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Thomas Matijasic
Raising a Regrettable Past

August 11, 1977

They’re tearing down the old house. It doesn’t look like much in the light of a quarter moon. Three stories of darkness and a storm is on the way. It’s probably for the best. The upper two floors have been unoccupied for years and the floor on the first level is beginning to give way. I hope I can get this cigarette re-lit before the clouds cover the moonlight again. Too bad I can’t relight it with a moonbeam.

It was already over ninety years old when Grandpa bought it back in 1924. My mother’s people told me that every afternoon after he got off work, Grandpa would crank up the Model T and ride into the countryside looking for land that reminded him of his childhood in the foothills of the Tetra Mountains. When he found this piece of property, he bought it. People on the surrounding farms were none too happy, and the Klan was near its peak.

They didn’t like Catholics or foreigners and Grandpa was both. He was in this house for less than a month when a hooded mob burned a cross in his front yard. Ignorance saved him. He mistook their action for a local welcoming custom and invited the Klansmen into his house. Grandma fed them pastries and Grandpa served them some of his homemade hard cider. They all got roaring drunk and left. They never bothered Grandpa again, and he even hired some of them later in the year to help harvest his crops.

Grandpa was a hard worker with his job at the mill and a two-hundred acre farm to run. He had a lot of mouths to feed and not much time to mess around. I guess he didn’t like to paint because he covered the house with shingles from top to bottom. He worked himself to death and Grandma buried him in a plot next to his first wife because the plot was paid for and she needed to save money. Some say she was none too sorry when he passed because she still had the farm and a peck of sons and daughters to help her work it. Too bad for Grandma that her kids didn’t want to be farmers. The boys went off to war and some of them never came back. The girls went to town to find work and husbands. They helped when they could, but Grandma did the planting and the milking herself and with whatever seasonal labor she could find.

Grandma had kind of an odd worldview -- not odd for where she came from, but odd for here. There were some wild grapevines on the left side of the house and a swing with supports was constructed among them. She would sit on the swing and we would sit on a blanket in front of her and listen to her stories of the Old Country. The chores all had to be done first, so it was usually early evening when the grand kids would participate in this treat.

There was a common theme to Grandma’s stories – they usually had the devil in them. Now it’s not what you think. She was a God-fearing woman, a regular churchgoer. She was no Satan worshiper. The devil was no monstrous looking thing, and he wouldn’t show up unless you called him. Even then, you could send him away. Grandma’s stories had to do with choices and the consequences of making the wrong choices. We all make wrong choices from time to time. If we didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting out here smoking a cigarette and staring at an abandon house in the middle of the night.

Her stories would usually start with some young man or woman who was ambitious and restless. They would call on the devil and bargain with him to gain wealth or fame or a rich spouse, whatever it was that they wanted. But to gain what they wanted they would have to pay the devil’s price. They were never satisfied. If they asked for a million dollars and got it, they would then begin to desire a second million. If they gained success as an actress in Prague, they would want success on a larger stage in Vienna.

Eventually they would bargain away their souls and even though they achieved things beyond their wildest dreams, they never found happiness and the devil never forgave a debt. If these stories sound like variations of the tale of Dr. Faust, it is because they probably were. Tales of Faust predate Goethe by two centuries and probably originated in the folk legends of central Europe where Germans and Jews, Magyars and Slavs mixed together and their tales became a single cloth made of several threads. But this was America, where ambitious is rewarded and the devil runs rough-shot over the weak and the lame.

Thomas D. Matijasic is a native of Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a B.A. from Youngstown State University, a M.A. from Kent State University, and a Ph.D. in History from Miami University. He has taught at Big Sandy Community & Technical College since January 1, 1983. Dr. Matijasic has received four BSCTC Great Teacher Awards, five NISOD awards for teaching excellence, and the 2006 Acorn Award. He served as President of the Kentucky Association of Teachers of History (1994) and served three terms on the Kentucky Heritage Council (1994-2006). Dr. Matijasic has published more than 20 articles and 30 book reviews, the most recent entitled, “It’s Personal: Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U.S. African Policy (1957-1974),” WHITE HOUSE STUDIES (2011).

 

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