bowling Green, the motorcade got on Kentucky 80, which led them into Mayfield. As they traveled through each town--Bowling Green, Rockfield, Auburn, Russellville, Elkton, Hopkinsville, Cadiz, Canton, Golden Pond, and Aurora--they were met by another sheriff or constable who would then lead them through the town. Onlookers parked in cars on either side of the narrow main streets started blowing their horns once they spotted the sheriff or the constable leading the green Kaiser. To them, Cuba represented the dreams of all tiny communities across the great state of Kentucky--the Cubs' success was theirs, too. Stretched across plain wooden storefronts were wide paper banners proclaiming, "Welcome, Cuba Cubs!" Adults and children stood on the sidewalks, alongside the roads, or in front of houses, law offices, hardware stores, and other businesses, waving pennants and flags and yelling, "Yea! Cuba!" Dogs ran barking alongside the Kaiser as the Cubs' long, outstretched arms waved from the car windows. In some town squares, little high school bands played "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Cubs' theme song.

Then, in Chapter 3, Marianne Walker takes us even further back. She opens a telling of Jackson Purchase history, 1818-1951, with a quote from Plutarch: "Men's customs differ; different people honor different practices; but all honor the maintenance of their own peculiar ways." And then she offers a lengthy, concrete discussion of the voting patterns and geographic characteristics that conspired to make the 1950-51 and '51-52 Cuba Cubs an embodiment of the curious relationship of their region to the rest of the state:

Surrounded by rivers on three sides, the Purchase was born in 1818, when Kentucky was already twenty-five years old. For a hundred years the state went on about its business as if the new section had not even been added to it. Until the late 1930s the political powers in Frankfort largely ignored the region because finding anything other than a registered Democrat in the Purchase was like finding hair on a frog's head. ... 

Until the late 1930s and early 1940s, the state politicians, for the most part, directed no funds toward building roads, schools, bridges, or state office buildings in the Purchase, nor did they set up the multitude of semi local agencies that are part of a state government. For example, Graves County in the late 1940s was given an agricultural extension agency but no laboratories or facilities. However, the agency in nearby Hopkins County, which is in western Kentucky but not in the Purchase, had a first-class operation. Just as it is today, politicians preferred spending state and federal money in those counties having balanced party systems. Politically speaking, you can say that the Purchase disadvantaged itself by adhering so strictly to its Democratic stand.

Until 1905, there were no bridges built over any of the three rivers that hem in the Purchase--the Ohio River on the north, the Mississippi River on the west and the Tennessee River on the east--and ferries were too inconvenient or expensive for most of the people in the region to use, Marianne Walker writes. The Purchase was cut off from the rest of Kentucky and any other land (except Tennessee to its south) until a locomotive bridge over the Tennessee River at Gilbertsville came along in 1905. The first bridge for automobile travel over any of the three rivers came in 1929, when the Irvin S. Cobb bridge was completed, linking Paducah with Brookport, Illinois.

For the most part, the Purchase people had no real interest in crossing those rivers. Having been ignored for so long by the state's political powers, they felt no real attachment to Kentucky, even after the state began to show them some attention. Their kinship was with Tennessee. Even after the Eggner's Ferry Bridge across the Tennessee River at Aurora was completed in 1933, finally linking the Purchase to the rest of Kentucky, few took advantage of it.

Marianne Walker writes that Coach Jack Story often told stories about Andrew Jackson of Tennessee to teach his young Cubs about toughness. Then there's a bunch of stuff about the Civil War, TVA, Thomas Scopes, Alben Barkley and the tug of industrial jobs in Michigan. I don't know enough about history to know whether Marianne Walker is right, but she certainly convinced me. Feels right. I read almost every word of this chapter twice through aloud last night to my wife. We loved it!

I'm just getting started with Chapter 4, and Marianne Walker is going through what each player and student manager's family did for a living and how they ended up at Cuba. Some of the other chapters are titled "On the Importance of Acting Right," "The Harlem Globetrotters in Cuba" and "A Pilgrimage." I can hardly wait.

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