This nine-year old boy made a brief 20-mile excursion on a Southern Railway train from Johnson City to Bristol in 1951.
The trip stands out vividly in my memory for two reasons. It was my first and last railroad jaunt; passenger service became extinct not long afterwards. The trip afforded me an opportunity to spend some quality time with my grandmother, Ethel Carroll. We boarded a Southern Railway passenger train at its downtown station one sunny Saturday morning and quickly arrived in downtown Bristol at the old Norfolk & Western Union Passenger Station, a historic relic from 1902.
Upon disembarking, our first order of business was to walk down State Street and eat lunch at a local five and ten store. Granny asked me if I wanted to dine in Virginia or Tennessee, making reference to the fact that the state line runs down the middle of the street. After enjoying a meal at Kress’s lunch counter and visiting a few department stores, we purchased tickets to the Paramount Theatre to watch the film, “Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.”
The main stars, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, became an overnight sensation from their bit role in the 1947 Universal Pictures’ comedy release, “The Egg And I.” The plot involved a city couple, played by Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, moving to the country to operate a dilapidated chicken farm.
Their simplistic country bumpkin neighbors were the Kettle family. The story line would later be replicated in television’s popular Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. This hillbilly clan was immediately featured in their own right in seven additional flicks: “Ma & Pa Kettle” (1949), “Ma & Pa Kettle Go to Town” (1950), “Ma & Pa Kettle Back on the Farm” (1951), “Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair” (1952), “Ma & Pa Kettle on Vacation” (1953), “Ma & Pa Kettle at Home” (1954) and “Ma & Pa Kettle at Waikiki” (1956).
A common thread in the Kettle series was the hard working, often shrill-voiced, Ma trying to get her dawdling apathetic husband to work around the house and farm. Pa’s main talent was winning advertising contests. The Kettles had from twelve to fifteen children (depending on the picture you were watching). Ma was constantly forgetting her offsprings’ names: “Billy, go in the house and fetch me my broom.” The puzzled youngster would respond, “Ma, my name ain’t Billy.” His mother would counter with “Well, go fetch it anyway, whatever your name is.”
A frequent scene in the Kettle movies was when Ma prepared a scrumptious meal; rang the dinner bell; shouted, “Come and get it” and abruptly stepped aside to avoid being trampled by her stampeding famished brood. Pa blessed the bountiful table by meticulously removing his hat, looking reverently toward Heaven and uttering a brief simplistic prayer, “Much obliged, Lord.”
At the conclusion of the madcap movie, Granny and I shopped at a few more stores, ambled back to the train station and boarded our coach for the short return trip to Johnson City. There are few recollections rooted in my memory bank more pleasurable than when a proud grandmother and her impressionable young grandson rode a train and spent a fun day together in downtown Bristol.